In the heart of Nairobi’s bustling Central Business District lies a park favoured by religious preachers as well as office workers looking to spend their lunch break. The Jeevanjee Gardens, a 5-acre oasis of calm, landscaped between 1904 and 1906, was donated to the colonial administration by Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, a Dawoodi Bohra merchant who became one of the biggest success stories in the British Empire. The park is the probably the last relic of the forgotten legacy of a man who emigrated from British India to Kenya at an opportune moment and lived an extraordinary life.
Born in 1856 in Karachi, Jeevanjee did not receive much of a formal education as his father was a tonga driver, and the Bohra community’s leaders at that time did not encourage its members to get a western education. “The Bohra clergy was opposed to the western education and modern sciences restricting the entire community to a narrow intellectual base,” poet and scholar Saifuddin Insaf, who was the face of the Bohra Reform Movement until he passed away in 2018, wrote in an article for the Progressive Dawoodi Bohras website.
Jeevanjee grew up in Karachi but left the city at the age of 20, becoming a travelling peddler. This peripatetic life taught him to think and act independently. “Escaping from the narrow confines of a conservative Bohra society he found a wide world of modern trade opportunities,” Insaf wrote. “He was brave enough to take up the challenges of life.”
Driven by a sense of adventure, Jeevanjee moved to the eastern coast of Australia, where he set up a company to sell products from India. It was there that he became fluent in English. He moved back to Karachi in the late 1880s and started a company that provided services to foreign ships. His sights were, however, set on another continent: Africa.
Success in East Africa
By the late 1880s, the British Imperial East Africa Company occupied a large part of the territory of modern-day Kenya. In 1895, the territory was transferred to the Crown and was called the East Africa Protectorate. With the British controlling Zanzibar as well as Uganda at the time, plans were announced to construct the Uganda Railway – a meter gauge line that would connect the interiors of Uganda with the port of Mombasa on the Indian Ocean.
Jeevanjee set sail for East Africa in 1890, but for years struggled to establish himself in the colony. It was a contract to supply labour for the Uganda Railway in 1895 that transformed his luck. He initially arranged the supply of 350 labourers from Punjab, but within six years, this number went up to almost 32,000. The construction of the railway line and the role of Indian labourers entered popular imagination in the 1990s when the film The Ghost and the Darkness was released.
Over the next two decades, the Bohra entrepreneur would grow in wealth and stature, much to the chagrin of immigrants from Britain. He expanded his business and entered the construction sector, building some of the earliest government offices and railway stations in Kenya. “If you trace the history of the earliest buildings in Nairobi, Jeevanjee is bound to appear somewhere as the contractor, owner, or as an investor,” Zarina Patel, Jeevanjee’s granddaughter and biographer told the Daily Nation, Kenya.
In her 2002 biography of Jeevanjee titled Alibhai Mulla Jeevanjee, Patel wrote that her grandfather was a “pragmatist” who responded well to business challenges. “AMJ used his contacts and his service abilities to the maximum and took well-calculated risks with confidence, favouring business propositions of an original and pioneering character.”
Jeevanjee had a host of businesses such as ice and soda factories, and companies that exported agricultural and industrial products.
In 1902, he launched The African Standard, the first non-European-run newspaper in East Africa. He ran the paper as a weekly for three years, before selling it. The newspaper, now known as The Standard, is a daily and has a circulation of 74,000, with a 48% market share in the country. It is part of a bigger media group that runs newspapers, radio and television stations.
Entry into politics
Despite all his financial success, Jeevanjee suffered racial discrimination at the hands of British immigrants to Kenya. This prejudice even denied him the right to live in areas that his company developed. The colonial authorities expected the entrepreneur to be happy with his financial success and not rebel against their racist policies. They appointed him to represent the interests of Indians in the Legislative Council. “Those who appointed him may have expected that a man of his riches would be conservative and protector of the colonial status quo,” Insaf wrote. “But he was of a different mettle.”
In 1914, Jeevanjee established the East African Indian National Congress with the aim of representing Indian interests across the region. The party fought for equality between Indians and Europeans in Kenya. One of its main demands was to let Indians farm in the central Kenyan highlands, which were named the White Highlands and only allowed European settlement. He condemned the behaviour of what he called “White bullies” who restricted the rights of Indians in East Africa.
The entrepreneur was a keen supporter of the idea to form an Indian colony in the territories that were colonised by Germany and seized by the British during the First World War. The idea, which had the backing of several eminent British politicians, was mooted as a reward for India for assisting the British in the war.
In his book titled The Empire of the Raj India, Eastern Africa and the Middle East, 1858–1947, Robert Blyth said Jeevanjee called for the areas that now comprise of Tanzania to be open to Indian immigration and colonisation. Blyth cites Jeevanjee as saying, “I would go so far as advocate the annexation of this African territory to the Indian Empire. It will be more beneficial to Great Britain if it place under the Indian Government instead of the Colonial Office, with provincial Government under the Viceroy. If this is done, East Africa will become a second India in no time.”
The idea never came to fruition as Indian nationalists who wanted to be free of British colonial rule objected to the idea of another part of the world being colonised by Indians.
To pacify Jeevanjee and other Indians who were upset at being kept out of White Highlands, the British administrators offered an alternative proposal of creating a million-acre agricultural reserve for Indians in southern Kenya in 1925. However, Indian politicians rejected this proposal, calling it immoral.
Jeevanjee played an important role in Kenyan politics for several years. Patel’s biography of her grandfather mentions his political activities in detail. He was a member of the team that negotiated with the British authorities before the latter released the Devonshire Declaration. The declaration stated that the interests of African people should prevail whenever there was a clash of interests between native Africans and settlers from Britain, India and the Arab world.
Jeevanjee’s fortunes began to take a turn for the worse by the 1930s. A combination of fierce competition from European settlers as well as other Indian immigrants and some poor business decisions pushed the man whose net worth was at one time estimated at four million euros in today’s prices to virtual bankruptcy. A vast majority of his fortune was lost because he gambled in produce. The man who built a large business empire by repeatedly taking risks ended up losing it all. He died of a heart attack at the age of 80 in 1936.
Decades later, he has the permanent gratitude of Nairobians who frequent Jeevanjee Gardens. There is an interesting story behind how the entrepreneur managed to ensure that the park would not be encroached upon by an expanding city. He funded a statue of Queen Victoria in the park that was unveiled by her son Prince Arthur, the Duke of Connaught, on his visit to Nairobi in 1906. After the ceremony, Jeevanjee Gardens was considered hallowed space, giving it protection for decades.
Jeevanjee Gardens even survived an attempt by groups with business and political backing to turn it into a car park in 1991. The controversial proposal was dropped after fierce resistance from Jeevanjee’s daughter Shirin Najmudean, his granddaughter Zarina Patel and environmentalists. A similar proposal in 2007 to turn the gardens into a shopping mall and car park did not materialise.
Eighty-five years after his death, preachers, smokers and officegoers in Nairobi pass by Alibhai Jeevanjee’s statue in the gardens every day, most of them unaware of the life of a man who was a key business and political figure in colonial Kenya.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer and independent journalist, based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2021.
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