THE AFRICAN DIASPORA OF THE
INDIAN OCEAN - A Brief introduction
For over two thousand years there has been a constant flow of cultural influences and exchanges between people that are located around the shores of the Indian Ocean. Monsoonal winds blew ships east from Africa to India, then changing direction later in the year would bring them home again. Architectural styles, commodities and culture plied this ancient maritime trade route that straddled three continents.
But far more sinister, there existed a trade in a certain commodity that destroyed lives and broke down communities; that of the trade in human slaves.
Much less documented than the Atlantic slave route, the movement of slaves east from Africa across the Indian Ocean is believed to have started around the 8th century by the Arabs and only totally ended in the 20th century.
What first began with the Arabs was later continued by the various colonial powers as they fought for its control of the Indian Ocean. The Portuguese, the Dutch, the French and the British were all heavily involved helping to fuel their colonial expansion. Scholars estimate that in the 19th Century alone around 347,000 Africans are believed to have been forcibly taken to the Indian Sub- Continent via the Arabian Peninsula.
Slaves were required for various activities ranging from pearl diving to agate mining, from wet nurses to concubines, from plantation workers to soldiers depending on the needs of the rich and powerful. Whilst the shorter southern slave trade route took slaves as plantation workers to the uninhabited islands of Reunion and Mauritius via Madagascar, which closely resembled the Atlantic model. The longer northern slave route saw many slaves being bought and sold as soldiers and bodyguards for the warring Kingdoms of the Indian sub- continent. In India, African slaves were considered a luxury, a prestigious commodity and often performed tasks not permitted by certain Indian’s due to the rigid caste structure.
This increased authority of the African slave in certain circumstances, largely in India but also in Pakistan and Iran, on gaining manumission, allowed them to climb to positions of power, controlling their own armies and large swathes of land. One example of this is the maritime control the Janjira African dynasty exerted on the India coastline between Goa and Mumbai. Between the 17th and 20th century they controlled a 300 km stretch of coastline from Mumbai to Goa and the descendants of that royal lineage still exist today.
The abolition of slavery began in the 19th century led by the British who with their headquarters in Mumbai, India, sent out anti-slavery ships to intercept the incoming slave-boats. As a result, thousands of boats were intercepted, freeing the captives, whilst slaves living on the continent were slowly released over time
as deals were made between the British and the Sultan’s of Oman who controlled much of the trade and their customers. Whilst some returned to Africa many stayed, forming communities that still survive today.
Yet such freedom left many stranded in a foreign land that was subject to rigid social hierarchies, and them, being freed slaves and outsiders were considered the bottom of the ladder. Many communities travelled in land, away from the coastal communities to remote locations where they were safe from persecution and free to live. Yet, the conditions of the Indian Ocean’s African diaspora are still one of pervasive poverty and discrimination.
The countries they ended up in, vary in as many ways as the countries they were originally forced to leave. Religions changed, social systems were different and the geography was diverse.
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.
The Sidi of India
It is estimated today that there are over 50,000 people of African descent living in India, largely spread across the states of 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 travelling within India and abroad to perform.
the sheedi of pakistan
Merchants, travellers, traders and African slaves arrived in Pakistan from Africa through the coastal ports of Balochistan and Sindh Provinces. Affo-Pakistani communities were formed in Pakistan long before the country was called such. Still to this day, it has the largest diaspora out of all countries in South Asia with an estimated number ranging from 100,000 to 300,000 and the assertion of their unique identity remains one of the strongest in the region.
For the slaves their work varied 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 in the capital Karachi as well as rural areas of the Province of Sindh and Balochistan.
In modern-day Pakistan streets names like Mombassa Street in Karachi show clues to the 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 losing, delayed the annexation of the Province of Sindh to Imperial Britain.
Today, the Sheedi live on the fringes of society, often poor with little access to further education and work. As a result they have formed various strong and active community organisations that directly assist and help the development of their communities.
On September 24th 2017, the remaining Afro-Sri Lankans commemorated what they believed to be their 500-year anniversary since they were brought to the Island by the Portuguese. This hugely significant date marks when they believe the first African slaves arrived on the island.
Held at their local Catholic church, almost one thousand local people gathered to watch as the small, separated pockets of Afro-Sri Lankans came together for the first time in decades and celebrated their culture, traditions and delicate existence.
Out of all African diaspora communities surrounding the Indian Ocean, those of Sri Lanka are by far the smallest and most fragile. The first African slaves were first brought by the Portuguese, followed by the Dutch and finally the British as the various colonial powers battled for control of the country and its resources.
