Skip to main content

Thought you might like this...

African Diaspora: African Presence in Asia

By Ayanna

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.
Egungun, Egungun ni t'aiye ati jo! Ancestos, Ancestors come to earth and dance! "I'm sick of the war and the civilization that created it. Let's look to our dreams, and the magical; to the creations of the so-called primitive peoples for new inspirations." - Jaques Vache and Andre Breton "Capitalism is the astounding belief that the most wickedest of men will do the most wickedest of things for the greatest good of everyone." -John Maynard "You know that in our country there were even matriarchal societies where women were the most important element. On the Bijagos islands they had queens. They were not queens because they were the daughters of kings. They had queens succeeding queens. The religious leaders were women too..." -- Amilcar Cabral, Return to the Source, 1973
Original Post

Replies sorted oldest to newest


Although the island nation of Japan is assumed by many to have been historically composed of an essentially homogenous population, the accumulated evidence places the matter in a vastly different light. A Japanese proverb states that: "For a Samurai to be brave, he must a bit of Black blood." Another recording of the proverb is: "Half the blood in one's veins must be Black to make a good Samurai." Sakanouye Tamura Maro, a Black man, became the first Shogun of Japan.

In China, an Africoid presense in visible from remote antiquity. The Shang, for example, China's first dynasts, are described as having "black and oily skin." The famous Chinese sage Lao-Tze was "black in complexion." Funan is the name given by Chinese historians to the earliest kingdom of Southeast Asia. Their records expressly state that, "For the complexion of men, they consider black the most beautiful. In all the kingdoms of the southern region, it is the same."

The first kingdom in Vietnam was the Kingdom of Lin-yi. Its inhabitants possessed "black skin, eyes deep in the orbit, nose turned up, hair frizzy at a period when they were not yet subject to foreign domination and perserved the purity of this type."

The fate of the Black kingdoms and the Black people of Far East Asia must be tied to increased pressure from non-Africoid peoples pushing down from northern Asia. Indeed, the subject of what might be called "Black and Yellow racial and cultural relations in both ancient and modern times" is so critical that it must be developed as a special area of study. It is of particular importance to African and African-oriented scholars and historians.
~Runoko Rashidi



One of the foremost tasks for contemporary African centered scholars is to provide an historical overview of the global African community. This is a critical task that must be completed in its entirety. This includes the history, culture and present condition of African people both at home and abroad. We are already aware, it should be pointed out, based on recent scientific studies of DNA, that modern humanity originated in Africa, that African people are the world's aboriginal people and that all modern humans can ultimately trace their ancestral roots back to Africa. If not for the primordial migrations of early

African people, humanity would have remained physically Africoid, and the rest of the world outside of the African continent absent of human life. This is our starting point.

Since the first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) were of African birth, the African presence globally can be demonstrated through the history of the Black populations that have inhabited the world within the span of recent humanity. Not only are African people the aboriginal people of the planet, however, there is abundant evidence to show that Black people created and sustained many of the world's earliest and most enduring civilizations. Such was the case in India.

The questions we pose here are simply these: Who are the African people > of India? What is their significance in the annals of history?

Precisely what have they done and what are they doing now? These are extremely serious questions that warrant serious and fundamental answers. This series of articles, "The African Presence in India: An Historical Overview," is designed to provide some of those answers.


Exceptionally valuable writings reflecting close relationships between Africa and early India have existed for more than two thousand years.

In the first century B.C.E., for example, the famous Greek historian Diodorus Siculus penned that, "From Ethiopia he (Osiris) passed through Arabia, bordering upon the Red Sea as far as India.... He built many cities in India, one of which he called Nysa, willing to have remembrance of that (Nysa) in Egypt, where he was brought up."

Another important writer from antiquity, Apollonius of Tyana, who is said to have visited India near the end of the first century C.E., was convinced that "The Ethiopians are colonists sent from India, who follow their forefathers in matters of wisdom." The literary work of the early

Christian writer Eusebius preserves the tradition that, "In the reign of Amenophis III [the mighty Dynasty XVIII Egyptian king] a body of Ethiopians migrated from the country about the Indus, and settled in the valley of the Nile." And still another document from ancient times, the Itinerarium Alexandri, says that "India, taken as a whole, beginning from the north and embracing what of it is subject to Persia, is a continuation of Egypt and the Ethiopians."


