A passage to India

priyanka kotamraju | Updated on October 18, 2014 Published on October 17, 2014

Kings of their time: Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Khan II ruled in the Sachin state

‘Africans in India’ throws light on an episode of history long forgotten and little documented

In 1606, Mughal emperor Jahangir commissioned a portrait. Obsessed with an implacable foe, who was bitterly opposed to the Mughal invasion, the painting depicted Jahangir standing atop the world and shooting the severed head of this “night-coloured usurper,” on whose crown sat an owl. Even in his memoirs, Jahangir refers to this enemy several times, calling him “Ambar, that black wretch,” that “crafty ill-starred one”. Who was this powerful adversary, this constant nightmare? Malik Ambar was an Ethiopian slave, brought to India in the 1570s, who rose through the ranks to become prime minister of Ahmadnagar, raised an army of 10,000 African cavalry and infantry men and halted the Mughal invasion of the Deccan.

Little is known about the waves of forced and voluntary migration that brought hundreds of East African traders, soldiers, architects and slaves to the Indian subcontinent, more than a century before the first Africans arrived on the shores of America as part of the transatlantic slave trade. ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery’, an exhibition put together by the Schomburg Center, New York, and curated by historian Dr Sylviane Diouf, seeks to throw light on an episode of history long forgotten and poorly documented.

Even as American colonies built economies centred around slave labour, hundreds of East Africans — known as Sidis and Habshi — sailed on the Indian Ocean, to settle in the port cities of Goa, Calicut and Dhaka. Unlike the American experience, the Indian Ocean experience is remarkable because of the social mobility enjoyed by African migrants. “American colonies were slave economies. India was a different experience. That’s the story we wanted to tell, of African elites in India,” says Dr Diouf.

The exhibition tells tales of Janjira and Sachin principalities run by African elites; of Jamal-ud-din Yakut, who was Razia Sultana’s general and confidant; of Malik Andal, the African eunuch who became one of the most prominent architects of the Deccan; and of Malik Ambar, a former slave who was a formidable opponent to the Mughals invading Deccan. The Africans brought in trade and introduced zebras and giraffes to the Indian landscape. They gave us film personalities in actress Zubeida, daughter of a nawab of Sachin state, and her mother Fatma Begum, who was the first female film director.

Interestingly, in most paintings and depictions of the African elite in Indian society, skin colour wasn’t used to identify them. Contrary to the slave societies of America and Europe, racism in 15th-century Indian society was not based all on colour. While the spate of incidents of racism this year, which have targeted African communities in the country, tell a different story, Dr Diouf says, “The Africans didn’t face such problems in the past. They were outside the caste system, they presided over largely Hindu states.”

( ‘Africans in India: A Rediscovery’ will run at IGNCA, Delhi till November 4.)

Published on October 17, 2014
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