HistoryIndia

When African Slaves fought British in Indian War of 1857

Siddis1.jpgAfrican continent has been the worst victim of humankind’s worst crime – Slavery. While Europeans and Whites in the US have been often characterized as the main culprits, that is not the whole truth.

The art of keeping slaves was actually perfected by the Arabs. The trend was pre-Islamic but it carried on well into the Islamic Caliphate and beyond. Earlier the slaves were from Western Asia, North Africa, East Africa and certain parts of Europe (such as Iberia and southern Italy) – depending on where the Arabs were dominant.

During the Caliphate times, the slaves were of different races:

Slavic Eastern Europeans (called Saqaliba), people from surrounding Mediterranean areas, Persians, Turks, peoples from the Caucasus mountain regions (such as Georgia, Armenia and Circassia) and parts of Central Asia and Scandinavia, Berbers from North Africa, and various other peoples of varied origins as well as those of African origins

Little known to most is the fact that African slaves were shipped to India as well.

The Arab slave trade from East Africa is one of the oldest slave trades, predating the European transatlantic slave trade by 700 years.[34] Male slaves who were often made eunuchs were employed as servants, soldiers, or laborers by their owners, while female slaves, including those from Africa, were long traded to the Middle Eastern countries and kingdoms by Arab and Oriental traders, as concubines and servants. Arab, African and Oriental traders were involved in the capture and transport of slaves northward across the Sahara desert and the Indian Ocean region into the Middle East, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent.

When the British attacked Lucknow during the 1857 First war of India’s Independence (also known during British times as India’s Sepoy Mutiny); British got a rude shock when they were carefully targeted and badly hit by a sniper sitting in the tree. When the sniper was finally killed, it was found that the sniper was an African Black female. (link)

During that battle many Africans died. They were slaves of the Nawab of Oudh.

Further proof of this is also available in other writings:

“Most animated affair, the interest never flags, and the author has had the good taste (lacked elsewhere, and where it might have been reasonable looked for), to omit any attempt at reproducing the horrors of the Indian crisis. We see the black rascals plotting and rebelling, and rendering themselves just detestable enough to make the audience shout with joy when the swift vengeance of countless supernumeraries breaks upon the miscreants, and they are banged, beaten, bayoneted, blown from guns, or otherwise disposed of, as suits the scene….And as for Delhi, the revenge of England comes down upon it in a storm of fire that makes you smell powder for an hour afterwards. The spectacle is quite a national one, and sends away the audience most confirmed anti-sentimentalists” (From “How Mr. Cooke takes Delhi” Punch, 26 December 1857, 259)

Slavery of African people came to India via the Islamic conquest and as a direct result of the Arab/Persian traditions. So strong is the Arab slavery tradition that until 1950, 20% of the population comprised of slaves (450,000). During most of the Islamic era – including the times of Mohammad, African males and European/ Persian women were prized slaves. African males because they were stronger and could do more work and fight better, and women because they were used as concubines. For example, this verse from Hadith (Sahih Muslim Book # 10) shares how Mohammad exchanged two Black slaves he owned for one slave who had accepted Islam.

Book 010, Number 3901:
Jabir (Allah be pleased with him) reported: There came a slave and pledg- ed allegiance to Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) on migration; he (the Holy Prophet) did not know that he was a slave. Then there came his master and demanded him back, whereupon Allah’s Apostle (may peace be upon him) said: Sell him to me. And he bought him for two black slaves, and he did not afterwards take allegiance from anyone until he had asked him whether he was a slave (or a free man)

Yosef Ben-Jochannan also explains the fascination with African males for slavery:

Blacks are physically stronger than no matter what other people. A single one of them can lift stones of greater weight and carry burdens such as several Whites could not lift nor carry between them. […] They are brave, strong, and generous as witness their nobility and general lack of wickedness. – Yosef Ben-Jochannan, African Origins of Major Western Religions

and further Al-Jahiz shares further:

“We know that the Zanj (blacks) are the least intelligent and the least discerning of mankind, and the least capable of understanding the consequences of their actions.” Al-Jahiz [Kitab al-Bukhala (“Avarice and the Avaricious”)]

So where are the descendants of those African slaves?

Sidis of Gujarat are the main ones. They have assimilated in some ways to the local culture although they still follow mostly African Sufi Islam. Here is how they landed here:

The first Siddis are thought to have arrived in the Indian subcontinent in 628CE at the Bharuch port. Several others followed with the first Arab Islamic invasions of the subcontinent in 712CE.[14] The latter group are believed to have been soldiers with Muhammad bin Qasim’s Arab army, and were called Zanjis.

Most Siddis, however, are believed to be the descendants of slaves, sailors, servants and merchants from the Bantu-speaking parts of East Africa who arrived and became resident in the subcontinent during the 1200-1900CE period.[15] A large influx of Siddis to the region occurred in the 17th century when Portuguese slave traders sold a number of them to local princes.

Fatima Chowdhary discusses the situation of the Siddi community, which is marginalized due to their features and have been accorded the Scheduled Tribe status in some districts.

Though most Siddis live in Gujarat or Mumbai area (roughly 20,000 to 50,000); some are also probably in Hyderabad. In fact until 1948, Nizam of Hyderabad had an African Regiment called Siddi Risala. (The African dispersal in the Deccan: from medieval to modern times By Shanti Sadiq Ali). There are some Siddis in Karnataka as well and are Christians, Hindus and Muslims. Although they follow local language and customs, they have retained their own identity as well.

The numbers and status of the Siddis – the only known group of African descendants has been dwindling rapidly. Though the government has made some attempt, but their long term survival is a question.

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Desh Kapoor

The panache of a writer is proven by the creative pen he uses to transform the most mundane topic into a thrilling story. Desh - the author, critic and analyst uses the power of his pen to create thought-provoking pieces from ordinary topics of discussion. He writes on myriad interesting themes. Read the articles to know more about his views and "drishtikone".

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