The British Empire Library

Paradise on Earth

Dr Ashraf Sheikh

Dr Ashraf Sheikh has written a book that charts his family's fortunes over the generations as they adapt and for a while at least thrived with the new opportunities and systems put in place as Britain's Empire expanded around the Indian Ocean. Obviously there were trading and cultural connections that predated Britain's involvement in the area, but the British managed to create an economic and administrative system that allowed families like the author's to move relatively effortlessly from one continent to another and to find new commercial opportunities in new markets. The British Empire was not merely an administrative system, it provided transport infrastructure, contract law, a lingua franca and new products and markets on the back of its industrial revolution. It is hard to think of a family that thrived so markedly in this new world than that of the author's great grandfather: Sheikh Nurdin. This book is about his and his family's remarkable rise in this new Anglosphere thousands of miles away from their ancestral home in Jhelum in the Punjab.

The author explains how the newly created British colonies in Africa were largely the result of the Scottish businessman William Mackinnon seeking new opportunities for his British India Steam Navigation Company and keen to forestall rival European nations as the Scramble for Africa accelerated rapidly in the 1880s and 1890s. Mackinnon formed the British East Africa Association which later received a charter as the Imperial British East Africa Company in order to facilitate the colonisation of parts of East Africa. As the author points out in many ways this was a similar outsourcing of the imperial endeavour as the British East India Company had undertaken itself in the Indian subcontinent. Similarly they both ultimately had to relinquish their commercial ambitions and allow the British government to take control and administer the territories as they exhausted their abilities to raise and spend money over such vast areas. The value of memoirs like this is the way that they can explain the mechanics of how populations moved around this expanding Empire. The author points out that all that Sheikh Nurdin required to start a new life in these new imperial territories was a letter of introduction from is colonial district officer in Jhelum. This was effectively his passport and business visa to allow him to embark on the monsoon winds which carried him across the Indian Ocean to a new life. It would be wonderful if that letter had survived but regardless it allowed its bearer to hit the ground running as it were. Sheikh Nurdin was no penniless labourer, he was an established businessman who was used to operating in the British legal and commercial system and also had access and understanding of the regional currency established by the Raj no less; the Rupee. There were new opportunities for an established businessman to exploit and his letter of introduction opened doors in Mombasa where he arrived and even more importantly his timing would prove fortuitous as the British would soon embark on a huge construction project linking Mombasa to the interior in the hope of igniting the regional economy. This was the so-called 'Lunatic Line' which would ultimately see trains run from the port of Mombasa to Nairobi then Kisumu and ultimately on to Uganda.

It was called the 'Lunatic Line' due to the inhospitable conditions for the workers and the threat to their lives from local wildlife and harsh environmental conditions. The Victorians hoped that legitimate trade would help displace the slave trade as they sought to bring Christianity, Commerce and Civilisation to what they called the Dark Continent. As the author explains, colonial powers were not all of a likeness and some were undoubtedly more exploitative and inefficient than others. The construction frenzy offered opportunities to entrepreneurs like Sheikh Nurdin to provide labourers, porters, charcoal and leather in his case. The author also explains throughout the book how an informal network of entrepreneurs provided contacts, capital, expertise and support to one another. Capital was a little trickier for Muslim businessmen who were prohibited from participating in usury, but there were ways of extending credit that did not involve interest per se. The core ingredients for these entrepreneurs were honesty and reliability. It was very important for these businessmen to follow through on their contracts and business dealings. Once trust had been gained, it had to be guarded jealously. Sadly for Nurdin he was to pass away whilst undergoing the Hajj to Mecca. For those of the Muslim faith there is some consolation dying in the midst of this holy journey. For his sons Gul and Fazal they had the wider network of friends and employees built up by his father to help them step in to their father's shoes.

Gul and Fazal diversified their father's servicing of the railway construction project to provide the all important timber for the laying of the railway and to help raise steam for the engines which ran upon them. They then moved up the value chain by employing artisans, blacksmiths and wood workers to amplify the value of the raw resources and also saw to its more efficient distribution by building a fleet of carts to take their products to where they were required. The author explains how the African frontier life could be a place of more than just economic peril with wild animals and tropical diseases that could be unpredictable and fatal. The author describes the remarkable intervention of John Henry Patterson who helped track down the man eating lions of Tsavo. It is perhaps worth adding that he came from serving in the British Army in India and as most of the workforce on the lunatic line were from the Indian sub-continent, they deliberately sought out a soldier with engineering experience who could speak a smattering of Hindi at least. It is yet another piece of evidence of this remarkable Anglo-sphere that linked India to Africa via the British. The author rightly points out that much of this investment was for the benefit of British and imperial investors and not for the local population. However, there were still benefits that acrrued from these investments and indeed it is telling that much of the British built infrastructure is still in use today. I also hesitate to agree with the author's statement when he says that the 'spectre of ethnic strife, racism and tribalism were legacies of colonialism's 'divide and rule' policy'. I would say that tribes in East Africa existed long before the British arrived there and manifested themselves long after they left too. In a strange way of course Britain added to the tribal mix by introducing Europeans and Indians amongst other groups to East Africa. Colonialism does tend to get blamed for too many of history's ills these days, but in reality it was just a new ruling class replacing an older one and often with more efficiency and investment than had gone before. It is also interesting to compare the fate of say Kenya with neighbouring Ethiopia which withstood colonialism for most of its history with the sad exception of the five years of Italian rule. Not having a colonial ruler did not help the development of independent African nations markedly and indeed they often have performed worse in comparative terms. Yes some Europeans (but by no means all) were given privileged rights and opportunities but as the author illustrates with this book, many Indian families were to thrive in this imperial environment as did some Africans too. The empire was not a static organisation and it became more conscientious and dedicated to development especially after the Mandates were established after the First World War, specifically to prepare colonies for self-government. Often the criticisms of colonialism are those of capitalism really and these Imperial corporations and companies often treated their own domestic populations with the same kind of disdain and ignorance of the environmental consequences of their actions as they did in the colonies. But I must make clear this is not the major focus of the book and it is a minor quibble in a book that actually does a good job at explaining the opportunities that could be had within the colonial framework.

