Dawoodi Bohras - Features

The Hassanali Karimjee Jivanjee Hospital

The Karimjee Jivanjee Family

Merchant Princes of East Africa

Gijsbert Oonk, the author, starts the book (The Karimjee Jivanjee Family: Merchant Princes of East Africa 1800–2000) with an insert of a family tree. This becomes a very necessary tool for readers as we weave through the journey of the prominent Karimjee Jeevanji family on the east coast of Africa. The author is a senior associate professor of non-western history at Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands. He has published various books and numerous articles on the history of the Indian Ocean region.

As one opens this aesthetically well-presented book with an ancient-looking photo of three men in front of a historically prominent Zanzibar door, Hatim A. Karimjee tells us of how he met Gijsbert Oonk, and decided to embark on this journey with him. Hatim A. Karimjee claims that this book is the author”s story, a complete stranger to Karimjee Jivanjee family. Yet 200 years of an entrepreneurial family history could not have been written without the full dedication of the family members and mainly Hatim Karimjee”s “life mission”. The book is very appropriately, dedicated to the ancestors who dared to cross the “kalapani” – the dark waters of the Indian Ocean.

The Karimjee family originally came from Mandvi, India. They are Muslim Dawoodi Bohras. This fact becomes important in the book when later on we witness the philanthropic nature of the family following one of the basic principles of Islam. The author describes the book as that of “business history, where business, politics, social welfare and family walked hand in hand”(p13).

What is unusual of this family history is the fact that it has survived 200 years of passing down their business ethics through family. The author claims that kings of trade and commerce – such as Tharia Topan (1823–1891), Sewa Haji (1851–1897), Alidina Visram (1851–1916) and Nasser Veerjee (1865–1942) – were there but survived one or two generations only, and have vanished from economic playing field of East Africa. In 1950s, the Karimjees were referred to as “the Merchant Princes of East Africa”.

The cover of the on Karimjees of East Africa.

The cover of the book on the Karimjees of East Africa.

The second unusual fact is that they availed all their business and family documents to the author so that 200 years of history is documented for future generations of the family. It is indeed unusual for the business community to lay bare their story.

The book is divided into seven chapters. This follows the author’s two basic principles. The first is telling the history of the family. Chapter one sets the scene, while the second tells us of the cultural and economic connections between Asia and Africa and why the Karimjees moved to Africa. The third chapter goes through the business history (1880–1924), while the fourth chapter tells us of the transition from trade to estates. Chapter five gives us a picture of the political turmoil of independence of Tanganyika/Zanzibar and the Arusha Declaration (1964–1990). Chapter six shows us the importance of East Africa in the global economy then, and the role of Asian community, while the last chapter takes us through the 21st century Karimjee family.

The book also follows the author’s second principle, presenting four portraits of “historical champions” as he calls them. Intermittently set between chapters, the author gives us an insight into the personalities who played catalytic roles in the family business and linked it to national politics and the global economy. Two of his champions were knighted by the Queen of England. Through documentation of the portraits we as readers travel through historical times, places and spaces of innovativeness that these charismatic personalities created in their quest for living their full lives.


A) Yusufali Karimjee (1882–1966)
He was known as the “Lion of Zanzibar” and was instrumental in setting up the Indian National Association of Zanzibar, which was triggered by the 50 per cent increase in customs duty by the British rulers. He was also a bold entrepreneur who did business from Hanover to Japan, and later married a Japanese woman, thus introducing a world citizenry to the Karimjee family. He was knighted by the Queen of England for his numerous philanthropic works and was instrumental in giving the greatest gift, The Karimjee Hall, in 1955 to the City Council of Dar es Salaam while he was a member of Legislative Council. This hall later became the House of Parliament. His son, Abdulkarim (see D below) became an ardent supporter of the independence movement of Tanganyika.

B) Abdalla Mohamedali Karimjee (1899–1978)
He was known as the sisal baron (p18) of Tanga, and received an OBE (Officer of the British Empire) in 1961. He was instrumental in the move of the family from trades to estates (Chapter 4). Charismatic in nature he went to South Africa on a pikipiki (motorbike) to negotiate a family deal with Caltex for the distribution of petroleum in 1924.

He also became a member of the Tanganyika Legislative Council, attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 and welcomed Princess Margaret to Tanga in 1956. His second marriage was to a German woman. Since the couple travelled often to Europe, this fact created an issue when the Germans lost the war to the British. Through “silent lobbying”, according to the author, Abdallah managed to buy the former German-owned estates taken over by the British Custodians of Enemy Properties after World War II, which were being sold to European companies only – the Kisangara Sisal Estate. He was another member of Karimjee family who internationalised the family and frequented Davos, Switzerland for holidays with his children.

