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African Diaspora in India-The Siddis

Merchants, Slaves and Rulers of the Deccan Regions........................Ramdas Iyer

Nearly four decades ago my college mate, Rupak Swali used to tell me about his family’s fabled presence in Zanzibar for over 200 years, until the 1940s, as advisors to the Sultans of Oman who ruled this famed 'Spice Island". Despite being Hindus, his family took the name Swali for the Swahili language spoken by the Bantu peoples of east Africa. His amazing ancestral home in India's west coast, Bhuj, is testimony to the trade and wealth amassed by Indian merchants as they followed the trade winds from the State of Gujarat in India’s west coast to the African continent.
Fascination with such tales and my travels across Africa eventually inspired me to write about the African dispersal into the Indian subcontinent, a subject of much scholarship lately. In preparing this article my research on the subject included the works of African and Indian scholars on this subject in order to gain a proper perspective.

The history of African arrival into India is complex and broad, however, it started with oceanic trade. The Africans came in two separate waves to India. The first wave came from the Abyssinian empire of Aksum between 4th and 8th century mostly as Ethiopian traders, settlers and along with a few who were sold as slaves. They were the old order and were called the Habshis, meaning Abyssinian in Arabic. They were mostly Christian and despite conversions to Islam, many still maintain their original identity. The second wave arrived between the 13th and 18th century mostly extracted from Tanzania and the Somali coast to become soldiers or servants during the Muslim conflicts in India at that time. As North and Central India was invaded by Islamic rulers between the 12th and 19th centuries, they accelerated the import of Africans to India.
Although Africans have been crossing the Indian Ocean for over a millennium, most of those who make up the Afro-Indian population in India came in the past five hundred years. Not all of them were brought as slaves as India's caste-based society provided ample cheap labor for the ruling elite. Some arrivals were fortune hunters, herbalists, musicians, sailors, job seekers, merchants and even conquerors. The largest concentration of Africans was found in the western part of India, particularly in and around port cities facing Africa. It is reported that there were about 40,000 soldiers and 12,000 artisans of African origin in Mughal Delhi alone in the 14th century.
African immigrants, who are locally known as Siddis, presently live in various geographical pockets of India forming their own ethnic enclaves amidst their host societies. A recent chromosomal analysis of a comprehensive group of Siddis from different parts of India indicate a 67-72% Bantu Sub Saharan markers while the balance shows an inherited ancestry of Indian and Portuguese Europeans.

Many agree that the main source of slavery among the peoples of sub-Saharan Africa were the prevalent wars among the various tribal peoples of the African continent. War captives were often enslaved and either retained to work for their new masters or sold to other parts of the world including India. The enslaved Africans were taken across the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to the Arabian Peninsula and then onto the Indian subcontinent. In time, the descendants of Afro-Arabs would become among the leading sailors in the region. Guiding dhows propelled by seasonal winds, these mariners transported and traded a range of commodities, including slave cargo, between Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Gujarati merchants used to trade in Africa, selling Indian commodities and buying in return African raw material that was required in India. The most important item sought by traders was African ivory, but importers faced difficulties transporting from the inaccessible inland Africa to the coast.
It was relatively easier to buy slaves who would carry the ivory from the interior. This also provided an opportunity to earn an additional profit on both the cargo and the carrier after arriving at the coast. As the demand for labor grew in several rising Asian empires, the trade in humans became more lucrative than the trade in ivory or other items. The profit margin of the slave trade increased tenfold in the 19th century.
The profit margin of the female slave trade was more than that of the males. In Islamic India, unlike in the case of the Americas, slaves were mainly needed for domestic labor, as midwives and inside the harems and not for plantation labor, thus creating a greater demand for females.
Despite the dark side of human cargo transport, Africans rose to prominence in an India which was liberal towards assimilation of foreigners. From Gujarat in the west to Bengal in the northeast to the Deccan in central India, the immigrants vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their arrival. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.
Malik Ambar remains the greatest of the habshis in India. Born in the 1540s into the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia, he was captured and enslaved by the Arabs and eventually sold in India. His buyer in the 1570s was the peshwa or minister of the sultan of Ahmednagar, also a descendent of slaves. Malik Ambar’s capability as a military leader, his diplomatic skills and land-reform policies contributed to his success in keeping the Deccan free of the mighty yoke of Mughal imperial rule. Eventually this slave-soldier would become king in all but title, thwarting the ambitions of such mighty Mughal kings like Akbar and Jahangir for the conquest of Deccan for decades.

East Africans distinguished themselves in India as military commanders, admirals, ministers, and sometimes rulers. Theirs was a story unparalleled anywhere in the rest of the world — that of enslaved Africans attaining the pinnacle of military and political authority not only in a foreign country but also on another continent.

The Siddis have also left an impressive historical and architectural legacy. As rulers, city planners and architects the imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other monuments that they built nearly half a millennium ago still stand as a testimony to their ingenuity and hard work in north and central India. From humble beginnings, some Africans created their own princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended their principalities from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.

Most Indian Siddis are Muslim or Christian, while a small number have adopted Hindu practices. With the disappearance of Indian princely states in the 19th and 20th centuries, the Siddis retreated into their own communities and now live in pockets along the coastal states of Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Goa.
The Siddis of Karnataka primarily moved into the unpopulated forested areas and lived off the land, in a rather impoverished condition. After years of appeals the local government has legitimized them as Scheduled Tribes of India, which helps them obtain governmental assistance.
Other than these two communities, a small community of African descent is also to be found in the city of Hyderabad, descended from guards employed by the erstwhile Nizam of Hyderabad until 1948. They still live in their original but ramshackle regimental buildings of the African Cavalry (AC) which at one time housed over 300 African guards.
In Gujarat where most Siddis live, music remains the enduring link to Africa. Some Gujarati Siddis look upon Malik Ambar as a patron saint of the community. In the Gir National Park, home to the last population of the Asiatic lion, the Siddis are the keepers of the forest while many are guides. This was an accidental development since the Nawabs of the state (land owning nobility) who had employed them as slaves during the 1700s assumed that their African ancestry would make them familiar with managing lions. Due to the popularity of the park, the Siddis have cashed in on their African lineage by creating exotic performances that involve fire breathing, gymnastics and dancing to the beat of the drums. Tourists are regaled by what they see as authentic African dances performed by Africans.

Many Siddis, who now consider themselves as African-Indians, are slowly giving up their unique identity as a result of their adoption of either Indian or Arab identities. This is mainly as a result of assimilating through intermarriage and cultural integration.

Ababu Minda Yimenean, an anthropologist with the Max Planck institute of Social Studies in Germany and an expert in Siddi history writes in his book Dynamics of Ethnic Identity Among the Siddis of Hyderabad :" It is more probable that those young Siddis who emigrated to Middle Eastern countries in search of jobs will identify themselves as Arabs rather than Africans. However, identification with Africa and its people will continue among Siddis who still physically resemble Africans. This endogamous section of the community does not or cannot identify itself as anything other than African.
The End.
All photos taken from the Web. This is a non profit article to spread knowledge. If there are any objections please write to [email protected].


Posted by Ramdas Iyer 00:02 Archived in India

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This is a great systematic analysis of the african diaspora in India. As a resident of Hyderabad, I often see the siddis and Habshis, known for their skills in medicine, massages, poultices - correcting fractures, sprains and even more popular, their sword dancing and drum beating (?for want of a better term!). I never went beyond thinking of them as descendants of body guards. Thankyou for your insights.

by Aruna

Thank you Aruna. These Africans could never achieve social mobility since they were relegated as unknown tribes.

by Ramdas Iyer

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