Afro-South Asia: A Forgotten History Of South Asia’s Africans
The ties between Black and South Asian communities are not just limited to the African and South Asian diaspora in the West.
Afro-South Asia is an important and often unexplored part of the Global African Diaspora.
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.
African Diaspora in South Asia:
The Siddis are the largest community of Afro-South Asians in India. They settled around the western coast and in areas like Karnataka, Gujarat and Hyderabad in India. It is estimated that there are about 6,000-7,000 Siddis in India.
Members of this community are mostly descended from the Bantu peoples of Southeast Africa, and Habesha immigrants. Some were merchants, sailors, indentured servants, slaves, and mercenaries.
The Siddi people are also known as Sidi, Siddhi, Sheedi or Habshi. The Siddi population is currently estimated at around 850,000 individuals, with Karnataka, Gujarat, and Hyderabad in India, and Makran and Karachi in Pakistan, as the main population centres.
Pakistani-African descendants consist of the "Makrani", "Sheedi" or "Habshi".
The Makrani are the inhabitants of the Makran coast of Balochistan in Pakistan and lower Sindh. The Siddis or Sheedi in Karachi live in the area of Lyari and other nearby coastal areas.
Although most people use the term Siddis to describe many of the African populations in Pakistan, they are not all Siddis. The Sheedis are divided into four clans or houses: Kharadar Makan, Hyderabad Makan, Lassi Makan and Belaro Makan.
Many Afro-Pakistanis are described to have "assimilated" themselves into the "dominant culture". While Sheedis have assimilated into Pakistani Baloch culture, the instrument, songs and dance of the Sheedis appear to be derived from Africa. Linguistically, Makranis are Balochi and Sindhi and speak a dialect of Urdu referred to as Makrani.
The Afro-Sri Lankan Kaffirs in Sinhala and kāpili, are a Sri Lankan community that emerged in the 16th-century due to Portuguese colonialism.
When Dutch colonialists arrived in about 1600, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast. However, the Kaffirs were chained up and used by the Dutch as soldiers in their fight against the Sinhalese Kingdom.
After the Sinhalese successfully repelled the Dutch in 1796, the Kaffirs were further marginalized by an influx of Indian labourers imported by the British. The Indian labourers took most of the work on tea and rubber estates. The descendants of the Kaffirs survived in pockets along the island's coastal regions of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Negombo.
Sri Lankans of African descent are proud to be Sri Lankans and also acknowledge their African history. They are believed to have roots in the region that today corresponds to the Republic of Mozambique.
The community's classical traditions of dance and song performance are described as the strongest indicators of their cultural retention in preserving Africa's ancient traditions of religions, culture and civilization. Many Sri Lankans of African descent speak what has been described as a "creole" mixture of both the Sinhalese and Tamil languages.
While they have been dis-empowered since the European colonizers have left the island, the Kaffir continue to try and find their role in Sri Lankan society.
African movement across the Indian Ocean
Trade, colonization and slavery have been drivers of migration, interconnecting people of diverse ethnicity globally.
The most well-known narrative of the African movement to South Asia is the slave trade. An estimated 12.5 million Africans were involuntarily moved across the Sahara, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to unfamiliar lands where they were re-rooted.
It is important to note that while there was forced migration, there was also the free and purposeful movement of Africans to the Asian subcontinent. The voluntary movement of Africans was concurrent with the forced uprooting of these peoples.
Although Africans have been crossing the Indian Ocean to Asia for over a millennium, most of those who make up the Indo-African population came in the past five hundred years. Most were mercenaries or prisoners of war for the Muslim rulers for whom they represented a high-status symbol. Africans also came as midwives, herbalists, musicians, sailors, and merchants. Comparatively few were brought over as slaves, as India's caste society provided ample cheap labour for the ruling elite. Today's Afro-South Asians trace their ancestry from the East African coast from Sudan to Mozambique, but some came from as far off as South Africa and even Nigeria.
Learning about the African diaspora in South Asia by considering voluntary and involuntary migration offers a more realistic portrayal of Africans. It helps us see them as more than free labour to be exploited. It demonstrates the extent to which African migrants engaged the world and contributed to communities.
History of Africans in South Asia
While Africans moved to South Asia as slaves and traders, 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 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.
African and Abyssinian slaves in pre-British India, also known as Ḥabshi, were frequently employed by the chiefs of Muslim India, especially in the Deccan. They mostly came from the Horn of Africa to the subcontinent. Many Ḥabshi rose to high office, and some became independent. Habshis in western India and the Sidis of Janjira commanded the Bijapur sultan’s fleet and became independent chiefs.
In Bengal, the Habshis took power for their group as the Abyssinian Party, establishing the Habshi State during the 19th century. 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. Malik Ambar in Ahmadnagar went on to become a ruler and celebrated military strategists. Ambar was known for taking on the powerful Mughal rulers of northern India.
They defied the Marathas and, in 1670, transferred their allegiance to the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. They accepted British supremacy and maintained their state until 1948 when it was integrated with the Bombay state of the new Indian union.
Another significant African population is the Shemali; originating from Kano, Nigeria, they came to India via Sudan and Mecca following their Hajj pilgrimage. Under the leadership of a wealthy merchant known as Baba Ghor, the Shemali became prosperous through the precious stone Agate’s mining and trade. This group of Afro-South Asians retained quite a few African customs, and Baba Ghor and the story of their arrival in India is proudly remembered.
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.
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.
The dynamics of their identity shaped by strong cultural memories highlight their African roots. As people with dual belongings, identifying with both the “homeland” of Africa and the “hostland” of their South Asian community, Afro-South Asians have a unique identity.
As Afro-South Asian communities gain visibility, 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.