I attended an event at the Smithsonian this weekend called Asia After Dark: Afro-Asiatic Mash-Up. Held in the meditative Moongate garden, the evening featured a “mash-up” of Japanese vogue dance, theater, storytelling, hip-hop music and Afro-funk (Fela!) choreographed by visual artist iona rozeal brown. Among inventive cocktails, Japanese beer and floating origami lotus blossom lanterns, guests were invited to create masks using Asian botanical and Ashanti adinkra symbols from West Africa, while the highlight was a performance of soloist dancer Monstah Black–whose outfit was a dizzying array of Japanese Geisha meets Soulsonic Force topped off by a Gabon-Punu/Lumbo mask. Was pretty dope. And the only thing conspicuously missing in this Afro-Asian fusion was any mention of Wu-Tang Clan. Yet as novel and cutting-edge as all of this meeting of two seemingly un-related cultures and peoples may seem, it’s not really all that new. Asia and Africa have been melding and fusing for quite a long time.
*photo: (L) “…hold on…”–Erykah Badu, 2009 by artist iona rozeal brown- Courtesy of Robert Goff Gallery (R) Muhammad Khan, The Noble Ikhlas Khan With a Petition by Muhammad Khan (17th century), India. c. 1650. in San Diego Museum of Art
This shouldn’t really be surprising. Africa and Asia, the world’s two largest land masses, sit right beside each other. It only took a small bit of wading and swimming for the earliest modern humans out of East Africa to wander into Asia and go on to populate the world. In prehistory, it’s thought some may have even wandered back to humanity’s birthplace, and then dispersed again in later waves.
Tens of thousands of years later, by the medieval era, contacts between Africa and Asia had been well established–mostly through trade that linked East Africa with cultures further East. We know this because we can find Asian pottery in East Africa, and Axumite Ethiopian coins in India. Even more telling–we have people. Dr. Omar H. Ali in an introductory essay to his New York Public Library sponsored exhibit, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World, speaks on this migratory movement of goods and humanity and its enduring history between the two continents:
Sweeping across the Indian Ocean and its several seas and adjoining bodies of water, lateen-rigged ships—dhows—bearing Africans were propelled by seasonal winds that blew from the southwest for part of the year and then reversed direction. Over nearly 20 centuries Africans journeyed to distant lands often radically different from their own—geographically, linguistically and culturally. Initially, most of these people from dozens of ethnicities and societies, and practicing various religions, came from the coastal areas of eastern Africa. Over time, more came from the interior Great Lakes region, followed by Central Africa.
Like their counterparts in the Atlantic world, most African migrants to Asia were enslaved as captives of war, the victims of outright kidnapping, or made chattel as debt repayment. They were then sold, sometimes several times over, for ever greater profit. But not all Africans in the Indian Ocean world were captives, just as not all enslaved people were Africans. Unlike in the Americas, slavery in the Indian Ocean world was never racially codified, and enslaved people in the Middle East and Asia came from different racial backgrounds.
The Africans who came into contact with the Asian world were not a monolithic grouping. They could range from the Malian ruler Mansa Musa‘s famed 14th century Hajj to Mecca, which storytellers of the time claimed included an astounding 70,000+ member entourage, to the Siddis who arrived in waves to India and Pakistan as sailors, merchants, traders and slaves for over 700 years. In art, blacks are depicted as slaves for sale in Arabian markets, soldiers of Muslim armies, scholars and eunuchs in Asian courts, dignitaries and nobles bearing gifts or even kings of Indian states–like the ambitious Malik Ambar who climbed his way from slavery to become the Regent of a South Indian Sultanate, and a key thorn in the side of the rival Mughal Emperor. The 500,000 slaves who took part in the massive Zanj Revolt of the Abbasid Baghdad Caliphate of the 9th century, which lasted some 15 years and created a short-lived state between what is modern-day Iraq and Iran, consisted of a good number of African laborers and soldiers, along with Persians, Indians, Bedouins and Central Asians (Georgians and Circassians). No less than Bilal, the Prophet Muhammad’s servant and confidant who became the third convert to Islam and the faith’s first muezzin, was of African descent–said to be the son of an Abyssinian slave-girl. Many Africans would enter Asia later in the 17th to early 20th centuries with Europeans, brought as laborers and soldiers to the various holdings of colonial empires; in 18th century Sri Lanka, in the city of Colombo, an area in its center was marked maps as Kaffers Veldt (Kaffir’s Field), named for the blacks transported there by the Dutch. Neither was this experience in one-direction, as Asian migrants would also find their way to kingdoms like Axum in the early medieval era (In Islamic tradition, some one hundred followers of the faith sought refuge in in the Ethiopian kingdom, in what is known as the Hijarati) and later to East Africa to help create the polycultural Swahili states—Swahili itself is a mash-up of African Bantu languages, Arabic and other Eurasian words. The famed 15th century Chinese mariner Zheng He and his massive fleet would make several stops in East Africa, furthering exchanges in goods and culture.
Bilal al-Habashi- Spencer Collection, Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, The New York Public Library.
