The African Diaspora of the Indian Ocean

Few need introducing to the Western movement of slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. Much has been documented and studied of about this horrific piece of history. But this wasn’t the only slave route that existed; a far older eastern movement of slaves was forcibly taking people to the opposite side of the world. Between the first and 20th century, beginning with Arabs and the Ottomans, and later continued by the Portuguese, the Dutch, French and the British, an estimated 4 million African’s were taken from their homes, mostly in East Africa, and across the Indian Ocean.

During this time there was also a voluntary migration of African’s as travelers and traders to countries around the peripheries of the Indian Ocean and further east. India and Pakistan were major destinations for African slaves who were favoured by the warring Maharajah’s, admiring their physical strength and loyalty, and who, continuously feuding with each other, needed protection. As well as soldiers or bodyguards African’s worked for the wealthy or colonial powers of the time as domestic slaves, concubines, agricultural workers, wet nurses. With the abolition of the slavery, came the end of this horrific mass forced movement of people around the mid-nineteenth century.

At the time of abolition slaves were freed by their owners, or they had already earned their own freedom, but were unable to return to their homeland. So they stayed and formed their own communities, becoming part of South Asia’s complex cobweb of cultures. Whilst many aspects of their African ancestry have disappeared as they have become assimilated in to their host countries society, some remain. Many retain their African appearance and all have a passion for music and dance, which retains a truly African style and rhythm.

Generally known throughout South Asia as Habshis, a word that derives from the Arabic word Habish, on a more local level they are known as Sheedi in Pakistan, Sidi in India and Kaffir (with no racist connotations) in Sri Lanka. Numbers vary depending on whom you ask and the lack of a recent and accurate census in either countries, has only led to the inaccurate estimates. But generally it is accepted that Pakistan has the largest population upwards of 50,000, followed by India with a loosely estimated population of around 25,000. Sri Lanka has one of the smallest with as little of a thousand remaining. Yet what is fascinating in India about the history of Africans on the sub-continent, is the position of power that some were able to attain becoming powerful rulers in their own right. The State of Bengal was ruled by Ethiopians for three years before being defeated and two Princely State’s, Janjira and Sachin in Western India controlled hundreds of miles of coastline for centuries. Descendants of these dynasty’s still survive today.

Largely due to their scattered presence and their lack of a real unified social group, the African Diaspora of South Asia have largely been over-looked by academics and researchers, unlike those who crossed the Atlantic. Yet it is a trade route of much greater age and one of equal importance that needs further study and documentation, so that the history of these Afro-Asian communities will not be lost in future generations.

Historical Facts

  • The Mughals, a Muslim imperial power in northern India from the early 16th century through the early 19th, relied on African soldiers, with one Emperor reportedly protected by 700 armed Sidi on horseback.

  • In 1843 an African called Hosh Mohammed Sheedi commanded an army against the British at Dabbo which, despite losing, delayed the annexation of the Province of Sindh to Imperial Britain.

  • From an ocean fortress north of Mumbai, between the 17th and 20th century the Sidi controlled a 300km stretch of coastline from Mumbai to Goa.

  • In 1490, an African guard, Sidi Badr, seized power in Bengal and ruled for three years before being murdered. Five thousand of the 30,000 men in his army were Ethiopians.

About the Sidi Project

In January 2013 I self-funded a trip to India. I had come across a handful of mentions on the internet about a people of African origin living in South Asia for hundreds of years and was intrigued to investigate more. They were there in the most part because of an ancient slave trade that had for many centuries brought them there from Africa. Yes there had also been a free movement of traders and explorers from Africa who also arrived at the shores of South Asia.

I was immediately fascinated and immersed myself in the subject, buying books, reading academic theses and contacting professors around the world. After months of research I finally managed to contact members of the Sidi community in the state of Gujarat, home to some 12,000 African descendants and they helped me establish a plan for the trip.

For the next three weeks I spent time in several Sidi communities, observing their traditions, dancing around their all-night annual Urs celebrations, and finding out firsthand how they felt about being Sidi, the name they give themselves. What I found were a people who were incredibly attuned to their African ancestry despite now being totally assimilated in to Indian society. Whilst they obviously knew the brutal and devastating history of the slave trade was an integral part of their own personal past, they still talked about their roots with a great sense of pride. Some would say, without knowing for sure, their ancestors came from Ethiopia or Kenya, or simply that they didn’t know where from but only that they arrived on a boat from Africa.

One of my Sidi friends, a man called Wasim Jamadar from Bhuj who was instrumental in helping me visit Sidi communities in Gujarat State of India, talks of his proudest moment in life when on visiting Kenya as part of a musical group, the President at the time told them that if they wanted to return to Kenya they would all be most welcome and given Kenyan passports. They declined the offer, but it was that acceptance which fulfilled the group’s belief that their African heritage truly had meaning – a genuine honour to be a sub-culture of their great home continent.

I was reminded of this feeling again when in early 2014 I visited Pakistan and spent time with a community from Hyderabad and Bedin in Sindh Province. They too were desperate for the world to know about their history, to know their customs and most of all to know they existed. Several members of their community, including the truly remarkable man called Azhar Dawood Qambrani, took many days off work just to make sure I was able to photograph their community, even if it was hours away by car in a remote border region.

Then on my last trip to India I met Mohan Sidi. Mohan is from a Sidi community in Karnataka and with two master degrees in activism and human rights he has worked tirelessly to help his community. In the three weeks we traveled together Mohan taught me so much about the Sidi and their plight in present day India. We remain very close and he is the person who has really shaped this project for me which lead to the founding of The Sidi Project and setting up this website.

