The African Dynasties of India: African Kings of India
The term Indo-Africans refers to Indians of African origin and was coined by Professor Abdulaziz Lodhi of Uppsala University, Sweden. I am grateful to him for his help in writing in this article.
Little is known about Africans who moved from the African continent to the Indian subcontinent, some as slaves, but others purposefully and freely. A study of this Indo-African population offers a realistic portrayal of Africans as traders, warriors, and sailors.
According to Dr. Richard Pankhurst, commercial contacts between Ethiopia and India are mentioned in the Periplus – a Graeco-Egyptian commercial manual written around the first century AD. This manual mentions that the Aksumite port of Adulis, on the Red Sea coast of Africa, “traded extensively with various parts of Western India, which supplied Ethiopia with both textiles and spices.” Later texts mention trade with Ceylon as well. Habshis were present in Colombo, in Ceylon, where Ibn Battuta reports that Jalasti, “the wazir and ruler of the sea”, had “about five hundred Abyssinians”.
More than 250,000 descendants of Africans still live amongst the Indian people. They are a vast and diverse population spread throughout India with separate histories and unique roles within the Indian strata. Although Africans have been crossing the Indian Ocean into India for over a millennium, most of those who make up the Indo-African population came in the past five hundred years. Most were mercenaries or prisoners of war of the Muslim rulers. Africans also came as midwives and herbalists, and as musicians, sailors and merchants.
In the second decade of the sixteenth century a European traveller named Armando Cortesao noted that: “The people who govern the kingdom [Bengal] are Abyssinians [Ethiopians]. These men are looked upon as knights; they are greatly esteemed; they wait on the kings in their apartments.”
Indo-Africans trace their ancestry primarily from the East African coast from Sudan, Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) to Mozambique, but some came from as far off as South Africa and even Nigeria. Little research has been done on this unique population, but slowly literature on this small group is growing. Many of the Indo-Africans who arrived from eastern Africa came as sailors and traders engaged in the vibrant Indian ocean trade and stayed on in India, usually around the main ports, from Kerala in the south to Gujarat in the north. The monsoon winds that blew across the Indian ocean powered an extensive trade system that shipped spices from Kerala through Northeast Africa and on to Rome and other parts of the European continent since before the time of Christ. Ivory, gold and other valuables from Zimbabwe and the Congo found their way to the East African coast to areas such as Kilwa, Mombassa and Zanzibar from where they were further shipped across the Indian Ocean and on to India, Southeast Asia, China and even Japan.
Perhaps the most interesting example of Indo-Africans in Indian history was the establishment of the Habshi State in Bengal during the 15th century. As the story goes, the ruler of the state was killed in a palace coup d’etat led by an Indo-African general serving in the king’s army, who went on to proclaim himself king. He was subsequently killed by another high-ranking Indo-African general who remained loyal to the original ruling family and placed the young son of the murdered king upon the throne. Another group of Indo-Africans, known as the Shemali, originated in Kano, Nigeria, and came to India via Sudan and Mecca following their Hajj pilgrimage. Under the leadership of a wealthy merchant known as Baba Ghor, the Shemali became prosperous through the mining and trade of the precious stone Agate. This group of Indo-Africans retains quite a few African customs, and Baba Ghor and the story of their arrival in India is proudly remembered.
It is difficult to speak of the Indo-Africans as a singular group as they came from vastly different parts of Africa and through many periods of history. Nonetheless, most of the groups have largely assimilated into Indian society. The majority of Indo-Africans are Muslims, but other similarities are hard to find. Different communities speak different languages and culturally most consider themselves Indian save for a few African cultural remnants. Some Indo-Africans, descended from powerful soldiers, administrators, and even rulers, are indistinguishable from the general population, for their ancestors were considered higher class and married freely amongst the elite Indian population. This group of Indo-Africans are sometimes known as the Royal Sidis, and they only marry amongst themselves or with upper class/caste native Muslims.
There are identifiable Sidi communities in Gujarat, Maharashtra (around Bombay), and Hyderabad. Most of the Sidis live in Gujarat, a state in western India. Jambur, a village in the Gir forest is an exclusive Sidi settlement. The Sidis here have retained their lineage of music and dance – their only link now with Africa. A smaller group of Sidis lives in Junagadh, a town not far from Jambur. According to Professor Amy Catlin, an ethno-musicologist from UCLA, who is making a special study of Sidi culture, “In Gujarat, affinities with African music include certain musical instruments and their names”, she says, “and also the performance of an African-derived musical genre called “goma”.
Sidis also settled in Murud, once the capital of the erstwhile state of Janjira (from the Arabic ‘jazirah’ meaning an island) on the western coast of Maharashtra. The Janjira Fort at Murad was “once the stronghold of Abyssinian Sidis, who played an important role in the history of Bombay in the latter half of the 17th century”. Those Sidis who settled in Janjira prospered as warriors and great sailors. Their fort still stands today in Murud – a small fishing village – as does the Sidi Palace on the outskirts of the village. Though the interior of the palace is not open to tourists, the fort can be visited. “Once the fort boasted of five hundred canons, today only a handful are left, still intact and able to tell their story. Amongst them are the three major cannons, Kalal Bangdi, Landakasam and Bhavani, the cherished weapons of the Sidis, built from five metals.”- Discover India.
