A dynastic diaspora

African Elites in India

December 1, 2006

Mention of the African slave trade evokes thoughts of the fearful Atlantic crossing, plantation slavery in the New World, and so on to the American civil rights movement of our own day. It is often forgotten that in Russia, Alexander Pushkin's great-grandfather Hannibal was an African slave - and that over the centuries an estimated 5 million to 10 million slaves were exported from East Africa to Arabia, the Middle East and beyond.

Many of these slaves - from what is now Ethiopia as well as from countries to the south - ended up in various parts of India, most notably in the Deccan, Bengal and Gujarat, as well as Mughal India, Janjira, Sachin, Kutch and Hyderabad. Coming largely from Ethiopia, known to the Arabs as Habbash (or Abyssinia), they came to be called Habshi. Other Indian slave immigrants from Africa, who rose to prominence, were referred to as Sidi, a term derived, no less significantly, from the Arabic " sayyidi ", meaning "my lord".

Unlike African slaves shipped to the New World, those taken to the Middle and Far East suffered for the most part from no colour bar, for they were speedily embraced into the world of Islam. Many slaves from Africa were actually converted on the boats before reaching the Arabian coast.

Though of course advantageous for them, their assimilation was unfortunate from the point of view of later scholarship because the slaves almost invariably abandoned their original names to adopt Muslim-Arabic ones, which has rendered it impossible to trace their precise African place of origin by their name. The Ethiopian slave diaspora was, however, so important that the Arabic History of Gujarat incorporated several pages from the 16th-century Futuh al-Habasha: The Conquest of Abyssinia . By a curious twist of fate, the first English translation of this latter work has recently been published in Hollywood, California, by the Tsehai publishing house, which is run by members of Ethiopia's present-day diaspora in America.

Thousands of Habshis in the past served in India as soldiers and palace guards and, as such officers were wont to do, on occasion seized power for themselves with the result that several parts of the subcontinent witnessed the establishment of Habshi ruling dynasties, of no small cultural interest, importance and grandeur. The best known of these slave rulers was Malik Ambar, who was sold at the Red Sea port of Mocha, famous for its export of coffee, and was resold several times before ending up as ruler of the Deccan, where he emerged as one of the most notable opponents of the Mughals.

The historical importance of the Habshis was first noted by Hiob Ludolf, the German linguist and founder of Ethiopian studies in Europe, who wrote about them in his Commentarius ad suam Historia Aethiopicam , which was published in Frankfurt in 1691.

Much since then has been written about them in 19th and 20th-century histories of India. What is new about Kenneth Robbins and John McLeod's African Elites in India is that they have brought the history of the Habshis alive, and compressed it into a single volume - with invaluable genealogies of Habshi dynasties, and colour reproductions of truly wonderful Mughal and other paintings. This makes African Elites in India not only a work of scholarship, but also a resource that will be of interest to art historians. It offers numerous medieval Indian paintings, as well as photographs of the buildings - palaces, mosques and mausolea in which the Habshi saga was enacted.

African Elites in India is replete with fascinating paintings of the Habshi leaders, among them Malik Ambar. There are also culturally interesting scenes of Habshis serving as eunuchs, warriors and court secretaries, making an inventory of weapons, fighting with spears, holding ceremonial shields and riding stately elephants, as well as dancing, playing African-style lyres - and paying respect to the Mughal emperor Akbar. There are also charming pictures of an apparently frightened young African elephant brought to Jahangir as well as the famous, and often reproduced, Abyssinian zebra, which reached the Indian court in 1621. When first seen, people thought it had been painted by hand, but later recognised that it was the work of the Almighty alone.

This admirable book carries forewords by two of present-day India's leading Sidis, the Newab of Sachin and the Begum of Janjira, and by Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, who has done more than anyone to focus contem porary scholarly interest on the African diaspora in India.

Richard Pankhurst is the founder of the Institute of Ethiopian Studies, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia.

African Elites in India

Editor - Kenneth X. Robbins and John McLeodMapin
Pages - 224
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 1 890206 97 0

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