After the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed in the British Parliament in 1807, the process of putting an end to slavery began in British controlled territories. Once freed and unable to return, they married and became part of Sri Lankan society. A century later the Afro-Sri Lankan population was believed to be around 6000 strong. Today, that number has dwindled to less than 100. Inter-marriage with local Sri Lankans over generations has led to a dilution of their population, for once they marry a Sinhalese they are no longer classed as Afro-Sri Lankan on their birth certificate. As a result, thousands of such descendants are less conspicuous in official records, having had their African heritage obscured and the population has gone past the point of recovery.
Their community now may be small but there are members of the Afro-Sri Lankan community, particularly those living in and around the western coastal town of Puttalam, who take extreme pride in their heritage and are trying to preserve their culture.
In 2012, they formed the Ceylon African Society and continue to promote their heritage. It is likely this tiny population will disappear within the next few generations but until it does they are making sure that their presence is known largely through their music and dance, which they perform across the country.
The Sri Lankan work was produced with a Reporting Fellowship from the South Asian Journalist Association (www.saja.org)
About the sidi project?
Founded by photographer Luke Duggleby, the aim of The Sidi Project is to document the lives and cultures of the African diaspora communities living around the peripheries of the Indian Ocean with photography.
It is through learning about their lives today that people are able to understand the history behind it, that of ancient connections between travellers and traders between the two continents. But also the existence of an eastern movement of African slaves across the Indian Ocean to South Asia, a lesser known, but much older, slave trade compared to its Atlantic counterpart.
Today, many of South Asia’s African diaspora communities live on the fringes of society, lacking opportunities afforded to others, whether with work or education. Subject to discrimination they remain in the lower rungs of South Asia’s strict hierarchical social ladder; and hence receive little attention.
This platform is a place where people can learn about these communities, about their lives today, their communities and their customs, and through this, learn about the rich history of the two continents.
The Sidi Project also acts as an intermediary between interested parties and the communities themselves and works to connect the two together. Since 2014, The Sidi Project has introduced academics, journalists, researchers or just those who wanted to learn more with people within the community, so don’t often have a big online presence.
If you would like to contact The Sidi Project, please fill out the Contact Form below.
The bibliography below was kindly provided to The Sidi Project by Omar H. Ali, Ph.D, Dean of Lloyd International Honors College and Professor of Comparative African Diaspora History at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. omarhali.wp.uncg.edu
Ababu, Minda Yimene. 2004. An African Community in Hyderabad: Siddi Identity, Its Maintenance and Change. Gottingen: Cuvillier Verlag.
Ali, Omar H., Kenneth X. Robbins, Beheroze Shroff, Jazmin Graves. 2020. Afro-South Asia in the Global African Diaspora, 3 Vols. The University of North Carolina at Greensboro Ethiopian and East African Studies Project and Ahmedabad Sidi Heritage and Educational Center.
Alpers, Edward A. 2014. The Indian Ocean in World History. New York: Oxford University Press.
Basu, Helene. 1993. “The Siddi and the Cult of Bava Gor in Gujarat.” Journal of the Indian Anthropological Society. 28: 289-300.
Bhatt, Purnima Mehta. 2018. The African Diaspora in India: Assimilation, Change, and Cultural Survivals. London: Routledge.
Catlin-Jairazbhoy, Amy, and Edward A. Alpers, eds. 2004. Sidis and Scholars: Essays on African Indians. Trenton, NJ: Red Sea Press.
Chatterjee, Indrani, and Richard M. Eaton, eds. 2006. Slavery and South Asian History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Chauhan, R.S.S. 1995. Africans in India: From Slavery to Royalty. New Delhi: Asian Publication Services.
Hawley, John C., ed. 2008. India in Africa, Africa in India: Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jayasuriya, Shihan de Silva, and Richard Pankhurst, eds. 2003. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.
Robbins, Kenneth X., and John McLeod, eds. 2006. African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat. Ahmedabad, India: Mapin.
Sheriff, Abdul. 2010. Dhow Cultures of the Indian Ocean: Cosmopolitanism, Commerce and Islam. New York: Columbia University Press.
Catlin-Jairazbhoy, Amy, and Nazir Ali Jairazbhoy. 2004. The Sidi Malunga Project.
Shroff, Beheroze. 2011. Voices of the Sidis: The Tradition of the Fakirs.
Walker, Sheila. 2018. Familiar Faces, Unexpected Places: A Global African Diaspora.
Contact The Sidi Project
The Sidi Project is honoured to have been selected by The United States Library of Congress for inclusion in its web archives. The Library considers the website to be an important part of this collection and the historical record.
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