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Between Eastern Africa and Western India, 1500–1650: Slavery, Commerce, and Elite Formation

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 October 2019

Sanjay Subrahmanyam
Department of History, UCLA
E-mail address:


This essay examines relations between eastern Africa and western India in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in respect to two related sets of problems: the changing regimes of commercial circulation, and more particularly the evolution of patterns of human movement, notably via the slave trade from Ethiopia and the Swahili coast to Gujarat and the Deccan. It argues that over the course of the sixteenth century, commercial relations between Deccan ports such as Goa and Chaul, and the Swahili coast, came to be strengthened through the intervention of the Portuguese and their military-commercial system. At the same time, large numbers of African slaves reached the Muslim states in India, especially in the period after 1530, where they played a significant role as military specialists, and eventually as elite political and cultural actors. The shifting geographical dimensions of the African presence in India are emphasized, beginning in western Gujarat and winding up in the Deccan Sultanates. This contrasts markedly with the African experience elsewhere, where the meaning and institutional context of slavery were quite different.

Mobility and Sedentarization
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19 “Traslado da carta de Ali, Rei de Melinde, para D. Manuel,” in Documentos sobre os Portugueses, vol. 6, 44–47.

20 Anonymous, “Livro das Cidades, e Fortalezas, que a Coroa de Portugal tem nas Partes da Índia, e das capitanias, e mais cargos que nellas há, e da importância delles,” F. P. Mendes da Luz, ed., Studia 6 (1960): fls. 39v–40r.

21 Allen, Richard B., “Satisfying the ‘Want for Labouring People’: European Slave Trading in the Indian Ocean, 1500–1850,” Journal of World History 21, 1 (2010): 4573CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Also see the essay by Hassell, Stephanie, “Inquisition Records from Goa as Sources for the Study of Slavery in the Eastern Domains of the Portuguese Empire,” History in Africa 42 (2015): 397418CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The work of Pinto, Jeanette, Slavery in Portuguese India (1510–1842) (Bombay: Himalaya Publishing House, 1992)Google Scholar, is largely impressionistic.

22 See Marcocci, Giuseppe, “Tra cristianesimo e Islam: Le vite parallele degli schiavi abissini in India (secolo XVI),” Società e storia 138 (2012): 807–22Google Scholar.

23 Machado, Ocean of Trade, 124–26.

24 Machado, Pedro, “Awash in a Sea of Cloth: Gujarat, Africa and the Western Indian Ocean, 1300–1800,” in Riello, Giorgio and Parthasarathi, Prasannan, eds., The Spinning World: A Global History of Cotton Textiles, 1200–1850 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 161–79Google Scholar, (discussion on 165–66).

25 Dias Antunes, Luís Frederico, “A actividade da companhia do comércio dos baneanes de Diu em Moçambique: A dinâmica privada indiana no quadro da economia estatal portuguesa (1686–1777),” Mare Liberum 4 (1992): 143–64Google Scholar.

26 See the detailed discussion in Aubin, Jean, Le Latin et l'Astrolabe, 1: Recherches sur le Portugal de la Renaissance, son expansion en Asie et les relations internationales (Paris: Centre Culturel Calouste Gulbenkian, 1996), 133210Google Scholar.

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29 The use of African slaves (often as infantry but sometimes as cavalry) was certainly known in the ‘Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphates. See Bacharach, Jere L., “African Military Slaves in the Medieval Middle East: The Cases of Iraq (869–955) and Egypt (868–1171),” International Journal of Middle East Studies 13, 4 (1981): 471–95CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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32 See Derat, Marie-Laure, “Chrétiens et musulmans d’Éthiopie face à la traite et à l'esclavage aux XVe et XVIe siècles,” in Médard, Henri, Derat, Marie-Laure, Vernet, Thomas, and Ballarin, Marie-Pierre, eds., Traites et esclavages en Afrique orientale et dans l'océan Indien (Paris: Karthala, 2013), 119–48CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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34 Cortesão, Armando, ed., The Suma Oriental of Tomé Pires and the Book of Francisco Rodrigues, 2 vols. (London: Hakluyt Society, 1944), 88Google Scholar (translation), 377 (text).

35 See King, J. S., The History of the Bahmani Dynasty: Founded on the Burhan-i Ma'asir (London: Luzac, 1900), 119Google Scholar.

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37 An important literary source on his career remains to be adequately explored: this is Anna Centenary Library, Chennai, Government Oriental Manuscripts Collection, Persian Ms. D. 92, fls. 108–37, Ni‘matullah ‘Iyani, Fath Nama-i Mahmud Shahi.

