PIRBHAI VISRAM FIRST LANDS IN LAMU, KENYA – 1897 (Part 1)
Pirbhai Visram fondly known as ‘Pirbhai Kaka” had submitted a settlement history of our community to the Secretariat of Africa Federation in 1953. His report covers four areas where he lived – Lamu (1897-1910), Tabora (1905-1909), Bukoba (1914-1945) and Kampala (1945-1953). His valuable contribution to the preservation of history of our community is deeply appreciated. We hereby submit his story, in three (3) parts:
Pirbhai Visram came to Africa at the age of 17. It was 1897 and Lamu was a major port on Eastern coast of Africa. He lived in Lamu for 5 years and the population of our community was 300. The main families in Lamu were: Dewji Jamal of Bhavnagar – whose main business was in Mumbai but the family members had travelled to Africa around 1880. They had branches in Zanzibar, Mombasa, Kismayu and Lamu. Kanji Hasanhi was from Jam Khambhalia and was known as such. They came to Lamu around 1885 and their descendants were Dewji Kanji, Daya Kanji, Panju Kanji, Shamji Kanji and Ramji Kanji. Each of the five brothers had his own business and they were 70 in total. Their main business was import and export and had dealings with Arabs and Indian traders upcountry and with whom they had developed mutual trust. The family of Hemraj Ladhani consisting of 40 individuals had moved in from Bagamoyo. They were four brothers: Rawji Hemraj, Abdulla Hemraj, Bandali Hemraj and Hasham Hemraj – each with his own business. They came to Lamu between 1880-1890 from Bagamoyo. They were originally from Kutch, India. Apart from businesses, they also owned farms.
The family of Jessa Bhimani had arrived from Jamnagar around 1880-1890. The main families among them were Nasser Jessa, Mohamed Jessa and Moti Jessa. Their main business was in the upcountry towns of Siyu and Faza from where they used to bring grain and foodstuff to Lamu.
The family of Bhimji Kanji of Dabasang arrived somewhere around 1880-1890 from Jamnagar, India. Their business was concentrated at a village called Pokomoni on Tana River. Two enterprising individuals in this family were Hassan Walji and Hirji Walji. The area of Pokomoni was inhabited by people with primitive customs. There were a lot of wild animals in this area. Tana River was full of crocodiles and we can envisage the adventurous nature of these two individuals who crossed this river on regular basis. Their bravery was indeed praiseworthy.
The sixth family was of Dhanji Samji who arrived around 1885. Their business was at Mkunumbi, opposite the island of Lamu. In order to travel to Lamu, they had to go on foot or on mules after which they would travel by small canoes. Business was very good and was spread out to the surrounding area of Witu. There were 20 individuals in this family.
The three brothers Molu Ramji, Walji Ramji and Damji Ramji had also arrived during the same period. There were 20 individuals in this family, mainly dealing in Khanga and textiles. They were a farsighted and enterprising people. Instead of sitting at their shops waiting for customers, they would pack bundles of textiles and clothing and would go to their customers’ shops and homes in the countryside and deliver the merchandise. They became very prominent and successful in this business and this led them to be nicknamed “Chittilesso” dealing with special type of cotton cloth. The locals still know them by this nickname.
Hirji Bhanji, Alibhai Bhanji, Merali Bhanji and Nanji Bhanji of Jodia arrived in 1890. The arrival of these four brothers was a blessing to our community as they had some knowledge of English language and this came as a relief to the community. Three of the brothers lived at Mkunumbi while Hirjibhai lived in Lamu and traded mainly with Somalis who had a nomadic lifestyle. Hirjibhai used to buy beads from them and sell a special type of cloth called Marikani. Apart from this business, he used to own canoes and buy and sell goods with traders from islands across Lamu.
The family of Jamal Jessa arrived in Lamu around 1885. There were 15 members in this family and the family of Ismail Kalyan arrived around 1890.
Jiwan Rajan and his uncle Mawji Daya, together with about 20 farmers from the Sindhi and Ahir community, both Hindu and Muslim, arrived in one dhow. They brought Indian farming equipment with them. The District Commissioner of Lamu at that time, Mr. Rogers was a kind man and he provided the two – uncle and nephew – with 50 acre plot for farming on a temporary basis. The devotion by the pair and with the hard work by the farmers, accompanied by adequate rainfall, led them to an excellent harvest. Just as the time to reap the harvest was due, there arose a fierce disagreement amongst the farmers. In the looting that followed, all the harvest got destroyed. The farmers were deported to India. Although this pair did not succeed in their venture into agriculture, but their efforts must be applauded.
We also had the concern of Issa Thawer who was the agent for ships and dhows who had managers and agents only and no family members.
Apart from the above, there were quite a few of our community members who were involved in small business and retail trade. There were also three Bhatia families in Lamu. They were known as sailors and they were involved in bringing cargo from Mandvi, India. There were a large number of the Bohra community members who were mainly involved in iron and wood products and as tin-smiths of travel/storage trunks and lota (watering can). The Bohras had established themselves as solders and welders, akin to what they were famous for in India.
We did not have a resident advocate in Lamu. As and when necessary, Br Alimohamed Sheriff used to come here from Zanzibar to sort out legal issues. Br Alimohamed Sheriff had also written a book called ‘Kusanp” giving his perspective on a serious discord in some members of the Lamu community.
The government had not given much importance to education and there was no school or educational establishment in town. Pirbhai Kaka’s elder brother Jiwan Visram started a private class teaching Gujarati and Arithmetic (mathematics).
After staying in Lamu for five years, Pirbhai proceeded to Tabora.
(Our community in Tabora and Bukoba – next issue, in part 2)
Source: AFED Trade Directory
ARCHIVES SECTION OF THE AFRICA FEDERATION