The hero of the Deccan had skin the colour of coal. Emperors snarled at him from afar, while enemies at home rattled in fear when he marched into their neighbourhoods. Many were those who despised him, but many more still were the masses who discerned in him a champion. His story was certainly unusual, though he was neither the first of his people to serve in the Deccan, nor extraordinary in his antecedents. And yet he emerged as the strongest of them all, reigning indeed as king in all but name. ‘He has a stern Roman face,’ wrote one traveller, ‘and is tall and strong of stature’ though his ‘white glassy eyes’, it was added, ‘do not become him.’ His charities were legendary, as was the valour of the men who pledged themselves to his service. When at last he died, not on the battlefield but secure in a formidable fortress, the Mughals admitted that this enemy was ‘an able man. In warfare, in command, in sound judgment, and in administration he had no rival or equal… He kept down the turbulent spirits of [the Deccan], and maintained his exalted position to the end of his life, and closed his career in honour. History,’ the obituary concludes, ‘records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.’ It was high praise, coming as it did from the imperial court, where two generations of emperors revealed nothing but spite for the man called Malik Ambar.
The Deccan, as we know, had long attracted foreigners to its shores, offering them wealth and a future in these eastern lands. Persians arrived, as did Arabs and Central Asians. Some graduated to princely ranks, while others soared to gratifying aristocratic heights. But among the legions of men absorbed by the Bahmanis and their heirs were also Africans who came primarily from the land we now call Ethiopia. And they too would thrive in the Deccan far above the stations where they began their lives. Some were associated with tales of treachery – Mahmud Gawan’s confidant, who struck his seal on the forgery that delivered him his death warrant, was a habshi (an African) as was his executioner. When Yusuf Adil Shah died, one of the regents who ruled in the name of his son was a black man from Ethiopia – the latter was stabbed to death for displacing Westerners and favouring the Sunni faith. When years later Chand Bibi was imprisoned, her liberator who briefly stood at the forefront in Bijapur was a habshi, as was the man Ibrahim Adil Shah II rejected after eight years of living under his guard. In Ahmadnagar, during the wars of succession in the 1590s, one ruler, whose reign lasted less than a year, found himself without support from his nobles because his mother was ‘a negress’, though when Chand Bibi was besieged by the Mughals, the man who led Bijapur’s and Golconda’s troops to her rescue was also a habshi called Suhail Khan. And many years later, on the eve of the final Mughal conquest of the Deccan, in Bijapur once again would rise a habshi exercising as a short-lived vizier the full and tragic authority of power.
The habshis had almost all of them begun their careers as slaves. And there certainly was a thriving market for men from Ethiopia in the courts and demesnes of the east. Writing as early as the 14th century, Ibn Batuta reports how habshis were ‘guarantors of safety’ for ships sailing in the Indian Ocean, with such fearsome reputations that ‘let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by… pirates’. Centuries later a Portuguese missionary noted how ‘all the country of Arabia, Persia, Egypt, and Greece are full of slaves’ who made for ‘great warriors’. In India too, this was true. The favour and affection shown by Raziya Sultan in the 1230s to Jamal al-Din Yakut, an Abyssinian warrior, provoked a rebellion and contributed to her brutal murder in Delhi at the close of that decade. At the end of the 14th century, a habshi servant of the Delhi Sultans had established a near-sovereign state in Jaunpur, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, which sustained itself till 1479. Firoz Shah Bahmani in the early 15th century had habshis in his harem, while in that same century a 1487 coup by Africans in the court of the ruler of Bengal led to the rise of a short-lived ‘Habshi Dynasty’ hundreds of miles away, on the other side of the Indian subcontinent. The exquisite Siddi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad was built by a habshi in 1572, and generations later the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb would appoint the African lord of the fortress of Janjira his naval commander, allocating to him an annual grant of 400,000 rupees to maintain the imperial fleet. In the old quarter of Delhi there is even an area by the name of Phatak Habash Khan, named, evidently, after a habshi courtier who bid farewell to the Deccan, embracing the cause of the Mughal emperor.
While these are episodes that stand out, where Africans from humble origins arrived at positions of honour and power (and sometimes infamy), the beginning of their journeys on this path were never happy. The habshis were often taken as children and sold at a price to be transported abroad. Ethiopia, at the time, was called Abyssinia in the trading world, and the very word ‘habshi’ is a derivation denoting the origins of these slaves. Malik Ambar, too, emerged from this commercial exchange of human goods. Born around 1548 into the Oromo tribe, he was captured as a boy and sold to an Arab for 20 gold ducats. In Baghdad he passed, temporarily, into the hands of another owner, who then sold him to the man who would bring him to India – and to his destiny. It was this master who educated him, though by now he had renounced his name, Chapu, and converted to Islam. ‘Whether he assumed a Muslim identity at the time as an act of genuine faith or simply as a practical matter of assimilation is not known.’ But it certainly helped him in his life ahead, to share faith with the powerful kings and noblemen of the east, in whose service lay his ascent.
Around 1571, now in his early 20s, Ambar, as he was known, arrived in the Deccan where his long-time master sold him to the peshwa (chief minister) of Ahmadnagar. The sale itself was not unusual – though his master had brought him up, the ‘bottom-line was never in dispute: Ambar was property’ and not ‘an heir or son’. However, the man who had just purchased the slave must have opened Ambar’s eyes to a world of possibilities, for the peshwa was himself black and had arrived in the Deccan under similar circumstances. He would, in due course, be assassinated, but to Ambar it must have been clear that in India it was possible to rise beyond slavery and to come into great power and wealth – he himself was merely one of a thousand habshisthe peshwa possessed.