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The Swahili community and maritime London

Sailors of the monsoons
City States of East Africa
Swahilis in the port of London
Carrying the Union flag
A Swahili translation of the full story
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Carrying the Union flag

HMS Wild Swan.
View full size imageHMS Wild Swan. © NMM

Swahilis in the Royal Navy

The Royal Navy was employing East Africans as early as 1863. By 1881 there were a number of Swahili-speaking East Africans employed in the Royal Navy and accepted as naturalized British subjects.

HMS 'Seagull'.
View full size imageHMS Seagull. © NMM
There is firm evidence of East Africans aboard the Seagull, Dryad, Woodlark, Wild Swan and the Iris. Some of these men were  Arabs or Swahili from Zanzibar who were employed mainly as translators by the Royal Navy during the anti-slavery campaign in East Africa. 


Mozambique with Fort St Sebastian.
View full size imageFort Sebastian on Mozambique Island. © NMM
Many East African men and boys in the Royal Navy were ex-slaves liberated from French, Portuguese or Zanzibari vessels bound for the island of Reunion or Arabia. Some of these men were captured far inland in the Great Lakes area of Africa, around Uganda, Eastern Tanzania, Malawi and Zambia.

Many slaves learnt to speak Swahili while being marched in the Arab and Swahili caravans to the coast, or at the slave markets of Bagamoyo, Zanzibar, Kilwa, Ibo Island or Mozambique Island.

Depot for boats of HMS London at Funzi, Pemba
View full size imageDepot for boats of HMS London at Funzi, Pemba. © NMM
After their rescue some previously enslaved East Africans were taken by the Royal Navy to the settlement of Nasik (near Bombay) in India. Here they were converted to Christianity and often taught to read and write.

Some of the men were then recruited by the Royal Navy as “Seedies” and given names such as Happy Jack, Jack Rapid, Soda Water, Jack Seabreeze and Johns. The community of slaves that remained in India are today called Sidis.

East Africans in London

The Swahili carrying the Union Flag.
View full size imageThe Swahili carrying the Union flag. © NMM
In the latter half of the 19th century, after the opening of the Suez Canal and the gradual replacement of sail power by steam, East African seamen began to arrive in London in greater numbers, often in merchant vessels.

If these men were stranded in London they would seek the 'Home for the Asiatic, African, South Sea Islanders and Others' established in 1857 at West India Dock. Here the East Africans would have been surprised that Joseph Salter of the London City Mission actually spoke Swahili.

In 1873 Salter compiled an annual report on non-Europeans in London. He estimated that there were 3,773 people of non-European origin in London, of which 1200 were East Africans.  

London's East African community

SS Indus, P&O passenger liner, 20 July 1882
View full size imageSS Indus, P&O passenger liner, 20 July 1882. © NMM
We know little about the East African community in London in the late 19th century. However, we do know that some East Africans lived and worked in the city.

Two ex-slaves from East Africa lived in the West End. Pipoo Buckle was the butler of Rear Admiral Richard Mayze in Kensington, and Robert Sprat was a footman at Hanover Square. Ali Said from Zanzibar lived at Harrow.

There were many East African seamen in the port of London, particularly at East Ham, where they appear in the 1881 census on board the SS Indus, SS Pelhim and SS Ellora. Most of these men were employed as firemen, water carriers and coal trimmers.

Juma's story

Pinnace for chasing slaves, probably attached to HMS London.
View full size imagePinnace for chasing slavers, probably attached to HMS London. © NMM

Often the only documented stories about ordinary Africans in Britain during the 19th century tend to be the unfortunate ones. One particular case involving a Swahili seaman was reported by the London City Mission in 1881.

Although recorded as Juman, his name was probably Juma. This man was an ex-slave who had been sold at the slave market in Zanzibar and shipped by Arab dhow across the Indian Ocean to Arabia. The dhow was intercepted by a British cruiser and Juma was rescued and taken to Bombay.

Juma was employed by a merchant navy vessel and brought to London. While on shore leave in East London with three other East African companions, Juma was involved in a brawl with some locals during which he was accused of stabbing an Englishman in the arm.

Juma was caught by the police and sent to trial at Chelmsford. Since no weapon was found at the crime scene, Juma was found guilty of common assault and acquitted. He was sent back to Bombay on the Brindisi


Mosque and Islamic Centre, Greenwich
View full size imageMosque and Islamic Centre, Greenwich. © NMM
Swahili seamen continued to arrive in London on merchant vessels such as the Java, which was at the Royal Albert Docks in 1901. There is at present a Swahili community in East London at East Ham, and a smaller community south of the river in Bexley and Greenwich.

Both communities come from the island of Zanzibar and arrived in London as a result of the 1964 revolution in Zanzibar that ended the rule of the sultans.

These Zanzibari communities have links with those in Portsmouth, Paris and Oman. More recently other East Africans have arrived as refugees from Uganda and Rwanda. Many of these people, as well as some East African Asians and some Somalis, also speak Swahili.

View full size imageSabaha.

View full size imageZulaika.






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