Passage to Kenya: Imperial Exploitations

John Lawrence Nazareth was educated at the University of Cambridge (Trinity College) and the University of California at Berkeley. He is a mathematical and algorithmic scientist, and university professor. He makes his home on Bainbridge Island near Seattle Washington.

A Passage to Kenya (2017) can be purchased here. Brown Man, Black Country(Goa, 1556; 2015) on Kindle can be purchase here.


By Selma Carvalho

Early 2017, saw the welcome release of A Passage to Kenya by John Lawrence Nazareth which straddles between memoir and what the author calls ‘historical collage’. Of the first, it is a fine example. Even though biography and memoir are underutilised writing genres in the Goan literary sphere, the few that are written are closer to eulogies extolling the virtues of their chosen subject or given to wilful misrepresentations even allowing for the unreliability of memory. In this, Nazareth is a disciplined, well-mannered memorialist stating what he knows and reinforcing it with additional reading.

 The metal box Africans were required to wear around their necks under the system of kipande.

The metal box Africans were required to wear around their necks under the system of kipande.

Of the latter, as a chronicler, he does a more than adequate job of highlighting British imperial exploitation of Africans in Kenya. His account of poll taxes levied on Africans which left them destitute, the constant usurpation of their land by white settlers and the harrowing kipande system which required of them to wear a ‘heavy metal box’ around their necks by way of identification rendering them bonded labour make for uncomfortable reading of a history which must be told repeatedly lest we forget. But the exploitation in East Africa was manifold and by widening his sources, it would have been prudent for Nazareth to investigate the parallel Asian exploitation that took place under the umbrella of protection which Empire provided.

The historical narrative gathers pace fairly quickly with a recounting of Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke’s explorations of the African interior to find the source of the Nile. It might have been pertinent to add that Burton who was conflicted in his attitude towards Africans and Asians, had, nonetheless, taken the precaution of hiring suitable cultural intermediaries namely Sidi Mubarak Bombay (an Indian of African descent) and the two Goans Valentino Rodrigues and Caetano Andrade, who were crucial to the success of the expedition and stayed with him till the end.

In a chapter entitled ‘Explorers and Exploiters’, Nazareth uses Charles Hobley extensively as a source to investigate the exploitation. Hobley is a personality of some interest from the Goan point of view and a brief introduction of him is valid. Better known as Hobley-Bobley to his friends, he started out as a geologist with the Imperial British East Africa Company in 1890, and by 1906 was sub-commissioner of the Ukamba province. It was during his time with the IBEAC he became acquainted with Goans and later as sub-commissioner was afforded the honour of inaugurating the Nairobi Goan Institute in December, 1906.

 Joaquim Antonio Nazareth, grandfather of the author, and his brother Raphael Agostinho were early pioneers who by 1908 had built a substantial retail business in Nairobi operating as Nazareth Bros.

Joaquim Antonio Nazareth, grandfather of the author, and his brother Raphael Agostinho were early pioneers who by 1908 had built a substantial retail business in Nairobi operating as Nazareth Bros.

Nazareth gives a compelling description of human porterage, the practice of transporting supplies and raw material from and to the interior using human caravans which was nothing short of slavery. Quoting Boyes: ‘For each ten carriers there is an askari, or soldier, who is armed with a rifle, and whose duty is to keep guard at night and protect the caravan on the road. The askaris also act as police and keep order generally, and bring in any deserters.’ But Nazareth misses a good opportunity here to investigate the Asian role in this business of which the human cost was horrific. We know that Goans supplied indigenous porters to European led caravans and there is cursory evidence that they might have led such caravans themselves or at any rate offered armed protection. Later, Goan and Asian small businesses were pivotal along the caravan routes enabling caravan leaders to restock. Asian capital oiled the imperial enterprise.

