The relationship between Africa and India extends as far back as 1495 BCE. As scholars Renata Czekalska and Agnieszka Kuczkiewicz-Fraś point out, “The first verifiable mention of trade between Africa and India can be found in the relation of the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut’s expedition to Punt [modern day Somalia].” Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś note that the Periplus of the Erythraean Sea, a Greco-Roman document describing trade routes from Egypt to the rest of the world in the first to third century CE, includes the first recorded mention of slave trade from Africa to India. As importers brought Italian and Arab wines, olive oil, silverware, and glassware to India, so too, the Periplus advises, they complied with the demands of Indian kings for “slave musicians” and “beautiful girls for concubinage.”
Such enslavement accounts for most of the Indo-African population in India today.
But according to historian Astair Gebremariam Mengesha, enslaved people were brought to the Deccan from East Africa from the sixteenth century to the latter part of the seventeenth century “in small numbers of about 500.” That trend continued on and off until the end of the nineteenth century. Initially, these newcomers were put to work defending the domains of monarchs. Eventually, they would serve in armed and naval forces under Muslim, Hindu, and Portuguese rule, forming “efficient” troops “capable of holding their own amidst the ceaseless intrigues and conspiracies of the subcontinent.”
Indeed, it was these intrigues and conspiracies—specifically, conflicts between successive claimants to the throne, and infighting between kingdoms—that fueled a continual need for military slavery. In a review of Richard Eaton’s A Social History of the Deccan, 1300-1761: Eight Indian Lives, Anu Kumar concludes that it was “slaves imported from east Africa, especially Ethiopia, that came to constitute a loyal support base” for Indian rulers. Unlike the model of slavery employed on plantations in the Americas, the relationship between ruler and enslaved functioned less like “one between a master and his slave to patron-client ties sustained by patronage and service conditions,” Kumar explains. In such a system, Mengesha notes, military slaves “were frequently elevated to the rank of generals, administrators and king-makers.” Later, as they fought and won their freedom, formerly enslaved Africans became chieftains and kings in their own right, if for a limited time.
The exact number of enslaved Africans who came to India is unknown, according to historian Richard Pankhurst, owing to several factors, including the complication of conversion to Islam. As an enslaved person traveled east, they adopted a new faith, changing their name in the process and inadvertently erasing clues to their origins. These Muslim Africans came to be known in India as “‘Habshis’ or people of Habush (Abyssinia) [or modern-day Ethiopia],” writes Mengesha.
The earliest and most prominent example of a Habshi rising to the rank of supreme ruler is the case of Jamal-ud-Din Yaqut (d. 1240). We know little about him, neither his date of birth nor place of it. His career (if it can be called that) began during the reign of Sultan Iltutmish—a former slave himself of Central Asian origin, who reigned between 1211 and 1236 as the first Muslim sovereign to rule Delhi. Iltutmish’s elder daughter, Raziya, ascended the throne after her father’s death in 1236, and it was during her tenure as the only Muslim woman to rule Delhi that Yaqut gained prominence. As the contemporaneous historian Ghurid Menhaj-e Seraj writes, Yaqut “acquired [Raziya’s] favor.”
Other sources for Raziya’s sultancy are scarce, but Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś suggest that favor shown to Yaqut may have stoked envy within the court:
With Raziya’s support his status at court suddenly rose, and the former Abyssinian slave—and now the keeper of the royal stables—became the closest adviser and the only confidant of the ruler, so—the second (if only) person in the country.
Raziya’s reign lasted less than four years, and much of what we know about it comes from the fourteenth-century scholar and explorer Ibn Batuta, who confirmed the claims of Menhaj-e Seraj that Raziya favored Yaqut, though historians since then have debated whether the relationship had the makings of an epic love story. Indeed, Raziya’s position as a woman ruler has left her open to sexist scrutiny through the ages.
However, history overall agrees, regardless of the nature of their relationship, Yaqut’s rank and his proximity to Raziya angered Turkic overlords, and he was killed in a rebellion against the throne. (Raziya would soon be imprisoned and murdered herself.)
In Indian popular culture, such has been the influence of their relationship, that it has been portrayed a handful of times, in a silent film in 1924, a play in 1972, a TV series in 2015, and a star-studded Bollywood movie in 1983. In spite of the historical record, none of the adaptations cast a Black actor in the role of Yaqut—whitewashing their relationship as an epic romance, often ignoring the question of Yaqut’s race altogether.
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Meanwhile, in the semi-independent state of Bengal, east of Delhi, long after Yaqut’s death, a small Afro-Indian dynasty took root. Bengal had become home to a substantial Muslim aristocracy and a Hindu landowning class. By the latter half of the Delhi Sultanate, the two groups clashed, write Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś and to secure and maintain peace between Muslims and Hindus, Rukh-ud-din Barbak Shah (r. 1459–1474) became “the first Indian monarch [to] empower his army with unusually large number of slaves, brought for this purpose by the sea straight from Abyssinia.” There were some 8,000 of them; by the time Barbak died, that number had swelled to 20,000 Abyssinian soldiers in the Bengal army.
