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African Diaspora: African Presence in Asia
Why were there so many African-descended people the Indian subcontinent by the early 17th century and in what way did Malik Ambar reflect their significance to the region?
In Godfrey Higgins' seminal work Anaclypsis, he relates a story of Herodotus giving an account of his travels to the lands of the Blacks: "And upon his return to Greece they gathered around and asked, "Tell us about this great Land of the blacks called Ethiopia." And Herodotus said, "There are two great Ethiopian nations, one in Sind (India) and the other in Egypt". Herodotus' account of the great African civilizations that spanned both the African continent and much of South East Asia, was not the first nor would it be the last observation by travelers and historians alike, of the black civilizations in South East Asia. Arriving in several waves during the 16th century, many European adventurers wrote and marveled at the civilizations they had encountered. However, in light of European ethnocentrism, it would be the presence of a large number of Africans in the region that may have proved most startling. Europeans would later attempt to catalog and trace the origins of these Africans. In the aforementioned work, Higgins not only attempts to trace the paths of incursion of these Africans into Asia but additionally he classifies them into several groups based on variations in phenotype.
The rise of Pan-Africanism in the 20th century along with the increasing scope of revisionist scholars of African history and the history of African descended peoples, has given impetus to critical examinations of their achievements and contributions to civilizations the world over. The reign of the Ethiopian ruler Malik Ambar in the Deccan stands out as a dramatic assertion of African leadership in a hostile anti-black environment replete with incursions by hostile invading forces. However, we must note that Ambar's rule, though significant was not an exception, but part of a long history of African power in the region from as early as over 100,000 years ago. It is these achievements by Africans and African descended peoples in India that have been long overlooked in European and Indo- European scholarship and have more recently been catapulted into the public eye by rising Pan-African and civil rights movements.
The African presence in South Asia by the time of major European contact in the 1500's was a product of several waves of incursions into the region by African and Africoid-phenotype peoples. The first wave, starting some 100,000 years ago, were what is commonly termed as the "Negritos" or "Negrillos" who are spread over the region from parts of southern Pakistan to Polynesia and Melanesia. These include the Khyeng of Pakistan, the Jawawa and other Adamese in the Bay of Bengal and the Agta of the Phillipines. It is with the arrival of this group that the dawn of Indian history begins, "We have to begin with the Negroid or Negrito people of prehistoric India who were its first human inhabitants." The Second Wave of African incursion was that of the Proto Australoid, described as having broad nose and widely separated nostrils. The combination of these two groups was responsible for the creation of the great Indus Valley civilizations of Mohenjo-Daro and Harrapa. Other historians disagree with this view, and putting a later date to the Indus Valley cities, state that it was the taller, racially mixed Dravidian population that were the creators of these civilizations.
Another incoming wave saw the incursion of a taller African who may have entered about 25,000 years ago just after the last ice age, occupying an area from the modern Middle-East to parts of Korea and Japan. They would eventually mix with other indigenous and some incoming groups and today comprise what has been termed the Indo-Dravidian race, which includes Tamils, Orissas and Cholas. This group of taller Africans continued to enter the region, crisscrossing and settling the Indian Subcontinent and Indian Ocean region as traders, adventurers and conquerors; a movement that continued well into the 19th century. The most noticeable Africans to European adventurers were the Habshis and Siddis; Habshis referring to Africans coming from the Read Sea region and Siddis referring Africans from further south along the East Coast of Africa . The Europeans observers often used the term Abyssinian or Negro for this group whose phenotype tended to resemble those of continental Africans than any other visible African descended group in the period.