In Greater India, more than a thousand years before the foundations of Greece and Rome, proud and industrious Black men and women known as Dravidians erected a powerful civilization. We are referring here to the Indus Valley civilization - India's earliest high-culture, with major cities spread out along the course of the Indus River. The Indus Valley civilization was at its height from about 2200 B.C.E. to 1700 B.C.E. This phase of its history is called the Harappan, the name being derived from Harappa, one of the earliest known Indus Valley cities.

In 1922, about 350 miles northeast of Harappa, another large Indus city, Mohenjo-daro (the Mound of the Dead) was identified. Mohenjo-daro and Harappa were apparently the chief administrative centers of the Indus Valley complex, and since their identification, several additional cities, including Chanhu-daro, Kalibangan, Quetta and Lothal have been excavated.

The Indus cities possessed multiple level houses enhanced by sophisticated wells, drainage systems and bathrooms with flushing toilets. A recognized scholar on the Indus Valley civilization, Dr. Walter Fairservis, states that the "Harappans cultivated cotton and perhaps rice, domesticated the chicken and may have invented the game of chess and one of the two great early sources of nonmuscle power: the windmill."

The decline and fall of the Indus Valley civilization has been linked to several factors, the most important of which were the increasingly frequent incursions of the White people known in history as Aryans--violent Indo-European tribes initially from central Eurasia and later Iran. Indeed, the name Iran means the "land of the Aryan."


It is safe to say that when we speak of the Dravidians as a people we are speaking of the living descendants of the Harappan people of the ancient Indus Valley who were pushed into South India as the result of the Aryan invasions. This is certainly consistent with Dravidian traditions which recall flourishing cities that were either lost or destroyed in antiquity. The term "Dravidian," however, encompasses both an ethnic group and a linguistic group. The ethnic group is characterized by straight to wavy hair textures, combined with Africoid physical features. In reference to this Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop stated that:

"There are two well-defined Black races: one has a black skin and woolly hair; the other also has black skin, often exceptionally black, with straight hair, aquiline nose, thin lips, an acute cheekbone angle. We find a prototype of this race in India: the Dravidian. It is also known that certain Nubians likewise belong to the same Negro type...Thus, it is inexact, anti-scientific, to do anthropological research, encounter a Dravidian type, and then conclude that the Negro type is absent."

Dravidian, in addition to its ethnic component, however, is an important family of languages spoken by more than a hundred million people, primarily in South India. These languages include Tamil (the largest element), Kannada, Malayalam (from which the name of the Asian country Malaya is derived), Telegu and Tulu. The term "Dravidian" itself is apparently an Aryan corruption of Tamil.

From at least the third century C.E. three major Dravidian kingdoms existed in South India: the kingdoms of Pandya, Chera and Chola. Pandya was the southernmost Dravidian kingdom. The major city of Pandya was Madurai, the location of the famous chapel of the Tamil Sangam (Academy). The Sangam, of which there were three, was initiated by a body of forty-eight exceptionally learned scholars who established standards over all literary productions. The Pandyan rulers received these intellectuals with lavish honors.

It is also important to note that in the kingdom of the Pandyas women seem to have enjoyed a high status. This is the exact opposite of the regions of India where the Whites ruled. In these lands of Aryan domination it is said that a woman was never independent. "When she is a child she belongs to her father. As an adult when she marries she belongs to her husband. If she outlives her husband she belongs to her sons." An early queen of the Pandyas, on the other hand, for example, is credited with controlling an army of 500 elephants, 4,000 cavalry and 13,000 infantry.

In 1288 and again in 1293 the Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited the Pandyan kingdom and left a vivid description of the land and its people. Polo exclaimed that:

"The darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow. For they say that God and all the saints are black and the devils are all white. That is why they portray them as I have described."

To the northwest of Pandya was the kingdom of Chera (present-day Kerala). Northwest of Pandya lay the kingdom of Chola, said to be the place where Saint Thomas the Apostle was buried. The same Marco Polo who visited Pandya referred to Chola as "the best province and the most refined in all India."