It is interesting that the new Indian tribe of East Africa often returned to the sub-continent to find wives and create the next generation of entrepreneurs and workers. Again this was often yet another way of engendering and increasing personal and business relationships amongst families spread thousands of miles away but still intricately bound to one another. Remarkably it was largely just the means of transportation that changed - dhows giving way to steamers and ultimately to aeroplanes. But the bonds between India and East Africa kept being reforged from generation to generation at least as long as both were within the British orbit.

The family's fortunes expanded to the point that the author's grandfather lived in a 40 acre manor in Pangani. It was also interesting to read that his eldest son's wedding was so large that over a hundred cars and limousines were proceeded by the British Kenya Regimental band complete with pipers. It is hard to think of a more colonial scene of an Indian wedding procession following Scottish bagpipes to their Muslim wedding in an African setting.

The strong business relations cultivated for years allowed the Sheikh brothers to survive the Depression of the 1930s and indeed to seemingly thrive as they registered as Sheikh Brothers Ltd in 1935. Their reputation for honesty and reliability allowed them to attain valuable colonial government contracts to supply firewood and meat amongst other products. World War Two was to turbocharge these opportunties as the relatively safe Kenya colony required huge amounts of food and resources to feed the British and Imperial war machine. Even after the war, the Sheikh brothers spotted the opportunity to buy up surplus military equipment and tailor these for the up and coming Big Game Hunting Safaris that would become more and more popular as air travel shrank the world for tourists.

Their entrepreneurial flair would turn to Real Estate as Sheikh Brothers Ltd had the capital to purchase land and it had access to resources and expertise to transform these properties into desirable residences and business premises. The family business had grown from humble origins to become a major regional economic powerhouse. They do say that many family businesses struggle to go more than three generations as the hunger for success of the earlier generations gives way to comfort and affluence of the grandchildren of the original striver. The effort to succeed can often jump one generation and if you are lucky two, but it can be hard to sustain over time and the more children there are the more opportunity for bickering and divergence between those expected to continue the family business arises. The author explains how Fazal's eight sons and one daughter (the author's mother) from two wives would struggle to act with common purpose and although much of the wealth was to be used for charitable purposes, there was some legal chicanery to freeze out the sons of one particular mother and also the daughter who although under Islamic law was entitled to some share in the family inheritance did not receive what she should have done. I should say that I would have liked to have understood how decolonisation impacted upon the family's fortunes. It is not really explained in detail. I would surmise that many of the assets were protected by British contract law which passed from the Colonial Administration to the newly independent nation of Kenya almost in entirety; yet another legacy of the imperial system. It should be said that many Indians without substantial financial resources found life in the newly independent East African states to be challenging to say the least without the protection of British administrators and judges to arbitrate and uphold. Africanisation was often implemented at the cost of Indian skilled workers many of whom took the hint to look for new opportunities in Britain, Europe, America or back in India. It does seem as if the author and most of his family members eventually flowed out of Africa but without a detailed explanation of why they felt compelled to do so.

Although the book does leave the imperial area that is of most interest to us here on this site, it is still fascinating to watch the flotsam and jetsam of empire as to where various members of the extended family ended up. The author has his own wanderings to explain as he follows the medical route back and forth from Britain and East Africa before he finally ends up in America. Again, it is not entirely clear how and why his family move to the United States. He does talk about all the interesting work and doctors he trains with in England, Scotland and in East Africa, but no real explaining of that final leap to the US where he currently resides. Having spent so much time in his company, I should have liked one of the final pieces of the puzzle to have been put in place.

Overall this is an interesting book explaining how a Nineteenth Century Punjabi entrepreneur travelled thousands of miles to find new opportunities in what you might call the Wild West of British colonial expansion. British investment in African infrastructure benefitted an Indian entrepreneur who established a reputation for honesty and fair dealing and who had the contacts, expertise and network to provide the resources required to build that infrastructure. His sons then continued his legacy and expanded as the colony expanded. The third generation were not as united and the dynasty began to disperse and go their separate ways. But the author explains how the many leaves of this family tree had no less interesting lives to lead and they got blown hither and thither as they each dealt with decolonisation and new opportunities in their own way. I should say there are also some lovely quotes peppered through this book which help set a moral and very human tone to what is essentially a very human story - that of family!

British Empire Book
Dr Ashraf Sheikh
Gem Books


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