In the Wake of Colonialism

Norwegian Wood

Norway East Africa Trading Company

Anne K. Bang

On March 3 1894, a gentleman by the name of Jens Jørgen Bull Andersen stepped ashore to the British-Bu Saidi (Omani) protectorate of Zanzibar in East Africa. Andersen, funded by the Norwegian Ministry of Trade, was seeking export grounds for Norwegian goods in the newly-founded British possessions in East Africa. Shortly thereafter, he advised Saugbrugsforeningen (a timber/wood producer) in Halden (South East Norway) to dispatch a shipment of assorted wood and timber for sale in Zanzibar. This was the beginning of a trading adventure which was to last into the 1920s.

The order to Saugbrugsforeningen was handled by Wilhelm Klein, who in turn chartered the ship “Lärkan”, commanded by Captain Oscar Christian Olsen, for shipment to Zanzibar. Klein and Olsen personally shouldered the capital for this initial attempt. This was to be the pattern for the later export company of NEAT – Olsen and Klein investing one half each in the cargo. In a later letter, Olsen remembers the first voyage to Zanzibar:

“The cargo was contracted on October 20 th 1894, and the next morning we went to sea with a heavy load. Part of the cargo was food and necessities, as we had a long voyage ahead and few opportunities for re-supplying”.

After a tiresome journey, the entire shipload was sold directly to the Indian-Zanzibari trader Muhammad Juma. So profitable was the deal, writes Olsen, that “…given that a black man can only carry 2000 silver Rupees on his head, we had to commission a small army to carry our profit to the bank where we were issued a cheque of Pound Sterling…”

Andersen left Zanzibar in 1895 when he joined the British service in Kenya. Before departure, he commissioned a “ready-made” house from Norway, a chalet that was built on the Chwaka beach on the east coast of Zanzibar Island. For the next 60 years, this building served as retreat villa for colonial officers in need of a change of air from the malaria-infested Zanzibar Town.

The departure of Andersen meant that it was Olsen who was destined to lead NEAT to success. In the period 1895 to 1918, he lived permanently in Zanzibar Town, returning home for leave every third year. In close co-operation with Klein, he expanded the export to include also nails and metal material from Christiania Spigerverk, boats of all sizes, ovens from Haldens Jernverk, as well as other goods such as (butter?) margarine (quite unsuccessful in the tropical climate of Zanzibar), sailcloth, and ropes. In addition, Olsen ran his own private import business to Zanzibar, dealing in tropical hardwood from India and Burma.

In order to secure the interests of NEAT, it was vital for Olsen to maintain a close, personal contact with the British colonial authorities as well as the circle of leaders surrounding the Bu Saidi (Omani) Sultan. The 25 (22?) years of correspondence between Olsen and Klein – and later between Olsen and his wife Maiken – show his continuous emphasis on the importance of good relation with the powers-that-be. In his letters, he describes social events, ritual barazas at the Sultanic court, and frivolous parties in the British gardens as well as real friendships over the years.

Stable conditions were all the more important as Olsen soon ran his business along the coast, including Lamu, Mombasa and Dar-es-Salaam. He travelled frequently, amongst other places to Uganda and India – all thoroughly described in his correspondence.

Project Aims
Olsen ran NEAT in Zanzibar for 23 (22?) years. He was an agent, and thereby dependent on the relationship both with the suppliers at home and his potential buyers in East Africa. He was, in other words, in the classic position of the middle man. In addition, he operated – in several port cities along the coast – a network of “sub-agents” (Indian, Arab, British and German) who handled the actual sale. In other words: Olsen was part of a network of social and economic relations where profit was contingent on ties being maintained in several directions.

This project takes as it starting point a theoretical framework focusing on the agent in a network and on the various ties which at all times may be subject to maintenance/breaking, expansion/reduction, as well as the economic, cultural and social factor on which the entire network is contingent.

The project will provide an analysis of an agent-based trade network in colonial Africa as it can be represented through a very extensive source material, thus demonstrating the connection between network building and economic success. Central themes are:

1. Home and away: Norwegian export to Africa by agent
How, and to what extent was contact with suppliers in Norway maintained? Initial studies has shown that Olsen and his main contact in Saugbrugsforeningen – Wilhelm Klein – were linked through common background besides their joint enterprise in Zanzibar. Their long-standing correspondence averages two personal letters a month, which suggests a strong and lasting contact whereby Klein functioned as the “buyer” and contractor of ships, while Olsen took care of sale and re-distribution.

2. The Colony as a market and regulating mechanism
To what extent were relations to the colonial authorities critical for the success of a trading company? Although Zanzibar was declared a free port in 1892, custom duties were raised gradually. At the same time, other ports along the coast were placed under British control (Kenya first, then Tanganyika after WWI). Studies of the British colonial administration and especially of CAS (The Colonial Administrative Service) have shown that the colonial administration functioned as a tight network of men recruited from a cluster of schools in the UK.

The correspondence of O. Chr. Olsen as well as that in the Saugbrugsforeningen Archives shows that the NEAT representatives were highly aware of this and sought to maintain continuous contact with the British. Social and formal occasions were frequently used to further the NEAT case. This was made very clear during WWI, when ships bound for German East Africa (Tanganyika) were prohibited from docking at Zanzibar. Although this constituted an obstacle to NEATs activities, friendly relations to the British were very much emphasized.

3. The colonial context: East African trading networks and the arrival of the agent
To what extent did NEAT make use of the colonial context as a trading network? In East Africa, the colonial context was a well-established trading community consisting of Arab, Swahili and Indian trading families. The population of the Swahili coast possessed a long history as “middle men”, as well as a social order based on Islam and on what Horton and Middleton has called “the local and familial organizations of merchants, their interpersonal ties with trading partners, both within Africa and overseas.”

The NEAT correspondence shows that Indian and Arab sub-agents made up a substantial part of the sale – especially in Zanzibar Town where such firms were well-established. Olsen put much effort into perfecting his Swahili, a language which according to him was ”essential for trade in these regions.” Furthermore, the correspondence also reveals the importance of good relations with the Omani sultanate - the main land-owner in the protectorate.