New York exhibition showcases impact of African slaves on India

By Sujeet Rajan

NEW YORK: Till this day, the descendants of the Nawabs of Janjira, and the people of the town — once a principality near Mumbai — and in the neighboring state of Gujarat, in Sachin, another erstwhile principality, where the tradition of the Nawabs and their regal customs of old still thrive, revere the Sufi saint Bava Gor, who became the patron saint of the agate bead industry and is credited with increasing the trade of quartz stone between East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India during the 14th century.

There is an integral connection between the Nawabs of the two states, their descendants and the Sufi saint, for over 600 years: they all have African roots in them.

For the first time ever, to highlight the extraordinary achievement of African slaves in India who made their mark in history, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, in Manhattan, is presenting an exhibition, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers,” starting from February 1, through July 6th of this year.

The Schomburg Center is a research wing of The New York Public Library.

Dr. Sylviane A. Diouf, historian and curator of Digital Collections at the Schomburg, and Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins, collector and co-editor of African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat, have co-curated Africans in India — a visually rich testament to the wide reaches of the African Diaspora.

The exhibition retraces the lives and achievements of a few of the many talented and prominent Africans in India. Since the 1400s, people from East Africa, from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, and adjoining areas, have greatly distinguished themselves in India. They have written a story unparalleled in the rest of the world – that of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, these men and women known as Sidis and Habshis vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement.

“It is the only case in history, that slaves from East African went to another continent and reached a high position in society,” said Diouf, in an interview to The American Bazaar.

“The success was theirs but it is also a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority, originally of low status,” says Diouf. “As foreigners and Muslims, Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.”

The exhibition itself comprises of large panels; on each one of them are several images, comprising of contemporary photos, of monuments that the Africans built in India, and of Indian paintings of African rulers and officials, from private collections around the world, and from museums in India, England and the US. Diouf started compiling the objects and materials for the exhibition almost a year ago.

Besides appearing in written documents, the Africans have been immortalized in the rich paintings of different eras, states, and styles that form an important component of Indian culture. Because of their high positions, they were captured in vivid and exquisite portraits as principal subjects or in the immediate vicinity of non-African rulers. Africans in India features dramatically stunning photographic reproductions of some of these paintings.

As rulers, city planners, and architects the Sidis have left an impressive historical and architectural legacy that attest to their determination, skills, and intellectual, cultural, military and political savvy. The imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other edifices they built – some more than 500 years ago – still grace the Indian landscape. From humble beginnings, some Africans carved out princely states complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended them from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian state.

Janjira is especially considered one of the best specimens of naval fort architecture. Well-conceived and well-defended, it was never conquered, though attacked dozens of times. The Sidi dynasty ruled over the island for 330 years. According to one account, the first conqueror of the island, in 1489, was an Ethiopian. Another Ethiopian, Sidi Yaqut Khan, is said to have been appointed officer in charge of the mainland in the late 1400s. The three-mile island of Janjira is entirely surrounded by a formidable fortress of 22 rounded bastions whose walls are 80-feet high

Janjira and Sachin have a close connection in history: after renouncing his rights to the throne of Janjira, Sidi Mohammad Abdul Karim Khan established the Sachin State in Gujarat in 1791. He was given the title of nawab and founded a dynasty that ruled over a mostly Hindu population. Sachin had its own cavalry and state band that included Africans, its coats of arms, currency, and stamped paper. In 1948, when the princely states were incorporated into India and ceased to exist, Sachin had a population of 26,000, with 85 percent Hindus and 13 percent Muslims.

The successive Nawabs of Janjira and Sachin were educated in the best schools reserved for royal and noble families. Some went on to finish their studies at Oxford, Cambridge, and Sandhurst Military Academy in Great Britain. Ibrahim Khan III, the sixth Nawab of Sachin from 1887 to 1930, illustrated himself during World War I. He was promoted to Major, received the British title “His Highness,” and the distinction of being saluted by 11 guns.

The first Africans who reached India in the modern era were not captives but merchants. Commerce between East Africa and India goes back more than 2,000 years. The kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia had established a very active commerce with India and Axumite gold coins minted between 320 and 333 found their way to Mangalore in South India where they were discovered in the 20th century.

Ivory, silver, gold, wine, olive oil, incense, wheat, rice, cotton cloth, silk, iron, copper, skins, salt, and sesame oil were some of the main items traded on both sides of the Indian Ocean and on to China. Axum was also involved in the slave trade.

Trade between East Africa and India was boosted with the spread of Islam. Indian Muslims from Gujarat migrated to African trading towns in Kenya, Zanzibar and the Comoros Islands where they worked with African and Arab merchants. While African traders traveled to and from India, some settled.

In the 1300s, Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta met Ethiopian merchants in what are now India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. The most famous African trader was Bava Gor, who was also called Sidi Mubarak Nob, and made Ratanpur in Gujarat his home.
Amongst the most notable African rulers in India of the period were the Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur (1394-1479 – the first or all the Sharqui sultans may have been Africans); Habshi Sultans of Bengal (1486-1493); Nawabs of Janjira (1618-1948); Sidi Masud of Adoni (17th century); and Nawabs of Sachin (1791-1948).

According to Diouf, one of the reasons why the African slaves managed to etch their mark in India was because they were good soldiers, whom the Indian rulers trusted for their prowess and loyalty.

“The Africans were renowned as good soldiers,” she said, “The rulers probably thought them to be trustworthy and to be used in frontier areas of battle, where they had no link to other clans and other families of the rulers. They were subsequently put in position of authority, and took power for themselves.”

High-ranking Africans were prominent in Bahmani Sultanate (1347-1518); Ahmadnagar (1496-1636); Bijapur (1490-1686); Golconda (1512-1687); Khandesh (1382-1600); Gujarat (1407-1572); Kutch (1500-1948); Bhavnagar (1660-1948); and Hyderabad (1724-1948).

One of the most famous high-ranking officials was Ikhlas Khan, an Ethiopian slave, who from the 1580s onward, was in charge of administration, commander-in chief and minister of finances under Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II and his son and successor, Muhammad Adil Shah of Bijapur. He was the real master of Bijapur and appears in numerous paintings.

Another notable personality was Sidi Masud, an African vizier of Bijapur. He served three sultans until 1683. He lived in the city of Adoni and was essentially an independent ruler.

The most celebrated of the Ethiopianpowerful leaderswas Malik Ambar (1548-1626). Born Chapu in Kambata, in Ethiopia, he was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen. He was later sent to Arabia where he was educated in finance before being brought to Baghdad, Iraq. Converted to Islam, Chapu was renamed Ambar. He was later sold to India where he arrived in the early 1570s. He became a slave of Chengiz Khan (believed to have been an Ethiopian and a former slave), the prime minister of the sultanate of Ahmadnagar.

Freed upon Chengiz Khan’s death in 1575, Ambar left Ahmadnagar to become a commander in Bijapur where he was granted the title Malik. In 1595, he went back to Ahmadnagar, putting himself and his army in the service of another Ethiopian, Abhang Khan. By the turn of the 17th century, Malik Ambar had an army of 10,000 African cavalry and infantrymen. In 1600, he married his daughter to a 20-year old prince, installed him as sultan, and ruled in his place as regent and prime minister.

“It’s an incredible story, and a story that has not received enough attention. Slavery is never good, but this is a great story. A unique one,” said Diouf of the mark the African slaves left on Indian history. (GIN –

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