Sailing Into the Past

From Idi Amin's expulsion of Asians from Uganda to the depiction of this event and its aftermath in Mira Nair's Mississippi Masala, the South Asian experience in Africa has been increasingly noted and researched. What remains less known, however, is the converse movement of Africans to South Asia. In this short essay I will give an overview of the history of Africans in India within the wider context of the African diaspora, and conclude with their presence in other regions of the Indian Ocean. This presence should not be viewed as exceptional. Rather, it must be understood as an integral part of a general and shared history.

The experience of Africans in India dates back many centuries. The history of navigation and commerce recorded at Alexandria in a first century c.e. Greek commercial guide to the Indian ocean, the Periplus of the Erythraen Sea, shows that all parts of the Western Indian Ocean were connected by this time. For the most part, however, the meaningful presence of Africans in India probably dates from the rise of Islam in the seventh century c.e., which gave new life to commercial and cultural linkages across the Northwest Indian Ocean. It is without question that there were African sailors, whether from the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden coasts, the Banadir coast of southern Somalia, or the Swahili coast of modern-day Kenya and Tanzania, aboard many, if not most, of the commercial vessels. That said, the evidence for the presence of Africans in India during the first centuries of Islam is scarce. We should not be surprised by this absence. First, although there was clearly a diaspora of African sailors around the Indian Ocean, their numbers would have been small and their presence transitory, given the work of sailors. Second, most displaced Africans were forcibly enslaved. India, however, had plenty of internal surplus labor to exploit. Thus, the demand for African slaves in India was restricted to several specific categories of employment.

Despite these conditions, Africans did settle and establish themselves in South Asia. The history of African communities in Gujarat and Karnataka, today generally known as Sidis, parallels that of Africans within the larger Islamic world of the Persian Gulf and Arabia. The earliest indications that we have found of a meaningful African presence in India date to the heyday of Muslim rule. As elsewhere, most Africans who had settled in these Islamic areas were enslaved, although traders from the Horn of Africa, some sailors -- especially Somali -- and perhaps some mercenaries from the Ethiopian highlands, moved of their own accord. In Bengal, Abyssinian slaves (so-called Habash) became an important and increasingly disruptive political force until their expulsion and piecemeal migration towards the Deccan and Gujarat at the end of the 15th century. A more permanent presence dates to the capture of Janjira in 1489-90 by a Sidi force under Malik Ahmad, founder of the Nizam Shahi dynasty of Ahmadnagar, who rewarded the Sidis' loyalty by placing them in charge of the island-fort. As is well known, the Sidis of Janjira dominated this part of the coast of western India into the 18th century and retained their political independence into the early decades of the next century. The most renowned representative of this class of African slaves in India was Malik Ambar, ruler of Ahmadnagar from 1600 to 1626. Less well known perhaps is Ikhlas Khan, the powerful African Prime Minister of Sultan Muhammad Adil Shah Bijapuri (1627-56). As elsewhere in the Muslim world, African eunuchs were also present at the courts of Muslim Indian rulers. An illustration from Golconda, which had a large African population in the 17th century, attests to this. Finally, the Asafiya dynasty (Nizams) of Hyderabad, established in 1724, maintained a royal guard of African slave soldiers who also entertained their masters with African song and dance. Indeed, descendants of the Nizams' bodyguard still live in Hyderabad. These descendants call themselves Chaush, a term derived from Ottoman military nomenclature.

A second medium of African influence was also tied intimately to the history of Islamic expansion. This impetus was both commercial and proselytizing, a common story in the global dissemination of the faith. One example of this convergence is found in the figure of Bava Gor. A series of shrines extending from Sind to Gujurat are dedicated to him. Local traditions indicate that Bava Gor was a Muslim Abyssinian who came with several family members -- perhaps by way of Arabia -- to this area in about the 14th century. Bava Gor is clearly associated with the introduction of Islam in this part of India, and his shrines are dedicated to his memory as a Muslim pir or saint. The tomb of Bava Gor at Ratanpur makes this the most important dargah among all the shrines dedicated to his cult. It remains an important pilgrimage site to this day. Bava Gor is also said to have introduced the agate bead trade to this part of western India. In actuality, the commerce in agate beads has a much deeper history and can be traced back several millennia earlier to the Indus Valley Civilization. What seems quite possible is that the coming of Bava Gor represents the opening of this trade to eastern Africa and with it the exploitation of agate seams at places like Ratanpur, in southern Gujarat.

The modern Sidi communities in Sind and Gujarat do not appear to be descendants of these original pioneers. Instead, the members of these scattered communities, who number fewer than ten thousand in all of India, have their roots in Bantu-speaking Africa, although some may also have Somali origins. Many of their ancestors were probably brought to western India by force as court retainers. For example, local traditions in Gujarat indicate that the Sidis were called to entertain indigenous dignitaries by performing dances called goma. In Swahili ngoma is a generic term for drum or dance. This suggests east rather than northeast African origin for this population. With the gradual establishment of British rule in India and the abolition of slavery in 1842, it seems likely that many Africans who had been bound to their masters in the urban ports of western India migrated into the interior. Here they either settled among older Sidi communities or established new villages.

