Pioneer Women of East Africa

Women are relegated to the periphery of the Goan migration narrative. Like most migrations, it was young men who ventured forth and returned home to seek a wife once they had made their way, if not fortune. Once married, they returned to Africa alone, leaving behind newly-wed brides. Their numbers might have been few, but those women bold enough to accompany men to Africa did play a significant role in nurturing the community.

The declining fortunes of Portugal and the stagnant Goan economy, made an East African Goan groom a prized catch even amongst the landed gentry. So keen was the demand that girls were often affianced to men they had never met. If they were lucky they might have seen a faded photograph or encountered a close relative on whose character reference the alliance would be secured.

Yet these arrangements were not loveless marriages. They were sustained by a deep Catholic faith in the benevolence of God. A sense of duty and family honour called for lifelong monogamy and ensured every effort was made to make the relationship work. And then, there were children to bind even the most incompatible marriage. Beyond honour and obligation, these were men and women, mostly sexually inexperienced, who delighted in each other in an otherwise isolating world. The women, particularly, felt a genuine joy in being liberated from hemmed-in Goan villages. Here, they endured deprivations but thrived. 

As with most early twentieth century marital relations, Goan wives were subordinated to their husbands. The marriage, in many ways, was a transfer of custodial responsibility from father to husband. The girls would at best have had a few years of learning at a chapel school which would hardly have prepared them for an emancipated life. Women were expected to rear children, teach them catechism and tend to household chores with the assistance of a ‘houseboy’ or cook. For the most part their lack of language proficiency in English or Swahili confined them to the house, but they did accompany their husbands to remote districts into the interior and showed great capacity for independent thought and action, as in the case of Ezalda Clara Albuquerque.

Ezalda and her husband Caetano Jose Dias, fifteen years her senior, operated a timber mill in Eldama Ravine, some 400 miles into the interior from Mombasa. She came from a prominent Candolim family; one of her sisters was a doctor. In Eldama, Ezalda learnt to drive a tractor and ride a horse. She helped out with the wood logging and being a crack-shot, enjoyed hunting small game with her double-barrel shotgun. She was also a book-lover, a passion she shared with her second husband Peter Zuzarte who had previously fathered (with a Masai woman) the child, Joseph Murumbi, later to become independent Kenya’s second vice-president. Ezalda married Peter after Dias died in 1928.

The custom of young girls being married off to financially stable but much older husbands, meant that often, they outlived their partners. There are several instances of women in East Africa who upon their husband’s death were declared administratrices of their estates. This was, no doubt, purely a legal matter; the estate was managed by an appointed lawyer or male relative. But some women did assume responsibility for the estates they inherited. Widowhood, in a very real sense, brought them financial independence.

An early example of female entrepreneurship comes from Maria Blandina Saldanha de Souza. Upon her husband Michael Rosario de Souza’s death in March 1906, undaunted, she declared her intent to ‘carry on the business’.

Souza died aged just forty-four and was deeply mourned by the residents of Mombasa. For years, he had been the darling of the upper-crust colonials, who had from ‘the very earliest days looked to the wants of the first European residents in this country’. He had a reference letter from Commissioner Sir Charles Eliot to prove his credentials. Souza had done exceedingly well for himself. By 1900, he had a house on Hardinge Street neighbouring land owned by the wealthy merchant Dewji Jamal. Employing about 35 staff, the retail business expanded into Nairobi and Nakuru, and in later years, Souza spent much of his time in Nairobi, his final resting place.

Souza had died intestate; Maria, by virtue of the Portuguese civil code, inherited his estate. The business had previously survived Souza’s absence. He had spent most of 1903 in Goa. Maria’s involvement in the business may have been that of a figure-head while male relatives oversaw operations. Nonetheless, she continued as matriarch of the business, lending her name to financial dealings and court proceedings. When she retired in the mid-1920s, she executed three powers of attorney favouring Victor Saldanha, Justiniano Pereira and a joint third between Mario Pinto and her son Thomas Sebastiao Emar de Souza. This arrangement lasted until Emar consolidated his hold over the family business in the 1930s. Maria may not have enjoyed full autonomy but another equally resilient woman, Cecilia Augusta Martins, did.

Cecilia had married Albino Daniel Dias after the death of his first wife. Albino, the owner of Edward St. Rose & Co, perhaps the best known chemist in Mombasa at the time, selling patented medicines ‘always fresh and of the best makers’. He had started his career in Zanzibar in 1895 as a dispenser assisting an English doctor. In 1897, he moved to Mombasa and with E. N. de Souza as partner founded Edward St. Rose & Co on Kilindini Road, by combining the names of their two respective sons. Two years later, Souza withdrew from the venture continuing his own business and Albino moved the pharmacy to Mombasa’s main street of Ndia Kuu. By then, it was established enough for the proprietor to be known as ‘St. Rose’ although this was never his surname. It was however conveniently European sounding, a little trick more than one Goan business adopted. The Mombasa branch was under the ‘personal control’ of ‘St. Rose’ whilst the later established Nairobi branch was conducted by L. M. Coelho, a ‘practical chemist from Bombay’.

When Cecilia’s husband died on 19 January, 1917, she inherited the business. By the following year, the death of another family member, Melinda Dias, compelled her to assume responsibility for Melinda’s estate as well. Widowed at thirty-six, Cecilia eventually became a competent businesswoman owning property on Kilindini and Ganjoni road. She scaled down the pharmacy business but kept it afloat until her sons could take over.