Sidi Badr’s life tells the story of enslaved Africans who were brought to India only to later take up the reins of power. Historical records show that India has a rich African past, starting off with the eastward slave trade that saw the transportation of many African slaves to the Middle East and eventually India.
However, unlike the total subjugation of enslaved Africans in the Americas, the enslaved Africans in India had been brought in as military power.
Not only were they considered expensive people who kept important political secrets for their masters, but they were also considered close friends of the rulers to the extent that they were given some of the tough tasks because of their loyalty.
Referred to as Siddi or Habshi, they eventually took over power and ruled over the sultanates at different times over the centuries.
Though the most celebrated of these powerful African rulers is Malik Ambar, Badr is also well remembered for staging a coup that saw him take over power in Bengal in 1490. Then a guard, Badr seized power when he killed the then African ruler Habash Khan, who was disliked by all the courtiers.
At the time, African rulers in Bengal had established an “unfortunate precedent” after the killing of a previous king. It was “an accepted rule in Bengal that he who slew the king acquired a right to the throne.”
Thus, after Badr had killed Khan, he ascended the throne under the title of Shams-ud-din Abu-Nasr Muzaffar Shah and ruled for three years before he was assassinated by his minister, Ala-ud-din Husian (Sayyid Hussain), according to an account.
After his murder, many Africans in India were moved out of Bengal to southern India’s interior region known as Deccan and Gujarat, a state on the western coast of India.
But one thing to note is that during Badr’s rule, he had an army of 30,000 men, 5,000 of whom were Ethiopians just like him. This India-Ethiopia relationship shouldn’t be surprising as relations between both countries go back thousands of years.
It is documented that during the period of the Aksumite Kingdom (early Christian era), Indian traders brought to Abyssinia (now Ethiopia) spices and silk and took back gold and ivory. Abyssinians had also moved to India in medieval and post-medieval times as slaves, with others later becoming merchants, warriors, officers in the army and leaders of a variety of kingdoms across the sub-continent.
Amber, who became the Prime Minister of India’s Ahmadnagar Sultanate and a leader of the biggest army that fought against the Mughal rule, was an Afro-Indian of Ethiopian descent. Then there is Ikhlas Khan, another African of Ethiopian descent who was the Prime Minister of Deccan sultanate in the 16th century.
These Ethiopians and other Africans ruled much of India, not only because of their “military prowess and administrative skills” but because they were trusted by Indian rulers, “especially in areas where hereditary authority was weak and there was ongoing instability due to struggles between factions like in the Deccan,” Dr Sylviane A Diouf of the Schomburg Center told BBC.
“Africans sometimes did seize power for their group like they did in Bengal – where they were known as the Abyssinian Party – in the 1480s; or in Janjira and Sachin (on the western coast of India) where they established African dynasties. They also took power on an individual basis, as Sidi Masud did in Adoni (in southern India) or Malik Ambar in Ahmadnagar (in western India),” she said.
Today, the descendants of most of these rulers have remained in India. Known as the Siddi, they are spread across several states but mostly found in Karnataka, Gujarat, and Hyderabad. The Siddi in India, numbering about 25,000, are known as exceptionally hard workers with skills in woodwork and carpentry.
And when you see some of these Black Africans in India wearing traditional Indian garb, just know that they are thriving and meshing culture with the mainland while still retaining their African heritage.