Asian African Heritage Trust

2000-2005 Exhibition
» Labour Heritage

Labour, not trade, is the foundation of the Asian African heritage in East Africa. The work of the railway builders, masons, wheelwrights, master craftsmen, platelayers, artisans, carpenters, tailors, nurses, dhobis, clerks and teachers was the bedrock on which later endeavours came to be based.

One of the earliest examples of this was the labour of the masons from India who shared in the building of Fort Jesus between 1593 and 1596. They were brought in by the Portuguese from their colonies on India’s west coast. 1

In succeeding centuries and particularly from 1820 onwards, wooden doors, ornamentation and furniture carved and crafted by artists and master carpenters from Gujarat in western India crossed the Indian Ocean to adorn palaces and houses from Pate, Lamu and Mombasa to Kilwa and to Zanzibar, the mercantile capital than of the entire eastern seaboard of Africa. 2

In addition, their Customs departments and their merchants used the wooden chests fashioned by other Gujarati craftsmen. 3

From 1896 to 1901, labourers were brought on contract from the Punjab in what are now India and Pakistan, and from Gujarat, by the British to build the railway from Mombasa to Kisumu (then called the Uganda Railway). In these six years, these labourers and artisans through difficult terrain laid 582 miles (931 kilometres) of railway. They built the Salisbury Bridge, over 1200 feet long, joining Mombasa Island to the mainland, 35 viaducts in the Rift Valley, and 1280 smaller bridges and culverts. All this was done by hand. No machines were available to them in these massive and technical tasks.

31983 workers came from India during these years on these contracts. 2493 died in the construction. That is, 4 workers died for each mile of line laid; more than 38 dying every month during the entire six years. A further 6454 workers became invalid. 4

In May 1898, railhead reached ‘Nyrobi’, then only a plain of tents. Over the next thirty years Asian African masons, stone dressers, carpenters, artisans, and construction workers built the new town of Nairobi. 5

They also built the subsequent railway towns of Nakuru and Kisumu, as they had each of the 43 railway stations on the line, such as Mackinnon Road, voi, Mtito Andei, Kijabe, Njoro and Lumbwa.

The railway itself was then manned for the next several decades by Asian African drivers, foremen, stationmasters, linesmen, telegraphists, mechanics, gangers, repairmen, upholsterers, carpenters and other workers.

As material was being gathered for this exhibition, a record of the survey for the building of the Nairobi- Mombasa road was also found. These are the drawings and notes of Mohamed Sadiq Cockar, also being exhibited. As a young assistant, he was not only a worker on it, but also marvelled at, and later drew pictures and Gujarati Lohars wheel wrights kept wagons moving long before and after motor vehicles became common.

In addition to the work that kept the arteries of transport flowing, Asian African workers served in the civil service as clerks, accountants, bookkeepers, health workers and particularly, teachers.

It was thus no accident that one of the founders of the trade union movement in our country was Makhan Singh. In 1935, he formed the Labour Trade Union of Kenya, and in 1949, he and Fred Kubai formed the East African Trade Union Congress, the first central organization of trade unions in Kenya.

It is our of this long heritage of labour that our present Asian African community of multiple character has emerged.

1. Justus Strandes THE PORTUGUESE PERIOD IN EAST AFRICA (Hamburg Jean F. Wallwork: Nairobi, East African Literature Bureau 1961).

2. Judith Aldrick THE 19th CENTURY CARVED WOODEN DOORS OF THE EAS COAST (Nairobi, Kenya Museum Society, 1999/Azania No.XXV, British Institute in Eastern A Uwe Rau & Mwalim A. Mwalim DOORS OF ZANZIBAR (Zanzibar, HSP, 1998)

3. J.J. Adie ZANZIBAR CHESTS in A GUIDE TO ZANZIBAR Appendix IV, 104 Government Printer, 1949); Sheila Unwin DHOW TRADE CHESTS Kenya Past and Pr (Nairobi, Kenya Museum Society, 1987).

4. Robert Hardy THE IRON SNAKE (London, Collins, 1974), 315. See also PERMANENT WAY (Nairobi, K.U.R. 1947).

5. Katie Martin (Paintings and Richard Martin (Text) HISTORIC NAIROBI (Nairobi, S 1992).