Annual EBHS Conference, 39th Annual Economic and Business History Society Conference

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Business History from Marketplace Rumor: Contemporary accounts of the rise and fall of Allidina Visram’s East African retail empire, 1893-1914
Laird Jones

Last modified: 2014-03-10

Abstract


            In both published histories and popular reminiscences, Allidina Visram remains the most storied entrepreneur of the early colonial era.  Arriving in East Africa as an impoverished immigrant, Visram rose through the ranks of Sewa Haji’s Bagamoyo caravan organization, eventually becoming its leader.  He is remembered thereafter for placing that firm on the cutting edge of turn-of-the-century commerce – reorganizing its operations to take full advantage of railway construction, pressing ahead into wholesale buying of new cash crops, and of course, establishing amongst the first, and certainly the largest network of retail shops in the interior.  His character was legendary: frugal, hardworking, shrewd and generous.  In the popular imagination all these traits explained Allidina Visram’s spectacular success, and interestingly, by contrast, the lack of such strength of character in his son and successor Abdulrasul, is often cited as the cause of the firm’s steady decline after his father’s death in 1916.

            Surprisingly, there have been few scholarly efforts either to validate or challenge the popular Allidina Visram narrative.  Ironically, despite Visram’s fame, his firm left very little direct evidence.  Personal or company papers have yet to surface.  Court records are sparse.  Newspapers from the period, like government reports, provide little detail.  And oral testimony comes largely from families rather distantly connected to the firm – there are no insider accounts.

            This paper shall reassess Allidina Visram’s enterprise from some as yet untapped, but problematic source material – the papers of a rival firm, the Hamburg-Zanzibar trading house of William O’Swald & Company.  It had been O’Swald’s intention to make Visram their client, wholesaling him imported trade goods and acquiring his cash crops in turn for export to world markets.  Visram, however, resisted, repeatedly attempting to break into the ranks of the major metropolitan firms by diversifying into plantation agriculture, commodity processing, transportation and shipping, and commercial real estate.  Thus, O’Swald both feared Visram’s competition, while at the same time seeking his business.  Therefore, O’Swald employees assiduously collected information on Visram’s firm – invoices, customs records, court notices, and above all marketplace rumors – and included them in reports to Hamburg.  Admittedly, many items are hearsay.  However, the body of evidence is remarkably consistent, and does reveal some very interesting patterns.

            In particular, the information gathered by O’Swald & Co. indicates that while Allidina Visram was a considerable innovator, his firm nonetheless retained many elements of earlier caravan era business practice.  More importantly, the firm suffered from recurrent difficulty in personnel oversight, cash flow and inventory control.  Visram’s expansive retail strategy, while initially quite profitable, increasingly grew less so, and his efforts to diversify into plantation agriculture, transportation, processing and real estate eventually faltered. Thus, while the broader business community assumed the firm to be solid, it quietly suffered through several crises, and was already in very serious difficulty for several years before Abdulrasul took charge.