While many African descended people in South Asia have a more definitive African origin that can be traced through either invasion or slavery, it is often difficult to trace that of the earliest group, the so-called diminutive blacks. While these people have been commonly referred to as the "pygmies" and "negritos/negrillos", historians Yoseph ben Jochannan and Basil Davidson both identify them as the "Twa", the earliest humans whose birthplace along with their counterparts the San and Khoi Khoi are in Central and South Africa respectively. Many of the groups that have survived in India in isolated areas still retain their Africoid features and are hardly distinguishable from continental Africans in phenotype and genotype. Following Gladwin's trail, we can trace the movement of these Twa or Twa-descended people from continental Africa across Asia and the Indian Ocean. Some of the early records of the Chinese speak of little black men who inhabited the land south of the Yangtze River . The records of the invading Aryans also attest to their early presence as one verse, which discusses the Nissada with whom the Aryans were warring as "having black skin, flat nose and blood-shot eyes" . The Dasyus or Dasas are also similarly described in the RgVeda as "having black skin, snubbed-nose and speaking a foreign language".
The eastward invasion path of the Aryans partly explains why these Africans are found in such great numbers in parts of eastern South Asia such as East Bengal and South East Asia including modern day Cambodia, Vietnam and Thailand. Many, along with some Australoids, would also flee into the forested areas of Central India. Another important movement was the Munghal southward push c.700 A.D that pushed these Africans who were occupying parts of southern China farther south into northern India. American historian Runoko Rashidi also contends that they were able to reestablish themselves in south East Asia and eventually build other civilizations including Champa . Trade and interaction would continue with south Asia, where many of these blacks had fled. In 1999, Partha P. Majumder of The Indian Statistical Institute after conducting DNA tests on blood taken from thirty different ethnic groups in India concluded that the first populations had indeed arrived from Africa, having broken off from the larger genetic group just over 100,000 years ago .
The incursion of the taller Africans about 25,000 years ago, also added to the eventual number of Africans recorded by 17th century European visitors, explorers and traders. Indeed this must have been the most numerous group, a factor which caused a later observer to surmise that "there is clearly a Negro strain in the Indian population" . It is also this group, which is most often encountered in the religious and historical texts of the Hindus by the misnomer Adi Dravida, which the European would later term Dravidian, or Indo-Dravidian. The Dravidian phenotype most often reflects a history of race mixing. According to one group of Indian scholars the complexes at Majendro-Daro and Harappa contain skulls of Africoids, Mongoloids, Australoids and some Mediterranean races. One can assume Mediterranean to mean an African-European mixed group as proposed by Chandler . The Aryan invasion c. 2000 B.C.E. also pushed this group further east and south. The eventual triumph of the Aryans and the subsequent rise of Vedic Dharma were important elements in the survival of the race, including its phenotype and traceable aspects of culture, on the sub-continent. Ironically the rules of caste endogamy, which restricted cross caste marriage, especially to Africans left many to marry only within their group or to other tribal outcasts which were largely dark skinned Australoids. This factor coupled with the need for lower-caste labour ensured the survival of this group in such large numbers by the time of major European contact leaving revisionist scholars with proof of an undiluted African presence.
The large numbers of these Dravidians were also a result of a European classification based on phenotypic similarity. Many incoming Africans being racially mixed may have resembled the standard Dravidian phenotype to Europeans, however many were in fact not Dravidians at all, having arrived in many later incursions. In some instances, African descended persons were the product of the continuous contact taking place across the Indian Ocean from as early as 2000 B.C.E. which continued right up through the period of European expansion. The Cholas of southern India for example were traders who traded with and often took wives from the African populations in the Indian Ocean and mainland Africa. Chittick also informs us that many Africans, from both Africa and Southern Arabia, as traders and otherwise, also settled parts of South Asia including parts of what are today modern Pakistan and the Deccan . There was thus a constant mixing of populations from both areas, many of whom took up residence in South Asia.
Many Africans in 16th century South Asia were also descendents of African soldiers of invading armies. It was the customary that after conquest, the soldiers were allowed to take females from among the conquered, some of whom were raped while others were taken as wives and concubines by the invaders. The armies of "Alexander the Great" which invaded south Asia sweeping across what is today Afghanistan and Pakistan and stopping in central northern India, were made up of a considerable number of Africans. The same was true of the Roman armies that invaded some centuries later. One Indian historian has reported the development of the practice of Sati as a means of preventing this raping by armies . Incidentally, the practice was traditionally restricted to Brahmin women, although those of other castes eventually practiced it. This could have resulted in an increased rate of survival among groups including African women.
