Modernizing Malindi: State Capitalism and Fishing on the Coast of East Africa

Thursday, January 4, 2018: 1:50 PM
Executive Room (Omni Shoreham)
Devin Smart, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
This paper will explore how the colonial and then post-colonial Kenyan state drew on globally-circulating ideas about “modern” fisheries bureaucracy in order to rework the social and economic relationships that structured East African coastal fishing. In Malindi, an old patrician town on the Kenyan coast, the mid twentieth-century fisheries operated through a paternalist political economy in which a small group of elite patrons controlled the supply through debt relations with small-scale fishers. Referred to as the tajiri system, these merchants drew in dependent fishers by financing their boats and fishing supplies, which in turn granted them access to their catches. The debts of these small-scale fishers were rarely paid off in full, but that was the point. Patrons wanted the dependents for the prestige they granted in coastal Swahili society, as well as the steady cash income they derived as the wholesale suppliers of marine fish in East Africa. The British were little concerned about the exploitative features of these relationships, but they did see them as inefficient. However, the British also saw the tajiri system through imperial eyes, and analogized it to similar debt-based paternalisms that had structured the Hong Kong fisheries before imperial authorities had “modernized” them during the 1940s. This presentation, then, will examine how British officials during the late 1950s and early 1960s drew on this imperial knowledge generated in East Asia to replace the Swahili coast’s personalist patron-client debt relations with state-controlled loans, licenses and marketing facilities, a project that was continued by the post-colonial state after 1963. This paper contributes to and combines the historiographies on the history of capitalism and the environment, showing how a paternalist, patron-client political economy in coastal East Africa was restructured along capitalist lines through the implementation of an imperial, modularized fisheries bureaucracy.