The Dravidians were an unsually advanced seafaring people, with the Cholas, in particular, distinguishing themselves amongst the dominant maritime powers of their era. Through its ports, the great kings of Chola traded with Ethiopia and Somalia, Iran and Arabia, Combodia and China, Sumatra and Sri Lanka, exporting spices and camphor, ebony and ivory, quality textiles and precious jewels.

It seems readily apparent that the Dravidian kingdoms and the Dravidian people were quite well known internationally. When Augustus became head of the Roman world, for example, the Dravidian kingdoms sent him a congratulatory embassy. Dravidian poets describe Roman ships, which carried bodyguards of archers to ward off pirates, while the Dravidian kings themselves employed bodyguards of Roman soldiers. In respect to the ancient East, at least one author has identified a Dravidian presence in the Philippines, noting that: "From India came civilized Indians, the Dravidians from whom the savage Aryans learned. They began at least 500 BC and soon controlled the coast."


The White tribes that invaded India and disrupted Black civilization there are known as Aryans. The Aryans were not necessarily superior warriors to the Blacks but they were aggesssive, developed sophisticated military technologies and glorified military virtues. After hundreds of years of intense martial conflict the Aryans succeeded in subjugating most of northern India. Throughout the vanquished territories a rigid, caste-segmented social order was established with the masses of conquered Blacks (called Shudras) essentially reduced to slaves to the Whites and imposed upon for service in any capacity required by their White conquerors.

This vicious new world order was cold-bloodely racist, with the Whites on top, the mixed races in the middle, and the overwhelming majority of Black people on the very bottom. In fact, the Aryan term varna, denoting one's societal status and used interchangeably with caste, literally means color or complexion and reflects a prevalent racial hierarchy. Truly, India is still a racist country. White supremacist David Duke claimed "that his 1970's visit to India was a turning point in his views on the superiority of the White race."

Caste law in India, based originally on race, regulated all aspects of life, including marriage, diet, education, place of residence and occupation. This is not to deny that there were certain elements of the Black aristocracy that managed to gain prominence in the dominant White social structure. The masses of conquered Black people, however, were regarded by the Whites as Untruth itself. The Whites claimed to have emerged from the mouth of God; the Blacks, on the other hand, were said to have emerged from the feet of God. This was the ugly reality for the Black masses in conquered India. It was written that:

"A Sudra [Black] who intentially reviles twice-born men [Whites] by criminal abuse, or criminally assaults them with blows, shall be deprived of the limb with which he offends. If he has criminal intercourse with an Aryan woman, his organ shall be cut off, and all his property confiscated. If the woman has a protector, the Sudra shall be executed. If he listens intentionally to a recitation of the Veda [a traditional Hindu religious text], his tonque shall be cut out. If he commits them to memory his body shall be split in half."

Servitude to Whites became the basis of the lives of the Black people of India for generation after generation after generation. With the passage of time, this brutally harsh, color-oriented, racially-based caste system became the foundation of the religion that is now practiced throughout all India. This is the religion known as Hinduism. THE BLACK UNTOUCHABLES OF INDIA: THE WORLD'S MOST OPPRESSED PEOPLE

The greatest victims of Hinduism have been the Untouchables. Indeed, probably the most substantial percentage of all the Black people of Asia can be identified among India's 160 Untouchables. These people are the long-suffering descendants of Aryan-Sudra unions and native Black populations who retreated into the hinterlands of India in their efforts to escape the advancing Aryan sphere of influence to which they ultimately succumbed. India's Untouchables number more than the combined populations of England, France, Belgium and Spain.

The existence of Untouchability has been justified within the context of Hindu religious thought as the ultimate and logical extensions of Karma and rebirth. Indus believe that persons are born Untouchables because of the accumulation of sins in previous lives. Hindu texts describe these people as foul and loathsome, and any physical contact with them was regarded as polluting.

Untouchables were usually forced to live in pitiful little settlements on the outskirts of Hindu communities. During certain periods in Indian history Untouchables were only allowed to enter the adjoining Hindu communities at night. Indeed, the Untouchables' very shadows were considered polluting, and they were required to beat drums and make loud noises to announce their approach. Untouchables had to attach brooms to their backs to erase any evidence of their presence. Cups were tied around their necks to capture any spittle that might escape their lips and contaminate roads and streets. Their meals were taken from broken dishes. Their clothing was taking from corpses.

