Essays

South Asia

Pakistan

      Many of the Africans brought into the Indian subcontinent entered through the ports of Baluchistan and Sindh, where they worked as dockworkers, horse-keepers, domestic servants, agricultural workers, nurses, palanquin carriers and apprentices to blacksmiths and carpenters. In 1851, the linguist Sir Richard Burton, who served in the British Army in Sindh, noted how up to 700 Bambasi, Habshi and Zangibari—all Africans—were imported annually into neighboring Baluchistan. Females were in greater demand and were priced at around 50 pounds, while children were bartered for grain, cloth and other goods. Much of the vocabulary used by the Afro-Sindhi descendants of these migrants is a modified Swahili. For instance, the word for shield in Swahili, ngao, is gao among the Afro-Sindhi; the word for moon (or one month) in Swahili, mwesi, is moesi in Afro-Sindhi.

      Pakistan has the most people of African descent in South Asia. It has been estimated that at least a quarter of the total population of the Makran coast is of African ancestry—that is, at least 250,000 people living on the southern coast of Pakistan, which overlaps with southeastern Iran, can claim East African descent. Beginning in 1650 Oman traded more heavily with the Lamu archipelago on the Swahili coast and transported Africans to the Makran coast. As a result, today many Pakistani of African descent are referred to as Makrani, whether or not they live there. On the coast they are also variously referred to as dada, sheedi and syah (all meaning black), or alternatively, gulam (slave) or naukar (servant). The children of Sindhi Muslim men and sidiyani (female Africans) are called gaddo—as in half-caste. The population geneticist Lluis Quintana-Murci of the Pasteur Institute in Paris found that more than 40 percent of the maternal gene pool of the Makrani is of African origin.

      "Mombasa Street" and "Sheedi Village" in Karachi speak to the African presence in modern-day Pakistan. The predominantly Muslim Afro-Pakistani community in Karachi continues to celebrate the Manghopir festival, in honor of the Sufi saint Mangho Haji Syed Sakhi Sultan. Outside the main shrine in Karachi, there is a pond with crocodiles that are served specially prepared food. The crocodiles, which were venerated by Hindus before the advent of Islam and are also regarded with esteem by Africans, have become an integral part of the shrine. Although the Sheedis no longer understand all the words of the songs they sing, they pass along this tradition to succeeding generations.

      Maritime activities on the Pakistani Makran coast influenced the music of Afro-Baluchis, many of whom were seafarers who maintained contacts with eastern and northeastern Africa through the middle of the 20th century. There are distinct similarities between the Afro-Pakistani drumming and singing performances called laywa in the Makran and those called lewa in coastal Oman—songs consisting of Swahili words and references to both East Africa and the sea. 

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India

      The history of India's Africans, called Siddis, is the best known in the region—largely because of the documentation on those who rose to high positions as military commanders.

African ivory was the most sought-after commodity among Indian merchants; ivory was carried from the inland to the East African coast, where it was sold, loaded onto dhows, and transported to the ports of southern Arabia. From there they would continue across the Arabian Sea, stopping along the Makran coast, before continuing on to western India. Given India's large population, its indigenous slaves, and a caste system among Hindus in which most labor-intensive tasks were traditionally performed by specific groups, African males were employed in very specialized jobs, almost always having to do with some aspect of security—as soldiers, palace guards, or personal bodyguards. They were generally deemed more trustworthy than indigenous people to serve in those capacities, but in a number of cases Africans rebelled against their Muslim or Hindu rulers. During the 15th and 16th centuries, African slave-soldiers seized power in the Bengal sultanate, parts of the Deccan, and the sultanate of Gujarat. However, several centuries before these rebellions, an Abyssinian attained high rank in alliance with the female ruler of Delhi.