C) Tayabali Karimjee (1897-1987)
Born in Zanzibar, he went to school in Zanzibar. He was known to give away 60 per cent of his earnings to charities, building schools and hospitals in East Africa. He was knighted in 1955 and became a close friend of the Sultan of Zanzibar. He established the prestigious Tayabali Karimjee Cricket Cup and Scout Club with a passion. In 1931, he was nominated the unofficial member of Legislative Council by the Sultan. He walked out of the Legislative Council when it passed the Clove Monopoly Bill on 23 July 1937. He saw the bill as benefiting Europeans to the detriment of Zanzibaris. He also saw the bill separating the financiers (the Asians) from the landowners (the Arabs) in order to control both groups politically as a hidden agenda of the British colonialists. Mass walkout from the Legislative Assembly followed and all shops and businesses closed on that day in Zanzibar.

D) Abdulkarim Karimjee (1906 –1977)
The son of Yusufali Karimjee, he served as deputy Mayor in 1952 and 1956 and Mayor of Dar es Salaam in 1954 and 1957. In 1959 he was he was appointed the Speaker of the Tanganyika Legislative Council. With the independence of Tanganyika, he became the first speaker of parliament, which sat in Karimjee Hall. He presided over the independence ceremony and had gone through a process of a nominated parliament to an elected one, with increased membership from 29 to 81.

From 1961–70, he became the vice chancellor of University College of Dar es Salaam, director of National Development Corporation (NDC) and National Bank of Commerce (NBC) and founded the Tanganyika National Library.

Julius Nyerere, who became the first president of Tanganyika, was a close friend during the independence struggle. He supported Nyerere in his policy of 1967 Arusha Declaration and the 1971 Building Aqcuisition Act. Like Nyerere he believed that “the well-to-do and well-educated peoples of East Africa were obliged to share their knowledge and wealth with the disadvantaged people”. The author claims that he “foresaw difficult times for Asians in East Africa but he maintained his position of serving the country”. The family lost much of their property and most of them left East Africa. A six-page list of properties owned by the Karimjees is given at the end of the book (pp162-67).

The old Karimjee headquaters.
Located next to the fortress of the old Stone Town of Zanzibar this building was the headquarters of Karimjee's family company until 1964. After nationalisation it became the head office of the People's Bank of Zanzibar.

Between 1824–1861, the Karimjees accumulated capital and grew into a prominent trading family. “The study of this family demonstrates how Asian families played a vital economic and political role in East Africa”, states the author. He sees this as the advantage of basic research and sets out to balance the “economic environment” and the “context of the Karimjee family history” throughout the chapters of the book. The author, very ably, takes us through various historical epochs of East African history – like the transfer of capital of Sultan Seyyid Said from Oman to Zanzibar in 1832 and its impact on commerce; the abolition of slave trade and how it weakened the Sultan’s empire; and how the British and Germans took slices of East Africa and Africa as a whole after the Berlin Conference of 1884. They left Zanzibar and Pemba to be ruled by Seyyid Said but later on declared it a British protectorate. Thus emerged the complex political economy of Zanzibar in the 19th century.

According to the author, “The Arabs owned plantations and produced cloves and spices. Some were involved in the caravan trade, collecting ivory from the mainland, and in the slave trade. The Indian moneylenders who neither owned land nor ventured into the interior themselves were half way up the social ladder…”(p14). There is a section in the book dedicated to sisal production when the family moved from the “trades to estate” phase of their development. The turbulent political chapter takes us through the various decrees, the nationalisation phase tied to the socialism phase – “Ujamaa” – of Tanganyika, the union between Zanzibar and Tanganyika, and the formation of Tanzania, giving us insights into how political development affected the lives of not only businesses but also the people that lived through it. Tayabali Karimjee, born and bred in Zanzibar and who had given 60 per cent of his earnings to philanthropic deeds in East Africa, died in Karachi in 1987, with the words “I don’t belong here; I am waiting for the bus to Zanzibar”, thus raising the identity question of the east African Asians of today also.

The author also takes us through migration connectivity. In the case of Karimjee family, he talks of the adventurous spirit of the Mandvi sailors, from where the family originated. The seafaring history was indicated by the vastness of dhow building at Mandvi, the booming trade with Aden, Muscat, Mogadishu, Zanzibar and Malindi; it is said that Vasco de Gama used the Mandvi sailors in his journeys. The monsoon winds provided the rhythm of the trade between the continents surrounding the Indian Ocean dating back 2000 years. “…Vasco de Gama was surprised to encounter Arabs and Indians in Mozambique, Mombasa and Lindi in 1497”, observes the author.

However it is only in 19th century that South Asians began to settle on the East African coast. The author demonstrates this with maps of settlements in the book, and also documents the first Bohra mosque. In late 19th century the Karimjees established their household at 236 Hurumzi Street, which still stands, now a hotel. They now became settlers and Africa became their home and their future.