They were forbidden to learn to read and write, and were prohibited from listening to any of the traditional Hindu texts. Untouchables were denied access to public wells. They cound not use ornaments and were not allowed to enter Hindu temples. The primary work of Untouchables included scavenging and street sweeping, emptying toilets, the public execution of criminals, the disposal of dead animals and human corpses, and the clean-up of cremation grounds. The daily life of the Untouchable was filled with degradation, deprivation and humiliation.

The basis status of India's Untouchables has changed littled since ancient times, and it has recently been observed that "Caste Hindus do not allow Untouchables to wear shoes, ride bicycles, use umbrellas or hold their heads up while walking in the street." Untouchables in urban India are crowded together in squalid slums, while in rural India, where the vast majority of Untouchables live, they are exploited as landless agricultural laborers and ruled by terror and intimidation.

As evidence of this, several cases from 1991 can be cited: On June 23, 1991 fourteen Untouchables were slaughtered in the estern state of Bihar. On August 10, 1991 six Untouchables were shot to death in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. On August 16, 1991, an Untouchable woman was stripped in public and savagely beaten in the southern state of Andra Pradesh. On September 6, 1991, in the western state of Maharastra, an Untouchable policeman was killed for entering a Hindu temple. Official Indian figures on violent crimes by caste Hindus against Untouchables have averaged more than 10,000 cases per year, with the figures continuing to rise.

The Indian government listed 14,269 cases of atrocities by caste Hindus against Untouchables in 1989 alone. However, Indian human rights workers report that a large number of atrocities against Untouchables, including beatings, gang-rapes, arson and murders, are never recorded. Even when charges are formally filed, justice for Untouchables is rarely dispensed.


Possibly the most substantial percentage of Asia's Blacks can be identified among India's 160 million "Untouchables" or "Dalits."

Frequently they are called "Outcastes." Indian nationalist leader and devout Hindu Mohandas K. Gandhi called them "Harijans," meaning "children of god." The official name given them in India's constitution (1951) is "Scheduled Castes." "Dalit," meaning "crushed and broken," is a name that has come into prominence only within the last four decades.

"Dalit" reflects a radically different response to oppression. The Dalit are demonstrating a rapidly expanding awareness of their African ancestry and their relationship to the stuggle of Black people throughout the world. They seem particularly enamored of African-Americans.

African-Americans, in general, seem almost idolized by the Dalit, and the Black Panther Party, in particular, is virtually revered. In April 1972, for example, the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Bombay, India. This organization takes its pride and inspiration directly from the Black Panther Party of the United States. This is a highly important development due to the fact that the Untouchables have historically been so systematically terrorized that many of them, even today, live in a perpetual state of extreme fear of their upper caste oppressors. This is especially evident in the villages. The formation of the Dalit Panthers and the corresponding philosophy that accompanies it signals a fundamental change in the annals of resistance, and Dalit Panther oganizations have subsequently spread to other parts of India.

In August 1972, the Dalit Panthers announced that the 25th anniversary of Indian independence would be celebrated as a day of mourning. In 1981, in Bangalore, India Dravidian journalist V.T. Rajshekar published the first issue of Dalit Voice--the major English journal of the Black Untouchables. In a 1987 publication entitled the African Presence in Early Asia, Rajshekar stated that:

"The African-Americans also must know that their liberation struggle cannot be complete as long as their own blood-brothers and sisters living in far off Asia are suffering. It is true that African-Americans are also suffering, but our people here today are where African-Americans were two hundred years ago. African-American leaders can give our struggle tremendous support by bringing forth knowledge of the existence of such a huge chunk of Asian Blacks to the notice of both the American Black masses and the Black masses who dwell within the African continent itself."


