There is no gainsaying that a bulk of Africa’s history is yet to be explored. More so, is the history of African and Indian contact long before the dawn of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. While the latter is well documented, the former, along with the history of African-Indians is vastly unexplored.
Hence, not many know that as early as the 4th century (or the 1st century according to some sources), Africans had arrived at India, and between the 14th and 17th centuries, “flourished as traders, artists, rulers, architects, and reformers,” according to Kenneth Robbins, co-curator of an exhibition organized by the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture, of The New York Public Library, in Delhi.
At the height of their power in India, many Africans rose as rulers in India. But, who are these nearly forgotten heroes and why is it important to keep their legacy as Africans alive? This expository article explores the story of “Africans who ruled India: an epic account of African history we must never forget”, and here are some of the African rulers of India.
The Hashbi Sultans of Bengal
Following the establishment of the Bengal Sultanate by Shams al-Din Ilyas Shah in 1352, a large number of Ethiopian slaves were subsequently recruited in the army of the Bengal Sultans. Apart from working as soldiers, many became involved in administration of the Sultanate.
By the 1480s, these Africans had seized power for the group known as the “Abyssinian Party” and began the short-lived Hashbi dynasty in Bengal. The first among its rulers is Barbarak Shahzada who ruled under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah. Next came Saif al-Din Firuz who is considered to be the best of the Habshi rulers.
He is credited with the construction of the Firuz Minar at Gaur. He was followed by two other rulers before Sayyid Husain Sharif Makki seized the throne in 1493 AD.
Malik Amber (1546-1626)
An African from present say Ethiopia and perhaps the most prominent of the African rulers in India, Malik Amber rose to prominence as a soldier for the Nizam Shahi state. Originally initially bought as a slave in his home country by an Arab merchant, Amber’s political career can be traced back to the time when he was known as ‘Chapu’.
As efficient warrior and military strategist, he had proven to be a political game changer in the conflict between his state and the Mughals who had conquered the Ahmadnagar fort by 1600 AD. Commanding a troop of about 3000 cavalrymen, Amber became a nuisance to the Mughals and a major obstacle to their appetite for the Deccan.
Amber would become a ruler of an African kingdom at Janjira and is credited with the construction of a fort at Janzira, in the Konkan coast, by the end of the sixteenth century. His fort, is reported to still stand intact and is currently under the protection of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). His kingdom of Africans, at Janjira, which the Mughals and Marathas failed to occupy despite repeated attacks, its own cavalry, coat of arms, and currency.
Majid Amber’s mausoleum can still be found in Khuldabad, near Aurangabad district in western India.
Sidi Masud of Adoni
Following the fall of the Vijayanagar empire, the Bijapur Sultanate ruled in its wake. Being part of the sultanate, Adoni had the wealthy Ethiopian merchant, Sidi MasudKhan, as its governor. Khan was by then Wazir of Bijapor and ruled unchallenged over Adoni.
As ruler, he began a series of architectural constructions including the improvement of the fort of Adoni and the construction of the Shahi Jamia Masjid. Also, he is said to have founded a school of painting at Adoni, and is known to have sponsored many paintings during his reign.
His reign at Adoni came to an end in 1686 when Bijapur was conquered by Aurangzeb.
The Nawabs of Sachin
The state of Sachin established in 1791, in Gujarat, also had a line of African rulers. Among these rulers were Abdul Karim Mohammad Yakut Khan I, who ruled from 1791 to1802; Ibrahim Mohammad Yakut Khan I, from 1802 to 1853; Abdul Karim Mohammad Yakut Khan II, from 1853 to 1868; and Nawab Sidi Haidar Khan, etc. Sachin had its own cavalry, a state band, coats of arms, currency, and stamped paper.
Apart from the above rulers, there are other notable African-Indians from the past who historians are still trying to gather more information about. Adrija Roychowdhury in ‘African rulers of India: That part of our history we choose to forget’, notes that “it is possible that the first ruler of the Sharqui dynasty in Jaunpur in the fourteenth century was an Abyssinian,” and that “African rulership was perhaps also a part of Sind’s history”. However, there is enough documentary evidence to support these claims.
On why history books rarely talk about these people or the African-Indian relationship which has taken place over centuries, Joyce Robbins of the Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture asks: “Does it mean that these men’s origin was so irrelevant that it was useless to mention it, or is this historical erasure the product of a conscious denial of the African contribution?”
Following the state of racial discrimination in India, especially against black people, a telling of this history will help remind all Indians of the contribution of Africans in their dear country. This will in turn help to create a favorable atmosphere and an air of tolerance for all people of African descent in the country. Also, it will instill in all Africans a sense of pride, by exposing them to the achievements of these African-Indians.
African presence in India is still very much visible today as between 20,000 to 50,000 Siddis continue to reside―amidst in poor conditions―in India and Pakistan.
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