Anosh Malekar is an award-winning journalist based in the western Indian city of Pune, who prefers travelling in rural India and writing about people living on the margins of society. He writes the occasional piece for The Caravan and has previously worked with The WEEK and The Indian Express.
African Warriors of India
It was the summer of 1490 AD when Malik Ahmad, founder of the Deccani Nizamshahi dynasty, stood on the rocky shores of Danda-Rajpuri looking forlornly at a fortified island half a mile in the Arabian Sea. The Sultan’s campaign was teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. “Who can take a fort whose moat is the sea?” he said in resignation, turning to his General Salabat Khan and the Abyssinian ex-slave Yakut Khan. The General stood silent, but the Abyssinian dashed down the rocks and jumped into the sea in a flash. The stunned Sultan rushed a boat to his rescue but raising his head in the waters and waving his sword, the Abyssinian refused to board it, and instead, swore to return with the head of the fort’s Koli captain.
Malik Ahmad did manage to dissuade him from the suicide mission by sending his ring as a token of royal command, and promising to make him commander of the fort, if and when they captured it. The Imperial Gazetteer describes how Yakut Khan returned at a later date “with a large force of black slaves” and swam across the sea in darkness to surprise the fort’s Koli garrison, who were then tied to chains and thrown into the sea.
Another account of the fort’s capture by an Abyssinian named Perim Khan a few decades later provides a vivid description of how Khan tricked the Koli captain Ram Patil by posing as a merchant and smuggled his men inside boxes of wine and silk. Perim Khan is supposed to have entertained the garrison with ample wine before launching an attack in the middle of the night to take possession of the island fort.
A view of the Janjira Fort. Photo by Binu Alex.
A local legend presents yet another interesting sequence of the fort’s capture wherein Ram Patil after defending the fort valiantly for long, ended up embracing Islam in the hopes of retaining his position, but was deceived and beheaded by Perim Khan. Whatever the legends, the Abyssinians took the island fort of Janjira (drawn from the Arabic word ‘jazeerah,’ meaning island), located some 40 miles south of Bombay (now Mumbai), at the turn of the 16th century. Malik Ahmad kept his word and the tradition of Abyssinian appointees at Janjira continued after him, though there seems to be some uncertainty among historians as to how many of the fort’s early commanders were in fact Abyssinians; until Siddi Ambar arrived on the scene in 1621 as governor of the small coastal estate comprising Janjira fort and the neighbouring port of Danda-Rajpuri.
Of all the Sovereigns who claimed the mandate to rule the Indian subcontinent or parts of it in their time, Siddi Ambar of Janjira is perhaps the least known. The stray references to him in recorded history refer to his strange nickname, ‘Sanak’ or ‘Sainak,’ meaning “the little,” to avoid confusing him with the great Malik Ambar – an Abyssinian ex-slave whose military exploits frustrated and stymied the tide of Mughal imperialism in southern India.
It was the great Malik Ambar, then a regent of the Nizamshahi sultanate, who sent the little Ambar to Janjira in 1617 to establish order and carry out land assessments. The protégé did restore law and order and streamlined the revenue collections, earning himself the governorship of the coastal estate; before he set out to establish an independent dynasty of his fellow Africans from the faraway Abyssinian highlands on the west coast of India. The Abyssinian chiefs addressed themselves, and became known as the Siddis, perhaps a corrupt form of Sayyid (a respectful form of address).
Siddi Ambar died in 1642, succeeded by his son Siddi Yusuf, but unlike his predecessor the details of Little Ambar’s early life or later achievements did not command the attention of historians. The scattered histories of Deccan drawn from local sources and foreign chronicles though paint a coherent picture of the later Siddi chiefs of Janjira and their kingdom, also known as the Habshan (from Habsha, Ethiopia, meaning Abyssinian or African or Negro in Hindustani), till it became integrated with mainland Indian royalty and merged with the India Union after independence, in 1948.
It seems the Siddis’ uninterrupted reign at Janjira was foretold within days of its capture by the Abyssinian Yakut Khan. According to a popular legend, Malik Ahmad having decided to strengthen the fort’s defenses sent four Abyssinians to consult a local Brahmin astrologer. He wasn’t home, but his young daughter told the men that the next day, after sunrise, was an auspicious time to start the work. When the Brahmin returned and learnt about it, he was very upset. “Oh what have you done,” he said to his daughter, “We are Brahmins and the butchers should not be told where the cow is.”
The Siddis, who were followers of Islam, ascribed their achievements to the blessings of a Sufi Aulia, who had predicted that the fort would remain in possession of the Habshis for seven generations. But why would the men (described by the Dutchman Pieter Gielis van Ravesteijn as substantial in body and limb, of more than average height, and black as a Moor) who were expert mariners – need a prophecy? Ibn Batuta, who had travelled extensively through India in the mid-14th century, called the Habshi sailors and bodyguards, “… guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean. Let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by Indian pirates and idolaters.”