The most significant invasion would be that of Islam which arrived over both land and sea. The initial Islamic conquest was led by the African leader "Omar the Great" in the 8th Century A.D. sweeping across Bactria and into Hindustan. He used thousands of African soldiers, many of whom settled in the region and most probably took wives from among the local population. This group, who had conquered most of northwestern South Asia, would later be taken over by Muslim arrivals who established the Delhi Sultanate. As in the case of previous invasions, African communities fled east into areas such as east Bengal and the Deccan. Others remained to form substantial communities in what is today Pakistan. Other invasions had also taken place by the 13th century with the spread of Islam across south Asia as far east as Indonesia. This was however largely trade oriented and required one's membership in Islam as a prerequisite to trade safely in the Indian Ocean. Islam would eventually come to dominate northern South Asia. Eventually the Dehli Sultante would be challenged and collapse under the pressure of the expanding Mogul empire which sought to conquer its predecessors old empire. The Portuguese would arrive by 1599 with the British and French following closely in the early 1600's, all vying to control the riches of Muslim northern India.
The most noticeable Africans described by 16th century Europeans who visited India, the Deccan and Bengal in particular, were those who they described as Abyssinians and Negroes. Called Habshis or Siddis, some were descendents of soldiers of invading Muslim armies. The vast majority were descendents of Africans sold into slavery in the region. This trade was part of a broader Trans-Indian Ocean slave trade, which drew Africans primarily, but not exclusively from the East African coast who were sold to buyers in many parts of the region including Arabia, Indonesia and the Deccan. It is estimated that some 2-3 million Africans were sold into slavery across the Indian Ocean between 800 A.D. and 1900 A.D. . African women were particularly prized in Islamic controlled regions to fill the Harems of the political and economically powerful. African males served another, more traditional purpose, that of soldier. Slavery in many Islamic lands seemed to have been based on function, necessity and race. Africans were chosen as slave soldiers in part because of the belief that they were loyal, great fighters and most importantly, despised by the local population. It was this final element coupled with their foreign status which made Africans desired as slaves. The rationale held that they could hold a position of power, without being able to mount a coup d'etat as he would have no support from the general citizenry. Others were imported to provide sexual services to the women of the harems, as there was a common belief that Africans had insatiable sexual appetites. This reasoning in part explains why so many African men were imported into South Asia as slaves and why they often held such seemingly powerful positions.
While it can be argued that the rise of Islam in India had an unprecedented effect on the ability of Africans to rise to power, given the slightly more egalitarian attitudes of Muslims to race when compared to Brahmin Hinduism , one must note the presence of powerful African dynasties that reigned in the South Asia many centuries before. Many of Hindu India's great ruling dynasties came from the lower castes, who in many cases were predominantly African-descended peoples such as the Nanda dynasty who were Shudras; the Mauryans of a mixed caste and the Kalingas of Orissa. Bengal had also history of Habshi rulers- Malik Andil from 1487- 1490; Nasiruddin Mahmud II, from 1490-1491 and Sidi Badr from 1491- 1493. Regional historians tell of the presence of Habshis in powerful positions in the Deccan states .The Golconda history tells of the power of the "Abbyssinia party" of the late 1580's in Bijapur who brooked no opposition even from the rulers. Despite this, it is undeniable that although an African with considerable political power was not unprecedented in the region, the reign of Malik Ambar does indeed stand out as an excellent example of the many different contributions of African descended peoples in the region- their large numbers as well as the role they played in the formation of Indian civilization.
