Endangered Archives

EAP870: The preservation of Gujarati materials from British colonial Zanzibar

Dr Iqbal Akhtar, Florida International University
2015 award - Major project
£26,150 for 24 months

Archival partner: Zanzibar National Archives

Project Overview

The project will focus on the preservation of the Gujarati materials at the Zanzibar National Archives. The files to be preserved date to the late 19th/early 20th century during the British protectorate period on the archipelago and consist of thousands of files in English, Arabic, and Gujarati relating to probate, insolvency, civil, and criminal cases of the Indian merchant communities tried both in the British and Sultan’s courts.

The series includes a total of 11,966 files each ranging from 2 to 100 pages each. Some files are missing and others are much damaged due to climate, insects, and a general lack of materials and knowledge of proper preservation techniques. Since the postcolonial period, there has been little interest in colonial history and that of Asian-Africans in particular. The integrity of the collection is in jeopardy both in terms of the physical documents being subject to the tropical environment as well as a lack of appreciation of their research value.

Asians traders began to settle in East Africa in the late 18th/early 19th century both because of push factors such as famine in Gujarat and Kutch as well as pull factors like the economic opportunities provided by the economic development of eastern, central, and southern Africa. The Khōjā came as free traders, following traditional migration patterns in which caste members who were established in the diaspora pooled resources in order to bring over relatives and friends for settlement and help them get established. They then continued the process until Asian communities and networks were established throughout the region. The liberal economic policies enacted by Sultan Syed Said in 1840 benefiting traders, including Asians, facilitated the rapid increase of the Asian merchant population on the Zanzibar archipelago and Swahili coast. The overall success of the Asian traders within the larger East African economy depended on subsequent colonial policies of free trade. On arrival, most Asian immigrants were working-class entrepreneurs who decided to brave the voyage to Africa in search of economic opportunity. The caste trading network throughout the Indian Ocean allowed for transnational trade on credit, supplying the African and European customer with finished goods, such as china, while facilitating the exportation of raw materials – such as ivory – from the continent. Asians catered to remote and niche markets, organised novel transportation networks, and even competed with Europeans in cost, as Asians would conduct business at lower margins of profit unacceptable to many European settlers. This economic success allowed for the creation of caste infrastructure, institutions, and viable permanent settlements throughout eastern, central, and southern Africa, among which Zanzibar was preeminent until the postcolonial revolution of 1964.

These materials are significant for three primary reasons. First, they provide invaluable materials in Indic languages, primarily Gujarati, on trading networks during the British protectorate period providing interesting perspectives on Western Indian Ocean Indo-African trade and transnational economic history of the region. Second, many of the court cases dealing with personal matters show interesting developments with regards to the rights of women and mixed-race children to inherit property and advocate for rights by challenging traditional Indic caste norms in the cosmopolitan environment of colonial Zanzibar. Third, Zanzibar was home to the oldest and largest Asian community in East Africa. These files would be of interest to not only the modern descendants of these pioneers in genealogical reconstruction, but also to scholars in the humanities and social sciences who have an interest in understanding the vital role of Asians in the political, economic, and social development of Zanzibar and the larger Swahili Coast. The materials are at a critical juncture in terms of their integrity. Many are so worn that they begin to crumble with a mere touch.

During the project staff at the library will be trained in digitisation techniques and use of the materials for future preservation of the manuscripts. This will entail working closely with local staff and enhancing their ability to preserve other similar materials in the rare books collection at the archives. Archival preservation materials will be provided to better store the series. Digital copies will be deposited with the Zanzibar National Archives, the British Library, Le Centre d'Études de l'Inde et de l'Asie du Sud, and Florida International University.

Project Outcome