The Abyssinians did not come as conquerors, nor did they entertain imperial ambitions. Many among them were ex-slaves whose influx could be traced to the Indian Ocean’s Arab trading networks in the medieval era. They were employed in the Mughal courts of north India and the Deccani sultanates in the southern peninsular region from the 14th through the 17th centuries. “On either side of the Arabian sea, then, two very different kinds of markets – one commercial, the other political – were driving the slave trade,” wrote the historian Richard M. Eaton.
On the Ethiopian side, African manpower was extracted and exported in exchange mainly for Indian textiles … In the Deccan, a chronically unstable environment caused by mutually antagonistic factions, the Deccanis and the Westerners, created a market for culturally alien military labor.
The hostilities between the Westerners, who were of Persian descent and preferred close family or commercial ties with the Middle East, and the Muslim natives of the Deccan, who felt slighted by them, had given rise to a distinct Deccani identity; eventually, leading to a revolt against the north Indian Tughluq rule around the mid-14th century. A de facto apartheid system in the palace caused intense factionalism and led to multiple revolts that gave rise to five regional sultanates by the late 15th- and early 16th-centuries.
The Abyssinians had no option of retaining ties with their homeland, which were severed by the institution of slavery. They allied themselves culturally and politically with the Deccanis, and thus, got swept up in a gigantic brawl in a faraway land they had come to adopt.
Their hosts did not fail them in the basic obligations of hospitality or human progress during periods of constant warfare for survival, trade, and political supremacies. They were housed, fed and taught the ways of household life and duties by their masters who were high-ranking court officials, administrators, and army commanders.
The Africans’ peculiar position in medieval Deccan was best illustrated in a frieze displayed at Janjira’s gates. It showed a tiger dominating six disproportionately smaller elephants in a fight, grabbing four with its claws and one each with its jaw and tail. The local guides would have the visitors believe it was a reminder of the Siddis’ military prowess vis-à-vis their opponents – Marathas, Angres (admirals of the Maratha navy), Mughals, Portuguese, Dutch and British – but only the Sultan Burhan Nizamshah, who is said to have ordered the installation, could have known the hidden symbolism.
A 20-minute boat ride is all it takes to reach the gates of the muscular, charcoal-grey fort that rises from the sea to a height of 90 feet. Visitors, after entering the massive iron-studded gates, are left awe-struck by the rock-solid fortifications and the massive bastions measuring 2.5-kilometres in circumference. Inside, the oval-shaped fort spread over 22 acres is a maze of worn out steps, deteriorating balustrades, cracked slabs, old corridors, dilapidated mansions, halls and courtyards that would have once bristled with patrolling guards, nobles, merchants, and commoners.
A view of the ruins of Janjira Palace. Photo by Binu Alex.
After climbing the several steps up to the citadel, leading past the crumbling, multi-storeyed palace of Siddi Surul Khan with its two freshwater ponds, and the forlorn tombs of Janjira’s rulers scattered near the lone mosque, the sea-fort presents itself in its entirety to the unsuspecting visitor. From this lofty vantage point, the Siddis’ deadliest weapons – some of them really huge, now lying abandoned on the bastions facing the vast stretches of sea – come into view; the guides claim the fort premises was strewn with over 500 canons till the 1970s, but today only a few are left.
Janjira’s pragmatic chiefs, having served the Nizamshahi and Adilshahi, the last of the Deccani sultanates, had cosied up to the Mughals after a long and bitter rivalry during Jahangir’s reign (1605-27). Aurangzeb’s grandfather had been the Habshis’ severest critic, who’d called Malik Ambar “the black-fated one” and his men, “the rebels of black fortune.”
Yet, during Aurangzeb’s tenure, the Siddis were granted Mughal Admiralty, the title of Yakut Khan, and the Habshan state – which was cleaved into two unequal parts by the gulf and creek of Rajpuri that extended deep into the coast’s interiors.
Still, as men of the fringe they were bound to face some stiff challenges in the Deccan, often described as a watershed between the imperialistic north and feudalistic south, where the barren plains and isolated mountains produced a hardy people with parochial ideas of self-respect and independence. The Siddis’ rise to power at Janjira preceded the Maratha ascendancy in the hills surrounding Pune under Shivaji, but soon became a constant source of anxiety for both sides.
The two seemingly incompatible, yet complimentary, military foes had risen from the ashes of the Nizamshahi sultanate toward the end of its reign during 1595-1636. Serving under the young Sultan’s regent Malik Ambar, they had engaged the mighty Mughals under Jahangir in an endless war, refusing to fight pitched battles with the cumbersome northern armies and instead resorting to harassing their supply lines with light cavalry. The Mughal term for this guerrilla warfare, bargi-giri, referred to the units of Marathas employed in large numbers by Malik Ambar. Light and swift, the Maratha cavalrymen struck deadly blows to the Mughal forces through surprise nightly attacks.
