African rulers of India: That part of our history we choose to forget

The elite status of the African slaves in India ensured that a number of them had access to political authority and secrets which they could make use of to become rulers in their own right, reigning over parts of India.

Updated: June 5, 2016 4:34 pm

“When your family has been ruling for hundreds of years, people still call you by the title of Nawab,” says Nawab Reza Khan, tenth Nawab of Sachin as he traces his family’s regal history. Reza Khan currently works as a lawyer and lives in the city of Sachin in Gujarat. He says his ancestors came from Abyssinia (present day Ethiopia in East Africa) as part of the forces of Babur. Eventually, they conquered the fort at Janjira and later occupied Sachin and ruled over their own kingdoms.

The Nawab of Sachin is a personified remnant of a glorious African past in India. Africans have, for centuries been a part of Indian society. While the slave trade from Africa to America and Europe is well documented, the eastward movement of African slaves to India has been left unexplored.

Also Read: African nationals attacked in Delhi speak up: ‘They were shouting, go back to your country’ 

The systematic transportation of African slaves to India started with the Arabs and Ottomans and later by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the sixteenth -seventeenth centuries. Concrete evidence of African slavery is available from the twelfth-thrirteenth centuries, when a significant portion of the Indian subcontinent was being ruled by Muslims.

There is, however, a major difference between African slavery in America and Europe and that in India. There was far greater social mobility for Africans in India. In India, they rose along the social ladder to become nobles, rulers or merchants in their own capacities. “In Europe and America, Africans were brought in as slaves for plantation and industry labour. In India on the other hand, African slaves were brought in to serve as military power,” says Dr Suresh Kumar, Professor of African studies in Delhi University.

Africans, attacks on Africans in India, attacks on Africans in Delhi, Africans in Delhi, Africans in India, racism in India, African rulers, African history, African slaves, African slaves in India, Janjira, Sachin, Nawab of Janjira, Nawab of Sachin, African elites in India, African elites, Habshis, Siddis, Siddis in India, Habshis in India, Malik Ambar, Habshis of Bengal, Sidi Masood Adoni, Kenneth Robbins, express research Nawab Ibrahim Mohammad Yakut Khan II of Sachin (1833-1873) (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

These were elite military slaves, who served purely political tasks for their owners. They were expensive slaves, valued for their physical strength. The elite status of the African slaves in India ensured that a number of them had access to political authority and secrets which they could make use of to become rulers in their own right, reigning over parts of India. They came to be known by the name of Siddis or Habshis (Ethiopians or Abyssinians). The term ‘Siddi’ is derived from North Africa, where it was used as a term of respect.

The Nawab of Sachin and Janjira

The political power acquired by Africans in the Deccan, in particular in Janjira and Sachin, is best demonstrated in a painting by Abul Hasan, that depicts Emperor Jahangir taking aim at the head of the African slave Malik Ambar. The political career of Malik Ambar can be traced back to a time when he was known as ‘Chapu’. He was initially bought as a slave in Ethiopia by an Arab merchant. Later, after being resold a number of times, he somehow landed in the court of Ahmadnagar as one among the hundreds of Habshi military slaves there.

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By the mid-sixteenth century, the Mughals had increased their appetite for the South and were aggressively trying to encroach upon the Nizam Shahi dynasty that ruled much of Deccan. In 1600 AD, the Ahmadnagar fort finally fell into the hands of the Mughals. However, the presence of the Mughals in the Deccan was still limited and Ahmadnagar’s surrounding countryside still lay with the troops deployed by the Nizam Shahi state of which Malik Ambar was a part.

It was during this period that the African slave grew to be a political game changer. Commanding a troop of 3000 cavalrymen, he proved to be a major obstacle to the Mughals’ appetite for the Deccan. The painting by Abul Hasan is testimony to what a nuisance the Ethiopian soldier had become to the Mughals.

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Malik Ambar constructed a fort at Janzira, located in the Konkan coast, by the end of the sixteenth century. It still stands intact, currently under protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). At Janjira, the Africans developed their own kingdom (with their own cavalry, coat of arms and currency) which the Mughals and Marathas failed to occupy despite repeated attacks. Later, the African rulers of Janjira went on to occupy another fort at Sachin in modern day Gujarat. The present Nawab of Sachin, Reza Khan says “the title of Nawab was given to our ancestors by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, since they had not allowed his competitor Shivaji to occupy the Janjira fort.”

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The Habshi Sultans of Bengal

A large number of royal coins found in Bengal tells the story of a time when the region was ruled by Africans who had been originally brought as slaves. Much of Bengal, in the thirteenth century was being ruled by the Muslim Sultans of Delhi. The Bengal Sultanate was established by Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah in 1352. Historian Stan Gordon has recorded that during this period a large number of Abyssinian (inhabitants of Ethiopia in East Africa) slaves had been recruited in the army of the Bengal Sultans. They did not just work in the army, but also rose to get involved in major administrative tasks such as act as court magistrates, collecting tolls and taxes and involved in services of law enforcement.

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Eventually, the Abyssinians in the army managed to seize power from the Sultans under the leadership of Barbak Shahzada, and conquered the throne of the Bengal Sultanate. Barbak Shahzada laid the foundation stone of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487, and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah.

