Indian indentured labour & the Uganda Railway

One of the most curious questions that the Man-eaters of Tsavo raises is that apart from the lions, and Patterson himself, the majority of the participants involved were Indian indentured labour or as they are pejoratively referred to throughout the book as coolies. A related aspect is the appearance (although not explicitly stated) of a large number of others with an Indian backstory. To start to answer that question requires a bit of detour into the previous 150 years of British colonialism.

For hundreds of years before Britain and France fought for control of the ports and islands off the coast of East Africain the early 1800’s, the monsoon winds had facilitated the establishment of flows of capital and trade between India and the East African coast. These relationship were utilised by the British as stopping off points on the 4-6 months that it took to reach India from London .

Of course, India was only one of Britain’s many colonies, but it was by a large order of magnitude its largest possible pool of labour. The enslavement of the peoples of the West Africa upon which much of the wealth of Britain has been extracted by forcible movement of them to the West Indies was to come to an end in 1833.

In 1826, with the impending abolition of slavery, French controlled Réunion introduced Indian labourers from their colony in Pondicherry for a period of five years with pay of 8 rupees per month and rations. This served as a template for the British to introduce indentured labour of Indians to work on sugar plantations in Mauritius, British Guyana and Trinidad in 1838.

In 1841 the British established a consulate in Zanzibar under the direction of the Bombay government, this led to an increase in Indian migration to this island so that by 1870’s Sir Bartle Frere, former governor of Bombay remarked that:

all trade [in East Africa] passes through India hands; African, Arab and European all use an India agent or banian to manage the details of buying and selling …” 1

In 1860, the first Indian indentured labour was brought to Durban in the Cape Colony, this continued until 1911.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 should have reduced reliance on East Africa, but perversely its importance grew, as without securing the source of the Nile, Britain’s interests in Egypt and North Africa were vulnerable. In response, to the German partition of German East Africa, the British established the East African Protectorate in 1886, and turned over governance to the Imperial British East Africa Company (IBEA). This partition ushered a period of extended European penetration into the interior of the region which redefined Indian relation with the region. British influence provided for a greater element of security and Indian traders moved rapidly into the interior. The IBEA employed Indian administrative staff along the coast and in the interior. The presence of Indian traders and artisans in the region, especially in Mombasa helped the IBEA to recruit Indians for its various services.2

However, the IBEA was in no position to fund a project such as the Ugandan Railway which would provide a way to move troops to protect its North African colonies from incursion from the interior. They did however secure a survey to establish its feasibility which was almost entirely carried out by British engineers, Anglo-Indian and Indian officials who had extensive experience of the India railways.

In August 1895, a bill was introduced at Westminster, which became the Uganda Railway Act (1896), this authorised the construction of a railway from Mombasa to the shores of Lake Victoria. This is a whole saga in of itself, which is extensively covered in the official history3 and in the Lunatic Express4.

But it was clear that, although there was no shortage of population to construct the railway, there were no inducements that would be sufficient to enjoin them to do so and by 1895 it was assumed that it would require the importation of Indian labour. As noted previously, large numbers of Indian indentured labour were already working in far flung lands, what was different in 1895 was that the Indian government were less malleable that 50 years previously and more attuned to the rights of their citizens. Indentured labour in the Cape were agitating (and more so after Ghandi arrived in 1893), there were disturbances in Trinidad in 1885 5, and East Africa was not on the list of permitted countries under the 1883 Emigration Act6. Under pressure from London, the 1886 Emigration Act was introduced, adding the East Africa Protectorate to the list of destinations and critically relaxed other restrictions when the overseas employer was the British Government.

The engineer responsible for day to day operations was Robert Preston. In his book Genesis of Kenya Colony 7 he relates that he arrived in Mombasa in January 1897 from Bombay on the S.S. Nowshera with 300 Punjabi’s. These were the first to be recruited under the Indian Emigration Act of 1896 and came from various districts of India including Makran, Baluchistan, Singh and North-Western India. They were joined by around 100 Sikh soldiers. The numbers swelled quickly, so much so that by the end of 1897 (see table below), there were nearly 5,000. accounting for nearly a quarter of the population.

Although, far from generous, the conditions were a major improvement on those elsewhere.

The conditions of indenture were 8:

  • the period of employment must not exceed five years;
  • the nature of labour on which the coolie was to be employed should be specified in the agreement
  • the renumeration would include free rations beside a cash payment of not less than Rs, 14/- per month
  • the payment was to commence not later than from the date of embarkation from India
  • an indefensible right of the collies to a return package not merely to India but to the actual place of recruitment at the expense of the Imperial British East Africa Company within six months of the expiry or the sooner determination of the contract was ti be absolutely secured ti the emigrant under all circumstances whatsoever and was not to be forfeited even by misconduct
  • the Chief Engineer of the Railway might terminate the contract of the coolie, even before the expiry of three years, if so desired by the Imperial British East Africa Company, at a month’s notice on condition, however that the notice should also terminate the contract of the discharged coolie’s dependants who are engaged along with him and were willing to return to India with him. In such case, the Company would be liable to bear their return-fare up to the place of recruitment in India and pay them all their wages in full till the date of their arrival in India

Chattopadhyaya pp 337 relates.

Each coolie, on his arrival in Mombasa, had his name entered in a register and was given a distinctive number by which he was identified during his stay under indenture. This number he carried on a badge attached to a chain round his neck. He had to produce the number at the time of receiving his pay. If he had any complaint to make, he was required to lodge it by referring to the number he bore on his person. When off duty, he could move about unrestricted. With the extension of the Railway in the direction of Lake Victoria the coolies were given every facility to remit their savings to their relatives in India through the Post offices which were opened by the Railway Authority.

