The British Empire Library

Baker Butcher Doctor Diplomat: Goan Pioneers of East Africa

by Selma Carvalho

Baker Butcher Doctor Diplomat may seem an idiosyncratic title for an imperial related book, but in a strange way this title actually undersells itself. As the author makes it clear in this lucidly written and beautifully illustrated book that the Goans of East Africa were involved in so many more trades and activities than the four highlighted in the title. Goans would become the great facilitators for Britain's imperial ambitions and undertook much of the all important groundwork and day to day running of the expanding colonial economy and administration of British East Africa. The subtitle of the book 'Goan Pioneers of East Africa' helps provide chronological bookends for the period covered in the book from roughly the 1860s to World War One (with a few exceptions).

Geographically, the book is divided into three distinct areas. The first section of the book deals with Goan pioneers in Zanzibar. Of course this island off the East Coast of Africa was Britain's own launching pad into East African affairs. The book then goes on to examine the role played by Goans in helping (and eventually helping to replace) the Imperial British East African Company's first forays on the mainland of what would become Kenya and the development of Mombasa in particular. It explains how some of the more successful Goan entrepreneurs transferred their expertise and contacts from Zanzibar whilst other Goans provided crucial administrative support to a colonial engine that was sorely in need of efficient and trustworthy workers. The last section of the book follows the expansion of the Empire into the interior largely following the old caravan routes of old but replacing it with the new caravans of the contemporary era, namely the railways. This section consequently revolves around Nairobi as the railway hub of choice by the imperialists. Once again, Goans would make themselves indispensable in yet another new industry of empire as they became as synonymous with the railways as they would become with administration and trade.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words which in the case of this book means that it's worth is many times more than the 95 pages that it includes. The production values of this book are simply superb and the quality of the reproduction of the photographs is beyond impressive. The pictures also neatly follow the text and enhance the story rather than acting merely as decoration. Many, if not most, of the photographs and maps are new to me and I tend to see far more East African images than most people do. I found myself frequently flicking through the book, long after I'd finished reading the text, just to gaze at the wonderful images. The quality of many of the photographs is so high, it is hard to believe that many of them were taken over a century ago. The eyes of many of those photographed really do stare at you through the intervening period of history - that is of course if their poses allowed them to do so - there are many subjects of pictures who are staring off at odd angles that were obviously meant to convey gravitas or seriousness. The period photographs plus impressive annotating of contemporary maps really help the book come to life and adds real texture to the unfolding story of the Goan experience. This book would certainly make a fine coffee table book even without the quality of prose.

Selma Carvalho is a perceptive historian whose writing is highly accessible. She really does cover many bases in a clear but concise manner. She tracks the arrival of Goans in Zanzibar on board Royal Naval ships as the Goan experience began almost hand in hand with British interest in East African affairs. The symbiotic relationship between the increasing Royal Naval presence in Zanzibar and Goans some of whom obviously left their ships to set up trading concerns that in due course began supplying Royal Naval ships in a pleasing circle of dependence. From such humble beginnings began the slow but sure expansion of Goan influence and importance to the Zanzibar economy at first but this would duly spill over into East Africa and the colonial economy as the British expanded their own horizons and imperial ambitions. It is no accident that many of Britain's more famous explorers and missionaries were kitted out and supplied by Goan traders in Zanzibar before embarking on their intrepid journeys into the interior. In many ways, the Goans helped to facilitate colonialism in East Africa even before the colonies were established. I was also delighted to read about the Goan connection to the Sultan of Zanzibar's military band. I have actually come across this organisation before, but did not appreciate the full extent of the Goan influence in providing the expertise and manpower to make it function as it did. This spillover into new professions and opportunities is a thread that runs throughout the book - another example is provided by the Goan doctor who effectively became an adviser to the Sultan of Zanzibar thanks to his linguistic skills and the trust he exuded. Goans were also able to provide something of a racial bridge between the Europeans and the Arabs in this case. They were trusted by both sides and provided services and skills that were highly sought after. Zanzibar provides one more piece of early evidence of the adaptability of the Goan community with regards to their political neutrality. When the Sultan of Zanzibar was sidelined politically by the British, Goans invariably kept their positions of responsibility despite the change in their masters. They just got on with doing their jobs diligently and this reputation followed them as they followed the imperial flag and the expanding opportunities that it provided.

