Africans in India Part 1: An Abyssinian arrival


I had vaguely heard of Habshi’s and Siddi’s growing up. Then I read this old BBC news article last night:


Long before the first slave ships started supplying labour to the cotton plantations of the American south, and many centuries before the first Africans were brought ashore to the sugar estates of Brazil and the Caribbean, Africans were being sold as slave-soldiers for India’s princely states.

Their descendants are the least visible part of the huge African diaspora.

But today in India, almost lost among the mosaic of different cultures and communities in that country, are tens of thousands of people of African descent.

They are known as Sidis.


Most Sidis are Sufi Muslims, who believe God is worshipped through song and dance.


Historian Runoko Rashidi in an essay entitled, “The African Presence in India“:

“…..African sailors known as Siddis stand out. Certainly, Siddi kingdoms were established in western India in Janjira and Jaffrabad as early as 1100 AD. After their conversion to Islam, the African freedmen of India, originally called Habshi from the Arabic, called themselves Sayyad (descendants of Muhammad) and were consequently called Siddis.

Indeed, the island Janjira was formerly called Habshan, meaning Habshan’s or African’s land. Siddi signifies lord or prince. It is further said that Siddi is an expression of respectful address commonly used in North Africa, like Sahib in India. Specifically, it is said to be an honorific title given to the descendants of African natives in the west of India, some of whom were distinguished military officers and administrators of the Muslim princes of the Deccan.

…The Siddis were a tightly knit group, highly aggressive, and even ferocious in battle. They were employed largely as security forces for Muslim fleets in the Indian Ocean, a position they maintained for centuries. The Siddi commanders were titled Admirals of the Mughal Empire, and received an annual salary of 300,000 rupees. According to Ibn Battuta (1304-1377), the noted Muslim writer who journeyed through both Africa and Asia, the Siddis “are the guarantors of safety on the Indian Ocean; let there be but one of them on a ship and it will avoided by the Indian pirates and idolaters.”


But as you would expect, Siddi’s who live mostly in a secluded part of Gujarat today, are not exactly well off. From the Times of India, Dec 5, 2004:


“…the assimilation of the Siddis — a tribe of African Negroid origin who came to Saurashtra about four centuries ago — is near-complete. Only here, what could have been a unique feature has sociologists squirming.

These men with distinct Negroid features have picked up the vices of local communities along the coast, gambling and drinking. Falling literacy rate, lack of jobs, government indifference and no efforts to preserve their culture have pushed them to the brink of ruin. About 6,000 Siddis continue to stay in 19 villages in and around Talala.

“Our ancestors were brought here as slaves about 400 years ago by the then nawab of Junagadh. There are about 1,300 families settled here. But, our condition has only deteriorated. Though a committee for uplift of Siddis was formed, there was no representation from our side in it. Hence, officials are hardly aware of our problems,” says president of the Siddi community Ahmeda Makwana alias Zinka Patel.

The area reflects the pitiable condition of the community. Siddi Wada has no pucca house and dingy lanes snake their way through. A board hangs on a wall, with figures scribbled on it. Another evening is on its way and people prepare for another round of merry-making.


Here’s a recent report on a little bit of recognition from earlier this year, an award by Jaya Bacchan:soc21.jpg

January 2007 has been a joyful month in the life of Hirbaiben Lobi, the winner of the Jankidevi Bajaj Puraskar for promoting rural entrepreneurship among women. Hirbaiben was thrilled to go to Mumbai recently to receive the award from the hands of actor and MP Jaya Bachchan, because she has been an admirer of the Bachchan family for a long time. Jaya, giving the award, said she was amazed at the work an illiterate woman could do in the remote rural areas of Gujarat, by sheer dint of courage and fearlessness. “Hirbaiben is a rural role model,” she said.

What is the nature of work that Hirbaiben has accomplished?

Deep in the jungles near Junagadh in Gujarat lies the Gir Asiatic Lion Sanctuary. In and around this deep jungle, lives a unique community called Siddis. Their ancestors came to India from Africa when the ruler of Murud Janjira on coastal Maharashtra in the 17th century was a Moor or Siddi. The fort of Murud Janjira still stands sentinel to the advent of Moors in India. But only a small number of people of this community have survived and they live in villages around the Gir forest. Poor farmers, with a low standard of education and progress, Siddis, like the other Adivasi communities of this area, have been languishing without adequate means of livelihood.

In recent years, 46-year-old Hirbaiben has brought a new ray of hope in the lives of these communities. Living in Jambur village near Junagadh, she has made untiring efforts to develop and enhance the social and economic status of rural women, especially of the Siddi community. She has motivated the Adivasi communities of the area to improve farming methods, build social service institutions, improve water supply sources, save the environment around and build school and health centres to improve the life of Adivasi and Siddi communities considerably.


COMIN SOON: Reports on Siddi music, brief political eminence (YES, political eminence in India) and efforts to repatriate.


A smiling Siddi girl,



8 Responses to Africans in India Part 1: An Abyssinian arrival

  1. Joylon Wagg says:

    Quite timely – Nestor old chap ! The missus and me were just discussing this last night over a wee dram with some friends. We were reminiscing about our travels in Janjira (7 hours drive from Bombay, on the Bombay-Goa highway) and the palace of the Siddi Nawab there. Gujarat & Hyderabad are the other places where my brothers are keepin’ it real. yo. word to your mum.

  2. Nestor says:

    fantastic joylon. you didn’t happen tp snap any pictures of that magical janjira palace did you? if so please send me a couple as i’m going to write a post on that soon and i’ve never seen the place. send in a paragraph too and i’ll quote you or the missus. also, i’ll like to do a story on your mum-in-law’s biryani someday.

  3. Derick says:

    Brings back memories. I remember back in the day when my school in bangalore was a chosen center for children who excelled in sports. There were a lot of sidis, mostly in track and field. Also, there were also quite a few housed in a hostel in a stadium right by school.
    I’ll tell you what Nestor, watch out for the gypsies camping a couple of kilometers away. Nothing good has ever come from ’em.

  4. Soulplane says:

    Don’t quite remember having seen the palace of the Siddi Nawabs in Murud village but you’ve got to see the sea fort at Murud-Janjira.It’s in ruins but definitely worth a visit.I had been there with some students…but that was a very long time ago.The piracy of the Siddis provoked the local powers to suppress them but this fort was never conquered.I remember taking a boat into the sea to get there.Pretty risky.Never try this in the monsoons:)

  5. Ahmed says:

    What is your problems. Stop putting the pictures of blacks females here. Put black men if you wanted to. People will be offeded by pictures of black females. Hating them brings homosexuality to the world. I know too many homosexuals who hated black females and turned into gays facing death everywhere in the whole world.

  6. I was encouraged by your website to present a paper on the African diaspora at FIU in Florida in to the MEDITERRANEAN in 2004. Be encouraged that many of us are working on many articles highlightening the pligth of sub saharan Africans in the journals of learning. I recently published a book on “Colour complex and African Conflicts”. It is mainly on the problems of the silenlt Afican diaspora in the Middle East and Asia. Iam from Northern Nigeria but resident in Europe. My place is one of the varuios places that were pilllaged and taken to that region of the world.

  7. Big Momma says:

    there was an entire Habshi dynasty in Bengal, you can run a search.Nice work.Stay in touch.

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