Africans in India – The Forgotten Tribe

J. Sigaud

African Migration the Slave Route Project continued…

India ‘Elite’ Slavery

Africans were trafficked and enslaved almost over the entire world and you find their descendants today from the deep dense jungles of India to the plains of Montana. Some have assimilated into societies so they are not necessarily easily identifiable as Africans, whilst others remain virtually pure African. To continue with ‘The Slave Route Project’ series we take a highlighted look at what happened in India. 

African men and women who were taken to India through the early slave trade came mostly from Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and adjoining areas. Trained as soldiers, they were high prized for their military skills. It was from among these men that the generals, commanders and rulers emerged. India already had an abundance of slaves from their own people  to perform hard labour so Africans, Turks, Persians and Europeans were mostly purchased for specialised jobs  such as domestics in wealthy households, the royal courts and armed forces.

Islamic laws and societal conventions afforded the East Africans and their enslaved descendants in India greater social mobility than the West Africans in the Americas as bondage and race were not linked. Factors such as religion, ethnicity and caste were often more influential than colour.

Most East African slaves in India however were marginalised and their existence dependent and often forgotten but,  for some slavery was not an impediment to high office and they could rise through the ranks and become “Elite slaves” amassing wealth and power and even becoming rulers in their own right.

And Today…On the other hand – A Forgotten Tribe!

The African men and women who were taken to India during the early slave trafficking era were known as Habshi (Abyssinian) and Sidi (meaning captive or prisoner of war).

Today there are approximately 25,000 descendants of these slaves, East African Bantus,  who remain in India and this is where they call home. The Sidi ancestors were mainly brought to India by Arabs, some as early as the 7th Century followed by the Portuguese and the British later on. Others came of their own will to work as merchants or sailors.

Largely living in the jungles of Western Ghats many continue to live in exclusion and poverty. When slavery was abolished many escaped into India’s deep jungles to avoid possible recapture and punishment and here is where they have lived in almost complete obscurity for centuries.

East African Bantus live in obscurity yet continue to pass on their traditions. courtesy Narang DW.

Truly a marginalised community,  the children are often bullied or socially excluded at school  which can end in dropouts, whilst some suffer illegal land grabs. Mahadevi, see photo, is a 75 year old widow living in Karnataka’s Magod village. Her land was illegally acquired by a forest officer following the death of her husband. She is fighting the case in court.

Mahadevi, 75 year old widow continues to fight a court case to get her land back. Courtesy Saurabh NarangDW.

courtesy Eng. Harris
Main photo: Siddi Masud Khan, a Habshi (African) minister at the court of Bijapur
Excerpt: Editions Lifestyle Black History Month Magazine 2020
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