One more reason to like this book is the fact that Selma Carvalho is a historian who does not paper over embarrassing or difficult issues. She raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions throughout the book. She does not see the Goan community as a homogenous mass but sees it as a vibrant community with divergent aspirations, made up of individuals who experienced differing levels of success and failure. She makes it clear that there were clear hierarchies within the Goan community which often aped British ideas on class and social stratification a little too efficiently for their own good. There is fascinating evidence for this when she details the contrasting fortunes of the Railway Institute, the Goan Institute and the Goan Union. It was clear that the Goan Institute in particular was set up to allow successful and educated Goans to network with one another whilst excluding those from the lower strata of the Goan community. So whilst Goans could be discriminated against by the British, some Goans could equally find themselves discriminated against by other Goans.

It is clear that racial attitudes did harden over time between the Europeans, Asians and Africans. However, the author also makes it clear that a frontier culture was a very different place to a settled colony. The early days of imperial expansion were more like the Wild West and as such expertise and the ability to supply goods was far more important than the colour of your skin or your religious affiliation. It was interesting to read of the more likely inter-racial unions on this frontier and the fact that some places, like Fort Elvira for instance, were named after Goans and seemed perfectly natural for them to be so named even by Europeans. I am not sure if it is amusing or sad to read of how the far harsher European 'Colonists Association' had one of its inaugural meetings in the Goan Institute of all places where it made demands for racial segregation and expanded opportunities for Europeans - at the expense of Asians. The economic success of some Goans had indeed thrown up some interesting employment relations through their hiring of Europeans to work in Goan shops, enterprises or companies. This state of affairs undoubtedly unsettled some of the European settlers at the time. The complexity of racial relations is certainly hinted at throughout this book although the author also makes it equally clear that many individual Europeans (and particularly government administrators) held very positive feelings towards individual Goans and to the wider contribution of the Goan community in helping to make the colony a success.

Another factor worth mentioning is how the author has tried hard to be inclusive as possible to a wide variety of groups within the Goan community. This is no book lauding the successes of the elite at the exclusion of all others. She dedicates a whole section on the plight of poor Goans although has to explain why there is just so little evidence from this bottom section of society. At least the author has thought to include their story even if there is so little to tell. She is a little more successful in telling the plight of Goan women who had their own unique experiences to tell. Women were not mere bit players, they may have been relatively few in number but they often held great responsibilities in an unfamiliar culture and often hostile landscape. Again, I hadn't really thought about the implications of the age differences when young Goan women married older Goan men and followed their husbands to Africa. Mathematically, many of these Goan women might find themselves widowed and comparatively financially independent at a relatively young age - especially compared to European women. This certainly gave some Goan women the opportunity to create careers, opportunities and a level of independence to an unusual degree for women of that era from almost any culture.

There are so many more fascinating nuggets in this highly accessible book. This is a book for everyone and not just for specialist historians or those who have a connection to the Goan community. So many people over simplify imperial history and see it merely as a story of the high and mighty over the oppressed and marginalised. Of course, the Empire was far more complicated than that and its actors were far more nuanced and varied. This book gives a fascinating insight into just one of the Empire's many communities in one particular part of the Empire in its pioneering days of colonial expansion. I really would love to see this kind of book written for so many other communities who just tried to do the best for themselves, their families and their communities. This story may appear to be specialist in nature, but in reality it is anything but. It is the story of everyday men and women who just happened to come from a particular culture and found themselves trying to make their lives successful with the opportunities that came their way. In short, it is an everyman's story.

British Empire Book
Selma Carvalho
Shore Books and Design


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