      In 1236 an Abyssinian named Jalal-ud-din Yakut served in the important imperial post of master of the royal stable, an honor conferred by the Delhi sultana Raziya. In India, where Africans were known for their equestrian skills and their ability to tame wild horses, they served in the cavalry, unlike in the Middle East, where they were limited to service in the infantry. Yakut, a skilled soldier and horseman, was also a political ally of Raziya during her fight for control of the throne. Raziya's father, the Turkish ruler Iltutmish, who had conquered much of northern India, had named her as his successor, but Raziya's brother opposed her. She ruled for four years, before both she and Yakut were killed—on the run and in battle.

      A century later, the Moroccan jurist and explorer Ibn Battuta recorded that during his stay in India from 1333 to 1343 the governor of Allahpur (north of Delhi) was an African named Badr, technically enslaved to the Rajah of Dholpur. In India as elsewhere in the Indian Ocean region, the category "slave" was much more elastic than in the Atlantic world, where enslaved Africans had far less opportunity for upward mobility under European colonial rule and in the new republics of the Americas. 

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Gujarat

      Africans have been part of the western state of Gujarat since at least the first century, when the town of Barygasa (Baruch today) was considered an Ethiopian town, peopled by merchants from East Africa. Oral history recounted by Afro-Gujaratis mentions how their ancestors also served as bodyguards in the palaces of Hindu kings. Among their functions: to taste the Maharajah's food to protect against attempted poisoning.

      The Mughals, a Muslim imperial power in northern India from the early 16th century through the early 19th, relied on African soldiers and sailors. In 1572, when the Mughal Emperor Akbar entered Gujarat, he was reportedly protected by 700 armed Habshi on horseback. African soldiers and sailors also received annual payment for defending Mughal subjects from piracy at sea and attacks on land. Between the 16th and 18th centuries a Habshi naval force was based in Surat, the principal port in Gujarat, and African sailors accompanied pilgrims to Mecca, offering protection on the high seas. Such Habshi naval protection even predated Mughal rule. Ibn Battuta noted in the mid-14th century the legendary bravery of Habshi soldiers and sailors. Ibn Battuta traveled with 50 Abyssinians on a ship to protect against pirate attacks; he called them "the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean." While boarding a Chinese junk at Calicut in south India, he observed Abyssinians carrying javelins and swords and others with drums and bugles, indicating the use of Africans on ships traveling to the Far East.

      Gujarati Siddis distinguish themselves from others in India by their strong Sufi practices, mostly centering on the African pir Bava Gor, the most revered Sufi among people of African descent in South Asia. Bava Gor, originally named Siddi Mubarak Nob, came from East Africa during the 14th century and made Ratanpur, in Gujarat, his home. The African became the patron saint of the agate bead industry, having been credited for augmenting the trade in the quartz stone between East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India. Before arriving in India, Bava Gor spent time in Mecca and the area of Basra in lower Iraq, where he studied with Sufis of the Rifa'i order, who gave him the honorific title Baba Ghaur, meaning "master of deep meditation" in Arabic.

      According to one oral tradition, Bava Gor's sister, Mai Misra, who developed her own Sufi following, came to India to vanquish a demoness; meanwhile, her brother vanquished the demon Rakshisha of Hindu mythology. This legend speaks to the historic tensions involving the coming of Islam to the Indian subcontinent and the transformation of Hindu society. Misra, whose name is derived from misr (Arabic for northeast Africa), is particularly venerated for her powers of fertility. Respect for her may be seen in the coconut rattles used by the Siddis that bear her name. In Gujarat, as well as other parts of India, Siddis play the malunga, a single-stringed braced musical bow, found in many East African communities (and as far away as Brazil, where it is called berimbau). The hand that holds the malunga will also hold the mai misra rattle below, which is attached to a gourd resonator to amplify the instrument.

      Many Siddis in Gujarat are known for performing sacred music as wandering fakirs (Sufi ascetics) in praise of Bava Gor and other saints. They perform goma (or dhamal), a word deriving from the Swahili ngoma (drum and dance), in celebration of urs, commemorating Muslim saints, sometimes over the course of several days. They also perform at weddings and birthdays and, in previous times, at celebrations of noble courts.

