The forgotten history of the African slaves who were brought to the Deccan and rose to great power

(Published in, June 19 2018)


The Deccan in the early-modern age was a land where a thousand fortunes could be made. Men and women came to it in the hundreds, some as adventurers, and others to populate its harems. In the early fifteenth century, for instance, there was a Sultan in Gulbarga who made it a personal preoccupation to acquire brides from exotic lands. There was a Hindu princess of exalted lineage who came to him as a peace offering, just as there was a woman who was of tribal Gond origins. Companions were imported from Arabia and Persia, while Turks, Afghans, and Caucasian women too found a place in the Sultan’s harem. Each, reportedly, was granted her own establishment, with maids from her home country, so that whenever the king made his visit to one of his numerous spouses, he could also use the occasion to pick up some more of a foreign language. Life, after all, could not be whiled away in the begums’ boudoirs when intellectual edification was also available within those very curtained zenanas.

If this, then, was the multicultural universe of the royal harem, the Deccan was also a magnet for military men who served its kings outside the palace. Ships went out every year to find the best horses from Arabia, bringing with them also Persians and Arabs with swords available for hire. Some of them scaled great heights – one of the most prominent ministers of the Bahmani Sultans was originally a peddler of goods and products – while others immigrated to India and transformed themselves, almost overnight, into sovereign princes. The Adil Shahs of Bijapur, for instance, were descended from one such mercenary. He arrived in India in the late fifteenth century, invented for himself a glamorous genealogy, took for wife the daughter of a Maratha nobleman, and spawned soon enough a royal line that endured for two eventful centuries. The lure of the Deccan was irresistible – you could cross an ocean into a future full of potential, winning power, wealth, and making something of yourself which at home might not always be possible.

But while the tales of the Persians and Arabs who journeyed to India along Islamic networks of commerce and military exchange are well-established, and while many of the whispers of harem ladies are exaggerated, what is often forgotten is the arrival of thousands of Africans in the Deccan, who too rose to phenomenal heights in these eastern lands. The habshis, so called after their native land, Abyssinia, almost all began their careers as slaves, disembarking from ships with a profound disadvantage. And yet, many of them attained such prominence, that there was more than one instance where their daughters were wedded to Sultans, mothering heirs with legitimate claims to the Deccan’s unsteady thrones. The greatest of them all, of course, was the legendary Malik Ambar, whose military prowess and ability was of such superior order that sophisticated Mughal emperors like Akbar and Jehangir were reduced, in their fury, to calling him names (“crafty Ambar”) and barking insults (“that disastrous man”).

Demand for Abyssinian slaves in the courts and capitals of the east was an old one. Writing as early as the fourteenth 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”. In Delhi the favour shown by Razia Sultan in the 1230s to an Abyssinian warrior provoked rebellion and contributed to her tragic murder at the close of that decade. At the end of the fourteenth century, a habshicalled Malik Sarwar established a near-sovereign state in Jaunpur, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, which sustained itself till 1479. In another corner of the Indian subcontinent, Africans led a coup in 1487 and established a short-lived “Habshi Dynasty” that exercised power in Bengal. The exquisite Siddi Saiyyed Mosque in Ahmedabad, similarly, was built by a habshi, and generations later Emperor Aurangzeb would appoint the lord of Janjira his naval commander, an African in charge of the imperial fleet.

In the Deccan, particularly, habshis had a remarkable role to play. Some were associated with tales of treachery – there is, for instance, the story of a merchant-turned-minister’s confidant, whose betrayal sent his master to the executioner (who too, incidentally, was a habshi). The man was in charge of the minister’s seal – allowing it to fall into the hands of his employer’s detractors they then affixed it to a treasonous letter, ending both the minister’s life and career. In Bijapur in the early 1510s, a regent who ruled for a Sultan was, similarly, a black man from Ethiopia – his life too ended on the sharp end of a dagger. When years later the celebrated queen Chand Bibi was imprisoned by her nephew, her liberator was a habshi, while in her home-state of Ahmadnagar, one troubled ruler in the mid-1590s was lampooned as the son of “a negress”. When the Mughals laid siege to Ahmadnagar at the end of that decade, Suhail Khan, who led forces coming to the city’s rescue was also African. And many years later, on the eve of the final conquest of the Deccan under Aurangzeb, in Bijapur would rise again a habshi exercising as a short-lived vizier the full and tragic authority of power.

The habshis did face a problem of racism, however. In a famous painting of Malik Ambar at the Mughal court, his dark skin is associated with omens of evil, while it is the emperor Jehangir who is surrounded by the light of divine benediction. But by sheer dint of their determination, habshis rose to formidable power and importance. As one beneficiary of the system of military slavery in the Middle East remarked in an earlier period, “One obedient slave is better than three hundred sons; for the latter desire their father’s wealth, the former his master’s glory.” The habshis rarely came with women from their homelands, marrying from among the Indian people, integrating themselves into local society – many are the Indians today who possibly possess a little bit of African blood in their veins. Even Malik Ambar, originally Chapu of the Oromo tribe, kept no connection with the country of his birth after he was enslaved – but he fathered two children in India, marrying his daughter to a Sultan.

While Africans continued to appear in India even in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (in 1724 a fortress of the Mysore maharajahs was under the command of a habshi) it was under Ambar that they witnessed their heyday. “He has a stern Roman face,” wrote a Dutch merchant “and is tall and strong of stature.” His charities were legendary, as was his sense of Islamic piety. 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,” recorded a court chronicler. “History,” it concludes, “records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.” It was high praise indeed, coming as it did from the imperial establishment, where two generations of emperors revealed nothing but spite for this hero of the Deccan, a man who was after all a habshi.