The Indo-Africans of India

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The African Diaspora of the Indian Sub-continent
By: Zachariah Cherian Mampilly (Africana.com)

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.

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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

The Present-Day

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.


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