Razia Sultan was one of India’s most valiant queens and history tells the tale of her suspected liaison with her confidant and ally, Jamal-ud-Din Yakut, with great relish. Whether or not they were lovers we will never know but the outrage that this alleged dalliance sparked in the 13th century Mamluk Dynasty is well recorded.
Much of the resentment against Yakut arose from the fact that he was a slave-turned-nobleman of African origin, and not from the Turkish clique that dominated the nobility in the Delhi-based Sultanate. Conferred the title of Amir al-Umara (Amir of Amirs), Jamal-ud-Din Yakut was therefore the first African to occupy a prominent position in India.
Africans came to India as slaves, merchants, soldiers and pirates
But Yakut is only one of many Africans to have left their mark on Indian history. Hailing from East or North Africa, they came to India as slaves, merchants, soldiers and pirates. Many of these Africans proved themselves while in the service of local rulers and enjoyed considerable political patronage. They also enjoyed a great degree of social mobility, some of them going on to become military commanders, aristocrats, statesmen and even founders their own kingdoms.
If none of this sounds familiar, blame it on history, which has a way of eclipsing the contributions of some while exalting the exploits of others. But here’s something that might ring a bell – ‘Malik Ambar’, the nemesis of the Mughals, and ‘Janjira’, the mighty island fortress that was the capital of an African Siddi state on the coast of Maharashtra.
Due to the proximity of Africa to India and the thriving trade between port cities on either side of the Arabian Sea, Africans have often played an important role in Indian history. Called ‘Siddis’ in the Deccan and ‘Habshis’ in the North, they rose to positions of great strength.
There are multiple versions of how the Africans in India reached here but what we do know is that they arrived in waves over a period of time. The earliest reference to Africans in India is from the 7th century, when they were brought here as slaves by the Arabs. Later, when the Europeans arrived in the Indian Ocean, they reached India as a part of the slave trade. The last major migration took place in the 19th century, when the Nizam of Hyderabad hired soldiers from Africa as bodyguards.
While around the world and in India, Africans were mainly ‘bought as slaves’ and used by their ‘owners’ in menial jobs, in India they were also employed in the security and military apparatus. They were recognised for their bravery and military prowess and were a significant part of the armies in the different Sultanates, of the Mughals and even the Nizams till the 20th century.
However, the 15th and 16th centuries were the most significant periods for the Africans in India as this is when they held high positions or ruled in the Sultanates of Bengal, Gujarat and the Deccan.
In India, Africans were employed in the security and military apparatus
The Sultanate of Bengal was established in the 14th century and a large number of African-origin soldiers were recruited in the army here. Many rose to perform administrative duties and some became magistrates, were involved in law-enforcement and even collected tolls and taxes.
But there was one Abyssinian who went even further. The commander of the palace guards of the then ruler, Jalaluddin Fateh Shah, he seized the throne in a palace coup. The Sultanate of Bengal thus got an African king, Barbak Shahzada, who established the Habshi Dynasty in 1487.
However, this was a short-lived endeavour and the rule of the dynasty he founded ended in 1493. Despite their brief reign, the Habshis of Bengal were brave and just kings. They were also patrons of art and architecture, and built many secular and religious structures like the Firoze Minar in Gaur, Malda in West Bengal.
African soldiers also played an important role in the army of the Sultans of Gujarat. One of Ahmedabad city’s most famous icons, the Siddi Sayyid ni Masjid, which boasts the famous Siddi Sayyid ni Jaali, was commissioned by a Siddi soldier, Shaykh sa’id al-Habshi Sultani, in the 16th century.
The valour and loyalty of the Siddis is the subject of legend. According to one story, Goddess Lakshmi was wandering the walled city of Ahmedabad one night and was trying to leave through one of its gates, when she was stopped by a Siddi soldier who recognised her and asked her to wait while he took the king’s permission to let her leave at that hour. The Siddi soldier rushed to the king and asked him to behead him so that Goddess Lakshmi would stay and keep the city prosperous. According to the legend, Lakshmi is still waiting for the soldier to return and let her out, to which the prosperity of the city of Ahmedabad is attributed.
Arguably the most famous African in India is Malik Ambar. Born in the mid-16th century in Ethiopia, he was enslaved as a young man. After an arduous journey to the Middle East, to Baghdad and then to India, he finally reached the Deccan and rose through the ranks to become Prime Minister in the Ahmadnagar Sultanate.
Known as one of the greatest leaders of the Deccan, Malik Ambar was a master of guerrilla warfare and more than once subdued the armies of the Mughals in their quest to conquer the Deccan. Before he died, Malik Ambar got his daughters married into the Sultan’s family, a mark of just how respected he was.
Such was the military prowess of the Africans that the kingdom of Janjira was the one holdout to both the Mughals and the Marathas. The island of Janjira, on the west coast of Maharashtra, had been captured by Malik Ambar who built a fort on the island. The Siddis of Janjira continued to rule the kingdom till Independence and even went on to establish a minor kingdom in Sachin, in Gujarat.
The last major movement of Africans to India took place in the 19th century. It is believed that the Nizam of Hyderabad saw some African soldiers in the army of another princely state and, impressed by them, asked for a troop for the state of Hyderabad as well. Thus soldiers were hired in Africa for the Nizam’s army and continued to serve the Nizam till the erstwhile princely state was integrated into the Republic of India.
It is ironic that unlike the liberal and meritocratic West, the rigid and class-based structure of Indian society gave Africans the opportunity for social mobility. Today, the African community in India is well assimilated into the local population and small communities of Siddis live in parts of Gujarat, Karnataka, Hyderabad, Maharashtra and Goa.
The descendants of these African rulers inter-married with other Indian communities and thus slowly lost their African identity. Today, there are around 50,000 people of African descent in India, most of them descendants of the Africans who came here centuries ago. They speak the local languages, wear traditional Indian clothes and follow local dietary practices. The only way to recognise them is through their physical appearance. One of the few remnants of their African past is their music and dance. Much about the history of Africans in India is still unknown and there is a need for further research on this lesser known aspect of Indian history.
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