Africa Asian History

Ruminations on African-Asian History

I like to picture this as a snowball. ‘This’ being my regularly increasing knowledge on the shared history between the African and the Asian continents. I admit that I thought the ‘wow’ moments ended with my posts on historical Sino-African relations.

When we think about the African Diaspora, most of us turn our attention to the rich array of images, cultures and histories of black men and women in the Atlantic world. This diaspora, beginning in the 16th century, included an estimated 10.7 million forced migrants—about 2 million had died during the Middle Passage—from West, West-Central, and Southeastern Africa whose labor, creativity, traditions and struggles have made much of the world what it is today. However, there has been a far older dispersion of Africans through the Indian Ocean, which has parallels to the Atlantic migration but also a number of significant differences. It began well over a thousand years before and likewise had a direct or indirect impact on tens of millions of people through personal contact, cultural influence or the fruits of black labor, yet it remains the lesser known of the two major migratory trajectories of Africans in the world. Source

I have always had a vague notion of Africans in Asia, but mostly as slaves so I tended to ignore this discourse. For a long time I was more interested in Sino-African historical relations at that time, this is simply the truth. I studied the history of Zanzibar in secondary school so I knew of Oman in Africa (interestingly we never spoke of things the other way round, that is Africans in the Arab world), I was familiar with Bilal, the first muezzin in Islam who was the son of an ‘Abyssinian slave girl’ and I knew of the Siddis. I was also familiar with Al-Jahiz (thought to be of Afro-Arab descent…Wiki does not mention this) and ‘Antar.

Nawab Sidi Mohammed Haider Khan 1930. Image source

All this while I had no idea the sheer scale of these relations.

Archeological and genetic evidence indicate that between 40,000 and 50,000 years ago, Africans began migrating across the Middle East and South Asia in waves of humanity that populated Eurasia. Since antiquity regular contacts may be seen between Africa and Asia with sub-Saharan men and women appearing in the art of South and Southeast Asia. However, the historically documented dispersion of Africans in the Indian Ocean world was largely the product of migrations (voluntary and forced) beginning in the first century and continuing through the 20th. Source

Based on extant records, it may be conservatively estimated that between the first and the 20th century upward of 4 million Africans migrated out of the continent into the Indian Ocean world. Most of these migrants were forced, but many went of their own accord—as sailors, merchants or mercenaries. More accurate figures are known for the 19th century, during which scholars estimate 347,000 Africans were taken to the Arabian Peninsula, Iran and the Indian subcontinent. Their monetary value fluctuated over time and depended on age, gender, ethnicity, skills and market demands. Source

Imagine, Pakistan apparently has the highest number of African descendants 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. Source

This year may the year in which I learnt a lot on the topic of African in the Indian Ocean World. Earlier this year I came across a BBC article on the African diaspora in India, I learnt of the Black Dutchmen of Indonesia and their heritage, I wrote a piece on Malik Ambar for Beyond Victoriana, I embedded a video on the kaffirs of Sri Lanka here…While reading an article on Palestinian and Israeli women visiting the beach together, I noticed one of the women in the images looked Black. I cannot forget my discovery of possible connections between the Ottoman and the Kanem Bornu empires.
All this has culminated in this comprehensive website which popped up on my feeds a few days ago; THE AFRICAN DIASPORA IN THE INDIAN OCEAN WORLD (all caps because of sheer awesomeness).

THE AFRICAN DIASPORA IN THE INDIAN OCEAN WORLD seriously breaks down the presence of Africans in all parts of Asia, literally from Turkey through to Japan. There you can find essays, images, maps, multimedia and an extensive bibliography on the topic.

In comparison to the Americas, there were significantly more women than men taken out of Africa to various parts of the Indian Ocean world. The ratio was approximately two to one, whereas it was roughly reversed in the Atlantic, where men were in greater demand for their labor in agriculture and mining; women were prized in the Indian Ocean as concubines—in addition to working in a range of capacities as domestic servants. Source

Reading essays on the site answered a lot of the questions I have silently harboured for a while now with regards to my interest in history; “But where are the women?” The dialogue is usually overwhelmingly male, we have male slaves, knights, soldiers, mercenaries and kings but we hardly hear about the women. Please also consider that in the East African/Arab/Indian trade of slaves, more women were taken out of the African continent that men, so where did these women disappear to and what did they do?

From the essays on the website, it seems that African women in Asian history had a few options, they were either plantation slaves, wet nurses, nannies, concubines and other household position. Apparently due to the patriarchal nature of things, we will never know the stories of these women concubines, their offspring took on their fathers’ ethnic identity. Apparently some African women were taken to China where they became concubines. I’ve only heard of Persian concubines in the harem of important Chinese men. As for other parts of Asia, in particular the Arab world, I am familiar with Al-Jahiz’s book on concubines and the then preferred qualities of concubines of varying ethnicities. If I recall correctly women from Abyssinia were good poets.

A Black Sultaness. Image source

 Mind you, this is not limited to only East Africa, thanks to the Portuguese, West Africans also made their way to several parts of Asia. I know the Arab (slave) trade routes reached several points in West Africa.

Among the Africans taken to Sri Lanka by the Portuguese were those already living in Lisbon, where by the late 15th century a sizeable black population had grown. Some would have joined the Portuguese crews destined for the Indian Ocean world, as sailors were increasingly in demand. On their way to the Indian Ocean, and depending on the route taken, Portuguese captains may have also picked up West Africans at El Mina (on the coast of Ghana), at the mouth of the Congo River or the Niger Delta, the Canary Islands, Madeira, the Azores, or in Mozambique and Madagascar on the eastern side of Africa. Source

Portuguese enlisted the services of Africans as sailors over the course of two centuries; some traveled as part of crews to China. In addition to ivory, tortoise shells and rhino horn from East Africa, some Africans were taken to China—mostly females, who were made concubines. African men also served as soldiers. In 1622 they defended the Portuguese base of Macau from Dutch attacks. That year, despite the seemingly overwhelming force of 13 Dutch ships and 1,300 soldiers, approximately 100 Africans were given arms and, along with another 100 residents, repelled the Dutch. Source

Do think of this post as an introduction to that amazing collection of essays, images and more on the history of African diaspora in Asia. I’d beg anyone and everyone to at least pay a visit to that site.

Note: By the time this post goes up eccentricyoruba will be globe-trotting and will be unable to reply to comments until the third week of September.


  1. This was really interesting. I met a woman (who I guess is Makrani) when I was in Qatar.

    I was super surprised to see this obviously black woman who parents were from Pakistan and Iran. She was amazing, spoke Urdu, Farsi and Arabic. Thought it would be rude to inquire more about her background. I knew there were Africans in Iran and some in India, (don’t know why Pakistan should come as a surprise). This post sheds some light on things.

    oh yes and Eid Mubarak!

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