      Today Bava Gor shrines are located along the eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent—from the area of Sindh down to Mumbai. They are often associated with the agate trade and are visited not only by Muslims of various backgrounds but also by Zoroastrians, Christians, and Hindus. In Gujarat, the shrines were a former refuge for runaway Africans and, later, for free Siddis looking for a space where they could congregate. One contemporary follower of Bava Gor, Sidi Asoo Appa, served as caretaker of a shrine in Mumbai. Her grandfather had been recruited from East Africa into the army of the Nizam of Hyderabad, and her father, Abdul Rasak Sidi Bilal, was a singer of qawwali (songs of Muslim devotional praise).

      While in the Arabian Peninsula and Gulf Coast region African musical and dance traditions have continued in the form of spirit possession performances (zar and tanburah), in South Asia African traditions largely revolve around the veneration of Sufi pirs, such as Bava Gor in Gujarat or Shaikh Najib in the Maldives. In both areas, references to the ocean and seafaring figure prominently with lyrics from East Africa. In the Gujarati port city of Diu—where in 1838 a chronicler estimated that up to 6 percent of the population was Siddi—many Swahili words are found in the languages spoken today by the men and women of African descent. 

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Bengal and Deccan

      Several kings in Bengal, in east India, secured enslaved African soldiers to protect and expand their kingdoms. From 1460 to 1481, the sultan of Bengal, Rukn al-Din Barbak Shah, had 8,000 Africans in his army, some of whom held high command. Another king, Habesh Khan, was overthrown in 1490 by one of his African guardsmen, Sidi Badr, who seized the throne for himself and ruled for three years as Shams-ud-din Abu Nasr Musaffar Shah. Five thousand of his 30,000 soldiers were Habshi. Sidi Badr was overthrown, and Africans in Bengal, especially those in high command, were expelled, as they were then seen as posing a threat to indigenous Indian rulers. Many of these Africans, both rank-and-file soldiers and commanders with experience, went either to the five Muslim sultanates of the Deccan or to Gujarat, where local rulers employed them as mercenaries—continuing the military contributions of Africans in India.

      Malik Ambar, who became famous in the Deccan, is the best known of the Africans who seized power in India. With several surviving paintings of him accompanied by written documentation, his story is among the most detailed of the historical Habshis. Born in southern Ethiopia in the mid-16th century, Ambar was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen, where he converted to Islam. Noted for his intellectual abilities, he was educated in finance and administration by his owners in western Arabia before being taken to Baghdad and then arriving in central India's Deccan.

      Ambar's recognized abilities brought him increasing responsibilities, including military authority. Under the minister of the king of Ahmadnagar, Ambar commanded both Indian and Habshi soldiers. By the turn of the 17th century, however, he rebelled and formed his own army of 150 men, which he eventually grew to 10,000 cavalry and infantrymen, many of whom were Africans. In 1610, an English merchant, William Finch, writing from near Ahmadnagar (where Ambar had become peshwa, or regent minister), noted that the Habshi general commanded "some ten thousand of his own [caste], all brave souldiers, and som[e] forty thousand Deccanees." The runaway had become a mercenary general with a mobile armed force. Over the next two decades he fought for various rulers in the Deccan and fended off the incursions of the Mughal emperor Akbar and his successor Jahangir, each of whom attempted but failed to take control of the region.

      By 1616 Ambar not only commanded a powerful cavalry force that used British artillery, but was successfully cutting off Mughal supply lines through his naval alliance with the Siddi rulers of Janjira. Over the course of his campaigns against the Mughals, he continued to infuse his army with Habshi soldiers, whom he trained, provided with an education in the Quran, and used for his private guard.

      Ambar sought to integrate his family into the indigenous royalty and nobility. His daughter was brought into the royal household of the Nizam Shahi dynasty as the wife of Sultan Murtaza II; and his son, Fateh Khan, married the daughter of one of the most powerful nobles of the land, Yakut Khan, a free Habshi. Ambar, a ruler unto himself, established the city of Khadki in which he oversaw the construction of canals, an irrigation system, mosques, schools, tombs and a palace. He also distinguished himself for his religious tolerance. He granted land to Hindus, patronized Hindu scholars, and appointed Brahmins as officials and tax collectors. When the Habshi ruler died in 1626, he left one of the most impressive legacies of any ruler in the Deccan.

