Bombay: Refuge for slave Africans

Sunday October 11 2009
mago index pix

Bombay Africans who worked for missionaries in India. Photo/ROYAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY/CLIFFORD PEREIRA

The role played by the freed slaves returning from India — also known as the “Bombay Africans,” a phrase coined in India — in the various expeditions which European explorers mounted in Africa in the period 1855-1890 is no longer remembered today.

Their story has now been pieced together from the 10,000 photographs and 2,000 maps in The Royal Geographical Society’s (RGS) Africa collection by a team of journalists, oral historians and museum professionals.

Sir Henry Bartle Frere, president of the RGS in 1873-74, suggested that British explorers recruit staff for African expeditions from the freed slaves in Indian orphanages.

Over the 60 years of African exploration from 1850, hundreds of Bombay Africans returned to Africa, either independently or with the aid of the missionary societies.

The results of these expeditions were recorded in sketches, photographs, maps, and written records.

These records illustrated Victorian attitudes towards the so-called Dark Continent, attitudes that often divided Africans into either “uncivilised natives” or into “noble savages.”


As a result, the contributions that Africans made to the exploration of East Africa appeared as mere footnotes in the history of exploration and, sadly, the record of their contribution has been lost to history.

The Bombay Africans were: Abdullah Susi, James Chuma, Wikitani, Mathew Wellington and Jacob Wainright — who all, through their knowledge of languages, landscapes and diplomacy, invaluable members of 19th and early 20th century British expeditions into East Africa. Women were also present on these expeditions.

Apart from Livingstone, other explorers of the time included Harry Johnston, Joseph Thomson, Captain V. L. Cameron, James Grant, Henry Morton Stanley and John Speke.

All employed Bombay Africans on their expeditions. European explorers often had teams of over 100 workers: gun-bearers, porters, servants, guides, interpreters, soldiers, cooks and their women.

For the exploration of East and Central Africa, the majority of these were ethnic Africans but among them were the Bombay Africans.

The Bombay Africans also contributed to other aspects of political and economic life.

This includes their roles in the anti-slavery movement and with Christian organisations such as the Church Missionary Society — the latter association leading to the formation of the first East African settlement for returning freed slaves.

An important legacy of the Bombay Africans is their role in the anti-slavery campaign.

Rev William Jones helped to free hundreds of Africans and lobbied the British and Zanzibari authorities; Abi Sidi established a settlement for 3,400 former slaves near Mombasa.

The Freretown and Rabai settlements provided refuge for locally enslaved Africans.

Occasionally the settlements themselves were threatened by raids and a bell was sounded as a warning.

The Freretown bell tower still stands near the Emmanuel Church on Mombasa’s northern mainland.

For millennia, Africans have been travelling across the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Asia.

Many travelled freely and settled there.

They included merchants, sailors, Christian and Muslim pilgrims travelling to Jerusalem and Mecca, soldiers, guards, fishermen, incense-collectors, diplomatic envoys, conquerors and adventurers.

However, the majority moved involuntarily as slaves.

Slavery around the Indian Ocean was different from its Atlantic counterpart: there were more children, with slaves more likely to work as domestics.

Also, slaves could attain social status within Islamic states, and, importantly, could gain freedom.

Abubakar of the Tanzanian Womens’ Association says: “It appears that the slaves who were moved away in the Indian Ocean maintained some of their culture as opposed to the Atlantic side where it is much more difficult to identify their cultures and roots. This also made it easier to stop the Atlantic slave trade using law as it was an economic trade. The Indian Ocean trade seems more ingrained in the societies that supported it and hence more difficult to remove.”

Britain passed the Anti-slavery Act in 1807, but it was not until 1855 that it was fully implemented in India.

The British Royal Navy with its Eastern headquarters in Bombay, was the hub of the campaign and scores of freed slaves were brought back to East Africa.

The Royal Navy ships often employed Arabs, Asians and Africans, many of whom were liberated slaves.

Originally captured in Africa, and liberated by the Royal Navy in Bombay during the abolition of slavery, they were initially placed with families or employed locally in Bombay.

Certain Christian missionary orphanages there offered shelter and education to the liberated Africans, teaching them English, Hindi, and technical skills.

Explorers of the period, such as David Livingstone, combined zeal for geographical discovery with Christian missionary work and opposition to slavery.

In 1861, David Livingstone and his party encountered a slave caravan in present day Malawi.

They prompted the slaves’ release — among them two boys, James Chuma and Wikitani and “seven native Zambesian” adults, including Abdullah Susi.

Livingstone took the nine to India where he found the boys a home in the Free Church of Scotland Mission at Bombay.

The men found work in Bombay Harbour.

In 1866 Livingstone went to Bombay to recruit a team for his next expedition finding the men working in the harbour, he re-hired them.

Abdullah Susi was from Mapela Velha in Mozambique.

He accompanied Livingstone on his Zambezi expedition and remained with Livingstone up to the latter’s death in 1873.

