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.
“…..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.