Buddhism appeared in India during the sixth century B.C.E. and came in the form of a protest against Hinduism. Buddhism opposed the arrogance of caste, and preached tolerance. It should not be surprising, then, that it developed a large and rapid following in the regions of India where the Blacks had survived in substantial numbers. On the emergence of Buddhism in India, Diop has suggested that:

"It would seem that Buddha was an Egyptian priest, chased from Memphis by the persecution of Cambyses. This tradition would justify the portrayal of Buddha with woolly hair. Historical documents do not invalidate this tradition...There is general agreement today on placing in the sixth century not only Buddha but the whole religious and philosophical movement in Asia with Confucius in China, Zoroaster in Iran. This would confirm the hypothesis of a dispersion of Egyptian priests at that time spreading their doctrine in Asia."

Dr. Vulindlela Wobogo, another African-centric scholar, has observed that:

"Manifestations of the Buddha in Asia are Black with woolly hair. They all appear to be Egypto-Nubian priests who fled Egypt...The priests carried their spiritual knowledge but lost much of the scientific knowledge for obvious reasons. The well-known aspects of Buddhism and its companion, yoga, are all simply Egypto-Nubian priesthood practices, meditation, and...the belief that one could attain a god-like state if the soul was liberated from the body through knowledge and denial."

In a monumental two volume work entitled A Book of the Beginnings, originally published in 1881, Gerald Massey recorded that:

"It is not necessary to show that the first colonisers of India were Black, but it is certain that the Black Buddha of India was imaged in the Africoid type. In the Black [African] god, whether called Buddha or Sut-Nahsi, we have a datum. they carry in their color the proof of their origin. The people who first fashioned and worshipped the divine image in the Africoid mold of humanity must, according to all knowledge of human nature, have been Africans themselves. For the Blackness is not merely mystical, the features and the hair of Buddha belong to the Black race."

In the first volume of his massive text Anacalypsis, Godfrey Higgins wrote that:

"The religion of Buddha, of India, is well known to have been very ancient. In the most anicent temples scattered through Asia, where his worship is yet continued, he is found black as jet, with the flat face, thick lips and curly hair of the African."


India also received its share of African bondsmen, of whom the most famous was the celebrated Malik Ambar (1550-1626). Ambar, like a number of Africans in medieval India, elevated himself to a position of great authority. Malik Ambar, whose original name was Shambu, was born around 1550 in Harar, Ethiopia. After his arrival in India Ambar was able to raise a formidable army and achieve great power in the west Indian realm of Ahmadnagar. Ambar was a brilliant diplomat and administrator. He encouraged manufactures and built canals and mosques. He gave pensions to poets and scholars, established a postal service, and ultimately became one of the most famous men in India.

In a collective form, however, and in respect to long term influence, the African sailors known as Siddis stand out. Certainly, Siddi kingdoms were established in western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as 1100 AD. After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis.

Indeed, the island Janjira was formerly called Habshan, meaning Habshan's or African's land. Siddi signifies lord or prince. It is further said that Siddi is an expression of respectful address commonly used in North Africa, like Sahib in India. Specifically, it is said to be an honorific title given to the descendants of African natives in the west of India, some of whom were distinguished military officers and administrators of the Muslim princes of the Deccan.

In the second decade of the sixteenth century a European traveler named Armando Cortesao noted that:

"The people who govern the kingdom [Bengal] are Abyssinians [Ethiopians]. These men are looked upon as knights; they are greatly esteemed; they wait on the kings in their apartments. The chief among them are eunuchs and these come to be kings and great lords in the kingdom. Those who are not eunuchs are the fighting men. After the king, it is to this people that the kingdom is obedient from fear."

The Siddis were a tightly knit group, highly aggressive, and even ferocious in battle. They were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, a position they maintained for centuries. The Siddi commanders were titled Admirals of the Mughal Empire, and received an annual salary of 300,000 rupees. According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the noted Muslim writer who journeyed through both Africa and Asia, the Siddis "are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters."
~Runoko Rashidi
thought you'd like this too...

Introduction And Overview

By Runoko Rashidi

"What became of the Black people of Sumer?' the traveler asked the old man, for ancient records show that the people of Sumer were Black. `What happened to them?' `Ah,' the old man sighed. `They lost their history, so they died...."

--A Sumer Legend

This Sumer legend we think is a fitting way to begin this Introduction to the latest collection of essays on the African presence in Asia for it speaks to the consequences that face us when we fail to document our history and refuse to tell our story. This Introduction and this book are part of the very much needed chronicle of the African presence in Asia. It is a story that must be told. Indeed, the story of the African presence in Asia is as fascinating as it is obscure. It is a story that begins, it would strongly appear, more than 100,000 years ago.

