There was a time when Africans were a common sight in India. They were traders, sailors, soldiers, court officials and notables, architects, religious leaders, admirals, chief ministers, de facto rulers and founders of dynasties. They came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Somalia, Tanzania and adjoining areas and entered the Indian subcontinent from the early centuries of our Common Era. Trade in ivory, precious metal, textiles and foodstuff had first linked the African and Indian shores of the Indian Ocean. Commerce further increased with the spread of Islam, as did the demand for free and enslaved soldiers and administrators, who were part of the advancing Muslim armies.
Sadly, the centuries-long history of the African presence in and contribution to India has been forgotten, and Africans today are too often stared at, mocked and humiliated. Over the past few years, several episodes of repulsive anti-African violence and viciousness have tarnished India’s image. Fortunately, this mix of ugly racism, xenophobia and crass ignorance finds its counterpoint in the serene gardens of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts with the exhibition, “Africans in India: A Rediscovery”. The exhibition chronicles the inspiring story of some of the people who became high-ranking dignitaries, notables and rulers.
In 50 vividly illustrated panels, visitors see Africans as major political, religious and military figures in a country that yesterday, like today, was a major player on the world stage. Figures like the enslaved Ethiopian, Malik Ambar, come to life. Sold and educated in Yemen, Arabia and Iraq, he arrived in Ahmadnagar around 1570. An exceptional soldier, he was freed in 1575 and became a commander in Bijapur, where he was granted the title, “Malik (the Great)”. By the turn of the 17th century, Malik Ambar had an army of 10,000 African cavalry and infantrymen and ruled as regent and prime minister for his young son-in-law. Interested in town planning, he built forts and established the city of Khidki (Aurangabad). Malik Ambar was a determined foe of the Mughals — Jahangir commissioned an amazing portrait representing himself shooting the severed head of Malik Ambar. Pure fiction and wishful thinking. Malik Ambar died of natural causes in 1626 and Jahangir followed him a year later.
The high positions and respect Africans enjoyed in India are also attested by the existence of what was called the “Abyssinian Party”, which seized power in Bengal in 1486, and by the achievements of Ikhlas Khan, chief minister of Bijapur. To say nothing of the Ethiopian, Sidi Said, who built the world-famous Sidi Said mosque in Ahmedabad and of the African princely states of Janjira (Maharashtra) and Sachin (Gujarat). And it was an Ethiopian eunuch, Malik Sandal, who designed the Ibrahim Rauza, a huge and splendid funerary complex built in Bijapur in the 1500s.
And what about the women? An Ethiopian former slave was the third wife of Sayyid Mansur Ali Khan, the nawab of Bengal; an African was married to Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh in Uttar Pradesh; and Bamba Muller, half-Ethiopian and half-German, became Maharani Bamba Duleep Singh when she wedded the last ruler of the Sikh Empire.
Less famous Africans were an integral part of Indian history too, from Goa to the Deccan, from Karnataka to Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and the Makran coast in what is Pakistan today. African soldiers were greatly appreciated by the nizams of Hyderabad, who relied on their African Cavalry Guard and African Bodyguards. The AC Guards district in Hyderabad is named after the African Cavalry. Wajid Ali Shah had an African regiment called the Hubshiyan Risala, and African men and women fought in the Lucknow mutiny of 1857 on the Indian side.
Africans were the creators of their own accomplishments, but they also found themselves in societies in which enslavement did not necessarily preclude social ascension, where being a foreigner, having a different religion, being of a different race were not insurmountable obstacles to reaching the upper echelons of society. Only in India was such a unique story written and it is a testimony to this country’s open-mindedness. Africans are not “strangers” in India, they are not “others”: they left their mark on this country. Knowing history helps people shape their present as well as their future, and the story of African contributions and Indian receptiveness should be a model to emulate, not only in India today, but also across the world.
The writer, director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture of The New York Public Library, is the curator, with Kenneth X. Robbins, of ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery’