The main object of this article is to falsify the common historical portrait of South Asians in Zanzibar and East Africa. Most studies, a-priori, assume the outstanding business success of the Asian minority in East Africa. In explaining this success, they emphasize common explanations and theories for their economic success, like hard work, having a superior business mind, using their ethnic resources for capital accumulation and knowledge of (international) markets. In this article I attempt to explain the success of South Asians in Zanzibar, East Africa, from a historical point of view. My main argument is that South Asians started with a far more favorable socio-economic position as compared to their African counterparts. They were more than Swahilis, accustomed with a money economy and the concept of interest. In addition, they knew how to read, write and produce account books. Finally, they had access to the rulers, and were able to negotiate profitable terms of trade. Nevertheless, many were not successful at all and went bankrupt. Therefore, the success of South Asians in East Africa may be explained as the outcome of a 'trial and error' process. The successful remained in East Africa, whereas others left. India remained a safety net for those who did not make out as well as a source for new recruitment of traders, shopkeepers and clerks.
Asian businessmen in East Africa supplied goods, services and capital to African, Arabic, Asian as well as European customers. Within this complex cultural environment, they had to choose what to wear on any given occasion. Expressing dignity, wealth, trust and reliability are key variables in making cross-cultural business contacts and when it comes to building an appropriate image. When they arrived in East Africa between 1880 and 1920, Hindus and Muslims alike wore their own traditional attire. When they left Africa - around 1970 - they wore a typical European business suit. European clothes are an indicator of their “progressive” ideas, but must also be seen as a critique of their own culture.