India’s African Nawabs: A part of history that India chooses to forget

Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis reside in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi

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Nawab of Sachin. Image source wikipedia

 A part of history we forgot

Africans have, for centuries been a part of Indian society. While the slave trade from Africa to America and Europe is well documented, the eastward movement of African slaves to India has been left unexplored. Evidences of African slavery is available when a Muslim rulers ruled a part of the Indian subcontinent. But the systematic transportation of African slaves to India started with the Arabs and Ottomans and later by the Portuguese and the Dutch in the sixteenth -seventeenth centuries.

“When your family has been ruling for hundreds of years, people still call you by the title of Nawab,” told Nawab Reza Khan to The Indian Express, tenth Nawab of Sachin as he traces his family’s royal history. Reza Khan currently is a lawyer and lives in the city of Sachin in Gujarat. He says his ancestors came from Ethiopia in East Africa, as part of the forces of Babur. Eventually, they conquered the fort at Janjira and later occupied Sachin and ruled over their own kingdoms. The Nawab of Sachin is a personified remnant of a glorious African past in India.

 

Siddis of Bombay. Image source wikipedia
Siddis of Bombay. Image source wikipedia

“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,” says Dr Suresh Kumar, Professor of African studies in Delhi University. Some of them also became nobles, rulers or merchants in their own capacities. They were expensive elite mililtary slaves brought mainly for their physical strength. The elite status of the African slaves in India ensured that a number of them had access to political authority and secrets which they could make use of to become rulers in their own right, reigning over parts of India. They came to be known by the name of Siddis or Habshis.

The Nawab of Sachin and Janjira

The political power acquired by the mid-sixteenth century, the Mughals had increased their appetite for the South and were aggressively trying to encroach upon the Nizam Shahi dynasty that ruled much of Deccan. In 1600 AD, the Ahmadnagar fort finally fell into the hands of the Mughals. However, the presence of the Mughals in the Deccan was still limited and Ahmadnagar’s surrounding countryside still lay with the troops deployed by the Nizam Shahi state of which Malik Ambar was a part of the Habshi military slaves there. By the mid-sixteenth century, the Mughals were aggressively trying to take over the Nizam Shahi dynasty that ruled much of Deccan. In 1600 AD, the Ahmadnagar fort finally fell into the hands of the Mughals. Ahmadnagar’s surrounding countryside still lay with the troops deployed by the Nizam Shahi state of which Malik Ambar was a part. This African slave became a political game changer, he proved to be a major obstacle to the Mughals’ crave for the Deccan.

Malik Ambar constructed a fort at Janzira, located in the Konkan coast, by the end of the sixteenth century. At Janjira, the Africans developed their own kingdom (with their own cavalry, coat of arms and currency) which the Mughals and Marathas failed to occupy despite repeated attacks. Later, the African rulers of Janjira went on to occupy another fort at Sachin in modern day Gujarat. The present Nawab of Sachin, Reza Khan says “the title of Nawab was given to our ancestors by Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb, since they had not allowed his competitor Shivaji to occupy the Janjira fort.”

The Habshi sultans of Bengal

The Bengal Sultanate was established by Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah in 1352. During this period a large number of Ethiopian slaves had been recruited in the army of the Bengal Sultans. They did not just work in the army, but also rose to get involved in major administrative tasks such as act as court magistrates, collecting tolls and taxes and involved in services of law enforcement. Eventually, they managed to seize power from the Sultans under the leadership of Barbak Shahzada. Barbak Shahzada laid the foundation stone of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487, and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah. His successor Saif al-Din Firuz is considered the best of the Habshi rulers as he was a brave and a just king and a patron of art and architecture. Most well known among these is the Firuz Minar at Gaur which still stands tall, in a good state of preservation and its significance as a victory tower. The Habshi rule came to an end in 1493 AD.

Siddi Masood of Adoni

Adoni was a part of the Vijayanagar empire situated in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh. Adoni got one of its important governors by the name of Siddi Masood Khan who was a wealthy merchant from Ethiopia. He was a virtual ruler and loved art and architecture. This rule came to an end when Aurangzeb captured Bijapur in 1686.

Siddi scenario in contemporary India

Siddi girl. Image source Wikipedia
Siddi girl. Image source Wikipedia

Today, approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis are residing in India and Pakistan, with the majority concentrated in Karnataka, Gujarat, Hyderabad, Makaran and Karachi. Apart from their royal heirs, these live in poverty and are cut-off from a normal world. They usually maintain distance and live in forests. Dr. Kenneth Robbins, author of “African elites in India”, is of the opinion that it is necessary to shed light on the ruling status of Africans in India. “The purpose is to see India in a different light, to understand social mobility in India. It is important for Indians to take note of the place that Africans had at one point secured in the country.”

This is a major discovery of the African history, as India is the only country where they could rule because racial discrimination was not a feature.

-by Vrushali Mahajan.

Vrushali is pursuing her graduation in Journalism and an intern at NewsGram. Twitter handle- Vrushali Mahajan 

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