Located off the western coast of Africa, the Canary Islands has for long been a destination for colonisers, settlers, traders and seafarers on their way from Europe to the Americas. Today this Spanish archipelago of eight main and several smaller islands makes global headlines when African migrants arrive on its shores on small boats. But in the 19th century, the islands were the first link between India and Spain when a small group of traders from Sindh moved there.
“The first Indians settled in the Canary Islands during the second half of the 19th century, many arriving from Mediterranean and coastal African cities,” Ana Lopez-Sala, a Spanish researcher wrote in a 2013 paper titled From Traders to Workers: Indian Immigration in Spain. “The first wave of settlers had a homogenous profile because their international mobility practises were linked to commerce, an activity carried out exclusively by Sindhi men, leading them to expand and settle in free zones and port cities throughout the world.”
Although Sindhi merchants had established themselves in China, Persia, Central Asia and even Russia beginning in the 17th century, it was Sindh’s annexation by the British in 1843 that allowed the community to spread its wings. After the 1857 War of Independence, when India came directly under the British Crown, all residents of Sindh were considered British subjects. Along with this historic shift came privileges that Sindhi traders were only too eager to take advantage of.
“In some foreign countries, being a British subject carried with it extraterritorial privileges, such as the right to trade freely and the right to be tried by British consular courts in cases involving British subjects or by mixed courts in cases involving natives of the country,” French historian Claude Markovits wrote in his book The Global World of Indian Merchants, 1750-1947: Traders of Sind from Bukhara to Panama.
There is some disagreement on when the migration began: Markovits put the year as 1890, and Lopez-Sala cited Spanish geographer Murcia Navarro to say it was in the 1880s. Sindhi names, however, began to show up in census records in Spanish territories outside continental Europe, such as Ceuta, much earlier.
“The community of early settlers numbered just over one hundred people, all male, who made frequent trips to areas near the Mediterranean and Northern Africa where they already had other businesses,” Lopez-Sala wrote. “The male heads of households, and in some cases eldest sons, also returned regularly to India to visit their families, who remained in Sindh, and for religious and social reasons.”
By the early 1900s, Sindhi traders began to take their families to the islands, which were an ideal base for traders who wanted to set up operations in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia as well as places like Gibraltar. “The Sindhis eventually opened their first temples, or other places of worship, where they began to hold regular meetings (satsang) and observe the most important religious festivals,” Juan Carlos Ramchandani wrote in A Handbook of Hinduism in Europe.
The islands witnessed a small wave of migration of Sindhis in the early 20th century. It was around this time that temples and cultural centres were built. Several generations later, the community still celebrates Hindu holidays, with the Ganesha festival being one of the major events for the Sindhis in Tenerife. The island is also home to a temple that was built by Kishu Gopaldas Daswani, a Partition survivor who came as a businessman and later became a spiritual leader for the Sindhis.
Among the most celebrated members of the diaspora is the Chanrai family. The Kewalram Chanrai group, which was founded by two brothers (Jhamatmal and Thakurdas Chanrai) in Sindh in 1860, opened a shop in Malta in the 1870s. This shop was seen as a “stepping stone” to Gibraltar, the Canary Islands and Morocco.
Over a few generations, the company became a major player in the archipelago and was well respected by the Spanish authorities. In 1916, it contributed financially for the electrification of the Triana district in Las Palmas de Gran Canaria, the capital of the Canary Islands. The family paid for the marble that was used in the renovation of the famous San Francisco de Asís church in Tenerife, one of the largest islands of the archipelago. Its businesses expanded to countries across Africa and Asia, and the family continued to give back to society. It was the Chanrais that founded Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital.
Although the Sindhis in the Canary Islands depended on the British for protection, their relationship with the Empire was often fraught with tension. Some Sindhi traders were supporters of the Indian freedom struggle and were linked to the revolutionary Ghadar Movement, an initiative founded by Indian expatriates in many countries to overthrow the British in India.
The British suspected the Chanrai family to have links with the revolutionaries. “In August 1918, the War Office sent the Foreign Office the decoded version of a code telegram sent by the Colon (Panama) office of J.T. Chanrai to the Tenerife branch of the same firm,” Markovits wrote. “The telegram was ostentatiously about the quality and price of Panama hats, but the decoded version read: ‘Advise me when is the time for the Army to march from Persia. Received letter from Sher Singh; Nabha is ready to help. I still have 4,000 left. Have received offers to blow up the English Legation; considering how to get dynamite. Cannot get dynamite…,’ suggesting that these Sindhi merchants were engaged in a deep conspiracy with international ramifications.” This turned out to be a hoax, but British intelligence nevertheless stayed deeply distrustful of the Sindhi community over the next few decades.
Spanish Civil War
The community could not depend on British help when the Spanish Civil War (1936-’39) broke out. “In 1936 there were 200 Sindwork merchants in Spanish Morocco and 100 in the Canary Islands,” Markovits wrote. “Many Sindwork firms, including four of the big seven (Pohoomull Bros, D. Chellaram, J.T. Chanrai and M. Dialdas) had branches which were doing good business in these territories.” When the war began, these and other merchants appealed to the government of India for protection for British Indian interests. Not much help came forth, at least for the residents of the Canary Islands.
The Spanish authorities did not allow foreign merchants to leave the country during the war. They banned the withdrawal of money and merchandise, leading to immense hardships for the Sindhi community. While those in Spanish Morocco were eventually allowed to leave and move their merchandise to Gibraltar, similar arrangements could not be arranged on the archipelago.
Many managed to send their families back to India during the war. They were able to pick up the pieces only after the Nationalists won and established the Francoist dictatorship. Eight years later, when the Indian subcontinent was divided and Sindh became a part of Pakistan, some families chose to migrate to the Canary Islands via Bombay.
New migration wave
Stories of success of Sindhi merchants on the archipelago spread far and wide, leading to another wave of migrants in the 1960s and 1970s when the islands witnessed a tourism boom.
“During this period the origins of new arrivals diversified,” Lopez-Sala wrote. ”Sindhi merchants and workers arrived in Spain, not only from India, but also from other countries where the trade diaspora had settled, including Hong Kong, Vietnam, Philippines, Curacao or Ghana.” The community branched out and started operating businesses in continental Spain as well as places like Ceuta and Melilla.
Almost 70,000 Indians or people of Indian origin now live in Spain, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs. Many of the newer arrivals are from places like Punjab and Haryana. The Sindhi community, which forms a part of the elite, is often touted as a model migrant group that settled in Spain and became a part of the society and created many jobs.
Ajay Kamalakaran is a writer, primarily based in Mumbai. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for History & Heritage Writings for 2022.