      The Mughals drew upon the tradition and practice of using African soldiers and sailors for protection, and Siddi captains were appointed admirals of their fleet. Some Siddis of the sea were their own masters, settling in the island fort of Janjira (south of Mumbai) and creating a string of fortifications along the coast. The island of Janjira (from jazeera, island or peninsula in Arabic) was a formidable fortress entirely surrounded by large walls with 22 rounded bastions. It was also known as Habsan (from Habsha, Ethiopia). The first African to be posted at Janjira was Sidi Ambar Sainak ("The Little," to distinguish him from Malik Ambar), appointed by Malik Ambar in 1617.

      The rulers of Janjira, who formed their own royal lineage, remained undefeated for almost 300 years. Not until 1870 were the British—their Bombay garrison included more than 600 Africans in 1760—able to finally defeat the Siddis of Janjira. By that time, they had also become integrated with mainland Indian royalty. 

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Goa

      Beginning in 1510, among the key Portuguese colonial enclaves in the Indian Ocean world was Goa, located on the western coast of India. West-Central Africans from Angola, Atlantic Africans from Brazil and East Africans from Mozambique—all Portuguese colonies—formed the bulk of the African presence in Goa. Some were sold to other Europeans. For example, on October 15, 1777, the French East India Company asked its brokers the Mhamay family (Goa natives) for 200 adult men, 100 women and 100 boys. The request was fulfilled from a recently arrived ship from Mozambique that had brought 700 Africans. About a decade later the Mhamays were still involved in slave trading. Among the hundreds of African men they sold were five whose Christian names are recorded as Alberto, Ignacio, Januario, Joao and Joaquim—sold for 822 Bombay rupees. Such Christianized names assumed by Africans, like assumed Muslim (Arabic) names, would obscure their African origins.

      From the 16th through the 19th century, enslaved Africans from Goa fled for refuge to neighboring Karnataka, but in the wake of the major uprising against British rule in India in 1857 an African named Siddi Bastian led a group of fellow Siddis and Kanarese (indigenous Indians from Karnataka) in a sustained campaign against European forces. For almost two years maroons under Bastian's command looted and burned British and Portuguese settlements along the border of Goa.  

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Hyderabad

      In the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh, African soldiers called Chaush (derived from Ottoman military nomenclature) served in the army and cavalry of the Nizam-ul-Mulk (the title of the sovereign of the state). From at least the mid-19th century through 1948, various Nizams kept 300 soldiers serving as their personal guards stationed in a compound in Hyderabad. These Africans, from diverse origins, were organized into two regiments, the African Bodyguard and the African Cavalry Guard. The last surviving guardsman, Feroz bins Abdullah, interviewed at the turn of the 21st century, believed his father came from Zanzibar.

      In addition to parading and performing military music as a show of force to assert the authority of the Nizam, the African soldiers also performed their own music for the court, which included drumming, dancing and singing. These regiments were disbanded after India's independence in 1947. The soldiers' descendants continue to live in the "AC Guards District" of Hyderabad. While their exact African origins are unknown, the Chaush of Somali background can recount their genealogies. Some descendants remember their parents greeting friends in Swahili—the lingua franca for many of the Africans taken out of East Africa. 

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Siddis Today

      A number of Siddis converted to Christianity in the 20th century and were sent to Mauritius, the Seychelles and Kenya with support from Christian missionaries. Those who went to Kenya settled in Freretown, near Mombasa. However, they remained relatively isolated, given that the majority of people around them were Muslim.

