From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Gujaratis/Rasesh Thakkar
Gujarat’s proximity to the Arabian Sea has been responsible for the ceaseless mercantile and maritime activities of its people. Through the ports of Gujarat, some of which date back to the dawn of history, trade and commerce flourished, and colonizers left for distant lands. These activities led to the rise of a well-to-do middle class in which the acquisition of wealth became an important goal in life and its display a virtue. During the British colonial period in India, Gujarati mercantile and trade activities continued and flourished. In particular, a strong migratory link came to be forged with East Africa, with which active trade relationships had existed for centuries.
At the end of the nineteenth century, many South Asians, largely Punjabis, were imported by British and German colonial powers to work as indentured labourers in the construction of East African railways. As towns sprang up behind the advancing railheads, creating opportunities for trade and settlement, Gujaratis also began to migrate to East Africa, where they established themselves, largely in business, in a middle position between the white Europeans and black Africans. Initially they concentrated on retail and wholesale trade and the import and export business, but over the years they moved into many other sectors of the economy: clerical services, banking and money lending, property rental, construction, primary-products processing, manufacturing, and a variety of professions such as law, medicine, accounting, and teaching.
Within a couple of generations, many Gujaratis became wealthy, even extremely rich. They lived by their caste and kinship ties, spoke Gujarati at home and in business, set up Gujarati schools, and practised their religions. Outwardly, they were more open to influences from European life than their relatives in India, and they often went to England for higher education. In their personal lives however, they lived in closely knit groups, not only as Gujaratis or Hindus and Jains, but also in smaller caste units such as Patels, Lohanas, and Visha Oshwals – all within the larger framework of fragmented, non-intersecting groups of Africans, Arabs, Asians, and Europeans that was characteristic of East Africa. The complex socialization that took place in East Africa at the first stage of the Gujaratis’ immigrant experience created a set of skills and values and a world-view that would give them an operating principle for the second stage of their immigration, to Canada.
The end of British rule in East Africa in the decades after World War II let loose forces that rudely disrupted the comfortable existence of Gujaratis and all other South Asians who had settled there. Black East Africans had envied and resented the economic prosperity of the South Asians under colonial rule, and there were anti-Asian riots towards the end of the colonial period. After several African states gained their independence, a deliberate policy of Africanization and a leaning towards socialism began to make life increasingly difficult for the Gujaratis in the newly independent East African states of Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Most South Asians did not become citizens of the new countries and had to suffer the economic restrictions imposed on noncitizens. In the late 1960s the Gujaratis, like most other South Asians, began to leave for Britain. It was not long, however, before they faced racial attacks, harsh economic conditions, and the imposition of more stringent immigration laws in the “mother country.” As a result, the South Asian exodus from East Africa was redirected to Canada, and in 1972 voluntary migrants were joined by refugees fleeing from Uganda.