Recent Scientific Studies

In truth we now know, based on recent scientific studies of DNA, that modern humanity originated in Africa, that African people are the world's original people, and that all modern humans can ultimately trace their ancestral roots back to Africa. Were it not for the primordial migrations of early African people, humanity would have remained physically Africoid, and the rest of the world outside of the African continent absent of human life. Since the first modern humans in Asia were of African birth, the African presence in Asia can therefore be demonstrated through the history of the Black populations that have inhabited the Asian land mass within the span of modern humanity.

Two recent DNA studies strongly substantiate this. According to the first report, entitled "Chinese Roots lie in Africa":"Most of the population of modern China--one fifth of all the people living today--owes its genetic origins to Africa, an international scientific team said today in research that undercuts any theory that modern humans may have originated independently in China.

Populations from East Asia always derived from a single lineage, indicating the single origins of those populations. It is now probably safe to conclude that modern humans originating in Africa constitute the majority of the current gene pool in East Asia.

Although few scholars today dispute the idea that the earliest ancestors of the human species evolved in Africa, there still is considerable debate over how modern humanity evolved from its more primitive ancestors.

Many anthropologists believe that humans may have migrated out of Africa in waves. More than a million years ago, humanity's primitive ancestors, known as Homo erectus, walked out of Africa to colonize Europe, the Middle East and Asia. On that everyone agrees.

Then several hundred thousand years later, some theorize, a second wave of more sophisticated tool-using humans migrated out of Africa and overwhelmed those earlier ancestors. According to that theory, modern humans are descended solely from those especially sophisticated tool-users (1).

An equally important report, entitled "An Ancient Link to Africa Lives on in Bay of Bengal," focuses on the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands (a remote archipelago east of India), and states that they are the direct descendants of the first modern humans to have inhabited Asia. "Their physical features "” short stature, dark skin, peppercorn hair and large buttocks "” are characteristic of African Pygmies. They look like they belong in Africa, but here they are sitting in this island chain in the middle of the Indian Ocean," writes Dr. Peter Underhill of Stanford University, a co-author of the report (2).

Only four of the dozen or so tribal groups that once inhabited the island survive, with a total population of about five hundred people. This was before the December 2004 tsunami. These include the Jarawa (the largest group), who still live in the forest, the Onge, who have been settled by the Indian government, the Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese.

These studies of the Andamanese suggests that they are part of what is described as a "relict Paleolithic population, descended from the first modern humans to leave Africa (3)."

Dr. Underhill, an expert on the genetic history of the Y chromosome, said the Paleolithic population of Asia might well have looked as African as the Onge and Jarawa do now, and that "people with the appearance of present-day Asians might have emerged only later (4). "

African Civilization In Asia

But not only were African people the first inhabitants of Asia. There is abundant evidence to show that African people within documented historical periods created, nurtured or influenced some of ancient Asia's most important and enduring classical civilizations. Sumer, considered the first great civilization of Western Asia, is perhaps the most prominent example.

Flourishing during the third millennium B.C.E. between the mighty Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumer set the guidelines and established the standards for the kingdoms and empires that followed her including Babylon and Assyria. She has been acknowledged as an early center for advanced mathematics, astronomy and calendars, writing and literature, art and architecture, religion and highly organized urban centers, some of the more notable of which were Kish, Uruk, Ur, Nippur, Lagash, and Eridu.

While Sumer's many achievements are much celebrated, the important question of the ethnic composition of her population is frequently either glossed over or left out of the discussion altogether. As topical as Iraq is today and since the civilization of ancient Sumer has been claimed by other peoples, it is important to set the record straight and we believe that we can state without equivocation that Sumerian civilization was but an extension of Nile Valley civilizations "of which Egypt was the noblest-born but not the only child (5)."