Another dimension of the African experience in India was shaped by the Europeans who established themselves at various coastal entrepôts from Diu to Calcutta. Like Muslims earlier, the Europeans generally used African slave labor in India as sailors on their ships, soldiers in their armies, and servants in their households. The Portuguese, in particular, exploited their outposts in East Africa to introduce slaves to India. Slaves from Mozambique were specifically included in ships' crews for India. The literature is full of accounts of Portuguese officials in Goa borne on litters by slaves and surrounded by large retinues of lavishly clothed bondsmen. More than anything else, this was a form of conspicuous consumption, something the Portuguese shared with their contemporaries among the Indian ruling classes. When slavery was abolished in the Portuguese empire most freedmen abandoned Goa for the foothills of north Karnataka where today their descendants may be found in small Sidi villages, some Christian, some Muslim, still others Hindu. It seems likely that these communities also integrated descendants of the once powerful Sidis of Janjira. It was Diu, in Gujarat, however, that had the strongest commercial ties to Mozambique through its communities of Hindu and Muslim traders. As late as 1838 the African population comprised six percent of the town's total inhabitants. The end of slavery in Portuguese India in 1855 probably encouraged many of these Africans also to drift away from the town into the hinterland, where their offspring may be counted among today's Sidis of Gujarat. Africans were also introduced as soldiers to Sri Lanka in the 17th century. When the British seized the island early in the 19th century Africans were again among the occupying army. In both Portuguese India and British Sri Lanka African soldiers were often to be found in regimental bands. With the exception of a small African-descended community at Puttalam on the west coast of the island, these Africans have disappeared into the local population. But a vivid index of their cultural influence lives on in the genre of popular song known as kaferingha that is still performed at Trincomalee and Batticaloa on the eastern coast of the island.

From the late 18th century right through the following century, however, all areas of the Indian Ocean were steadily drawn into the developing world economy that was driven by the industrial revolution in Europe and America. First, urban expansion in the principal port cities created a new demand for labor that was satisfied by the importation of African slaves from both northeast and eastern Africa. Second, the expansion of date plantations in the Persian Gulf intensified the demand for bonded labor from Africa. Third, expansion of the pearl industry in both the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf created parallel labor demands that were satisfied from the same sources. As a consequence, there are significant modern Afro-descended populations throughout the region. This radical shift in the economic and social history of the region was intimately linked to the extension of British hegemony in the Indian Ocean. For East Africa, the Indian merchant capitalists in British Bombay were key to the imperial system. Thus the rise of Oman under the Busaidi dynasty would have been unthinkable without the commercial skills and access to capital of the very large community of Indian merchants first at Muscat, the Omani capital before 1840, and then at Zanzibar, which became its center of operations thereafter. Similarly, the British seizure of Aden in 1838 transformed a settlement that was long past its prime into a major crossroads of the western Indian Ocean. The opening of the Suez Canal in November 1869 completed the network that linked all of these parts to British India and to the evolving domination of British capital throughout the Western Indian Ocean. Finally, when the British abolished the slave trade and began to police the world's oceans in the 19th century, they made Bombay one of the principal ports where they resettled liberated African captives. Some members of the liberated African community which evolved in Bombay were relocated by the British to provide labor for the coconut plantations of the Seychelles Islands. Others found their way to Mauritius to work on the booming sugar estates. A smaller community settled as a Christian missionary outpost on the Muslim Swahili coast outside of Mombasa, in what is today Kenya, where they were known as Bombay Africans. This experiment was not a success and most of the Bombay Africans drifted to Mombasa, where they became a small element in this burgeoning colonial port city.

If we are to understand the broader context of the African experience in India, it is important to recognize that diasporas moved both ways between Africa and India. Direct connections to India are first found in the important presence of Indian traders at Zanzibar and the major trading emporia of the Swahili coast, at Mozambique Island, and in western Madagascar. These linkages were significantly reinforced following the abolition of slavery in the British empire in 1834, when the massive migration of indentured Indian laborers brought from all over the subcontinent to provide labor on the rapidly expanding sugar plantations of Mauritius and Natal began. After the abolition of slavery by the French in 1848, a small number of indentured workers were brought to the coffee plantations of La Réunion as well.

Although I have said very little about the ethnic origins of the diasporic African communities in the Indian Ocean, material for further research of this complex issue is available. This information ranges from African enthnonyms in family clan names among the Sidis of Jambur, to African language survivals among Sidi communities, forms of music and musical instrumentation, dances we can identify at the dargah of Bava Gor at Ratanpur and religious practices such as zar possession (which can be directly traced to its origins in Northeast Africa) at Bandar Abbas, Kuwait, and in 19th-century Mekka. What we require now is detailed research into the histories of these different communities and live cultural artifacts in order to provide a more complete appreciation of Africans in India and the Indian Ocean world.

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