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 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 in the east. India and Pakistan were major destinations for the African slaves who were favoured by the Maharajah’s, admiring their physical strength and loyalty, and who, continuously feuding with each other, needed protection. As well as soldiers or bodyguards they 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.
At the time of abolition they were freed by their owners, or they had already earned their own freedom, but were unable to return to their motherland. 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 or Ethiopia. But 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 few 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 reach and it is well documented the influence African’s had in the politics of the country. The State of Bengal was even ruled by Ethiopians for three years before being defeated and several Princely State’s in Western India were controlled by African’s, descendants of which are still alive today.
Largely due to their scattered presence and their lack of a real unified social group, the African’s 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.