The advent of a new political era in the west—be it Trump’s America or Brexit’s UK—has meant increasing heated debates on the world’s rising racism in such deeply polarised environments. In the former, incidents like the horrific killing of an Indian engineer, Srinivas Kuchibotla in a Kansas bar, flung India into the middle of the whirlwind with Indian diasporas all around the world feeling like victims of this change in power dynamics. The truth is, however, racism is much closer to home than we like to admit, and here in India, we’re usually the perpetrators, not the victims.
Just five days ago, the brutal mob attack on Nigerian nationals (students for the most part) in Greater Noida based on nothing but rumours and allegations has left the country reeling, with no place to hide the racism that is almost inherent in our cultural experience. And while there’s no dearth of reasons or ideas about why we are this way—caste, class and our obsession with fair skin all play a part—what’s particularly ironic about this turn of events is the rich history India and Africa have actually shared over the years.
Since the 16th and 17th centuries, there was a systematic transportation of African Slaves to India by the Ottomans, Portuguese and Dutch, which marks the beginning of our countries’ relationship. But there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they were around a few centuries before that too. However, it didn’t take long before Africans were deeply integrated in Indian society with some individuals even going on to become renowned rulers, merchants and more. This was a key difference in African Slavery in India versus Europe and America, Dr. Suresh Kumar (professor in African studies at Delhi University) told Indian Express late last year. “In Europe and America, Africans were brought in as slaves for plantation and industry labour. In India on the other hand, African slaves were brought in to serve as military power,”he said.
In the light of these attacks and the rising intolerance in this country, it’s unsurprising that so much of our history is being slavishly manipulated by people in power under the guise of nationalism. Whether it’s Akbar being compared to Hitler or the removal of urdu poets from seventh grade text books, or the strategic leaving out of certain caste-related stories, it’s more important than ever that we re-acquaint ourselves with more of our history. In that vein, here are the stories of some of the most prolific African rulers who once governed our subcontinent that they probably never told you about in your textbooks. Read about them, remember them and realise just how far we’ve come, only to go back a few hundred centuries.
I. Malik Ambar
From slave, to noble, to incurring the wrath of Emperor Jehangir himself.
Undoubtedly one of the most famous African rulers India witnessed, was Malik Ambar. A painting mainly associated with him, is that of Emperor Jehangir shooting arrows at Ambar’s head, atop a spear. Graphic as it may be, such was the hate directed towards him, from the Mughal emperor, who had the painting commissioned to show his disdain.
Born in Ethiopia, ‘Chapu’ was renamed Ambar, when he was removed from his homeland, and began to work as a mercenary in India. This was only the beginning of his political career though, as he was soon elevated to the position of commander, under the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in Ahmadnagar. While he faithfully served the Sultan, he learned how to strategize, trained, and ultimately politics — lessons he carried with him, that ultimately led to his freedom.
He put together a rebel army in 1595, that grew in force, and aided in the resistance movement against the spread of the Mughal Empire into the Deccan. According to a study, Ambar’s army was held up as inspiration to several others, during this resistance.
By 1619, Ambar founded his very own city of Khadki, where he built several palaces, developed an irrigation system, and most importantly, integrated Africans into elite society, by marrying his daughter and son into Indian nobility. Even after his death in 1626, Malik Ambar was known across the Deccan, as one of the greatest leaders of the region.
II. Sidi Masood
The merchant with an affinity for art, which led to his reign’s demise.
A popular belief is that all Africans who came to India, were originally shipped in as slaves. However, several were merchants, who came along for trade purposes. Sidi Masood was one such wealthy merchant, who got appointed as the governor of Adoni. This move occured under the Bijapur Sultanate, after the decline of the Vijayanagar empire.
Under the role of Governor, he began to take charge of Adoni, in Andhra Pradesh, where he showcased his love for art, through architecture as well as paintings. The Adoni Fort was improved upon under his ‘reign’, followed by the construction of the Shahi Jamia Masjid. It is also said that he possibly founded the school of painting at Adoni.
His reign came to an end, when he too faced the wrath of a Mughal emperor — Aurangzeb, who took over Bijapur in 1686. Rather than risk the desecration of the architecture he had painstakingly put up, he simply surrendered, and was replaced by Ghazi ud-din Khan, as Governor.
III. Nawab Sidi Mohammad Abdul Karim Khan
The man with his very own African state band.
With a rather colourful past as a sea pirate, and armed with the knowledge of warfare techniques, Sidi Mohammad Abdul Karim Khan first became a soldier for a royalty post, under the Peshwas. In lieu of Janjira, he was given Sachin, in Gujarat, which till date, still maintains a line of Nawabi successors.
Like other Princely states, Sachin soon had its own cavalry, its own coats of arms, currency, and stamped paper. Unlike other Princely states though, Sachin had its very own state band that included Africans. Till date, the dynasty’s African origin is not consciously spoken about, especially after the state was overrun by the British, when it became bankrupt.
Though, in an article by the Indian Express, the current Nawab, Reza Khan states his ancestors came from Abyssinia, which is present day Ethiopia in East Africa.
IV. The Nawab Of Junagadh’s Wife
The woman who left behind an entire African village who speak fluent Gujarati.
The Nawab, while on a trip to Africa, fell in love with an African woman. When they got married, she moved to India with him, bringing along a 100 slaves from Africa! Since then, this tribe, titled the Siddi Tribe, live in a village called Jambur, in Gujarat. Even after spending a good 300 years in Gujarat, they still dance to African beats every night. Their English too, is heavily accented, although Gujarati is their mother tongue, a language they are all extremely fluent in.
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