Few need introductions to the Western movement of slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. Much has been documented and studied about this horrific part of history. But this wasn’t the only slave route that existed; a far older eastern movement of slaves was forcibly taking people to the opposite side of the world. Between the first and 20th century, beginning with Arabs and the Ottomans, and later continued by the Portuguese, the Dutch, French and the British, an estimated 4 million Africans were taken from their homes, mostly in East Africa, and across the Indian Ocean.
During this time there was also a voluntary migration of African’s as travellers and traders to countries around the peripheries of the Indian Ocean and further east. India and Pakistan were major destinations for African slaves who were favoured by the warring Maharajah’s, admiring their physical strength and loyalty, and who, continuously feuding with each other, needed protection. As well as soldiers or bodyguards African’s worked for the wealthy or colonial powers of the time as domestic slaves, concubines, agricultural workers, wet nurses. With the abolition of the slavery, came the end of this horrific mass forced movement of people around the mid-nineteenth century.
At the time of abolition slaves were freed by their owners, or they had already earned their own freedom, but were unable to return to their homeland. So, they stayed and formed their own communities, becoming part of South Asia’s complex cobweb of cultures. Whilst many aspects of their African ancestry have disappeared as they have become assimilated in to their host countries society, some remain. Many retain their African appearance and all have a passion for music and dance, which retains a truly African style and rhythm.
Generally known throughout South Asia as Habshi’s, a word that derives from the Arabic word Habish, on a more local level they are known as Sheedi in Pakistan, Sidi in India and Kaffir (with no racist connotations) in Sri Lanka. Numbers vary depending on whom you ask and the lack of a recent and accurate census in either countries, has only led to the inaccurate estimates. But generally it is accepted that Pakistan has the largest population upwards of 50,000, followed by India with a loosely estimated population of around 25,000. Sri Lanka has the smallest with as few as 300 people remaining. Yet, what is particularly fascinating in India about the history of Africans on the sub-continent is the position of power that some were able to attain becoming powerful rulers in their own right. The State of Bengal was ruled by Ethiopians for three years before being defeated and two Princely State’s, Janjira and Sachin in Western India controlled hundreds of miles of coastline for centuries. Descendants of these dynasty’s still survive today.
Largely due to their scattered presence and their lack of a real unified social group, the African Diaspora of South Asia has largely been overlooked by academics and researchers, unlike those who crossed the Atlantic. Yet it is a trade route of much greater age and one of equal importance that needs further study and documentation, so that the history of these Afro-Asian communities will not be lost in future generations.
The Mughals, a Muslim imperial power in northern India from the early 16th century through the early 19th, relied on African soldiers, with one Emperor reportedly protected by 700 armed Sidi on horseback. In 1843 an African called Hosh Mohammed Sheedi commanded an army against the British at Dabbo which, despite losing, delayed the annexation of the Province of Sindh to Imperial Britain.
From an ocean fortress north of Mumbai, between the 17th and 20th century the Sidi controlled a 300km stretch of coastline from Mumbai to Goa. In 1490, an African guard, Sidi Badr, seized power in Bengal and ruled for three years before being murdered. Five thousand of the 30,000 men in his army were Ethiopians.