Do you know the Siddi People?

The Africans of South Asia

The despicable practice of African slave trading is common between Arabs and Ottomans, Europeans and Americans; extending from the 1st century to this very day in Libya. South Asians, however, suffer from a crippling incuriosity about their own ties to black oppression.

African slaves were an adjunct to the colonial adventures of the white saviours sailing across the Indian Ocean; namely Portuguese, Dutch and British. The Siddi People are largely descendants of black slaves, now settled in South Asia. 

During the Portuguese rule of Sri Lanka in the 15th Century, African slaves from Mozambique were traded by the Portuguese, Dutch and British. Africans were ‘imported’ from Madagascar and East Africa. Slavery in Ceylon was formally abolished in 1845. However, illegal forms and a structural, societal and individual anti-blackness remained, or rather remains, pervasive within South Asia. It is true that slaves were freed from their owners, but in the words of Martin Luther King;

“Emancipation for the Negro was really freedom to hunger. It was freedom to the winds and rains of Heaven. It was freedom without food to eat or land to cultivate and therefore was freedom and famine at the same time. And when white Americans tell the Negro to “lift himself by his own bootstraps”, they don’t oh, they don’t look over the legacy of slavery and segregation. I believe we ought to do all we can and seek to lift ourselves by our own boot straps, but it’s a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And many Negroes by the thousands and millions have been left bootless as a result of all of these years of Oppression and as a result of a society that deliberately made his color a stigma and something worthless and degrading.”

Children playing in Jambur village.
(Photo: Neeraj Gupta/The Quint)

In contrast to African-Americans, Siddis have anecdotally rose to power, albeit for short periods. In 1490, an African guard, Sidi Badr, seized power in Bengal and ruled for three years but was eventually murdered. The Mughals of India, relied on African soldiers in battle. In 1843, an African Sheedi called Hosh Mohammed Sheedi commanded an army against the British at Dabbo. While the battle was lost, this delayed the annexation of Sindh to the British Raj. The most notable of all was Malik Ambar, a Siddi man and Deccan slave, who ultimately grew his own mercenary force, and founded the canal water supply of Aurangbad.

Today, 50,000 Siddi people live all over India. These are largely descendants of the Bantu tribe of South East Africa, brought to India blindfolded and tied by Portuguese merchants, or by Arab traders who sold them to high caste Hindus, Brahmins.

They are noticeably assimilated into Indian culture, in the absence of force. Many Siddis escaped their slave-masters and established communities in the high mountains and foothills of the forests.

Gujrati Habshi Siddis distinguish themselves from others by their devotion to Sufi Islam and adoration for the African merchant-saint, Gori Pir. The singing of divine invocations breathes life into Sufi shrines, and Sufi Siddis dance in joy, playing damal. This music is a unique fusion of Gujrati and Swahili to the beat of African mugarman drums, malsunga string bows and Mai Mishra coconut rattles.

The respectful whispers of the Abyssinian Sufi saint, Baba Ghor, cannot be escaped in Gujrati mohallas. He is believed to have travelled from Mecca to fight Rakshisha of Ratanpur, vanquish demons and protection of the Habishi Muslims. His dargah is a place of spiritual solace, visited by many.

Pakistani Sheedi Girl – photographer unknown

Pakistan is home to over 250,000 African Sheedi diaspora, mainly residing in Karachi and other areas of Sindh. While facing the same discrimination as their Indian cousins, one Siddi woman is a force to be reckoned with. Tanzeela Qambrani is the first Afro-Pakistani lawmaker and is dedicated to empowering her marginalised community.

In the 1980s, the Siddi people’s natural athletic ability caught the attention of the Sports Authority of India. Siddis went on to win gold medals and generated wealth yet again for India, before being cast back to their silos in forests. The programme has since been revived and a Special Area games Centre has been installed in Dandeli, Karnataka. The ultimate goal is to bring gold home to India, come the 2024 Olympics.

There is diversity within Siddis in their practices, culture and thoughts. Yet, they will fling their dupatta over their shoulders, with a bindi on their forehead and natter in Urdu and Gujrati. Children will play cricket in the street while their fathers chew paan. But make no mistake, their skin is undeniably African.

The deep-rooted anti-black ideology is intertwined with the caste system. Siddis employed by Brahmins are not allowed to eat from the same plates or inside the house, believing a simple touch could lead to an irreversible curse. In Pakistan, they are referred to as gulam (slave) or naukar (servant). They have adopted South Asian customs, but society has no place for them at the family dinner table.

When Lily Jaki Siddi was interviewed by Richard Samuel, he asked her how she would feel about returning to Africa for good. Despite the alienation of Siddis, she had her reservations. Too African to be Asian and too Asian to ever be African, she answered;

‘what if things have changed completely and they don’t accept us?’


Resources

Watch:

Read:

In this Dongri byline, a Siddi family is trying to take the African legacy forward https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/mumbai/in-this-dongri-bylane-a-siddi-family-is-trying-to-take-african-legacy-forward/

Luke Duggleby’s ‘The Sidi Project’

History of the Siddhi People: http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africansindianocean/essay-south-asia.php#Pakistan

Sheedi Organisations in Pakistan:

All Sindh Al Habash Jama’at

All Sindh Sheedi Welfare Association