Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora

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In a fascinating international webinar titled ‘Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora’ which took place as part of a series of intellectual interventions for The Black Story project, a virtual interactive exhibition - Nahar Khan, curator of The Black Story and Executive Director of Gallery Cosmos and Cosmos Foundation, and Dr Kenneth X Robbins, who is a well-known and prolific researcher, archivist and curator of historical pieces and artworks, delve into conversations recently, on the historical and unexplored ties between the African and South Asian communities.

Alongside being a collector and an independent scholar, Dr Robbins has curated more than a dozen Indian exhibits and five scholarly conferences. In addition to publishing more than 120 articles, he co-edited a three-volume series on Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora; addressing ‘African Rulers and Generals in India’, ‘African Diasporan Communities Across South Asia’ and ‘Black Ambassadors of Politics, Religion and Jazz in India’.

According to history, the ties between Black and South Asian communities are not just limited to the African and South Asian diaspora in the West. One of the important and often unexplored parts of the Global African Diaspora is Afro-South Asia, which is a testament that the African descended communities have existed in the Indian Subcontinent for hundreds of years, and have settled in countries such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Africans and their dynamic entry in South Asia

“Africans had not only migrated across the Indian Ocean as slaves and traders,” Dr Robbins said. “They were also mercenaries, soldiers, and more. While Africans moved to South Asia, they eventually settled down here to play an essential role in the Indian subcontinent’s history of kingdoms, conquests and wars. They made contributions to this region’s history as soldiers and mercenaries, traders and merchants, musicians, scholars, and even generals and rulers. Africans were an integral part of several Indian Sultanates, and some even started their own dynasties. Early evidence suggests that the Africans came to India as early as the 4th Century, but they flourished as traders, artists, rulers, architects and reformers between the 14th Century and 17th Century.”

“The Africans were successful in India due to their military prowess and administrative skills. African men were employed in very specialized jobs as soldiers, palace guards, or bodyguards; they were able to rise through the ranks, becoming generals, admirals, and administrators. Indian rulers trusted Africans and their skills. This was true, especially in areas where hereditary authority was weak, and there was ongoing instability due to struggles between factions.”

The Habshi Dynasty in Bengal

Addressing the Habshi dynasty, one of the most fascinating and interesting dynasties and time periods in the history of Bengal, Nahar Khan asked Dr Robbins for his opinion regarding their African origin and presence as the rulers of Bengal between 1486 and 1493, to which Dr Robbins explained the dynasty and talked about their signature coins, paintings and more.

Africans, mostly the Abyssinian (inhabitants of Ethiopia in East Africa) slaves in pre-British India, also known as Ḥabshi, were frequently employed by the chiefs of Muslim governances in India, especially in the Deccan. Many Ḥabshi rose to high office, and some became independent from slavery. Habshis in western India and the Sidis of Janjira commanded the Bijapur sultan’s fleet and became independent chiefs. They went on to establish African dynasties in Janjira and Sachin on the western coast of India. Some took power on an individual basis, such as Sidi Masud in Adoni in Southern India and Malik Ambar in Ahmadnagar in Western India.

Initially serving in the government forces, the Habshis managed to seize power from the Sultans under the leadership of Barbak Shahzada who conquered the throne of the Bengal Sultanate, laying the foundation of the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487 and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah, who was followed by three other Abyssinian rulers. His successor Saif al-Din Firuz is considered the best of the Habshi rulers. He is said to have been a brave and just king, benevolent to the poor and needy, and a patron of art and architecture. Firuz is believed to have established and patronized a number of religious and secular structures, including the Firuz Minar at Gaur which still stands tall and is often compared to the Qutub Minar in Delhi, both in appearance and its significance as a historical monument.

The Habshi rule of Bengal came to an end in 1493, when Sayyeed Husain Sharif Makki (Alauddin Husain Shah) seized the power by dethroning Sidi Badr, also known as Shams ad-Din Muzaffar Shah, and founded the Hussain Shahi dynasty.

Africans and Islam in South Asia

Many Africans migrated to South Asia and established mosques, shrines and other iconic structures in places like Ratanpur, Jambur and other places in Ahmedabad, Gujarat and other parts of India, which still remain as historic monuments today.

Dr Robbins explained, “The Mughals defeated the Sultans of Gujarat in 1573, however, a whole series of mosques, Sufi complexes and tombs were established before that time in Ahmedabad, related to the lead African figures. For example, some of the Habshi tombs, as well as the famous Sidi Saeed Mosque built by Sidi Saeed, where the plaque at the Mosque refers to him as an Abyssinian - who joined the personal retinue of Bilal Jha Jhar Khan, who was a famous Abyssinian general. Sidi Saeed was a learned man, who had a valuable library.