The Siddi-Maratha conflicts continued unabated and a Persian chronicler estimated that the Marathas lost around 15,000 men and incurred heavy losses during Shivaji’s 20-year war with the Siddis – who were equal losers in terms of men and resources. Their rivalries spilt over from the battlefields to the pages of history with the chroniclers presenting differing accounts of their character and the blood-stained encounters between them, for posterity. In the Marathi Bakharkar (historian) Sabhasad’s words, the Siddi was “an enemy like a rat in the house,” while in the words of the Siddis, as mentioned in the Imperial Gazetteer, the Marathas were “wild and lawless.”
The Siddi-Maratha conflicts did take religious colours on occasion but the primary reason for this rivalry was the three-fold division of Maharashtra into Konkan (coast), Ghats (hills), and Desh (plateau). As Stewart Gordon explained, this geographical division “created certain geo-political realities for any kingdom and would be conquerors or rebels … Any kingdom based in the Desh must control the Ghats to control, first, the trade routes to the coast and, secondly, the productive agriculture of the Konkan. Thus, a Desh-based kingdom’s ‘drive to the west’ is a given.”
The Marathas were only following the path dictated by the geopolitics of their land, while the Siddis continued to frustrate their attempts at gaining a foothold on the coast. The British imperial records provide interesting accounts of this rivalry: On 14-11-1700, “there were bitter fights between the Siddis and Marathas … (who) burnt villages around Danda Rajpuri. Both sides have suffered heavy losses;” while on 2-4-1701, “There is no peace between Siddis and Marathas as yet. In the recent encounters the Siddis have suffered defeat. They have asked the services of a surgeon (from us) urgently to treat the injured soldiers.”
The Siddis began a new chapter under the British though they continued to rampage Maratha territories, pillaging and killing people. At the turn of the 18th century, Mughal and Portuguese influence had begun to decline, and the British were on the ascent.
The British found themselves in a position to intervene and mediate peace between the Siddis and the Marathas after the latter suffered one of their worst defeats in the battle of Panipat on 14 January 1761. The main clauses of the historic treaty signed on 17 September 1761 included the immediate restoration of the “whole jurisdiction and territories of Rajpuri to the Siddi of Janjira” with the undertaking that “his country was not to be molested in future by any of the Maratha officers or subjects.” The treaty also required both parties to send “all the prisoners of wars” to Bombay “within a month” for restoration of “their freedom,” and finally and mostly importantly: “Henceforth all hostilities between the Marathas and Siddis were to be ceased.”
The centuries of hostilities could hardly be brought to an end with a piece of paper. The Siddi ports were still the most flourishing centres for trade in Konkan, south of Bombay, but the conflicts had reduced Janjira to a pauper state; the Siddis kept complaining to the British how the Marathas had totally devastated their lands, denying them nearly 18 years of produce. In the year 1819, the British took over the Siddi territories, a year after Maratha rule had finally ended.
The immediate consequence of the British takeover was that the Siddi revenues and military personnel were done away with, and the Janjira mint was closed, ending the reign of the silver and copper coins popularly known as the Nawab’s rupee. The British felt the minting of coins was their prerogative, and were surprised that, “… a petty chief like the Habshi is so absolutely independent as not to be subject to the paramount authority.”
It would be worth noting here that all through the centuries, the Habshis had followed a succession system akin to a Republic. All their rulers were appointed by a council of officials depending on the ability to lead the tribe rather than following the usual norms of dynastic succession. This perhaps had enabled the Abyssinian state to outlast and outlive each one of their contemporary rival powers. The Siddis continued to cling to the coast along Janjira like tortoises, till its final merger with the Indian Union.
The Siddis were known across India. The earliest reference to their growing influence in Indian history surfaces during the rule of Razia Sultana, who chose Jalaluddin Yakut, a Habshi slave, as in-charge of her royal stables, and ultimately fell in love with him – forfeiting her crown and life.
The present royal descendent from Janjira, Sidi Shah Mehmood Khan lives on Carmichael Road in Mumbai. Son of the last in the line of Sidi Nawab Muhammad Khan, he is said to be fiercely private and reclusive. His sister, who also lives in south Mumbai, is very guarded about their privacy. But for the residents of Murud-Janjira, the aura of their royalty and their brave forebears continues to linger, coming alive during weekends and the winter and the summer holidays. In a rare interview, the family wanted their history and ancestry to be understood “as completely separate from the Siddis of Gujarat” or anywhere else in India.
In some sense, one cannot even begin to compare the privilege and class entitlement of the contemporary descendants of the Sidis of Janjira with the Sidis of Gujarat. The Sidis of Janjira were rulers and administrators, so the class issue has to be considered over and above the racial identity issues.
Janjira doesn’t have many Siddis among its subjects. The last census when their number was counted was in 1881. Of Janjira state’s total population of 76,371, the Siddis numbered only 258. Many among them would have found their way to Bombay, where the population of Africans in 1864 was said to be around 2,000. Many could have migrated to Hyderabad where the Nizam had an exclusive African cavalry guard. Most of Bombay’s Siddi or Afro-Indian migrants came from Gujarat to work the engine rooms and coal barges of the steamships. There is a possibility of a rare Siddi from Janjira among them.