India, Africa and African Americans

The noble Ikhlas Khan with a petition ca. 1650 – The San Diego Museum of Art

Cultural exchange and interaction between African or African-origin people and Indian people has a long and important history, although it is difficult to find any sustained or in-depth discussion of this history in its entirety.  Such interaction must have begun in ancient times through ancient Indian Ocean trade networks fostered by Arab, African and Indian merchants and seafarers.  These vibrant trade networks connected India with Somalia, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan, as well as Oman and Yemen. 

This maritime trade seems to have been an important driver of the economy of the ancient world, and silks, cinnamon and cloves were just some of the goods that were exported from India.  Myrrh, frankincense and a kind of gum known as mokrotou, which seems to have been called makaranda in Sanskrit, were some of the valuable goods that were exported from Africa.  Ras Hafun in Somalia and Baruch in Gujarat were major trading ports. [1]

As a result of this trade, many Bantu and other East African merchants migrated to India and settled in places like Hyderabad, Gujarat and Karṇāṭaka.  Conversely, some Indians also settled along the East African coast.  Later on, some African people were also forcibly brought to India as part of the medieval slave trade, and in fact many of them were able to rise into important positions in Indian society, or at least to gain political autonomy. 

Thus an article by Courtney A. Stewart from the Met Museum explains how in the sixteenth century, the slave Raihan was freed, and later “became a commander of troops and an important advisor to the sultan. Eventually he was named governor of a province on the border with Golconda, and, in 1635, he received the title Ikhlas Khan, by which he is known to history.” [2]

Possibly the most famous African Indian, however, is Malik Ambar of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate.  Born in Ethiopia and given the name Chapu, he was sold into slavery as a child, and eventually, he was purchased by the Chief Minister of Ahmedabad.  Rising in power, he was freed, and “built an army of African ex-slave soldiers and became the de-facto king in Ahmadnagar” [2].  As a military leader, Malik Ambar won many important strategic victories, and “his army grew to include 10,000 Habshis and 40,000 Deccanis” [3].  As a king, Malik Ambar was also a supporter of literature and the arts, and a great urban planner who founded the city of Khirki, now known as Aurangabad, and made it his capital.

In the early and mid-twentieth century, there was close cooperation between Indians and African-Americans around the Indian Independence movement, American Civil Rights Movement and the fight against caste discrimination in India.  The Indian freedom fighter Lala Lajpat Rai spent several years in the USA, getting to know most of the African American leaders of the civil rights struggle, and  soon becoming good friends with W.E.B. Dubois.  Rai explained that “there is some analogy between the Negro problem in the United States and the problem of the depressed classes in India.” [4]

Mahatma Gandhi was likewise connected with racial justice campaigns in Africa and the United States.  When Mahatma Gandhi first arrived in South Africa, his initial concern was only for the status of the Indian residents and not for black South Africans.  However, he steadily came to understand more about the discrimination there as well as in America, and also studied the works of Booker T. Washington. As a result, Mahatma Gandhi came to connect the campaigns for Indian independence and against caste discrimination with the fight against South African apartheid and with the American civil rights movement, and he later wrote supportive letters to American civil rights leaders.

This history continued with Jawaharlal Nehru, Martin Luther King, and others, as described in some of the references below. 

Reflecting on the long and continuing history of intercultural interaction in this way may also encourage us in the broad-minded belief that ‘the whole world is one family’.





[4] ‘Raising up a prophet : the African-American encounter with Gandhi’ by Sudarshan Kapur

Video Credits:

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and African Trade Ministers – Wikimedia Commons (PMO, Govt of India)

Austronesian maritime trade network in the Indian Ocean – Wikimedia Commons (Obsidian Soul / CC0)

View of Bharuch from the Narmada river 1813 – Wikimedia Commons (James Forbes/ Sir William Jackson Hooker)

An African Lyre Player c. 1640-1660 – Cleveland Museum of Art

The noble Ikhlas Khan with a petition ca. 1650 – The San Diego Museum of Art, Edwin Binney 3rd Collection

Portrait of Malik ‘Ambar (detail), early 17th century – Met Museum

Dr Martin Luther King, Jr stands next to a portrait of Mahatma Gandhi in his office in 1966.(Bob Fitch Photography Archive, Department of Special Collections, Stanford University Libraries)

Lala Lajpat Rai 1965 stamp of India – Wikimedia Commons (India Post, Government of India)

Gandhi spinning – Wikimedia Commons

Booker T Washington 1940 Issue 10c- Wikimedia Commons (US Post Office / Public domain)

Martin Luther King with Vinoba Bhave, the “Second Gandhi” 1959-03-01 – Google Arts and Culture

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