During the so-called independent Sultanate period in Bengal, there was a short period when Habshis ruled Bengal. They were essentially slaves from Ethiopia/Abyssinia and during the reign of Sultan Jalaluddin Fath Shah, they became very powerful. They were mostly recruited as guards of the rulers and their harems.

A slave called Shahzada, a Habshi eunuch became the leader of the Abyssinian slaves and took over power after killing Jalaluddin Fath Shah, who was the last ruler of the Iliyas Shahi dynasty in 1487 AD. This Habshi dynasty if one may call it a dynasty -not bloodline rule- lasted nearly six years from 1487 AD to 1493 AD). There were four rulers. They were Barbak Shah Shahzada, Saifuddin Firuz Shah, Nasiruddin Mahmud Shah II and Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah.

A brief 4 year period

Four rulers in six years is significant to indicate the lack of stability of this regime. Their attitude towards other Turk-Afghan courtiers and noblemen were often brutal which led to deep resentment from within the court. Last ruler Muzaffar Shah in particular alienated the court underlings seriously. They had never accepted Habshi rule anyway as they were manumitted slaves and they considered themselves noble.

Sayid Husain, the chief minister of Muzaffar Shah and of Arab ancestry, sprung a rebellion and killed Muzaffar. With his death the brief rule of "Habshi slaves '' in Bengal came to an end.

From the above narrative, several issues come to the forefront.

- Slavery was common in Bengal and was practiced by most members of the upper class and this trend continued till the 19th century at least. Various forms of slavery and serfdom were common.

- Bengal's connection with Africa is less known though it was through the invaders who brought in slaves to suit their own needs.

- That the Turko-Afghan rule which began with the invasion of Bakhtira Khalji of another invader's kingdom- the Senas from Karnataka - ended with the colonial takeover by British invasion. They were mostly bloody and full of murderous conspiracies. To call them "independent" Sultans is odd as they may have been sort of free of Delhi domination intermittently but they themselves were invaders and carries little glory for Bengal as such.

Slavery in Bengal

Slavery existed from the ancient era and was legitimate in legal and religious eyes. As the labour market was not large, the powerful classes reduced the poor to extreme poverty and created a slave class in order to meet their economic and domestic needs.

Victims of famines, ruling class wars or the caste system as well as destitute, orphans, paupers and widows often ended up as slaves. A slave was a transferable commodity so owners often sold their surplus or unwanted slaves. "The import and export of slaves was an important sector in Bengal's foreign trade in the medieval period. The sultans of Bengal are known to have imported slaves from Africa, Turkistan, Persia and China. A number of those slaves, after being manumitted, were upgraded to the posts of even ministers, administrators and even generals." (Slavery: Banglapedia)

African slaves were imported as late as the 1830s. Habshi slaves had a reputation for being hardworking and loyal and Brits preferred them the most. The Habshi slaves were the most expensive in the slave market and worked at factories and at homes. They served their masters as butler and cook, musician, barber, house guard, and so on.

Slaves also came from Arabia, Malaya, China, Arakan, Assam and Nepal. Slaves were also exported from Bengal. Bengali slaves were in great demand as plantation labour in the European overseas colonies as they knew agriculture.

The slave market in Bengal

Hindu slaves were ranked as per their caste. However, it was forbidden to make a Brahmin, a slave. Slaves of Muslim families were converted to Islam. In Muslim society the male slaves were known as ghulam or nafar, the females as bandis or laundis.

The latter were girls bought from the market to serve as sex slaves. Children of slaves became slaves too. Working slaves were not obtained from the formal labour market but the informal market linked to poverty.

Slavery was high in Sylhet, Mymensingh, Chittagong and Dhaka where one in every fifth person was a slave. (Report of the Law Commission (1839).

In the early nineteenth century the market price of slaves ranged from five to ten rupees. Healthy, young slaves sold for twenty to fifty rupees. During famines this price declined so more slaves during natural disasters.

End of slavery

As the European economy changed to industrialization, slavery was unnecessary and was abolished. But the Bengal economy and social system were happy to accommodate it. The colonial regime recognized slavery stating that neither Hinduism nor Islam forbade it.

As the Bengal economy and politics changed and European values began to impact colonial policies, the Charter Act of 1833 directed the Calcutta government to abolish slavery which was implemented in the Act of 1843. It was done in phases. It forbade the courts to recognize human ownership.

The import and export of slaves was made illegal but it continued informally. As relatively free labour arose, along with early industrialization, the need for slavery declined. It really ended only in the early twentieth century.

Thus, it's important to recognize that Bengal and Bangladesh are as much "guilty" of slavery as the US which is usually solely abused for promoting it.

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