The aim of The Sidi Project is to document the lives and culture of many of the African communities that exist in various countries around the Indian Ocean as a means to explain the history of the movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean. With many of the African diaspora’s living on the fringes of society, often poor, often uneducated and subject to being placed in to the lower rungs of South Asia’s strict hierarchical social ladder; they receive little attention. I want this to be a place where people can learn about these communities, about their history and their customs. To witness their life through my photography and most importantly know that they exist. It is through learning of their existence that the memory of the horrors of the slave trade can be kept alive and we, as humans, can learn from our mistakes.

Luke Duggleby
Luke DugglebyPhotographer

THE SIDI OF INDIA

It is estimated today that there are around 25,000 people of African descent living in India spread across several states but mostly concentrated in Karnataka and Gujarat. Known as the Sidi they have fully integrated into modern day India yet managed to retain small aspects of their African heritage especially in their appearance and their music. Despite Gujarat and Karnataka having equally large populations that are un-connected and are separated more through religion than their common African heritage. The Sidi of Gujarat are predominantly Muslim with those in Karnataka mostly Christian or Hindu.

In contrast to the trans-Atlantic trade, those who were brought to India were sometimes able to rise to positions of power through their position in the military. Some became so powerful from their connection to Maharajah’s, where they initially worked as bodyguards or soldiers, that they rose to become King’s in their own right controlling Kingdoms within India, the direct descendants of which still survive today. Those not used as soldiers generally worked as domestic helpers, concubines, ship-hands and in other industries such as agate mining.

Modern day research has focused largely on the Gujarat population who as Muslim’s fervently worship the Sidi saint of Bava Gor, believed to be an Ethiopian wandering faqir and trader, and every year is celebrated in a multi-day and night ceremony of music, dancing and spirit possession called Urs. This has kept their music culture alive and strong with groups regularly traveling within India and abroad to perform.

THE SHEEDI OF PAKISTAN

Both slaves and traders arrived in Pakistan from Africa through the ports of Baluchistan and Sindh where their work ranged from dockworkers, miners, domestic servants, farm workers, concubines to body guards. Known as the Sheedi, Pakistan has the largest people of African descent in South Asia, living in mostly what is today the Province of Sindh and Baluchistan, and numbering around 50,000.

In modern-day Pakistan streets names like Mombassa Street in Karachi show clues to its African heritage of this region and the largest population of Sheedi live in an area of Karachi called Lyari. But also throughout Sindh province, and particularly in remote villages in a region bordering India many Sheedi villages can be found. Pakistan’s most famous Sheedi, who’s story is actually taught to school children in history books, is that of Hosh Mohammed Sheedi. In 1843 he commanded an army against the British during the Battle of Dabbo which, despite loosing, delayed the annexation of the Province of Sindh to Imperial Britain. Every year the Sheedi mark the anniversary of Host Sheedi’s death with a special ceremony.

Today, the Sheedi live on the fringes of society, often poor with little access to good schools and jobs. As a result they have formed various strong and active community organizations that directly assist and help the development of their communities.

Afro-Sri Lankans

Out of all the African-Diaspora communities that surround the Indian Ocean those of Sri Lanka are the smallest and the ones most at risk from disappearing. Brought over to the Spice Island first by the Portuguese, then the Dutch and finally the British. The Afro-Sri Lankan’s have always been known as, and indeed call themselves, by the name Kaffir. But in 2012 they were invited to perform in South Africa under the agreement that they changed their name kaffir  to Afro-Sri Lankan because of the racial slur that it is considered there. In fact, still to this day it is a commonly used description with much less negative connotation than in South Africa and even written on their birth certificates.

Some estimates put the Afro-Sri Lankan population at around 6000 people a century ago but today that number would be lucky to reach a few hundred. Inter-marriage with local Sri Lankan’s over the generations has led to a dilution of their population, which they relate almost entirely to their African appearance. Once they marry a Sinhalese and their children take on Sri Lankan appearance they no longer have ‘Kaffir’ written on their birth certificate but ‘Sinhalese’.

This dilution is also something that some of the population has intentionally sort. Because they were instrumental is maintaining control for the colonial powers and worked closely with them, especially the British, they received good positions in Government and Civil society. However, after the 1940’s when the British left Sri Lanka and a wave of Nationalism swept the country they were targeted and as a result were often ignored and excluded from the positions that many had previously enjoyed. In their own words “We were pushed back down.” So some saw their children as having a better chance in life if they inter-married and now the population can now never recover because of it.

But within these small isolated communities live individuals that still maintain and enforce a sense of pride and dignity amongst their compatriots even setting up the Ceylon African Society in 2012 especially with the preserving of their traditional music and dance known as Kaffrinha which is still sung in Sri Lankan Creole language.

About Luke Duggleby

Luke Duggleby (b.1977, York, U.K) is an award-winning Bangkok based freelance photographer specializing in documentary and portrait work. Based in Asia for over a decade he generally focuses on human rights, cultural and environmental topics predominantly in the Asian region for a range of media outlets and NGO’s such as The New York Times, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, USAID, The Smithsonian Magazine and Protection International to name a few. His work has been recognised by Pictures of the Year International, DAYS Japan, Environmental Photographer of the Year, International Photography Awards and the PDN Annual Awards. He is a roster photographer with Redux Pictures in New York. More of Luke’s work can be seen on his personal website www.lukeduggleby.com

You can contact Luke on luke.duggleby@gmail.com.