Barbak’s military tactics failed to reassure his son and successor, Yusuf, who tried to deprive the imported soldiers “of at least some of their privileges and to limit their influence.” He met with little success, however, and instead installed 5,000 additional Bengalis as footmen in the palace guard “as a counterweight” to the soldier-slaves, write Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś.
At the same time, other members of Bengali royalty worried lest the enslaved gain too much power—especially after Yusuf’s death in 1481. Tensions escalated; Yusuf’s granduncle, Nuruddin Sikandar Shah ascended the throne in 1481, only to be dethroned a few days later by his own brother, Jalal-ud-din Fatah Shah. Fatah Shah had more luck as a ruler, enduring until he was killed by Sultan Shahzada, his Abyssinian eunuch palace guard, in a rebellion in 1486.
With that one act, Shahzada became the founder of the Afro-Indian Habshi dynasty, which spanned four rulers between 1486 and 1493, and was, according to Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś, “yet another example of the will power and strength of Africans in India.”
Ruling under a new title, Ghiyas ud-din Barbak Shah, the first Habshi sultan had a notably short-lived reign (just six months), but coins commemorating it remain a part of the historical record. His tenure was followed by a series of coups and murders of Habshi rulers by rival Abyssinian noblemen and aspirants.
Most historians regard Ghiyas ud-din Barbak Shah’s immediate successor, Indil Khan, the greatest of the Habshi dynasty rulers. He won public favor as the great avenger and took the name Saif ud-din Firuz Shah. Described by Pankhurst as “a kind man” who “confounded his treasury officials by the largesse of his gifts to the poor,” Firuz Shah is believed to have restored order to Bengal, and the legacy of his short reign is evident today: a tower, the Firuz Minar, stands in the historic city of Gaur, West Bengal.
Firuz Shah’s death in 1489 (the only one in the dynastic line to occur on account of natural causes) was followed by more assassinations and expulsions of regents and leaders by the Habshi ruler who would come to be known as Sultan Shams ud-din Muzaffar Shah. Eventually, in 1493, Muzaffar Shah’s reign ended following a siege, and the Habshi dynasty collapsed, to be replaced by the Indo-Arab Husain Shahi dynasty.
Sultan Alauddin Husain Shah was taking no chances with potential Habshi loyalists. “The new monarch made sure that the Africans were successively expelled from the kingdom,” note Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś. After seeking refuge in north India, they eventually moved southward in the Deccan and Gujarat regions, settling in west India. In the Deccan region, they came to dominate the sultanates of Bijapur and Ahmadnagar in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rising in the ranks to become local rulers.
The Habshi rulers of Bengal were perhaps a blip in India’s history, yet they were not the only Black Africans with some measure of power in India at the time, as countless examples of Black Afro-Indian chiefs, ministers, and military commanders are dotted across India’s history. Indeed, Mujahid Shah, a fourteenth-century sultan in the Deccan was known to employ foreigners from Africa. Mengesha observes that “by about 1422, [Abyssinian] bodyguards … played important roles in determining who would be the successors to the kings.” And in Gujarat, Sachin, a small “African-ruled” princely state, took root in 1791, only to be signed over to India in 1948 following its independence.
The reach of Afro-Indians was far more widespread than Indian (and even global) history credits, or at the very least, acknowledges, and their presence in Indian politics endured until recently, even as such a fact was seldom recognized. “[T]he flow of Ethiopian slaves to India continued for another two centuries” after the downfall of the Habshi dynasty, Mengesha writes, but “[d]espite their obvious military skills and administrative talent, [they] were looked down upon because of their dark color.”
Black people in India share a similar history to Black people in much of the colonial world; they lack traceable roots to the continent of Africa. Modern Afro-Indians, called Sidis, are roughly 250,000 in number, and their history has been largely ignored, if not erased, by researchers from the Subcontinent and the Global North alike. The word “Sidi,” say Czekalska and Kuczkiewicz-Fraś quoting linguist Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, “seems to have been introduced by the British.” Many scholars have theorized that it derives from “Syd” meaning “master” in Arabic, while it also has roots in “Saydi,” which means “captive.”
Living primarily in Karnataka, Gujarat, and in some parts of Andhra Pradesh, many Sidi are genetically linked to Bantu speakers of sub-Saharan Africa. They have been “Indianized,” having taken on local religious traditions and customs while the government has classified them as members of India’s many Scheduled Tribes, which tend to be among the country’s worst-off groups. In theory, this means they should be able to take advantage of a reserved quota system that enables them to access educational opportunities, government jobs, and subsidized housing. Too little of that happens, however. In reality, many Sidi are poor, and they live in exclusion.