Much is known and has been written about the Atlantic slave trade and the movement of West African peoples to the Americas, but little is known about the slave trade, military and sea-faring history of East Africans to the Middle East and Asian countries. The earliest of East Africans to voyage across the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean were Ethiopians. Documentation such as the Greek authored Periplus of the Erythrean Sea details extensive commercial contacts between Ethiopia, Arabia and India. Some would go so far as to recognize the early Naga and Dravidian cultures in India as having some origin in Ethiopia. Later, Ethiopians would rise to become rulers, notables and chief ministers in India. Some would go on to other countries from Pakistan to China.
The archeological record shows that Ethiopians established trade relations on the west coast of India in the third century BCE. The seasonal trade winds allowed boats to move from April to September moving from east to west and then return from west to east from November to February facilitating commerce across the Indian Ocean. First century Roman observer Pliney the Elder described an area in Gujurat, India as an Ethiopian town. Hundreds of coins from Arabia and India from the third century have been found in Ethiopia. In fact, it is thought that the genesis for much of the ancient Indus Valley civilization was originally of East African stock. Even Buddhism which had a moderating effect on Hinduism was African inspired.
Throughout the millennium, Ethiopians would travel to India in various ways. Some came as mercenaries, while others came as slave-soldiers. Many rose to positions of prominence as military leaders and merchants up and down the coast of India. The most notable was Malik Ambar, a Muslim general in south India where thousands of soldiers including several thousand fellow Habshi (Ethiopians). Born in Harar, Ethiopia in the 1600’s, the young ‘Chapu’, was enslaved and sent to Yemen where he converted to Islam and named Malik. Due to his academic prowess, his owners allowed him to study finance and administration and sent him to India.
In India, Malik Ambar would be given increased military command and by the turn of the seventeenth century he struck out on his own and eventually commanded tens of thousands of Africans and Indians. As a mercenary general, Ambar’s army fought for Indian rulers successfully protected them from the great Mughal leaders Akbar and Janhangir. He was able to cut off Mughal supplies through his naval alliance with other African rulers of Janjira. Ambar continued to recruit Habshi soldiers, who he trained and educated and used for his personal protection.
As Malik’s power and influence grew, he married his children into the nobility of India. His daughter was brought into the royal household of the Nizam Shahi dynasty as the wife of Sultan Murtaza II; and his son, Fateh Khan, married the daughter of one of the most powerful nobles of the land, Yakut Khan, a free Habshi. He would go on to establish the city of Khadki, now known as Aurangabad, and built roads, irrigation canals, schools, and constructed a palace. He provided land to Hindus, showed religious tolerance by a giving support to Hindu scholars and appointing Brahman officials. By his death, he would be known as one of the greatest leaders in India history.
The Mughals Empire in India was famous for recruiting Ethiopian soldiers and seamen. They were considered trustworthy because they had no family connections to the local community. Called Siddis or Habshi, these Ethiopians ruled the Indian Ocean seas for commerce and conquest. Some Siddis captains were actually able to build forts along the coast and settle the island of Janjira that was also called Habshan from Ethiopia. The rulers of Habshan built amazing fortifications and formed their own royal lineage and ruled for 300 years. Abyssinians were employed in the northern Indian state of Bengal and throughout the Middle East and Asia becoming leaders in their own right.
Other notable Ethiopians in India include Bilal ibn Rabah, the son of an enslaved Abyssinian woman and Islam’s first muezzin (the person who calls Muslims to prayer) and in the 14th century, Bava Gor, a merchant in the healing crystals trade and a highly venerated Sufi (Muslim spiritual master). In 1530, during the Portuguese occupation, Sayf al-Mulk Miftah, the governor of Daman on the coast of Ahmednagar in western India, was described as an Ethiopian who commanded a force of 4,000 Habshi soldiers.
Along with other East Africans in India, they shared their cultures, equestrian talents and arts with the India population. Unlike the Atlantic segregated slave trade, Africans were integrated into the Indian populace and were prized for their skills. In addition, by two to one, Ethiopian women were more sought in the Indian Ocean region especially for their beauty. Unlike the European slave trade, race was not as important as religion, ethnicity and caste in India. By the nineteenth century, the Portuguese would bring in slaves from other African countries who were treated as bad as the Atlantic slave trade. Unfortunately, in India today, there are millions of dark skinned people with many with African ancestors who are derogatorily called Dalits or untouchables and are discriminated against in all spheres of society. Hopefully, knowledge of our history will allow us to empathize with these Ethiopian Indians and do what we can to alleviate their misery.
(Primary Sources: The African Presence in Asia: Consequences of the East African Slave Trade. Harris, Joseph E. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1971. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World. Howard Dodson and Sylvaine A. Diouf, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NYPL, 2011.)