38 ‘Abdullah Hajji-ud-Dabir Ulughkhani, Zafar al-Walih bi-Muzaffar wa Alihi: An Arabic History of Gujarat, Ross, E. Denison, ed., 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1910–29), vol. 2, xiixviii, xxxiii–xxxivGoogle Scholar.

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40 Sidi Bilal Jhujhar Khan was killed during the 1546 siege of the Portuguese fortress of Diu. For several references to him (as “Jusarcão”), see Baião, António, ed., História quinhentista (inédita) do segundo cêrco de Dio (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade, 1927), 27, 4547, 92Google Scholar. His body was buried at the celebrated Sarkhej Rauza.

41 To these we can add the devoutly Hanafite figure of Sidi Sa‘id Sultani (d. 1576), builder of a major mosque in Ahmedabad; see Chaghatai, Muslim Monuments of Ahmadabad, 95–96.

42 For a survey of these sources, see Gina Maria Cordeiro Antunes, “Os Abexins no Decão e no Guzarate no século XVI: Escravos e senhores,” Mestrado thesis in History, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, 1997.

43 We may note that the absence of notarial archives of the type used by historians of the Spanish Atlantic empire thus hinders the construction of a more nuanced and gendered history of the African presence in early modern India. See, by way of comparison, Williams, Danielle Terrazas, “‘My Conscience Is Free and Clear’: African-Descended Women, Status, and Slave Owning in Mid-Colonial Mexico,” The Americas 75, 3 (2018): 525–54CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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48 See the letter from Dom Constantino de Bragança to the Queen, Jan. 1561, in Pereira, António dos Santos, “A Índia a preto e branco: Uma carta oportuna, escrita de Cochim, por D. Constantino de Bragança, à Rainha Dona Catarina,” Anais de História de Além-Mar, vol. 4 (2003), 449–86Google Scholar (discussion on 474–75).

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51 Ulughkhani, Arabic History, vol. 2, 580–81; Commissariat, M. S., A History of Gujarat: Including a Survey of Its Chief Architectural Monuments and Inscriptions, vol. 1 (Bombay: Longmans, Green, & Co., 1938), 471–72Google Scholar.

52 Couto, Da Ásia, Década Sétima, pt. 2, 43.

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56 Farhad Khan was obviously already prominent in Ahmadnagar by the late 1550s. See the inscription in the mosque, shrine, and rest-house built by him in that city in 967 H/1559-60, in Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica, 1933–34, 6.

57 Pereira, António Pinto, História da Índia no tempo em que a governou o visorei Dom Luís de Ataíde, Duarte, Manuel Marques, ed. (Lisbon: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1987), 368–69Google Scholar, passim.

58 do Couto, Diogo, Da Ásia, Década XI (Lisbon: Régia Officina Typográfica, 1788), 171–72Google Scholar; also Vignato, Antonella, ed., “Vida e Acções de Mathias de Albuquerque, Capitão e Viso-Rei do Estado da Índia,” pt. 2, Mare Liberum 17 (1999): 267360Google Scholar. It is of interest to read Farhad Khan's career together with the case of another Ethiopian (apparently of “falaxa” or Beta Israel origin) named Gabriel or Sidi Rahim (“Side Reme”), who was tried by the Inquisition at Chaul and Goa in 1595, after spending a part of his career in Ahmadnagar service; for a careful analysis of his Inquisition file, see Marcocci, “Tra cristianesimo e Islam,” 807–22.

59 King to viceroy Rui Lourenço de Távora, 29 Oct. 1609, in de Bulhão Pato, R. A., ed., Documentos Remettidos da Índia, ou Livros das Monções, vol. 1 (Lisbon: Academia Real das Ciências, 1880), 253Google Scholar. For Portuguese dealings with Malik ‘Ambar more generally, see Flores, Jorge, Nas Margens do Hindustão: O Estado da Índia e a expansão mogol, ca. 1570–1640 (Coimbra: Imprensa da Universidade de Coimbra, 2015), 235–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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63 See Ghulam Yazdani, “Inscriptions at the Fort of Qandhar, Nanded District, H.E.H. the Nizam's Dominions,” Epigraphia Indo-Moslemica, 1919–20, 20–26. For a discussion of Kandhar and other sites, see Rötzer, Klaus, “The Architectural Legacy of Malik Ambar, Malik Sandal, and Yaqut Kabuli Habshi,” in Robbins, Kenneth X. and McLeod, John, eds., African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat (Ahmedabad: Mapin, 2006), 7084Google Scholar.

