The little-known story of the African presence in India is the subject of Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers, an exhibition I curated and the iBook I wrote with Kenneth X. Robbins. Following free traders and artisans who migrated to and traded with India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia in the fist centuries of the common era; from the 1300s onward, East Africans from Eritrea, Ethiopia, Somalia, Tanzania and adjacent areas entered the Indian subcontinent, mostly though the slave trade. Others came as soldiers and sailors. They were known as Sidis and Habshis. From Bengal in the northeast to Gujarat in the west and to the Deccan in Central India, they vigorously asserted themselves in the country of their enslavement.
The exhibition was shown at UNESCO's headquarters in Paris, France, as part of the celebrations for the 20th anniversary of the organization's Slave Route Project. It is presently on display at the Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts in New Delhi, India and will travel in other parts of the country. It could not have come at a better time as violent racist attacks against Africans are becoming common in India, particularly in Delhi where three African students were savagely beaten by a mob just a few days before the opening.
For more, see my blog post, and my op-ed in Indian Express.
Op-ed in Indian Express
Africans in India: Then and Now
My new book, Slavery's Exiles (New York University Press), was born when, a few years ago, I was looking for a book on North American maroons and finding none, I decided to write one.
Who the maroons were, what led them to choose this way of life over alternatives, what forms of marronage they created and how they differed from one another, what their individual and collective lives were like, how they organized themselves to survive, and how their particular story fits into the larger narrative of slave resistance are questions that this study seeks to answer.
To survive, the American maroons reinvented themselves, defied slave society, enforced their own definition of freedom and dared create their own alternative to what the country had delineated as being black men and women’s proper place. Audacious, self-confident, autonomous, sometimes self-sufficient, always self-governing; their very existence was a repudiation of the basic tenets of slavery.
As the new 15th anniversary edition of Servants of Allah shows, Islam, in the Americas, has been the religion of some people of African origin in an almost uninterrupted manner for the past five hundred years. Through the determination of its enslaved practitioners, the religion took hold in the New World and was actively practiced.
African Muslim men and women wrote a story of courage, insuperable faith, fortitude, and fidelity to their cultures, religion, and social values. Their success at keeping their faith is not a proof that, in the Americas, slavery was somewhat lenient and accommodating. If the Muslims succeeded in establishing far-ranging networks, forming strong communities, maintaining their intellectual stamina, and preserving their dignity and identity, they owed it to their solid sense of self, to their cultural self-confidence, their organizational skills, discipline, frugality, and strong communality. They took advantage of whatever avenues they could find, and used the contradictions and the cracks in the slave system to their benefit.