The Swahili community and maritime London
|Carrying the Union flag|
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.
|Fort Sebastian on Mozambique Island. © NMM|
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. © NMM|
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.
|The Swahili carrying the Union flag. © NMM|
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.
|SS Indus, P&O passenger liner, 20 July 1882. © NMM|
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.
|Pinnace 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. © NMM|
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.
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