The East African Baloch

In 1821, the Sultan and Imam of Oman, Seyyid Said bin Sultan Al Busaidi, hired an Iranian fleet to invade the islands and ports of East Africa. The Iranian fleet leased by the Sultan of Oman consisted mostly of Baluchi and Sindhi/Cutchi mercenaries, with a few Arab, Persian, and Pathan officers from India. Almost all of these, after their families had arrived from Iran and India, settled in the coastal towns in or around the forts and the newly built camps (e.g., Saa-teeni north of Zanzibar City and Fort Jesus in Mombasa – the largest fortification in East Africa), with the Baluchi cavalry settling in Zanzibar City at the site of the present Haile Selassie School.

With the expansion of Zanzibari trade and political influence in the interior of Tanganyika, Baluchi squadrons were dispatched to Tabora in central Tanganyika and Kigoma on Lake Tanganyika. In 1873, about half of the 3,000 Zanzibari troops engaged in the war in Unyanyembe in the interior of Tanganyika against the Nyamwezi ruler Chief Mirambo were mercenary Wabulushi from Iran and Washihiri from Hadramawt in South Yemen. A number of Baluchi soldiers joined trade caravans as guards and reached the Congo with the legendary Zanzibari trader Tippu Tip (Hamed bin Muhammad al-Murjebi, who had under his command 1,600 armed men – both freemen and slaves – in his caravans and depots). Tippu Tip became the first and only Zanzibari governor of the copper province of Katanga (the present Shaba Province) in Eastern Congo; he later became the first Belgian governor of Katanga for a short time when Belgium occupied the Congo after the European scramble for Africa was concluded in 1890. Many Baluchis thus served in the Belgian Congo army for some years before returning to Tanganyika, Zanzibar, and Kenya just before World War I. During 1891–1919, some Baluchi soldiers also served in the German colonial army in Tanganyika; some of them later joined the British forces in Tanganyika after World War I.

Earlier, the Baluchis in East Africa were known also as Mabulushi (singular: Bulushi), and almost all of them spoke Swahili as their native language. Today, some of them speak a mixture of Baluchi and Swahili because of the influx of new Baluchi immigrants. The early Baluchi settlers frequently intermarried with other Muslims of East Africa, who were themselves of diverse ethnic origin, and adopted Swahili as their native language, though often Baluchi households received ‘‘fresh blood’’ as new immigrants from their old country, Iranian Baluchistan, arrived to join their relatives and friends.

East Africans of Baluchi origin are Sunni Hanafi. There are no special Baluchi mosques or jamati/jamaatkhana (community centers), but the Baluchis usually gather at a particular Sunni mosque and socialize and intermarry freely with other Sunni Muslims. (The few Shia Iranians in East Africa socialize more with the South Asian Khoja Shia Ithna Asheria, whose mosques and community centers they use.) For many Wabulushi in East Africa, the ‘‘Baluchi’’ identity is self-perceived, just as it is for most of the ‘‘Arabs’’ of East Africa; one is a Baluchi because of one’s patrilineal descent, even if one does not speak the Baluchi language.

from Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Baluchi of East Africa: Dynamics of Assimilation and Integration

The Baluch from the coastal region of Makran were pushed from the extreme misery of their country towards Persia and towards the coasts of Arabia. Here, they offered themselves to the Omani sultans as soldiers, sailors and bodyguards for pay that, though even modest, could represent the difference between life and death for them and for their families.

At that time, the islands of Zanzibar and Pemba were administered by governors representing Sa’id bin Sultan Al Bu Sa’id (r.1806-1856) and exercised all power on his behalf. The military support furnished by these representatives with extensive authority over the islands and their affairs, consisted of special troops of proven trustworthiness, that is to say, Baluch corps “closely tied” to the Al Bu Sa’id by fundamentally economic agreements. The loyalty these Baluch soldiers had for the Omani ruling family at a time when there was much anarchy amongst the groups of Oman, earned them lasting trust with the Sultan who deployed them to guard all his palaces and interests in the region.

The first settlers on the East African coast were the Baluch soldiers, who until the establishment of the Sultanate in the 1840s, maintained army posts in the major centres of Mombasa, Zanzibar and Pemba. These men intermarried with the local Waswahili and were quickly assimilated into their culture and society. They were later followed by whole families who left Baluchistan in the hope of finding better life along the Swahili coast, which arose at the time as an important manufacturing centre and only later became the hub of international maritime trade with Asia. Most of the Baluch came from Kasarkand, although their brothers later followed them in from Sarbaz, Lur and Muscat. Although the life and times of Baluch on the Swahili coast during the 1800s is quite obscure, it seems however that Mombasa was the major Baluch settlement at the time. It is believed that the first non-African to go into Maasailand was a Baluch, so too was the first non-African to be welcomed into the royal court of the Kabaka of Buganda. As they moved inland, the Baluch founded cluster communities in Djugu and Bunia in the Congo; Soroti, Arua and Kampala in Uganda; and Iringa, Tabora, Mbeya and Rujewa in Tanzania; probably there was a Baluch family in almost every main Swahili town.

The Baluch settled in Mombasa and developed a more cosmopolitan lifestyle, preferring to engage in small real estate ventures and trade, or keeping employment with the Omanis and later, the British. Those who lived in the fertile hills of Uganda and Tanzania flourished in the farming and trading industries. The mercantile skills and business acumen of the Baluch earned them high regard amongst the various communities in which they settled. This can also be said of the small but vibrant Nairobi community.

from Beatrice Nicolini, The Tupak of the Jemadar: Notes on the Baluch presence along the Swahili Coast during the 19th century

 

Further reading:

Encyclopædia Iranica entry on East Africa

Abdulaziz Y. Lodhi, The Iranian Presence In East Africa

Beatrice Nicolini, Slave Trade in the Western Indian Ocean during the 19th century: the role of Baloch Mercenaries

Beatrice Nicolini, The Makran-Baluch-African Network in Zanzibar and East Africa during the XIX century

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The Baluchis from East Africa

Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The culture of East African Baluchis

6 thoughts on “The East African Baloch”

    1. Hi Murad
      You can search any type of information regarding baloch and balochi culture. Just search Balochistan Pakistan you will find the chain of information.

      Regrds,
      Shabir Badini Baloch.

  1. Hi brothers,

    I need any informations about my grandfather Salim bin Said Al-Harthy he was in ugand in 1960s
    pls provide any thing about him.
    He built a Masjid in kalliro in 1960s

    Best regards

  2. A very interesting article indeed. Just wanted to add the Baluch who settled in Mombasa are also from Nikshar, our close neighbours are from Kaserkand.

  3. Waja Murad Abdulkarim, you can read Abdul Kadir Noor Mohamed, The Baluchis from East Africa. You can also find lots of pictures on Google. There is a Baluchi Street and Baluch Mosque in Mombasa, Kenya. Most of them still maintain contact with our families back in Makran. We are still very proud to maintain our culture, we have traditional Baluch weddings, most of us still speak the old Baluch language which our grandparents brought with them to Africa.

Leave a Reply