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66 Firishta, Muhammad Qasim, Tarikh-i Firishta, Nasiri, Mohammad Reza, ed., 4 vols. (Teheran: Anjuman-i Asar wa Mafakhir-i Farhangi, 2009–11), vol. 3, 508Google Scholar; History of the Rise of Mahomedan Power in India till the Year A.D. 1612, John Briggs, trans. (with Mir Khairat ‘Ali Khan Akbarabadi “Mushtaq”), 4 vols. (London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown and Green, 1829), vol. 3, 314–15 (revised). The farsakh was around 6 kilometers, and the karoh roughly 3 kilometers.

67 See Foster, William, ed., The English Factories in India, 1618–69, 13 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906–27)Google Scholar (henceforth EFI): EFI, 1618–21, 272–73.

68 See the letters from Jeffries dated October and November 1621, in EFI, 1618–21, 287–90, 296–97, 315–18. There are further references to the episode and its aftermath in EFI, 1622–23, 12–13, 18, 200–4. For a full discussion, see Gupta, Ashin Das, “Indian Merchants and the Western Indian Ocean: The Early Seventeenth Century,” Modern Asian Studies 19, 3 (1985): 481–99CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

69 “William Minor's Account of the Voyage of the Scout” (1625), in EFI, 1624–29, 71.

70 For an account of his career, see Sharif, Muhammad Jamal, Dakan mein Urdu sha‘iri Wali se pehle, Asar, Muhammad ‘Ali, ed. (Hyderabad: Idara-i Adabiyat-i Urdu, 2004), 416–32Google Scholar. For an edition of his most important work, see Khushnud, Malik, Jannat Singar (1056 H./1645), Ja‘far, Sayyida, ed. (New Delhi: Qaumi Council bara'i Urdu Zaban, 1997)Google Scholar.

71 See Jadunath Sarkar, “The Leading Nobles of Bijapur, 1627–1686,” in Sarkar, House of Shivaji, 90–101.

72 For details, see Sarkar, Jadunath, Shivaji and His Times, 3d ed. (Calcutta: M. C. Sarkar and Sons, 1929), 254–78Google Scholar. On Janjira, also see the recent essay by Jasdanwalla, Faeeza, “The Invincible Fort of the Nawabs of Janjira,” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology & Heritage 4, 1 (2015): 7291CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

73 For an overview, see Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, “Iranians Abroad: Intra-Asian Elite Migration and Early Modern State Formation,” Journal of Asian Studies 51, 2 (1992): 340–62CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 For a discussion, see Mancini-Lander, Derek J., “Tales Bent Backward: Early Modern Local History in Persianate Transregional Contexts,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 3d Series, 28 (2018): 2354CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

75 See Graf, Tobias P., The Sultan's Renegades: Christian-European Converts to Islam and the Making of the Ottoman Elite, 1575–1610 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), 164–65, 178–83CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

76 See the account in Amélie Chekroun, “Le Futūh al-Habaša: Ecriture de l'histoire, guerre et société dans le Bar Sa‘ad al-Din (Éthiopie, XVIe siècle),” PhD thesis, Université Panthéon-Sorbonne, Paris-I, 2013, 81–84, passim. For a modern English translation of the text, see ‘Arab Faqih, Shihab-ud-Din Ahmad bin ‘Abdul Qadir, The Conquest of Abyssinia: 16th Century, Stenhouse, Paul Lester and Pankhurst, Richard, trans. eds., and (Hollywood: Tsehai Publishers & Distributors, 2003)Google Scholar.

77 See Vaughan, Megan, Creating the Creole Island: Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

78 An interesting case that tests the limits is that studied in Furtado, Júnia Ferreira, Chica da Silva: A Brazilian Slave of the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. Also see Candido, Mariana P., An African Slaving Port and the Atlantic World: Benguela and Its Hinterland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, for a comparison of mobility on the two sides of the Atlantic.

79 Reis, João José, Slave Rebellion in Brazil: The Muslim Uprising of 1835 in Bahia, Brakel, Arthur, trans. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995)Google Scholar; Diouf, Sylviane A., Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in the Americas (New York: New York University Press, 1998)Google Scholar.

80 See Hathaway, Jane, The Chief Eunuch of the Ottoman Harem: From African Slave to Power-Broker (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and Fetvacı, Emine, Picturing History at the Ottoman Court (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013), 149–90Google Scholar. For Ottoman political ambitions in relation to Ethiopia, see the classic work of Orhonlu, Cengiz, Habeş eyaleti: Osmanlı imparatorluğu'nun güney siyaseti (Istanbul: Edebiyat Fakültesi Matbaası, 1974)Google Scholar.

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