At the same time, there is no need for romanticism. Most of these African migrants to Asia came as slaves, and the vast majority were not able to work their way up the existent social hierarchies. Color prejudice while different in its dynamics in these regions (both locals and lighter-skinned peoples–particularly Central Asian and Russians–were also slaves), was still prevalent. And even in populations where some could have darker skin than many Africans, the “Africanness” (based on religion or culture) of the enslaved, an “othering” dehumanizing process in itself, could have a pejorative aspect. The tasks these slaves were put to was diverse, but could be as brutal and punishing as any in the more modern Atlantic chattel slavery. A good number were boys, some of who may have been made eunuchs–with all the brutality that may imply (*contrary to popular belief, eunuch did not always refer to castration and could be a third-gender or gender nullifying designation).
Eunuch in 1931Tunis guarding “harem.” photo courtesty of Recuerdos de Pandora
A very large number were also African women, who ended up in concubinage–a form of sexual exploitation that, if we take into account the lack of free will, is unmistakably an act of rape. The product of this is all rather nuanced. Because of the more fluid nature of Eastern bondage, the children of these unions could go on to inherit their father’s status and wealth–and in turn marry into local families, resulting in a curious blending of race and ethnicity. Like with so much of history, the mash-ups of culture and humanity we find fascinating today have their dark side. Real talk.
Slaves in Zabid, Yemen, 13th century, al-Hârith au marché aux esclaves Bibliothèque nationale de France, Département des Manuscrits, Division orientale
Whatever their origins, these populations did not simply vanish or disappear in the modern era. Afro-Arabians can be found throughout Western Asia, many who claim a long-standing presence in the region, showing up among regular members of the populace or even within the lineage of royal families. Basra, Iraq still holds a large community thought to be descendants of slaves (as far back as the Zanj) brought into the region since the 9th century. The Indo-African descendants of the Belanda-Hitam, African soldiers brought to the Dutch East Indies in the mid-19th century, can still be found throughout Java. Siddis, of both poor and middle class backgrounds, are today prevalent throughout South Asia. Until its absorption into Mumbai in 1948, the Sachin state in Gujarat founded by Sidi Mohammad Abdul Karim Khan, had a legacy of Siddi rulers–many of them descendants of Africans who intermarried with Indian nobility. Today, the largest number of Siddi in fact according to Dr. Omar H. Ali are to be found in modern-day Pakistan:
Pakistan has the most people of African descent in South Asia. It has been estimated that at least a quarter of the total population of the Makran coast is of African ancestry—that is, at least 250,000 people living on the southern coast of Pakistan, which overlaps with southeastern Iran, can claim East African descent. Beginning in 1650 Oman traded more heavily with the Lamu archipelago on the Swahili coast and transported Africans to the Makran coast. As a result, today many Pakistani of African descent are referred to as Makrani, whether or not they live there. On the coast they are also variously referred to as dada, sheedi and syah (all meaning black), or alternatively, gulam (slave) or naukar (servant). The children of Sindhi Muslim men and sidiyani (female Africans) are called gaddo—as in half-caste. The population geneticist Lluis Quintana-Murci of the Pasteur Institute in Paris found that more than 40 percent of the maternal gene pool of the Makrani is of African origin. “Mombasa Street” and “Sheedi Village” in Karachi speak to the African presence in modern-day Pakistan. The predominantly Muslim Afro-Pakistani community in Karachi continues to celebrate the Manghopir festival, in honor of the Sufi saint Mangho Haji Syed Sakhi Sultan.
Dr. Ali notes that, “the vocabulary used by the Afro-Sindhi descendants of these migrants is a modified Swahili. For instance, the word for shield in Swahili, ngao, is gao among the Afro-Sindhi; the word for moon (or one month) in Swahili, mwesi, is moesi in Afro-Sindhi.”
*Side Note: These medieval to 19th century examples of Africans in Asia should not be confused with long-existing Asian populations like the Andamanese Islanders, many indigenous Fijians, peoples of New Guinea, etc. who may exhibit features very similar to Africans but are not distinctly related to modern (historical) Africa–at least no more than all other humans on the planet. They instead are descendants of human migrants who left Africa in prehistory (like everyone else) and (unlike everyone else) for varying reasons either retained features similar to Africans or re-evolved them. The confusion this caused for race-conscious 18th century European “explorers” is obvious in the various names they assigned such populations–Negritos, Negrillos, South Sea Negroes, etc.–all of which were erroneous on multiple levels. Yet because of this racial categorization, many of these communities would be reduced to slavery and severe discrimination based on skin color and features that would cause them to be termed “black.” An interesting topic, for a whole notha’ blog.
Siddi women’s cooperative creating kawandi quilts in India DominikPhoto.
Some worthy sources to whet your cultural-historical speculative appetite:
The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World- exhibit at the NYPL by Dr. Omar H. Ali, traces the struggles and achievements of African migrants to Asia across a variety of societies, cultures, religions, languages and times using art, literature and history.
African Elites in India: Habshi Amarat by Kenneth X Robbins- described by the author as a series of snap shots, in the form of essays by specialists in the history numismatics, architecture, and art history of South Asia, and of color and black and white illustrations, that attempts to look at the history of blacks in historic India–particularly those who rose to prominent positions. A 50 min. discussion of the book by Kenneth X Robbins at the Library of Congress in 2010 is available for viewing here.
Malik Ambar: A Remarkable Life- a 2006 article from the The Tribune of India on the famed Ethiopian-born figure who rose from slave to Sultan in 16th and 17th century India.
Soulful Stitching: exhibit of patchwork quilts (kawandi) by Siddis Women in India