The book under review deals with a rare subject in Indian history—that of African slaves in India. These African slaves were a part of the slave trade of the Indian Ocean rim and have been regularly coming into India ever since the 12th century, when Qutab-ud-din Aibak founded the slave dynasty around Delhi. The rulers of the slave dynasty were slaves from the Mamluk Turks who were usually traded in central Asia and used as the core of invading and warring armies. Slaves, in Asia and India, in a sharp contrast to the pathetic conditions of slaves in Europe and America, often rose to positions of power and eminence, married among the nobility and the local population, built mosques, forts and monuments, ruled over lands and kingdoms and were sometimes honoured by emperors for their spiritual achievements and learning. The bulk of slaves traded were elite slaves, in the sense that they were educated persons, of good breeding and culture, and was primarily sought after because they were very fine soldiers.
The book provides very interesting bits of information about how the princely states of Janjira in present day Maharashtra and Sachin in the present day Gujarat were ruled by African slaves till the Indian Independence !!
The Africans hailing from the sub-Saharan region were called Habshis or Sidis. Indeed, the Sidis are a clearly identifiable musical sect in India. The major sources of data about the African slaves are through paintings that depict them in royal courts and battles. There are Mughal paintings that depict the Habhsis in leading positions in the armies and as confidantes of royals. There are also Mughal paintings that illustrate Sidi musicians with their instruments and dress. There are documents of land grants and trade permissions, especially of the Habshi sultans of Bengal, the coins they struck and several other forts and mosques of Habshi kingdoms in Ahmedabad and Ahmednagar that stand today are testimonies of the level to which the slaves from Ethiopia could rise in India. In fact, the shaking minars of Sidi Bashir near Ahmedabad, Yaqut Dabuli Habshi’s Jami Masjid built around 1635 in Bijapur, Firuz Minar built as a replica of the Qutab Minar in 1488 in Mymensingh in Bangldesh in order to commemorate the beginning of the Habshi slave dynasty in Bengal, and the entire city of Khuldabad and the Kandadhar fort complex built by Malik Ambar, the bastions at Ambarkot built again by Malik Ambar tell us that the African slaves in India ruled with aplomb. Even when slaves were not as talented as the ones mentioned above, they were treated as part of the family among the nobility, given access as confidantes of kings and princes and even married into the royal families. While this bears testimony to the fact the Indian society, especially the ruling elites were open-minded and liberal, it also tells us that the slaves were by no means riff-raffs of their original native societies.
The book would have done well to give us the African side of the story that would tell us who these slaves were, about the families which they left behind, what they did with their subsequent freedom in India, did they ever return to their native lands and so on. But one indication we do have from the authors, and which is that the freer among the slaves often themselves became agents of slave trade. Malik Ambar is supposed to have bought 10,000 Habshis and African noblemen, and even commoners who married into the local community became slave traders. Slave trade was mostly done through the Habshis themselves and when some of the Deccani kingdoms imposed restrictions on immigrants because they were used to lead coups and upset thrones, the slaves were dressed up as women in order to avoid scrutiny !!
In the initial years of Muslim invasion and conquests, the African slaves were not very common. We hear of Yaqut, the Abyssynian slave who became the confidante of Razia Sultan. But he appears to be an exception. It was not until the 14th century, when the Tughlaqs consolidated power over much of northern India and surged into the Deccan that the African slave trade became important. The Africans, commonly known as Habshis or the Sidis were mainly mercenary soldiers who also moved all over the country in search of better pastures. In the 15th century they also ruled over a part of Bengal, which presently lies in Bangladesh. But, it was mainly the politics of the Deccan, the Bahamani Kingdom and the slew of kingdoms after that that the African slaves played very important roles as king makers in palace intrigues. It was with such active participation in the inner circles of nobility that they also sometimes themselves became the rulers. The star of the slaves appears to be Malik Ambar, a name that may have derived from the Arab root word, Anwar who rose to challenge the Mughals and was also instrumental in the rise of the Deccani states of Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmednagar. He ruled in Ahmadnagar, constructed cities and forts, funeraries and mosques, struck coins and may well be called to be the founder and forerunner of a political culture that was typically Deccani. The later Marathas consolidated themselves on the conquests of Malik Ambar.
The authors of the book tell us that the African slave trade became an important aspect of the Indian Ocean trade around the 14th century AD. During this time, the Portuguese had taken over the commodity trade from the Arabs in the sea and the Arabs thus resorted to what we know at present as ‘body-shopping’. Ethiopia, or the sub-Saharan region formed the first zone of transformation from Islamic northern Africa to the pagan culture of the deeper south. This location formed an easy access for the Arabs to procure slaves. Both in Islam and Christianity while there are injunctions against slavery among the followers of their own religion, these religions are fairly liberal about procuring slaves from other religions. Christianity totally prohibits the use of slaves among their own religions, though Islam instructs to treat slaves well and even makes provisions to free slaves. Hence the Arabs first converted the pagans into Islam and then sold them as slaves through the middle-eastern cities. Pilgrimage to Mecca often served as a common source for the procurement of slaves. The author tells us that the slave trade became prominent in sub-Sahara when there grew a class of people in these regions who demanded Indian textiles. Slaves were sold to buy textiles and other spices. But what would have made the book really gripping was an account of who these slaves were and by whom they were sold.
The slaves from Africa did not get their women and most married into the local community and due to their important position in politics, they were assimilated easily into the local community. Gujarat, the entry point of African slaves, Karnataka, a part of the post-Bahamani kingdom, Hyderabad, the Nizam’s region, and Bengal, the seat of power for the Turkish and Afghan generals and noblemen who were near autonomous prefects here became areas with substantial Habshi populations. The Habshis were also prominent in Rajasthan but here they were regarded more as musicians and identified as devotees of Bava Gor, a Habshi saint whom Prophet Muhammad was supposed to have sent to India as a religious emissary. What is interesting is that the later metropoliton cities of British India, like Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai have a significant population of Habshi origin. As part of the nobility, the Africans were valued as fierce soldiers, loyal to patrons for they had no community of their own, no roots in the soil and very often brought huge cultural influences into India, namely in terms of musical instruments, melodies and beats. However, what is extremely interesting in terms of African architecture is that they could use the arch as a load bearing structure, something that was purely decorative in Asia. It seems that this was possible only in the Christian world and the fact that the Africans knew its use perhaps needs some further research. Written lucidly and yet with strong supportive historical evidence, the book is valuable for a general interest reader as well as a historian.
Rakesh Batabyal is Assistant Professor at Academic Staff College, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.