A British Merchant Partnership in East Africa: Smith, Mackenzie & Co., 1877–1939

  • Stephanie Jones
Part of the Studies in Business History book series


Until the expeditions of Livingstone, Burton and Speke in the late 1850s, Zanzibar and the mainland of East Africa were virtually unknown to the inhabitants of early Victorian Britain. The religious and humanitarian zeal of these early explorers was accompanied by an interest in the possible economic potential of this land. Reports on their discoveries were eagerly awaited by the public and government back at home. It was against this background that the British Postmaster General opened discussions in 1871, which led, in 1872, to the BI’s contract for a service ‘to convey mails between Aden and Zanzibar once (each way) every four weeks’.1 This linked the East African coast to the growing network of BI services, which already included the Indian coasting trade and the Persian Gulf. A new merchant partnership was formed to manage this service and represent British commercial interests in Zanzibar and on the East African coast: Smith, Mackenzie & Co. Yet why was the British Government, notoriously cautious and hesitant in the question of making financial commitments overseas, prepared to grant a mail subsidy to aid the opening-up of an area which was out of the mainstream of European shipping traffic? Why was Sir William Mackinnon so keen to take up the challenge of providing this service? What was the impact of the BI steamers and the activities of their agents?


East India Company East African Coast Piece Good Local Merchant African Mission 
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  1. 2.
    The early history of Zanzibar and its hinterland is discussed in S. G. Ayany, A History of Zanzibar (1970); N. R. Bennett, A History of the Arab State of Zanzibar (London, 1978); R. Coupland, The Exploitation of East Africa, 1856–1890 (London, 1939); H. B. Frere, ‘Zanzibar, A Commercial Power’; Macmillan’ s Magazine, 32 (1875); W. H. Ingrams, Zanzibar: Its History and Peoples (London, 1931); J. Kirk, ‘Agricultural Resources of Zanzibar’, Kew Bulletin (1892) and F. B. Pearce, Zanzibar: The Island Metropolis of Eastern Africa (London, 1920). J. S. Galbraith, Mackinnon and East Africa, 1878–1892: A Study in the ‘New Imperialism’ (Cambridge, 1972) and J. Forbes Munro, Africa and the International Economy, 1800–1960 (London, 1976) have proved especially useful in providing background material for this chapter. The lack of business history studies of this region is discussed by A. G. Hopkins in his article ‘Imperial Business in Africa Part I: Sources’, and ‘Part II: Interpretations’, Journal of African History, XVII, 1 (1976) pp. 29–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. 3.
    Further Correspondence Relating to the Zanzibar Mail Contracts, PP, 1873 XXXIX (241). See R. J. Gavin, ‘The Frere Mission to Zanzibar, 1873,’ Historical Journal 5 (1962) pp. 122–48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Inchcape PLC 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephanie Jones
    • 1
  1. 1.Inchcape PLCLondonUK

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