THAT MILLIONS OF WEST AFRICANS were enslaved by Europeans and taken to North and South America is widely known. That millions of East Africans--from what is today Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania--were enslaved by Arabs and transported to India and elsewhere in the subcontinent is hardly known at all. In India, enslaved Africans--who were known as "Sidis" (which means captives or prisoners of war) and "Habshis" (which means Abyssinians)--were employed mostly as servants to wealthy Indians or as soldiers in the armies of Arab Muslim conquerors who were colonising the Indian subcontinent.
Though most Africans remained in lowly positions, other Africans, surprisingly, were able to rise to positions of prominence and power in India. Africans held, at one time, high-ranking positions in government and in the military in Khandesh and in Bhavnagar in western India, and in Hyderabad in southern India.
Africans, who had once been slaves, even married into several Indian royal families. For example, Mehr Lekha Begum Sahiba became a queen when she married the nawab, or prince, of Bengal.
The former slave, Yasmin Mahal, became the queen of Oudh in Uttar Pradesh when she married the king there. Bamba Muller, the daughter of an Ethiopian woman and a German man, married into the Indian family that had once owned the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond, which is today part of the British royal family's prized "Crown Jewels". Bamba Muller married the last ruler of the great Sikh empire, Maharaja Duleep Singh, in 1864 and became a maharani or princess.
Some Africans even created their own kingdoms. The best known are the dynasties established in Sachin in western India, and in Janjira in northwestern India. Both Sachin and Janjira had their own currencies, coats of arms, and armies--and were much feared and respected by neighbouring states.
This little-known history of Africans in India is currently the subject of a New York exhibition.
"This history is not widely known and it was high time to present it," says Sylviane Diouf, Senegalese-American curator of the "Africans in India: From slaves to generals and rulers" exhibition, which is on until July at New York's Schomburg Centre for Research in Black Culture in Harlem. "It is high time," Diouf repeated, "to look beyond the Atlantic world and look at the entirety of the African Diaspora."
But how is it that enslaved Africans were able to rise to positions of prominence and power in India in away they were not able to in the United States or the Caribbean or South America? Diouf explained: "Due to Islamic laws, and social conventions, East Africans and their enslaved descendants in India tended to have much greater social mobility than West Africans in the Americas."
Diouf explained further that a child born to a free man and an enslaved woman was Free at birth and that the mother automatically became free upon the death of her owner. Unlike Africans enslaved by Europeans, those enslaved by Arabs were allowed to marry one another and allowed to learn to read and write if they wished. Former slaves in India, says Diouf, were seamlessly assimilated into Indian society.
"Bondage and race were not linked as they were in the Americas," said Diouf. "Factors such as religion, ethnicity, and caste were often more influential in India than colour in determining a person's status."
This view is shared by Dr Kenneth X. Robbins, a co-curator of the Africans in India exhibition and editor of the book African Elites in India. A longtime collector of art work, photographs, and other items that show the many and various roles Africans played in India, Robbins agrees with Diouf that enslaved Africans taken to India, and who lived under Islamic law there, had greater opportunities to rise beyond slavery than did Africans enslaved in the Americas: "For slaves in the US, this was a social death that meant even if a person were freed they were discriminated against and rarely rose to any social importance. …