Little is known of the life of Malik Ambar before his sale into bondage in India. He was born around 1550 in Harar, Ethiopia and was sold several times around the Arab world in the Hejaz, Mocha and Baghdad where his intelligence, administrative potential and loyalty was observed and rewarded. He was educated in finance and administration, was renowned as a great warrior and was given charge over several Habshi warriors and servicemen whose loyalty he commanded. Ambar was sold to the King of Bijapur whom he impressed greatly with his skill and it was then he was given the title of Malik, "Like a King" because of the military prowess. His control over many of the Kings troops allowed him to take many of them with him under his own command when he eventually defected over a dispute. Ambar and his band of over 1500 Habshi and Arab mercenaries fought for the Ahmadnagar King in 1595 where he became a champion of the Deccans against the Munghal incursions. His astute political machinations, cunning diplomacy and cutthroat guerilla tactics in warfare, allowed for the inevitable; by 1602 he has seized full power in Ahmadnagar through his control of the military.
We must note the political and military situation in the Deccan at this time. Relations between Muslim and Hindu factions were hostile; Mughal incursions from the north by the 1580's were in full effect, especially on Ahmadnagar, and noble houses were vying for power during the instability. Ambar's seizure of power at this time was to have important ramifications in the era and provide a relatively stabilizing influence up until his death. One of the fist remarkable qualities of his reign was that he was able to seize power and amass such popular support at all. His reign defied the thought that slaves were safe holders of power as their alien status as well as their blackness would not allow them to attain popular support. Both Islamic and Hindu societies were hostile to Africans, both having a clear-cut preference for lighter shades. While in Islamic tradition persons were deemed more acceptable through "ascending miscegenation" where lighter skin accorded one further privileges , Ambar from all accounts was black skinned. The Mughal Emperor frequently referred to him as "that Ambar, the black fated one ( he was an Abissinian"), "the black faced" and "Ambar of the dark fate" Interesting to note is the fact that all public buildings erected during his reign and his tomb at his death were built of black stone. This seemed to be a deliberate action on his part and we can surmise from this that Ambar was indeed aware of the colour prejudice that existed around him and he used the back stone to reinforce the dignity in his Africanness and his black skin. When one examines the iniquity of the caste system in traditional Hindu India, the severe colourism that existed in both Muslim and Christian areas and the depressed state that many Africans in India suffered under these systems, Ambar's rule becomes even more significant. In fact, it is certain that his Africanness was what would have won him much support from lower caste Muslims, some of them untouchables and Sudras.
Ambar was also credited with establishing an air of religious tolerance in the Deccan. He built Christian churches, patronized Hindu festivals and still kept his Muslim faith. His egalitarian land reform system also won him much support. Canals and irrigation schemes were developed to improve trade and agriculture and lower rates of taxation were applied to the poorer areas. In the eyes of the common people, he was elevated to hero status. Of critical significance in Malik Ambar's reign is the fact that his 20-year stronghold on the Deccan checked the dreaded Munghal advance. His continued resistance, the strength of his armies and diplomatic skills and shifting alliances allowed him to check both the Mungal advance southward as well as the European advance westward checking the ascendancy of the British Raj across the whole of India. It was said that once Malik Ambar lived, the Munghals could not conquer the Deccan His death in 1626, however saw the collapse of this stability and African power in the Deccan.
Malik Ambar's rule, did not only display the role of one African leader who distinguished himself in a severely hostile anti-black environment. We must note that his power base was African and many of his top soldiers and advisers were African. He was able to rally the low caste groups in the heterogeneous region of the Deccan and maintain Indian civilization in the face of the threats of both Munghal and Europeans. His reign is significant however, only when seen along a continuum of Africans as initiators, contributors and powerbrokers of South Asian civilization from its inception over 100,000 years ago. Like the role and achievements of Malik Ambar, the role of the African initiators of Indian civilization has only recently been receiving due attention by the academic community, with European and Indo-European apologists still endevouring to conceal the truth of Indian's African origins. The reality is, that not only were there significant numbers of Africans in the Indian sub continent up to the 17th century and continuing into the present day, but it is these Africans that largely form the ranks of the Sudra/Untouchables and are outcasts in Hindu society, that are the builders and keepers of traditional Indian civilization.