This particular mosque is interesting from an aesthetical viewpoint, as it has wonderful, stoned windows which are incredibly beautiful, and among the most beautiful stone carvings in the world. The Sidi Saeed Mosque is also compared as a symbolic structure of Ahmedabad like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. That is not the only mosque related to an African.

A mosque that I liked the most, which no longer exists is the Sidi Bashir Mosque, known as the Shaking Minarets. What I found is that Africans were building mosques all across India, and the one with the greatest is at a place called Bijapur and is the Jami Mashjid. Yaqut Dabuli Habshi who worked from the Sultan Razia of the Delhi Sultanate built the Jami Mashjid - and we've discovered many numbers of other mosques built by Africans. So, we see them involved in mosque building, we see them as judges, we see them as Sufis."

Dr. Robbins also discussed a highly revered Sufi Saint known as Baba Ghor, who was a prosperous and successful merchant that revived Indian Ocean trade routes through the precious stone Agate’s mining, cutting, and polishing for export.

Widely known as a highly revered, beloved saint - Baba Ghor remained legendary not only to the Sidis of Gujarat and the Muslims but to people of other faiths as well. The dargah of this Sufi personality still remains a sacred place to his devotees. The most noted historical reference to Baba Ghor as a legendary saint is recorded by fifteenth-century historian Hajji Al Dabir, who documented the ruler Mahmud Khilji's (1436-1469) visit to Baba Ghor's shrine, as a pilgrimage in the year 1451, during one of Khilji's military expeditions in South Gujarat.

Baba Ghor's shrine continues to draw thousands of pilgrims and devotees of diverse faiths even today, and the significance of Baba Ghor is highly revered in history. Through helping the African slaves to escape from slavery and reconstructing their identities as displaced people alongside their livelihood in a new land - Baba Ghor made his sacred place in the heart of the people.

When Nahar Khan asked how Baba Ghor is revered today within the existing African descendant communities across South Asia, and also what did it mean for the Indian Ocean trade routes, Dr Robbins said, “Baba Ghor is very often credited with establishing the tremendous Agate trade in Gujarat through the great port of Cambay. His name originally meant "the father of deep thought", and today, we still see Baba Ghor shrines in many places like in Ahmedabad. So this is particularly an interesting thing because we are not talking about someone who had been enslaved; we are talking about an individual who not only came as a trader but created a whole industry, which has now been an existing industry in Gujarat for centuries.”

Baba Ghor became a pivotal catalyst of change especially in the reconstruction of the identity of previously enslaved individuals. His shrine today serves as a site or shelter for uprooted Africans to come together and form new bonds and a sense of community.

Elite Africans in South Asia

Nahar Khan then focused on Malik Ambar, one of the most famous people amongst Africans in South Asia who went from being enslaved to being a king in all but name as one of the most powerful men in India during his tenure as the regent of the Nizamshahi dynasty of Ahmednagar from 1607 to 1626. After the death of his Habshi master, he became the de facto king of Ahmadnagar. Regarding Nahar Khan’s question on the role of Malik Ambar and the confrontation he had with an expansionary Mughal empire, Dr Robbins explained that Malik Ambar in Ahmednagar challenged the Mughal empire, helped Marathas gain ownership of their own land and pioneered guerilla warfare, known for his military knowledge as a celebrated military strategist.

“We do know that he probably came from Ethiopia as an elite slave, a learned man - and he eventually became the protector of the Deccan kingdom against the Mughals. From 1600 to 1626, Malik Ambar was campaigning against the Mughal rulers. He prevented them from conquering Ahmednagar, built a new city which later became Aurangabad, set up a whole new administrative tax collection system, and he also was one of the creators of the great kind of guerrilla warfare, which was perfected initially by him and his troops included the Africans together with the Marathas.

This is historically important to understand that in Ahmednagar and Bijapur, the noted and powerful Maratha leaders worked under these Africans, including the grandfather and father of great Maratha ruler Shivaji. After Malik Ambar's death, his son became the Prime Minister, followed by a list of other Africans in power who were involved in the history of South Asia, however, the sultanate fell to the Mughal Empire within ten years of Ambar's death in 1626. It was not just in this place, it was accompanying the South in Bijapur that we see a lot of Africans who really were the prime ministers and generals.”