Nazareth’s sympathies with the Asians of Kenya noting: ‘it is impossible to overstate, the damage done to the African and immigrant Indian psyche by the colour bar, the underlying rationale for the colonial system’, needs examination. Indians upheld the idea of empire and racial superiority. Their early political organisation under the leadership of A. M. Jeevanjee in 1910, was to protest land usurpation by white settlers but it was hardly in solidarity with Africans. Indeed, much like any imperial contract it was only to decide how best to carve out Kenya, a battle Indians would lose. Following World War I, they flirted briefly with the idea that Tanganyika could be an Indian settler colony. This notion of Asian racial superiority never subsided and it manifested most malignantly in the work place to ensure African grades were at the bottom tier. Any suggestion that Africans could be on par with Asian clerks in the civil service was met with vociferous letters of protest. Perhaps, it wasn’t so much a history of purposeful collusion but it certainly was one of imperial symbiosis between the Indian and Briton. Towards the end, Nazareth concedes to the lack of intersectionality between African and Asian political movements and how ‘natural animosity between Indians and Africans arising from economic disparity and mutual colour prejudice’ allowed the colonists to exploit the situation.

But the book is notable and important primarily because it provides a much need perspective on the life and times of John Maximian Nazareth better known as Mackie and father of the author. (To avoid confusion he is referred to as Mackie here). Although Pio Gama Pinto and Joseph Murumbi are celebrated in Kenya, and Dr A. C. L de Souza is honoured by the Goan community, J. M. Nazareth has receded somewhat from public memory. This is an injustice for Nazareth was prominent in his own right, both as a nationalist and civil rights activist. He had a career in public service and as an activist dating further back than Gama Pinto and is perhaps eclipsed by Pinto only because Nazareth resisted militancy of any sort preferring instead to counter through jurisprudence, in which undoubtedly he had great faith. His trajectory of influence would lead him to be president of the East African Indian National Congress, president of the Kenya Law Society, Queen’s Counsel and then a member of the Legislative Council of Kenya.

Born in Nairobi in 1908, he did much of his schooling in Bombay and graduated from St. Xavier’s. The Nazareth empire Mackie’s father and uncle had built as Nazareth Bros. in early Nairobi had crumbled post-World War I, and left the family bankrupt. The austerity and constant anxiety in Mackie’s early life, subsisting on a boarders’ diet of boiled eggs and the largesse of relatives and Jesuit priests, did not impede on his brilliant scholastic career. He graduated with a first class first, and a gold medal from Xavier’s. From then on, he was bankrolled by Thomas Emar de Souza in Kenya, the son of M. R. de Souza, one of the foremost Goan pioneers of Mombasa, who tragically died young but left a thriving business which was managed by his widow Maria. By the time Mackie returned to Kenya as a fully qualified barrister from England, he was in debt to the tune of Shs 30,000.

Unfortunately, we see Mackie mostly through his own writings in Brown Man Black Country (Tidings Publications; 1981). Nazareth could have greatly enriched the narrative by showing us Mackie the parent and the man outside of his life as a lawyer and activist. Nazareth also glosses over Mackie’s conflicted relationship with Dr A. C. L de Souza consigning barely a line to it in which Mackie acknowledges Souza as the man responsible for introducing him to politics. But Mackie and Souza were to lead parallel lives and represented two divergent factions of Goan Nairobi society who through the proxy of newspaper columns engaged in vitriolic exchanges causing ruptures within that close-knit community.  

These lapses in the book are redeemed by introducing the reader to the author’s mother and Mackie’s wife Maria Monica Isobel, who by all accounts is a remarkable woman deeply committed to Mackie. The match was arranged through intermediaries and Isobel who had graduated with an Arts degree and followed it with a degree in Law in Bombay, then uprooted her life and made a fresh start of it in Kenya. We also get beautiful descriptions of the young family’s early home on Forest Road, Nairobi, which they shared with Mackie’s siblings Maisie and Simon. In a minor aside, it might be interesting to know if this Maisie Nazareth is the same woman who first started a fledging Goan school in Nairobi in the 1920s. If so, her life would be of interest to future researchers. Again, the reader yearns for more details of the family. But perhaps all that lies ahead in another book planned by Nazareth and tentatively entitled ‘Up and About in Nairobi and Bombay’. Nazareth is an immensely readable writer and his book should be of interest to all those curious about colonial Africa, Goan history and in particular the role his father J. M. Nazareth played in Kenya.