The indentured labour had arrived originally embarked at Bombay, but in March 1897, a plague hit the city 9, it killed thousands, and led to reorganising the embarking port to Calcutta.

Although, there was scepticism about the number of African recruits to work on the railway, in the end there were around 2,000 a year who did so. By the time the railway reached Lake Victoria, in 1901, a total of 35,729 Indian indentured labourers , along with perversely were recruited along with 1,082 subordinate officers, totalling 36,811 persons. 10. The first contracts ended in 1899, and many returned to India. In total, 2,493 workers died during the construction of the railway between 1895 and 1903 at a rate of 357 annually about of two-thirds of whom were from injuries. While most of the surviving Indians returned home, 6,724 decided to remain after the line’s completion, creating a community of Indians in East Africa.

It is often (at least implied) that this was the end of migration from India to East Africa. However, this was far from the case, although it took a very different form. The Indian government, tried to restrict the movement of Indias to work on the Railway through emigration regulations and between 1906-1908 around 300 did so, but over 12,000 moved without contracts mostly to work in occupations related to the Railway 11. And this was a very different social mix.

In 1905, a Uganda Railway report 12 notes:

At Mombasa, Nairobi and Port Florence (Kisum), there are experienced European Station Masters with Indian Babus as Clerks and Signallers, while the menial staff is mixed Indian and African…. At the engine changing stations of Voi, Makindu and Nakuro lsic), there are Eurasian Station Masters, the other employees being as above described. At all other stations, the combined duties of station master and signaller are carried on by an Indian Babu and the menials are mixed Indian and African… the Guards are two-thirds European and one-third Goanese and Indian.

The remarks13 of ardent imperialist Sir Harry Johnstone were if anything an understatement of the long term effects of shoring up Britains imperial interests through the use of India.

I wonder if in England the importance of one aspect of this railway construction has been realised. It means the driving of a wedge of India, two miles broad right across East Africa from Mombasa to the Victoria Nyanza .. implanting the use of the Hindustani language, carrying the Indian Penal Code, India postal system, India coinage, India clothing right across these wastes, deserts, forests and swamps 14.

This however, was not to last much past the end of the First World War, with the 1923 Devonshire Declaration summed up in the phrase:

Primarily Kenya is an African territory…. 15

And although, the Indian population in Kenya in 1921 was at 25,000 (more than double than 10 years previously) and would continue to grow 16, their social position eroded in the following years, and especially so after Independence in 1963 when many decided with British nationality to move to the UK.

Population of Mombasa 189717

DescriptionNumber
Europeans107
– Protectorate officials with their families24
– Railway employees with their families39
– Missionaries20
– Employees of English business firms10
– Employees of German firms2
– Greek contractors4
– Greek book-keepers2
– Rumanian hotel-keepers2
– Miscellaneous4
Goans and Eurasians169
Indians5,962
– Punjab Mahammedan ‘coolies’4,799
– Soldiers300
– Other863
Other nationalities18,975
– Baluchis494
– Arabs596
– Swahilis14,574
– ‘Native’ prisoners150
– Slaves182,667
Total Population24,719

  1. Metcalf, T.R. (2007) Imperial Connections: India in the Indian Ocean Arena 1860-1920. University of California Press. ↩︎
  2. Kumar, M. (2006) Indian Immigration in Uganda: Trends and Pattern. Proceedings of the Indian History Congress. Vol. 67 pp936-942 ↩︎
  3. Hill, Mervyn F. Permanent Way: Volume 1: The Story of the Kenya and Uganda Railway. East African Railways and Harbours, 194 ↩︎
  4. Miller, Charles. The Lunatic Express: An Entertainment in Imperialism. Macmillan, 1971. ↩︎
  5. The Coolie Disturbances In Trinidad, 25 April 1885. The Times, London ↩︎
  6. https://www.fijijournal.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/01/Indian-Emigration-Act-and-Colonial-Emigration-Rules.pdf ↩︎
  7. Preston, R. O. The Genesis of Kenya Colony: Reminiscences of an Early Uganda Railway Construction Pioneer. Colonial Print Works, 1947. ↩︎
  8. Chattopadhyaya, Haraprasad. Indians in Africa: A Socio-Economic Study. Bookland, 1970 ↩︎
  9. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombay_plague_epidemic ↩︎
  10. Whitehouse, G. C. “The Building of the Kenya and Uganda Railway.” The Uganda Journal, vol. 1, no. 12, Mar. 1948, pp. 1–15 ↩︎
  11. Mangat, Jagjit S. A History of the Asians in East Africa, c. 1886 to 1945. Clarendon Press, 1969 ↩︎
  12. Colonial Office: Kenya Original Correspondence. Stewart to Lyttleon. 6 July 1905. The National Archives, Kew, CO 533/2 ↩︎
  13. Quoted in Emmett, F. W. “Curiosities of the Uganda Railway: An Account of the Construction,Commenced 1896, of the Uganda Railway from Killindini Mombasa to Fort Florence, Victoria Nyanzia.” Wide World Magazine, 1901. ↩︎
  14. He goes on later in this quote to descend into some very unpleasant tropes on African’s that I will not repeat here. ↩︎
  15. Maxon, Robert M. “The Devonshire Declaration: The Myth of Missionary Intervention.” History in Africa, vol. 18, 1991, pp. 259–70, ↩︎
  16. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indians_in_Kenya ↩︎
  17. ibid 3 ↩︎
  18. This is some 60 years after the ‘end of slavery’ ↩︎