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Q: History of Asians in Uganda, East Africa ( Answered 4 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: History of Asians in Uganda, East Africa
Category: Reference, Education and News > General Reference
Asked by: sheilakm-ga
List Price: $20.00
Posted: 20 Jun 2002 10:36 PDT
Expires: 20 Jul 2002 10:36 PDT
Question ID: 29825
The history of Asians working in Uganda from 1880 - 1972.  Including
the development of the railways by the colonial powers in East Africa,
the growth of trade and industries, the struggle for Independence and
the expulsion of Asians from Uganda by Idi Amin
Subject: Re: History of Asians in Uganda, East Africa
Answered By: chromedome-ga on 20 Jun 2002 20:53 PDT
Rated:4 out of 5 stars
Hello, Sheilakm!  

Thank you for an interesting inquiry.  

In your question you weren't quite clear as to what you were looking
for: a brief summary of the Asian presence in Uganda; links you could
use to read up on the subject; or books which you could find at a good

So, I'll offer all three.

The presence of Indian nationals in East Africa began centuries before
the 19th century heyday of European colonialism.  Trade links between
the two continents go back further than we can trace, and the Arabian
Nights (for an obvious example) offer many tales dealing of merchant
voyages along the African coast and across to India.

The earliest introduction of Asian laborers into East Africa occurred
in the 16th century, when the Portuguese imported workers from their
Goanese colony to help build Fort Jesus, their coastal trading port.
While woodcarvers and other craftsmen arrived at the coast in
increasing numbers over the ensuing centuries, the Asian presence in
Uganda dates from the construction of the Uganda Railway.

Over 31,000 laborers were eventually imported for this 6-year task. 
In all, 2493 of these workmen would die, and average of 38 per month
or 4 per mile of track.  Another 6454 were seriously injured. (Source:
Robert Hardy THE IRON SNAKE [London, Collins, 1974], 315.) Although of
no scholarly value, you may wish to rent the movie "The Ghost and the
Darkness," starring Val Kilmer and Michael Douglas, which tells the
true story of two lions who caused some of those casualties.

With the completion of the railroad in 1901, Uganda became a
prosperous colony.  Cotton in particular was a major crop; by 1915 the
value of Uganda's cotton crop was high enough that Britain was no
longer required to subsidize the colony.  In due course, coffee, tea,
and sugar also became important exports.  This gave rise to a
significant source of tension between Uganda's African and Asian

The British colonists considered the Asians more "efficient" than the
Africans.  So, while African Ugandans were more likely to own and
profit from their land than was the case elsewhere in Africa, the
British concentrated the trade and processing of these cash crops in
the hands of the Asians.  African attempts at breaking into cotton
ginning, for example, were determinedly put down.

The sugar plantations also caused hard feelings.  Mostly Asian-owned,
these large estates kept wages low by importing migrant workers from
Uganda's less-affluent hinterlands, and even from outside the colony.

The years preceding independence, and the first years of the new Obote
government, were a time of "business as usual" for the Asian
population.  A worrying development, however, was an increase in
nationalistic rhetoric among the country's various ethnic groups.  As
the country gained experience of electoral politics, politicians here,
as elsewhere, found it useful to have a prosperous and visible
minority to use as scapegoats.

In 1971, Prime Minister Obote was overthrown by his hand-picked
protege, Idi Amin.  Amin was a already a controversial figure, partly
because of his association with Obote and partly because of his
notorious corruption.  Throughout the late 1960's Amin was accused of
selling off the Ugandan army's munitions to Congolese rebels for
personal gain, and by 1970 Obote was forced to place Amin under
temporary house arrest in order to ease accusations of his own

Amin's power rested in the army, but the army itself was deeply
divided.  Maintaining control of his troops was a difficult and
expensive proposition, and Amin's own extravagance was a strain on the
national budget.  The obvious answer to his pressing economic problems
was to confiscate the property of the Asian minority.  Perhaps he was
influenced by the looting of the monasteries in Reformation England,
but more likely it was the sort of crude logic outlined by American
outlaw Jesse James.  He robbed banks, said James, "because that's
where the money is."

The expulsion of the Asians took place in September of 1972, and was
propagandized by Amin as a victory for the "little man."  The official
line was that a pack of foreign exploiters had been run out, and the
Africans would get back what was rightfully theirs.  In practice,
however, most of the proceeds wound up in the hands of the army.  This
sudden influx of wealth bought him a solid corps of loyal troops.  As
the African proverb says, "A dog with a bone in his mouth cannot bite

The Ugandan economy, already in a tailspin, collapsed under the
mismanagement of the expropriated property.  Unmaintained equipment
and inexperienced management brought most of these confiscated
enterprises to a grinding halt within the first few years.  A case
could well be made that the Ugandan economy never recovered from this

The Asians of Uganda dispersed to many locations, mostly commonwealth
countries.  Some returned to their ancestral homelands of India and
Pakistan.  Others went to Canada, the U.K., or elsewhere in Africa. 
Although in recent years they have been invited to return by the
current regime, and even been offered restitution, few have chosen to
do so.  Continued concerns about the region's stability are
undoubtedly a factor.