Racial Classification

For well over a century, Western historians, ethnologists, anthropologists, archaeologists and other such specialists have generally and often arbitrarily used such terms as Negroid, Proto-Negroid, Proto-Australoid, Negritic and Negrito in labeling populations in Asia with Africoid phenotypes and African cultural traits and historical traditions. This has especially been the case with Black populations in South Asia, Southeast Asia and Far East Asia. In Southwest Asia, on the other hand, terms like Hamites, Eurafricans, Mediterraneans and the Brown Race have commonly been employed in denoting clearly discernible Black populations. In this work, we have chosen to reject such deliberately confusing nomenclature as obsolete and invalid, unscientific and racially motivated, and it is our intention to comprehensively explore the full impact and extent of the African presence in the human cultures and classical civilizations of early Asia.

Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop, whose work has in so many ways formed a model for much of our research efforts, expressed a keen understanding of the nature and ramifications of the phenomena. In a November 1985 interview with the Journal of African Civilizations, Charles S. Finch pointed out that, "There seems to be a growing consensus or idea in the literature of anthropology that there is no such thing as race (6)." Continuing, Dr. Finch noted that "One consequence of this thinking is the idea that Black people in India, Asia and the Pacific Islands who have almost the identical physical characteristics as Africans--that is, black skins, kinky hair, full lips, broad noses, etc.--are said to be totally unrelated to Africans (7)." In his response, Dr. Diop, speaking deliberately and uncompromisingly, pointed out that:

"A racial classification is given to a group of individuals who share a certain number of anthropological traits, which is necessary so that they not be confused with others. There are two aspects which must be distinguished, the phenotypical and genotypical. I have frequently elaborated on these two aspects. If we speak only of the genotype, I can find a black who, at the level of his chromosomes, is closer to a Swede than Peter Botha is. But what counts in reality is the phenotype. It is the physical appearance which counts. This black, even if on the level of his cells he is closer than Peter Botha, when he is in South Africa he will live in Soweto. Throughout history, it has always been the phenotype which has been at issue; we mustn't lose sight of this fact. The phenotype is a reality, physical appearance is a reality.

Now, every time these relationships are not favorable to the Western cultures, an effort is made to undermine the cultural consciousness of Africans by telling them, `We don't even know what a race is.'

It is the phenotype which as given us so much difficulty throughout history, so it is this which must be considered in these relations. It exists, is a reality and cannot be repudiated (8)."

What is to be done in respect to the African presence in Asia

In this work we have tried to survey, at least to some extent, most of the major geographical regions in Asia and yet so very much, obviously, remains to be done. And there are so many parts of Asia that are virtually crying out for detailed study. For example, someone recently asked me about the African presence in Sri Lanka. My response was essentially, "It all depends on what you mean by African." The majority Sinhalese population of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is itself very dark. Then you have the Tamils from South India residing in Sri Lanka. They, also, are very dark people. They are Dravidians with some of them being quite black. These are the Blacks currently fighting the Sinhalese Sri Lanka government for independence or at least a greater degree of autonomy.

Then you have the group of Blacks arrived more recently from Africa in Sri Lanka called "Kaffirs." They are very similar to the African populations in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait, and known in Pakistan as Sheedis and India as Siddis and Habshis. There seems to be only a few thousand of these Kaffirs in Sri Lanka but they represent the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the island within the past several hundred years. These Blacks have distinct recollections of Africa.

And certainly not to be left out of the discussion are the descendants of probably the original people of Sri Lanka and these people are generally called "Veddas" or "Veddoids" and have a strong resemblance to Aboriginal Australians. In respect to phenotype all of these populations are Black.

Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam should be special areas of research. On a 2002 visit to Myanmar my tour guide informed me that twenty miles south of Yangon resides a community of African pearl divers. Other guides in Southeast Asia have informed me of "unmixed" Black people in east-central Cambodia. The Black presence in Vietnam has scarcely even been looked at and very much the same thing could be said about Bangladesh and the aboriginal people and later migrants to that country. And what about the 13,000 islands of Indonesia, stretching from mainland Asia into the Pacific Ocean? What about Siberia? What about Korea? What about the Black presence in Jordan and Palestine? What about African people in Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the high plateaus of Central Asia? So much of the work that must be done has scarcely even been outlined.

Perhaps it was expressed best by Dr. Chancellor Williams in his classic Destruction of Black Civilization: According to Dr. Williams, in respect to the African presence in Asia:

"I only made passing reference in the work to Blacks scattered outside of Africa over the world--not from the slave trade, but dispersions that began in prehistory. This fact alone indicates the great tasks of future scholarship on the real history of the race. We are actually just on the threshold, gathering up some important missing fragments. The biggest jobs are still ahead.

