South Asia’s Africans – A Forgotten People

In the History Workshop Online website, an article on the title above (published on Feb. 5, 2011) by Dr. Shihan DaSilva Jayasuriya provides fascinating information. The following are extracts from that article (presented here with my gratitude).

“Afro-Asian communities are the result of a continuous centuries-old phenomenon but why are they not widely known?   The obvious reason for this is their hidden presence as forest-dwellers, villagers and people on the margins. Those who live in urban areas are not easily identifiable either and are lost in the diversity of South Asia’s cosmopolitan cities.  Afro-Asians are taken for African tourists until they begin to speak in the local Asian language!

Movement of Africans to South Asia was fuelled by the slave trade.  An estimated 12.5 million Africans were moved across the Sahara, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to unfamiliar lands where they were re-rooted.  But this movement was over a millennium, from 900 AD to 1900 AD.  The Indian Ocean slave trade was lubricated by socio-religious factors.  Benefits from concubines, eunuchs, soldiers and servants were not entirely economic.

European commercial expansion into Asian markets added another dimension to this trade in humans which moved millions of Africans overland and across the world’s giant waterways.  But we must not forget that free movement of African seafarers, sailors and merchants in the Indian Ocean World did not stop whilst the slave trade was continuing.

The island of Janjira (off the west coast of India near Mumbai), for example, was a base for African traders long before it became the powerbase of a princely state ruled by Africans from 1618 for about three and a half centuries.  Another state, Sachin, was also ruled by Africans from 1791.  In 1948, the year after India gained independence, both these states became part of the new nation.  Ex-Royal Africans still live in India and are well respected locally.  Elite military slavery, though not unique to Africans or South Asia, provided the mechanism for some slaves to reach high positions and wielded power.

Most Afro-Indians (called Sidis today) live on the periphery but those in Saurashtra (Gujarat state) and Yellapur (Karnataka state) fall within the category of a Scheduled Tribe.  They benefit from the Indian government’s affirmative action schemes available for those recognised as socially and economically marginalised.

Some Afro-Indians have found a role as spiritual healers.  The shrines of African Sufi saints are frequented by Hindu, Christian, Zoroasthrian and Muslims alike.  They are not concerned with the ethnicity of the Saints or the spirit mediums through whom they simply want to benefit.

Not all Afro-Asians have been able to find a niche in India today.   In Andhra Pradesh, Sidis are associated with the disbanded African Cavalry Guard of the Nizam of Hyderabad.   They are nostalgic of their lost past; Indians looked up to them when they accompanied the Nizam on his parades. The story is similarly bleak in Uttar Pradesh, where descendants of the Nawab of Oudh’s African Bodyguard and Cavalry Guards live on the poverty line.  During the Indian Mutiny in 1857, the ancestors of these Sidis fought bravely and loyally for the Nawab.  Perhaps surprisingly, the Nawab had a female bodyguard and the British soldiers were not aware that they were fighting women until after their dead bodies were found.

Whilst Afro-Asians have not been able to maintain much of their cultural traditions, it is quite striking that they have been able to hold on to their forms of music and dance which have also encapsulated vestiges of their languages.  In Gujarat, the Sidi performances of  Dhamal or Ngoma are linked to Sufi practices.”

(Comment: Absolutely fascinating.)

 

 

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