Today, the Asian populations in other East African countries feel
vulnerable to the same sort of pressures that their compatriots
encountered in Uganda thirty years ago.  "I think of 'Kenyan Asians'
like 'German Jews,'" said one (see the link, below).

In the year 2000, the National Museum of Kenya hosted a
ground-breaking photo exhibition, the "Asian African Heritage
Exhibition," highlighting the role of Asian Africans from the earliest
days to the present.  Coverage of this exhibit spawned a number of
articles, including two which I've used to prepare this answer.

Here, then, are the links I'd promised you at the beginning:

A discussion of the "Asian African Heritage Exhibition" at the
Punjabilok website (look for the Uganda Railroad section on page 2)

Another article regarding this exhibition, and discussing the current
state of Asian/African relations, may be found at

From the website of the Better World Society, a brief article
describing a reunion of Asians from the Ugandan diaspora (from Asian
Voice, 18 Aug 2001):

The same site offers a snapshot of African/Asian relations today,
focusing primarily on Kenya and South Africa:

Uganda and Africa Forum homepage (many links):

The discussion forum itself:

The "Ugandan History" page from U. Penn's African Studies centre. 
This touches on the relations between Asian and African Ugandans, but
makes no mention of Asians prior to the 1930's.

Federal "Country Studies" page for Uganda at the Library of Congress:

I will excerpt the brief section specifically focused on the Asian
population, as it is in the public domain:

"The 1969 census enumerated about 70,000 people of Indian or Pakistani
descent--generally referred to as Asians in Uganda. They were
officially considered foreigners despite the fact that more than
one-half of Uganda's Asians were born in Uganda. Many of their
forebears had arrived in Uganda by way of trade networks centered on
the Indian Ocean island of Zanzibar (united with Tanganyika in 1964 to
form Tanzania), which brought iron, cotton, and other products from
India even before the nineteenth century. In the late nineteenth
century, many indentured laborers from India remained in Uganda after
their service ended, but the government refused to sell them land, and
most became traders. Wealthy Baganda traders were almost eliminated as
their earliest rivals when the Buganda Agreement of 1900 made land
ownership more lucrative than commerce for most Baganda. Indians
gained control of retail and wholesale trade, cotton ginning, coffee
and sugar processing, and other segments of commerce. After
independence, and especially when the Obote government threatened to
nationalize many industries in 1969, Asians exported much of their
wealth and were accused of large-scale graft and tax evasion.
President Amin deported about 70,000 Asians in 1972, and only a few
returned to Uganda in the 1980s to claim compensation for their
expropriated land, buildings, factories, and estates. In 1989 the
Asian population in Uganda was estimated to be about 10,000."

Books and Studies (culled from links on many of the sites found in the
search process):

Uganda: An Historical Accident, Class, Nation, State Formation
by Ramkrishna Mukherjee, Paperback (October 1985) Africa World Press;
ISBN: 0865430160; Reprint edition

Thomas P. Ofcansky Uganda: Tarnished Pearl of Africa  ISBN: 0813310598
Copyright: 1995

Expulsion of a Minority: Essays on Ugandan Asians Michael Twaddle
Published by the Athlone Press. Institute of Commonwealth Studies
Commonwealth Papers 18 1975 ISBN 0 485 17618 1 240 pp. paperback

Bristow, M. et al. (1975) 'Ugandan Asians in Britain, Canada and
India: some characteristics and resources', New Community, 4 (2),

Morris, H. S. (1968) Indians in Uganda. A study of caste and sect in a
plural society, London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson

The Shortchanged:Uganda Citizenship Laws and How They Were Applied to
Its Asian Minority" International Lawyer, Vol.9, No.1, January, 1975

African Politics: The Corruption of Power, University Press of
America, Washington, D.C. 1981

Cynthia Salvadori & Others WE CAME IN DHOWS (Nairobi, Kulgraphics,

I sincerely hope this is satisfactory.  

I've enjoyed researching this answer for you (and found some great
recipes at the Punjabilok website- thanks!).  If you should require
any further information or clarification, by all means feel free to

Search strategy:

+"asian-african" +uganda

I also searched within these results with these keywords:

sheilakm-ga rated this answer:4 out of 5 stars
Dear chromedome-ga,  thanks for your information.  You have given me
plenty of sources to work on.  Your response was speedy and helpful. 
My next question will be more specific!

There are no comments at this time.

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