The first Bohra graveyard near Mnazi Moja has a tombstone (p31) of Alibhai Karimjee(1851–1883), his wife Fatema (1923), Hassanali Alibhai Karimjee (1872–1918) and Mohamedali Karimjee(1876–1940).

The author analyses the era of trading empire building of the Karimjees between 1880–1924, when political power was in the hands of the Germans, British and the Sultan. In 1832, Seyyid Said made Zanzibar his capital and with him came many Asian traders and financiers from Oman.

Jairam Sewjee was his custom collector who in turn convinced Buddhabhoy Karimjee to explore the opportunities in Zanzibar. In 1839 the British signed a pact with Seyyid Said to engage in trade on the island, thus establishing a consulate which “gave Asians a sense of security in dealing with Arab aristocracy”, states the author. He sees this era as having three factors which shaped the history of Karimjee Jivanjee family history: Firstly, the arrival of Europeans opened up trade with Europe. Secondly, Tanganyika became a more stable political economy and adopted legislative order. Thirdly, the contribution of the “three great Karimjee tycoons who directed the family to a new level of wealth, political ambitions and charity”.

It is this era which saw extensive property acquirements, including the now Zanzibar People’s Bank which was nationalised from the Karimjees. The most outstanding feature of this building is its door, which is known as the “Mona Lisa of the Zanzibar doors”. This building used to belong to the German merchant Rudolph Heinrich Ruete who sold it to the Karimjees. He married the famous Princess Salme who later on wrote the first historical book “Memoirs of a Princess”, documenting Zanzibar as it was then.

By now the Karimjees had established an impeccable reputation. With extensive travels by Yusufali Karimjee in Europe, Japan, Germany, Oman and beyond, coupled with home knowledge of marketable products by Hassanali and Mohamedali, the company bagged trading deals with 40–50 European and American companies. This was also the age of philanthropy and in the tradition of the family, adhering in practice to the principle of “wealth imposes obligation”.

Karimjee's old Toyota head office in Dar es Salaam.
Located in the heart of Dar es Salaam, this was Karimjee's headquarters of Toyota vehicles sold in the 1990s.

The book gives details of all the schools, scholarships, public libraries, hospitals, maternal clinics, dispensaries, community centres and institutional support – like the majestic Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam – which bear witness to the philanthropic nature of the family philosophy (p127–146). The Raskazone Swimming Club was open to all unlike the European Yacht Clubs, thus attempting to break the racial divide that prevailed then. Yusufali Karimjee, known as the “Lion of Zanzibar roars” is quoted in a press cutting, after a heated debate in the Legislative Assembly as saying to British Governor of Zanzibar, “If His Excellency wishes to really benefit the poor natives, we want the duty on rice and khangas reduced”. Yusufali Karimjee also believed that “we should not join the white men”s war” (p55).

From 1925–1963 (p58), the author sees this as an era of movement from the trade dominated economy of the Karimjees to an estates economy. German rule in East Africa was over and the British became custodians of “enemy properties” which were on sale, but only to European buyers. Through quiet diplomacy, Abdalla Mohamedali Karimjee who had married a German settler woman, managed to get six sisal estates in Tanga, feeding Tanga’s economic boom. The Korean War of 1950-53 caused a rise in the price of sisal from 18 to 250 pounds a ton. Tanganyika was the third largest producer of sisal, the white gold of Tanganyika. The Karimjees moved to a new level of entrepreneurship, employing hundreds of workers but with the same benevolence of their basic principle of obligation with wealth, thus building housing, hospitals and schools for the workers” families.

The author sees the period of 1964–1990 as politically turbulent, and economically declining phase for the Karimjee family. He quotes the film by the Italian Gualtiero Jacopetti which witnesses the political turmoil of the isle of Zanzibar in 1964, and sees the Union with mainland in 1964, the nationalisation phase of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the Arusha declaration of 1967, as main contributing factors to uncertainties in business community and decline in the economy of the land.

The Karimjees had to diversify into businesses that would sustain them but curtailed most of their activities. They lost all their massive properties through the nationalisation process (p161-7) Most of the family left, except for Abdulkarim Karimjee, who remained committed to the principle of the well-to-do must share their wealth and supported the first president of Tanganyika, Mwalimu Julius Nyerere in his socialist endeavours and Ujamaa policies.

It is also in this period –1968 – that the Karimjee family was excommunicated from the Dawoodi Bohra community. The spiritual leader of the community, His Holiness Seyedna, who was a frequent visitor, was asked to leave Tanzania on 14 August 1968. “The government of Tanganyika became seriously concerned when large amount of religious taxes were being collected from the Bohra community and exchanged for gold in order to transfer the funds to Bombay. This went against foreign exchange regulations” of the country. According to the author, the “Karimjee family were blamed for this grave embarrassment” – thus the excommunication. “Abdulkarim as a pious God fearing Muslim was very offended for being blamed for something he had not done and had no control over” (p129).