      Today, the number of Siddis in India, who include Muslims, Hindus and Christians, is estimated to be over 50,000. The largest concentration is in the states of Karnataka (southwest). There are an estimated 18,000 Siddis living in the district—mostly descendants of maroons (runaway slaves) from Goa beginning in the 16th century and continuing through the 19th. Their various communities consist of about 10 settlements, each with between five and 40 houses, organized into an association.

      About 12,000 Siddis live in Andhra Pradesh (southeast), mostly in the predominantly Muslim city of Hyderabad. Gujarat (northwest) is home to 10,000 Siddis; and smaller communities also exist in the states of Maharashtra (west), Madhya Pradesh (central), Uttar Pradesh (north), and Tamil Nadu (south).

      Siddis are considered simultaneously inside and outside the racial and caste classification systems in India and much of the subcontinent. The government of India has recently granted them "special tribal status," guaranteeing them access to jobs and education, but most continue to live in poverty. As the village head of Jambur, in Gujarat, Siddi Aisha Ben Basureem noted, "We have a lot to worry about; people in other villages live happy lives, but our people are miserable." Some Muslim descendants of Africans in Karnataka prefer to be referred to as Muslim rather than Siddi—as they see their connection to the global Muslim world as primary—yet they also participate in Christian festivals; some Muslim Siddis in Karnataka and in Gujarat even pay homage to the Hindu deity Lakshmi. Such activities speak to the multiple ways in which Afro-Indians have connected with each other, despite religious differences, and have learned to navigate their societies. 

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Sri Lanka and the Maldives

      As early as the fifth century, Abyssinians traveled to Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and traded in Matota in the northwest. Centuries later, the Portuguese were the first Europeans to bring Africans to Sri Lanka as slaves and mercenary soldiers. The Portuguese had preceded the Dutch, French and British into the long-existing Indian Ocean trade networks, driving the largely forced migration of Africans into various parts of this world. The Portuguese colonial state, the Dutch East India Company and the British East India Company all actively engaged in the Indian Ocean slave-trading of Africans, competing with each other for control of territories and trade routes in the region. Sri Lanka, because of its strategic location in the Indian Ocean, was highly contested. The island served as an emporium in the Indian Ocean and the meeting point between East Africa and East Asia.

      During the 14th century, when the Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta was at Colombo, he noted "the wazir and ruler of the sea," Jalasti, had "about 500 Abyssinians" serving in his garrison.

      Among the Africans taken to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese were those already living in Lisbon, where by the late 15th century a sizable black population had grown. Some would have joined the Portuguese crews destined for the Indian Ocean world, as sailors were increasingly in demand. On their way to the Indian Ocean, and depending on the route taken, Portuguese captains may have also picked up West Africans at El Mina (on the coast of Ghana), at the mouth of the Congo River or the Niger Delta, the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores, or in Mozambique and Madagascar on the eastern side of Africa.

      By the 17th century, the Portuguese were regularly recruiting Africans to assist them in seizing or defending strategic ports in the Indian Ocean, including those in Sri Lanka. In 1631 African soldiers sent from Goa rescued the Portuguese from an early defeat by the Dutch. Some 100 Kaffir soldiers from Goa joined the Portuguese Captain-General Dom Jorge de Almeida at Cochin in southern India with instructions to continue on to Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, 200 Kaffir soldiers stationed in Cochin were sent directly to Colombo, where they protected the Portuguese—and were paid for their services, indicating that these soldiers were mercenaries. In 1638, the Portuguese Captain-General Diego de Mello de Castro led an attack on Kandy in the forest hills of central Sri Lanka with a force of 300 Kaffirs; two years later more than 100 Kaffir archers fought for the Portuguese against the Dutch at Galle in the south. When the Portuguese finally lost Sri Lanka to the Dutch in 1658, many Kaffirs simply switched their military service to the new rulers; others settled in the Buddhist Kandyan kingdom, which remained under local rule. The local monarch, overseeing a majority indigenous Sinhalese ethnic population, valued the Kaffir soldiers, employing a number of them as his personal guards. Kaffirs therefore served Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist rulers, in addition to Christian Europeans, in the region.

