This part of Indian history is not much talked about — I had always wondered who were the Sidis of Janjira that Shivaji fought against and who were a constant thorn in his side. They were actually Islamized African Blacks from Ethiopia who had created a small kingdom in the south. How did Africans land in India in large numbers? It was due to a Muslim specialty: slave trade in humans. Earlier this year, the New York Public Library organized an exhibition on the theme of Africans in India. While Whites are to be never trusted as interpreters of Indian history, I think the following does offer some interesting information:
Generals, commanders, admirals, prime ministers, and rulers, East Africans greatly distinguished themselves in India. They wrote a story unparalleled 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. Come discover their extraordinary story in a groundbreaking exhibition at the Schomburg Center — on view from February 1 to July 6 — and on March 21, join Dr. Faeeza Jasdanwalla, a descendant of the African dynasty of Janjira for a conversation on this unique history.
Following free traders and artisans who migrated to and traded with India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in the fist centuries of the common era; from the 1300s onward, East Africans from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia and adjacent areas entered the Indian subcontinent, mostly though the slave trade. Others came as soldiers and sailors. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, they vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement. The success was theirs but it is also a strong testimony to the open-mindedness of a society in which they were a small religious and ethnic minority, originally of low status. As foreigners and Muslims, some of these Africans ruled over indigenous Hindu, Muslim and Jewish populations.
Besides appearing in written documents, East Africans, known as Habshis (Abyssinians) and Sidis, have been immortalized in the rich paintings of different eras, states, and styles that form an important part of Indian culture. Africans in India features dramatically stunning photographic reproductions of some of these paintings, as well as photographs.
As rulers, city planners, and architects, the Sidis have left an impressive historical and architectural legacy that attest to their determination, skills, and intellectual, cultural, military and political savvy. The imposing forts, mosques, mausoleums, and other edifices they built — some more than 500 years ago — still grace the Indian landscape. They left their mark in the religious realm too. The 14th century African Muslim Sufi saint Bava Gor and his sister, Mai Misra, have devotees of all origins, not only in India, but also in Pakistan. Muslims, Hindus, Christians, and Zoroastrians frequent their shrines.
From humble beginnings, some Africans carved out princely states — Janjira and Sachin — complete with their own coats of arms, armies, mints, and stamps. They fiercely defended them from powerful enemies well into the 20th century when, with another 600 princely states, they were integrated into the Indian State.
To curate this exhibition with my friend Dr. Kenneth X. Robbins, renowned collector, expert in the history of the Africans in India and co-editor of Africans Elites in India: Habshi Amarat, was an old dream. It is also the continuation of an exploration of the eastern reaches of the African Diaspora started in 2011. The first leg of this journey was the online exhibition The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World. Today, it has been seen in over 90 countries. The same year the Schomburg Center hosted, for several months, a gorgeous exhibition of quilts made by Sidi women. Curated by Dr. Henry Drewal, Soulful Stitching was an immense success.
Africans in India presents a unique facet of the African experience in India, one that has not received, in the present, the recognition it deserves. By bringing out of obscurity the lives and accomplishments of some of the Sidis of yesterday, this new exhibition inscribes their fascinating story in the richly diverse history of the global African Diaspora.