Colourism in the historical context

Explaining to Nahar Khan on the two amazing stories - Africans at the court of the Nawabs of Awadh, and the actress Zubeida who was the daughter of the Habshi Nawab of Sachin - Dr Robbins then showed examples of how history and society tried to hide the race and African Dynasties of these royal people.

“Awadh Eunuches were the last really raiding the Nawab of Lucknow and Hazrat Mahal, also called Begum of Awadh, was the second wife of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah. She rebelled against the British East India Company during the Indian Rebellion of 1857. She finally found asylum in Nepal onto Hallaur, where she died in 1879. After her husband had been exiled to Calcutta, she took charge of the affairs in the state of Awadh and seized controls. - but she was never seen as African, while if you look at the pictures of her, she was definitely African - and Rosie Llewellyn Jones MBE, a well-known British scholar with expertise on Lucknow and its culture and with whom I was working at that time, certified that her father was, in fact, an African.

The fact that she was deconstructed as not being an African is entirely a racist concern. There has been a notion to acknowledge the African nationality of these people in negative terms as slaves or queer people or in some sort of a negativities. It is unfortunate that we still let this sort of racism stand in society.”

Nahar Khan pointed out that the constructions of race and colour become recurring issues for identifying facts like this that the society needs to address more - and it is really important to explore and understand the historical artefacts and paintings. She also talked about Zubeida, the African-Muslim actress who inherited a fascinating story regarding her origin.

Dr Robbins: “The investiture on the throne of the Muslim in 1930 had a half-sister, who was an actress named Zubeida. Her father, Nawab Sidi Ibrahim Muhammad Yakut Khan III of the Sachin state, had a long-term relationship with a non-African Muslim woman named Fatima who was one of the pioneering directors-actresses in Indian movies made in the 1920s and often considered the first female film director of Indian cinema. Their daughter was Zubeida, who acted in India's first-ever sound film ‘Alam Ara’.

The unknown and fascinating fact is that Zubeida's father was of African origin. In the photographs and paintings of her films, she appeared to be a white woman, whether she’s romancing a white hero or menaced by a dark villain in blackface. So this construction of racism and colourism is really a very important part of our dealing with Indian and South Asian history.

Afro-South Asia today

The Afro-Asian communities are both historical and contemporary. While the African diaspora in the West is well recognized and explored, the African diasporas in Asia have only recently become visible in the last decade.

Addressing the present-day situation, Nahar Khan said that the communities of African descent are found throughout South Asia today’s world in Gujarat, Hyderabad, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Answering her question on how these marginalized groups have confronted the challenges of sustaining community, identity home and belonging in the course of their lives in South Asia - Dr Robbins said, “We do not see the continuity between these great militaries and political groups led by Malik Ambar. The present scenario seems totally different, but we see these communities all over Gujarat, and some areas in Karachi and also in Sri Lanka.

I think that a lot of the identity and origin of these people has been discovered by outside researchers, anthropologists, sociologists and more. We are trying to bring these people together and telling them that they all belong together as part of a pan African diaspora in South Asia, and that identity is being created.”

The assimilation of these communities into the South Asian population of the Indian Ocean has contributed to their invisibility. Through changing political scenarios leading to loss of patronage, African migrants have become disenfranchised through the years and continue to struggle to find their place in their South Asian societies.

As Afro-South Asian communities are gaining visibility through the works of historians like Dr Kenneth Robbins, their disenfranchised subaltern voices are beginning to be heard. Their eclipsed histories and lost narratives reveal African migration stories that challenge and add to the existing narrative. The existence of Afro-South Asians speaks to the African ability to voluntarily integrate into a land other than that which they originated.

Conceived and curated by Nahar Khan, The Black Story is organized by Gallery Cosmos and supported by Cosmos Foundation. Proceeds from The Black Story will go towards the Black & Indigenous People of Colour Creative Association (BIPOC-CA).

The month-long virtual exhibition is inviting people from all walks of lives from February 25 to March 25, 2021, on the official website of the exhibition at www.theblackstory.com, as well as through the social media pages of the Gallery and UNB. Interesting segments are being showcased in the exhibition alongside webinars, photography, poetry, film, and various audio and visual multimedia pieces through its dedicated and interactive virtual gallery.

  • Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora
  • Dr Kenneth X Robbins
  • Africans and their dynamic entry in South Asia
  • The Habshi Dynasty in Bengal
  • Africans and Islam in South Asia
  • Elite Africans in South Asia
  • Colourism in the historical context
  • Afro-South Asia today
  • The Black Story
  • Nahar Khan

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