When the Slave Boats Sailed East

The Indian Ocean Slave Trade

Few need introducing to the Western movement of slaves from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean. Much has been documented and studied. 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.

The Indian Ocean Slave Trade

  • 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.

  • In modern day Karachi street names such as ‘Mombassa Street’ owe their names to the importance of African presence in Pakistan.

  • 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 Images

About Luke Duggleby

Born in the North of England, Luke Duggleby is a British photographer who has been based in Bangkok, Thailand, from 2005 after completing a degree in photography in the UK. He specializes in documentary, travel and portrait photography.

Traveling the globe, yet focusing and specializing in Asia, for the past decade he has undertaken assignments and worked on personal projects all over the continent for many of the worlds most respected publications and NGO’s. Over the years his images have been awarded honors in international photography competitions such as POYi, DAYS Japan, PhotoPhilantrophy, PDN Annual, International Photography Awards, Px3 Prix de la Photographie Paris, and Travel Photographer of the Year.

He has been published in and commissioned by publications and NGO’s ranging from National Geographic Magazine, The Smithsonian Magazine, GEO, Monocle, Geographical Magazine (UK), Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine (UK), Guardian Magazine (UK) to Greenpeace and USAID.

More of Luke’s work can be seen on his personal website www.lukeduggleby.com

Luke lives with his wife and two children in Bangkok, Thailand, all year round.