Ancient China and the Far East, for example must be a special area of African research. How do we explain such a large population of Blacks in Southern China--powerful enough to form a kingdom of their own? Or the Black people of...the Malay peninsula, Indo-China, the Andamans and numerous other islands. The heavy concentration of Africans in still another interesting field for investigation. Even the `Negroid' finds in early Europe appear not to be as challenging as the Black population centers in Asia. Our concern is with great and dominant populations. These are the Blacks who have so puzzled Western scholars that some theorize that Asia or Europe may be the homeland of Africans after all. The African populations in Palestine, Arabia, and Mesopotamia are better known, although the centuries of Black rule over Palestine, South Arabia, and in Mesopotamia should be studied and elaborated in more detail. All of this will call for a new kind of scholarship, a scholarship without any mission other than the discovery of truth, and one that will not tremble with fear when that truth is contrary to what one prefers to believe (9)."

In summation, in brief, we contend that the history of the African presence in Asia, including the African presence in classical Asian civilizations, is one of the most significant, challenging and least written about aspects of the global African experience, and that even today, after an entire series of holocausts and calamities, the African presence in Asia may exceed three hundred million people. The works of pioneer historians and scholars like Rufus Lews Perry, James Marmaduke Boddy, Alphonso Orenzo Stafford, George Wells Parker, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, Joel Augustus Rogers, John Glover Jackson, Cheikh Anta Diop, Chancellor James Williams, Clyde-Ahmad Winters, James E. Brunson, Wayne B. Chandler, and numerous others, to varying degrees, have stressed this for years. We intend to continue to energetically carry this work forward.

It is in this light and with this in mind that we present this volume. It is a search for answers and an attempt to examine and survey several core areas. Among the most fundamental of these areas are:

1. The peopling and settlement of Asia from Africa, identifying African people as Asia's first modern human populations. That African people--Black people--are the aborigines of Asia, and that subsequent and period migrations and movements of African people into Asia occurred throughout antiquity.

2. The impact and extent of the African presence in the human cultures and classical civilizations of early Asia.

3. Discernible African elements and underpinnings of the major religions and philosophical movements in Asian antiquity.

4. Historical, anthropological, and linguistic relationships between Asia's Africoid, Mongoloid, Caucasoid, and Semitic populations.

5. The enslavement and subjugation of African people in Asia.

6. Ancient and modern documentations and historiography of the African presence in Asia.

7. Major population centers and geographic locations of African populations in Asia from antiquity to modern times.

8. Nomenclature and designations for African people in Asia.

9. The numbers and proportions of African people in Asia from antiquity to modern times.

10. The status of African people in Asia today.

11. Are all of the Black people in Asia Africans?

And so with that, for now, we close the book and leave it to the reader. Or, to state it more eloquently and in the words of the great scholar Dr. Ivan Van Sertima (to whom this volume is dedicated): "On that note we close. The Black role in Asia, as elsewhere in the world, has been submerged and distorted for centuries. But it has not been totally eclipsed and it rises now like a star which was hidden by a cloud but never faded into the oblivion of the night (10)."


1. Robert Lee Holts, "Chinese Roots Lie in Africa, Research Says," Los Angeles Times, 29 Sep 1998.

2. Nicholas Wade, "An Ancient Link to Africa Lives on in Bay of Bengal," New York Times, 11 Dec 2002.

3. Wade.

4. Wade.

5. Ivan Van Sertima, Egypt Revisited (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1982), 8.

6. Charles S. Finch, Great African Thinkers, vol. 1: Cheikh Anta Diop, (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1986), 285.

7. Finch.

8. Cheikh Anta Diop, Great African Thinkers, vol. 1: Cheikh Anta Diop, (New Brunswick: Transaction Press,1986), 285.

9. Chancellor Williams, The Destruction of Black Civilization (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1971), xxii.

10. Ivan Van Sertima, African Presence in Early Asia (New Brunswick: Transaction Press, 1995), 17.


Add Reply

Link copied to your clipboard.