Ghiyath-al-Din was followed by three other Abyssinian rulers. His successor, Saif al-Din Firuz is considered the best of the Habshi rulers. “He is said to have been a brave and just king, benevolent to the poor and needy, and a patron of art and architecture,” says Stan Gordon. Firuz is believed to have patronised the building of a number of religious and secular structures. Most well known among these is the Firuz Minar at Gaur which still stands tall, in a good state of preservation. The Firuz Minar is often compared to the Qutub Minar in Delhi, both in appearance and also in its significance of a victory tower.

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The Habshi rule of Bengal was very brief and came to an end in 1493 AD, when Sayyid Husain Sharif Makki seized the throne and founded the Husaini dynasty.

Sidi Masood of Adoni

Adoni is situated in Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. In the fifteenth century it was part of the Vijayanagar empire. With the decline of the Vijayanagar empire, the city came in the hands of the Bijapur Sultanate. As part of the Bijapur Sultanate, Adoni got one of its most important governors by the name of Siddi Masood Khan. Masood was a wealthy merchant from Abyssinia.

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Siddi Masood was the vizier of Bijapur and was virtually the ruler of Adoni. He improved upon the Adoni fort and also built the Shahi Jamia Masjid. Apart from architectural constructions, he is known to have patronised a sizeable number of paintings under his reign. It is possible that he also founded the school of painting at Adoni, which is a variant of the Bijapuri style.

The Abyssinian ruler’s reign at Adoni came to an end when Aurangzeb captured Bijapur in 1686. Records suggest that a dramatic fight took place on the banks of the mosque built by Siddi Masood, following which he surrendered since the mosque was very dear to him. Aurangzeb appointed Ghazi ud-din Khan as governor of Adoni, replacing Siddi Masood.

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Apart from the above rulers, historians are still trying to recover more about African elites in the past. It is possible that the first ruler of the Sharqui dynasty in Jaunpur in the fourteenth century was an Abyssinian. African rulership was perhaps also a part of Sind’s history. However, not enough documentary evidence has been unearthed to make these claims.

Presence of Siddis in Contemporary India

Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis are residing in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi. In contrast to their part of royal privileges, most of them live in conditions of abject poverty.

Africans, attacks on Africans in India, attacks on Africans in Delhi, Africans in Delhi, Africans in India, racism in India, African rulers, African history, African slaves, African slaves in India, Janjira, Sachin, Nawab of Janjira, Nawab of Sachin, African elites in India, African elites, Habshis, Siddis, Siddis in India, Habshis in India, Malik Ambar, Habshis of Bengal, Sidi Masood Adoni, Kenneth Robbins, express research Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis are residing in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi. (Source: Express Archives)

Anthropologist Kiran Kamal has been working on the Siddi presence in India for the past couple of decades. He lived amongst a group of them in Mundgod Taluk (Karnataka) for a year. “They live in dense forest areas, literally cut off from everyone.” says Kamal. He observed the way Siddis interacted with people in a market place and says that “they would always maintain a distance. There is a strong fear of Non-African Indians. Indians also have a very disrespectful attitude towards them, despite using them for all the hard labour.”

Poverty, lack of access to education and racism are some of the reasons why the Siddis live in solitude today. “They did not even know they originated from Africa,” says Kamal. On being asked about how an awareness of their history might help them, Kiran Kamal says that, “it does help in spurring a motivation from within. But substantially it does not have much value. What is mainly required is that all the Siddis come up socioeconomically and are well integrated into the larger society.”

Dr. Kenneth Robbins, author of “African elites in India”, is of the opinion that it is necessary to shed light on the ruling status of Africans in India. “The purpose is to see India in a different light, to understand social mobility in India. It is important for Indians to take note of the place that Africans had at one point secured in the country.”

“A major difference in the history of African presence in the rest of the world and that in India is that racial discrimination was not a feature. Nowhere else in the world had they ruled. However, I do not know why, this part of their history has been ignored,” says Dr. Suresh Kumar. He goes on to explain that the elite history of Africans in India is particularly significant in today’s times considering that instances of racial prejudices keep occurring in various parts of the country.

Readers insights

Below are some valuable contributions made by our readers to this story. While we cannot authenticate each of them, they definitely provide essential food for thought and material for further research.

VIVJPhD : I cover them in my book Uganda Asians to show the Indian Ocean crossings were two-way – Indians coming to east Africa from the first century on and Africans going/taken there. As the article says it was mostly Ethiopians. The king up there is clearly from Et. When I was stationed there I was astounded to see peasants wearing jodhpurs and playing the lute. They still do.

Ramesh Kumar: There is a colony in Hyderabad known as A C Guards (African Cavalry Guards). This is is small Cavalry regiment of Africans (probably slaves) gifted by Raja of Gadwal to the then Nizam. Even today the community lives there and there is Mosque established exclusively for them. It shows that they enjoyed considerable freedom from slavery in Hyderabad. There are known as Siddis.

chandar krishna: This makes for fascinating study. Prof.Sanjay Subramanian has made an extensive research on some aspect of this. Were they partly Jewish too? there are references to Jewish settlements in Cochin in the 15th century. M.G.Vassanji,novelist, describes his encounter with the Siddis in Gujarat in his travelogue, ‘A Place Within: Rediscovering India’. In Karnataka, many of the Siddis are making a mark in athletics.
syncretism has always been a characteristic feature of the Indian consciousness. more research needs to be done on this, many thanks, Chanda