      African military prowess in Sri Lanka continued into the 19th century. Joseph Fernando, an African brought to Sri Lanka from Mauritius, along with some 80 other Kaffirs, served the Kandyan kingdom and helped fend off British incursions until 1815.

      In addition to being used for military purposes, Africans worked in the construction of forts. The Dutch governor Van Goens Junior noted in the 1670s that 4,000 Kaffirs had built the fortress of Colombo.

      By the mid-19th century, Wesleyan missionary Robert Spence Hardy would note that there had been at least 6,000 Kaffirs on the island at some point, but that their numbers had significantly decreased. The figure is an indication of the impact felt by colonizers, missionaries and indigenous Sinhalese and Tamil of the African presence on the island. The number of Kaffirs is difficult to assess, however, because the children of Afro–Sri Lankan women who married non-Kaffir men are not themselves counted as being Kaffir. As a result, thousands of such descendants are less conspicuous in official records, having had their African heritage obscured, if not erased.

      Oral histories among the Kaffirs nevertheless illuminate their past or help corroborate what written records exist. Ana Miseliya, the late grand matriarch of the African-descended community of Sirambiyadiya in the Puttalam district on the western coast, traced her community's roots to ancestors brought during the colonial era. According to Miseliya, her forefathers were soldiers who arrived at Trincomalee in the east to help Europeans establish their authority. Historical records indicate that 874 African soldiers served in the 3rd and 4th Ceylon Regiments in the nineteenth century. In 1865, when the 3rd Ceylon Regiment's detachment in Puttalam was disbanded, soldiers from the African garrison were given land in the area, where they retired.

      Cultural remnants, in the form of music, dance, language and in some cases material culture are a vital part of Afro–Sri Lankan communities. Kaffirs today regularly perform dances, accompanied by drummers and singers, using lyrics that may not be fully understood by their youngest generation yet serve to preserve aspects of their African heritage. The Kaffirs' cultural impact has also been more broadly felt: the popular Sri Lankan dance called "Kaffrinha Baila" is a direct result of the historic contact between the Kaffirs, Portuguese and Sinhalese. 

      Traveling on Arab dhows, Africans populated the Maldives, an archipelago to the west of Sri Lanka, beginning in the 12th century, if not earlier. Arabs had been trading with islanders as early as the mid-ninth century for the cowry shells that were used as a currency in both East Africa and South Asia. Africans were variously referred to as Baburu, Habshi and Siddi (the term Kaffir, used in nearby Sri Lanka, was not used by Maldivians).

      In 1153 the Maldivian king, who had been a Buddhist, converted to Islam, establishing a long-ruling sultanate. Two centuries later, Ibn Battuta noted the African presence in the Maldives. During his stay between 1344 and 1346 he visited the Habshigefanu Magan (shrine of the worthy African), Shaikh Najib, a Muslim African saint who had died decades earlier in the Maldives. On the island of Kinalos the Moroccan traveler was welcomed by the island chief, Abd al-Aziz al-Makdashawi (of Mogadishu, Somalia).

      Africans had been taken to the Maldives as part of the regular slave trade in the region but also by sultans returning from the pilgrimage to Mecca. During the mid-15th century, Sultan Hasan III reportedly brought back to the Maldives some 70 African captives after performing the hajj. Most of the enslaved Africans in the Maldives worked as coconut plantation keepers, planting and harvesting coconut trees for the production of coir rope (made out of the fibers of the trees), a particularly valuable commodity, sought throughout Asia for maritime-related industries.

      Although most Africans have assimilated into the local societies, having intermarried with the local populations, their cultural legacy remains. As in other areas of the Indian Ocean world, a genre of music associated with Africans and their descendants called bodu beru (meaning large drum in the language of Dhivehi) is accompanied by babaru lava (black songs), whose words are no longer understood by the Afro-Maldivians—a linguistic phenomenon seen across communities of African descent in the region where the pressure on younger members to assimilate into the dominant societies has led to loss of languages once spoken. 

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