Susi with others, constructed the kitanda (stretcher) to carry the explorer and (with Wainright) carved Livingstone’s name on the bark of the tree trunk under which Livingstone’s heart is buried.

The tree trunk now stands at the offices of the RGS.

The British consul in Zanzibar was reluctant to pay for both Susi (and James Chuma) to go to London for the funeral but eventually agreed and Susi and Chuma reached London.

With Susi’s help, the RGS and Livingstone’s family compiled a full account of the explorer’s final journey.

Susi was awarded a medal by the RGS.

If Susi had not carried Livingstone’s body and papers to the coast and recounted the expedition then the final stages of Livingstone’s life would have been lost.

On Susi’s return to East Africa, he continued to work but his circumstances deteriorated and in 1879 Joseph Thomson noticed

“Susi had fallen into very bad drinking habits and was in a state of destitution.”

But Susi did recover and in 1881 he joined Stanley on an expedition up the Congo River and co-founded a “station” — Leopoldville, later renamed Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Afterwards, it is believed that Susi sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to reach Zanzibar.

Jacob Wainright (1844-1892) who was well known for his command of written and spoken Kiswahili and English, joined Stanley’s search expedition and reached Livingstone at the famous meeting in 1872.

Wainright stayed with Livingstone until his death when he read out the burial service.

He accompanied the explorer’s body to England, his journey and funded by the Church Missionary Society even though he had not known Livingstone for very long.

Wainright was the only Bombay African to attend the funeral in London, and was presented to Queen Victoria in 1874. He received an RGS medal in 1875.

Livingstone found Chuma a place in the Free Church of Scotland Mission School, where in 1865, he was baptised and given the name James.

Having been re-hired, Chuma was with Livingstone for over eight years.

Sir Henry Bartle Frere mentioned James Chuma in his address to the RGS and in his obituary of Livingstone:

“Chuma, the liberated slave boy . . . led from Lobisa to Zanzibar those men who bore their dead master’s body, and to whom we are so much in debted for the safety of the doctor’s journals and writings.”

Returning to Zanzibar, Chuma worked for the Universities Mission to Central Africa.

He later went on a RGS expedition to the Central Lakes.

The RGS awarded Chuma a silver medal and a sword.

He died in 1882. Joseph Thomson wrote: “He... died after a short but stirring life, having in his own special way, done so much to open up Africa to science and communication.”

Chuma spent half of his 32 years on five expeditions.

Eight years of this time was spent with Livingstone and, like Susi, he travelled to London after Livingstone’s funeral.

He was held in high esteem by all the British explorers he worked with and was known for his reliability, resourcefulness and commitment.

In 1881, he was presented with a silver medal by the RGS and a sword.

On his return, Chuma worked for the Universities Mission to Central Africa in Zanzibar.

In 1879-80 he joined Joseph Thomson and Keith Johnston on the RGS expedition to the Central Lakes. He died in 1882 in Zanzibar.

The foremost legacy of the Bombay Africans is their role in the anti-slavery campaign in East Africa.

By 1880 there were over 3,000 Bombay Africans in East Africa, with the largest groups at Freretown and Rabai.

The settlements became refuges for locally enslaved Africans.

Bombay African Rev William Jones played a key role in gaining the freedom of hundreds of Africans by pressuring the authorities further.

In 1887 the first printing press was established in Kenya by James Jones, the son of Rev William Jones. Bombay Africans from Freretown and Rabai were editors for the first English and Kiswahili publications, such as The Coast Express and Mwalimu.

January to May, 2007, the RGS organised a series of workshops.

Ninety two individuals (including children) representing Congo, Kenya, Tanzania, Ghana and Nigeria, and based in London, participated in the sessions.

They included discussion, performance poetry, photography and drama.

The objective was to give the community partners a chance to shape how their histories are conveyed.

The groups reflected on their own individual and national geographies.

“It is a shame that not many people know about this story ... I never heard or knew that Africans lived in India and I would like to follow up the story of those who stayed and what their thinking is ... how much of their culture has remained ...” said Uli of the Tanzanian Womens’ Association.

Many participants identified with migration and displacement.

The Bombay Africans’ stories raised questions about Africans in Asia today and their status in societies in which they now live.

“How do you define yourself? As Indian, African, Goans ... this brings to the surface another point that globalisation started way back. This makes us world citizens,” said Mwatumu of the Tanzanian Womens’ Association.

The impact of the Bombay Africans’ community can be traced to several parts of Africa.

The social and political awareness created by them and the Africans educated by the missions in Kenya, alongside their role in journalism, were factors that led to independence movements throughout East Africa.

Wikitani, a Bombay African, assisted the Free Church of Scotland Mission to set up the Livingstonia Mission of northern Malawi.

The Rev David Kaunda, father of Kenneth Kaunda, the first president of Zambia, studied at the Livingstone Mission School.

Courtesy of Awaaz magazine