Decline of sub-Saharan Africans in South Asia

Currently marginalized, sub-Saharan Africans with military prowess had held high positions and even ruled territories in the past

By P.K.Balachandran | Ceylon Today

In South Asia today, visiting students and descendants of Black people from sub-Saharan Africa, like the Kaffirs of Sri Lanka and the Sidis, Sheedis or Habshis of India and Pakistan, are looked down upon, marginalized and discriminated against. But in the medieval period, many of them had risen to high positions and even ruled territories thanks to their tough physique and military abilities.

Currently, their position is dismal. In India, the Sidis were included in the Scheduled Tribe (ST) list for reservations in government employment and State-funded educational institutions only in February 2020, seventy years after the adoption of a republican constitution. In Sri Lanka, the Kaffirs do not get the attention and State patronage that are given to the indigenous tribals – the Veddahs.

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Whether in India, Pakistan or Sri Lanka, people brought from sub-Saharan Africa by Arab traders and the Portuguese, live in poverty. They are, at best, hewers of wood and drawers of water with little or no involvement in the socio-political life of their adopted homelands.

To add another dimension, throughout South Asia, students from sub-Saharan Africa are looked down upon, marginalized and taunted with racial slurs. In 2016, Al Jazeera carried a telling story in which a young Nigerian, Zahaaddeen Muhammad, said that he was called “Bandar” (monkey). More recently, West Indian cricketer Darren Sammy complained that his team mates in “Hyderabad Sunrisers” were addressing him as “Kaalu” (blackie). Black Africans other than diplomats find it difficult to find living accommodation in India. They are not invited to homes. They are routinely suspected to be involved in drug smuggling and prostitution and shunned as the Al Jazeera story showed.

Sea Change

But in the past, before independence and British rule, African slaves had reached high positions in India. Sylviane A. Diouf, Director, Lapidus Center, says that “in medieval India some East Africans, called Sidis or Habshis from Abyssinia, became navy commanders, army generals, de facto rulers and founders of dynasties. In Ahmedabad, in the State of Gujarat, the Sidis left an impressive architectural legacy. Today, some African descendants live there in a small compound where they proudly maintain their culture.”


In Ahmadabad, one of the most celebrated mosques, built in 1461, bears the name of the Ethiopian, Sidi Bashir. In 1570, Sidi Said, an erudite and pious Ethiopian royal slave, became free and wealthy and built a remarkable mosque. “With its amazing stone carvings, the Sidi Said Mosque is considered a masterpiece of Gujarati architecture. Both mosques are the top tourist destinations in the city,” Sylviane Diouf notes.

According to the Senegalese scholar, 50,000 to 70,000 Sidis (whose ancestors originally came from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Lower Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique) are scattered across India. The Sidis of Karnataka, who live in villages and small towns, are descendants of people from Mozambique and the hinterland of Tanzania who were brought to India as slaves by the Portuguese.

“In 2009, a few thousands of them came together to celebrate the first anniversary of Barack Obama’s Presidency. Because of the East African connection with Obama they consider him one of their own and wanted to send him a cask of honey from their bees,” Diouf recalled.

Pakistan too is home to Sidis, known there as Sheedis. They live in Baluchistan and Sindh. They are the largest group of African descendants in the South Asian region, with about 250,000 people along the Makran coast. In Sri Lanka, those of African descent were brought by the Portuguese. Called Kaffirs, they live in Puttalam, making a living as daily wage laborers and as performers of their own brand of music called Baila and dances like Kaffringna.

Diouf says that because a large number of Sidis in India were employed at the royal courts of the independent princely states, they lost their jobs and their status when the Princely States were dissolved after India got independence in 1946. Today, Sidis are taxi drivers, domestics, peddlers, farmers and laborers while some are middle class.

The vast majority of Sidis are Muslims. And depending on where they live, they speak Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Konkani, or other local languages. In Sri Lanka they speak Sinhala and Tamil besides some Portuguese Creole.

Abyssinian or Ethiopian rulers of Sachin and Janzira in India

Sidi Royals

As stated earlier, some Sidis were rulers too. The erstwhile Nawab of Sachin in Gujarat was a Sidi, whose ancestors came from Ethiopia or Abyssinia as part of the army of the First Moghul Emperor, Zahiruddin Muhammad Babur, in the 16 th.Century. Eventually, the slaves conquered the fort at Janjira in the Deccan and later occupied Sachin in Gujarat.

The Nizams of Hyderabad, used Sidis as troops in their cavalry and to serve as their bodyguards. In Sri Lanka, the Portuguese, Dutch and the British the Kaffirs as soldiers in their armies. The Kaffirs were recruited to the elite Ceylon Rifle Regiment.

An article in Indian Express quoted Dr Suresh Kumar, Professor of African studies in Delhi University, to say that there was great social mobility for Africans in India. They became nobles, rulers or merchants in their own capacities because of their military connection. Many used their military prowess to gain political authority.

Malik Ambar of the Deccan (South India) was initially a slave from Ethiopia brought to India by an Arab merchant. Later, after being resold a number of times, he landed in the court of Ahmadnagar as one among the hundreds of Habshi military slaves. Malik Ambar eventually became a commander and constructed a fort at Janzira, located in the Konkan coast in Karnataka in 16th, century. It still stands. The Mughals and the Marathas failed to occupy Janzira despite repeated attacks.

Later, the African rulers of Janjira went on to occupy another fort at Sachin in Gujarat. The present Nawab of Sachin, Reza Khan says that the title of “Nawab” was given to his ancestors by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

African Rulers of Bengal

The Indian Express article quotes historian Stan Gordon to say that a large number of Abyssinian (Ethiopian) slaves were recruited to the armies of the Bengal Sultans. These slaves eventually rose to take major administrative tasks in the judicial, revenue, and law enforcing departments.

The Abyssinians in the army managed to seize power from the Bengal Sultans under the leadership of Barbak Shahzada, who founded the Habshi dynasty in Bengal in 1487, and became its first ruler under the name of Ghiyath-al-Din Firuz Shah. Ghiyath-al-Din was followed by three other Abyssinian rulers.

His successor, Saif al-Din Firuz Shah is considered the best of the Habshi rulers. He was a brave and just king, benevolent to the poor and needy, and a patron of arts and architecture, says historian Stan Gordon. Firuz Shah is believed to have patronized the building of a number of religious and secular structures. Most well-known among these is the Firuz Minar at Gaur which is often compared to the Qutub Minar in Delhi, both in appearance and also in its significance of a victory tower.

But Habshi rule of Bengal was very brief and came to an end in 1493 when Sayyid Husain Sharif Makki seized the throne and founded the Husaini dynasty.

(The featured image at the top shows African descendants in India)

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