The Karimjees had learnt the lesson to “stick to knitting” i.e. do what they know best in times of difficulties and get by. Toyota Tanzania Ltd became their sole business, making them a locally-owned business by a global family. Only Alibhai, Anver and Hatim Karimjee remained with the management calibre to ably run the business and make it viable for the family. In 1987/8 it became the Tanzania “Pajero” (p153). Sales picked up from 350 to 2,000 vehicles by 2005.

To prevent family fragmentation over time, the family established a family council and agreed to publish this particular book for the benefit primarily of the presently globally scattered family to know a shared past. In 1998 a family reunion took place in London, whereby two programmes were also established for the family. One was a three-month study tour for the younger generation to consider a career in family business in Tanzania. The second package is a two-year graduate training, whereby family members would focus on a particular profession within the family business and also learn on the job, thus keeping with the family tradition. The family council also merged six charitable trusts into a single The Karimjee Jivanjee Foundation. (p155). It is to give scholarships to gifted Tanzanian children and to other charities with the principle “It is not giving if you profit by the giving” taken from Rubbaiyat of Omar Khyamm, states the author.

As a reader and living in East Africa with a diasporic background myself, the book spoke volumes on the era of migration and issues of identity. Rich in its Islamic cultural history, the author very ably brings out the tradition of benevolence of the Karimjee family, adhering to a basic principle of Islam. Although capitalist in nature, the family did business with a heart for justice, a rare commodity in today’s practices of the business communities globally.

The book is also very rich in images of the time, thus as a reader one gets a feel of the era. It abounds in visuals: Passport stamps, family portraits, images of cars and buildings, sisal production, stamps (p126) from inauguration of Karimjee Hall. However I would have liked to see more images of the numerous majestic buildings of the family, which were nationalised and some of which are still used as state buildings.

The author also goes further into the family myths and beliefs, such as women not being permitted to wear diamonds following the death of young members of the family, and no keeping of a peacock as a pet for fear that its ego will split the family union. Now when I pass Karimjee Hall in Dar es Salaam, where peacocks abound in its grounds I wonder what the ancestors must be feeling.

Although the author interviewed Fatema Karimjee and has her portrait, and women feature in photographs throughout the book, he does not bring out the contribution of women’s wisdom in the development of the family. The curiosity for us as readers is did women play any role at all or were they just passive members of family? Where are their stories?

The book is aptly dedicated to Karimjee ancestors and published for a generation who shared a past. Let us hope that this life mission of Hatim Karimjee bears fruit in the future generation of Karimjees who not only will continue to stamp their mark on the map of development of East Africa, but also maybe think of documenting the wisdom that women bring to the fold through generations of strong bondage. It is women who culturally hold the thread of not only families but also society in partnership with their male counterparts. As Nyerere once said at the birth of Umoja wa Wanawake (UWT) in Tanganyika: “Society will only limp if we do not count and recognize women”s contribution”. We need women’s stories within the Karimjees.

Recently, a number of writings from Asian-African perspectives have been published. For example Madhvani in “Tides of Fortune” (2008), Nanjibahi Kalidas Mehta – the original was in Gujarati in 1967 later translated to English, and Sophia Mustafa’s “The Tanganyika Way”. Then we have Awaaz magazine from Nairobi, which voices Asian–African stories and recognises their contribution in liberation movements and independence struggles through personalities like Gora Ebrahim, Karim Essak from South Africa, Makhan Singh, the trade unionist, Pinto from Kenya, Sugra Visram of Uganda, Amir Jamal and Alnoor Kassum of Tanzania, to name but a few. We also have a walking exhibition at the Nairobi Museum of how they came in dhows set up by Sultan Somji of Kenya, and the biennial SAMOSA Festival which depicts cultural fusion music, dance, paintings, publications, films and various aspect of Asian-African life in East Africa which takes place in Nairobi.

It could be that now is the beginning of coming of age of a community which so far has engaged in life in East Africa, but has not put down in a concerted way from its own perspective what that life is and how they feel about it. So the fact that it took 200 years before Karimjees could tell their stories is not unusual. What is commendable is the fact that the Karimjee story has been documented. Hopefully, this will inspire many more stories to be told, giving birth to a rich archive of her/stories, besides his/tory!

* Gijsbert Oonk’s “The Karimjee Jivanjee Family: Merchant Princes of East Africa 1800-2000“ is published by Pallas Publications, Amsterdam University Press, Amsterdam (2009), ISBN 9085550270.

* Fatma Alloo is a founder member of TAMWA, the Tanzania Media Women's Association.