“Siddi kingdoms were established in western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as 1100 AD. After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis. Indeed, the island Janjira was formerly called Habshan, meaning Habshan’s or African’s land. Siddi signifies lord or prince. It is further said that Siddi is an expression of respectful address commonly used in North Africa, like Sahib in India. Specifically, it is said to be an honorific title given to the descendants of African natives in the west of India, some of whom were distinguished military officers and administrators of the Muslim princes of the Deccan. The Siddis were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, a position they maintained for centuries.” – Tom Mountains Ambedkar Journal Website HABSHIS AND SIDDIS: AFRICAN DYNASTIES IN INDIA.
Scholars generally consider the Indo-Africans de facto Indians as they mostly speak Indian languages, although some groups do retain many African words. This process of assimilation was interrupted with the advent of British rule in India in the 19th century. The British segregated the Indo-Africans from the local population, thus impoverishing the process of assimilation. Today, except for the Royal Sidis and their descendants who are largely integrated into the Muslim upper class, the Indo-African population remains largely farmers or unskilled workers, although some have also become professionals such as doctors, lawyers, teachers and businessmen. Under the extensive Indian affirmative action programs, most Indo-Africans are classified as scheduled tribes, which entitles them to reservations in university seats and other government support.
Culturally, the Indo-Africans have been accepted into the vast spectrum that is India – as have many immigrant groups ranging from the Jews who fled Israel two hundred years after Christ, to the Zoroastrians who fled Iran in the advent of Islamic imperialism. Like these groups, the Indo-Africans have full claim to being Indian, even if they maintain some of their ancestral traditions. In 1997 I met a group of American researchers who had just arrived in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, from Karnataka in South India. It seems they had recently interviewed a rural settlement of Indo-Africans. In studying and recording the group’s music, they had recognised a common melody and similar themes in the music to that which was sung by a certain ethnic group in Tanzania. Nonetheless, this group of Indo-Africans spoke only Kannada (an Indian language) and their idea of home was only India, although a few of the older members of the group knew sketchy details of tales that spoke of certain ancestors who had come from another land.
Only a small number of Indo-Africans have tried to immigrate back to Africa, mostly during the British rule of Zanzibar. Those who did return have largely been assimilated into the cultural mix that characterises the island. Early in the 20th century, a woman named Langi Nur-Bai arrived in Zanzibar from India where she had been a drummer and singer. Interestingly, while in Zanzibar she became a respected member of the Indian Muslim community and was a highly demanded performer for their weddings and other such occasions.
In Pakistan, which also has a small Indo-African population, Indo-Africans are substantially more visible as performers and athletes. The community, known as Makranis, is almost completely centred in the coastal city of Karachi and has achieved national status as athletes, especially as boxers, a field in which Indo-Africans have represented Pakistan in international competition.
India has always welcomed immigrants from around the world, giving them acceptance and taking from them certain cultural attributes that have further enlarged the Indian mosaic. Afro-Indians, like all other groups that sought shelter in India, were given the freedom to assimilate without the pressure to lose their ancestral traditions.
However one views Afro-Indians, their mere existence has much to tell us about Africa’s place in the world community beyond just the dark days of slavery. Their history speaks of the African ability to integrate into a land other than that from where they originated. The African Diaspora in the Americas was an unwilling one, but the Indo-Africans came willingly to India, and regardless of their ups and downs in Indian history, they have chosen to stay there.
Prominent Indo-Africans in history of India
Jamal al-Din Yaqut – a royal courtier in the kingdom of Delhi who was believed to be close to the then reigning sovereign Queen Raziya (1236- 1240). He was killed by jealous rivals.
Ibn Battuta recalls that at Alapur, north of Delhi, the governor was “the Abyssinian Badr…, a man whose bravery passed into a proverb”.
Malik Sarwar, described as a Habshi, was appointed governor of Jaunpur. Mubarak Shah, his son, later succeeded him.
Ibrahim Shah, succeeded his brother Mubarak Shah, and ruled for forty years.
“..the most famous among the Indo-Africans was the celebrated Malik Ambar (1550-1626). Ambar, like a number of Africans in medieval India, elevated himself to a position of great authority. Malik Ambar, whose original name was Shambu, was born around 1550 in Harar, Ethiopia. After his arrival in India, Ambar was able to raise a formidable army and achieve great power in the west Indian realm of Ahmadnagar. Ambar was a brilliant diplomat and administrator.” Tom Mountains Ambedkar Journal Website HABSHIS AND SIDDIS: AFRICAN DYNASTIES IN INDIA
Habshis ruled Bengal 1486-1491 by overthrowing the ruler Jalal-al Din.
Sultan Shahzada 1486 -1487
Habshi Amir al-Umara (1487-1490)
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