Afro-Asians in South Asia

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A Siddi girl in Gujarat, India

Afro-Asians (or African-Asians) are African communities that have been living in South Asia for hundreds of years and have settled in countries such as the Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India.

These communities include the Sheedis/Siddis, Siddi, Siddis settled in Karnataka and Gujarat approximately 300 to 400 years ago, Sri Lanka Kaffirs. One of the largest communities of Africans in India and Pakistan, are the Siddis.

The slave trade (15th century- 19th century)[edit]

The slave trade in Asia predated the Atlantic market and it is generally believed that it was smaller in scale though accurate records were seldom kept not because they were transporting fewer people but also because traders would intentionally not bother documenting their transactions.[1]

During the 16th century, Portugal was trying to control sea access to India and needed slave labor to build its empire. This spiked the demand for slaves. Slaves were mainly used for navy and military defense, at other times, they were utilized in business, farms, as domestic helpers, teachers and priests due to the Portuguese shortage of personnel. By the 17th century, a struggle for imperialism grew among the Dutch, British and French.The Dutch needed labor for agriculture and needed slaves. The French also needed slave labor for plantations and the British needed slaves for their navy, marine yards and for work as caulkers in the East India Company. The battle for supremacy in the area eventually led to the British dominating era. Their domination lasted until the 19th century. [2]

Conditions for Afro-Asian slaves[edit]

Although slavery was oppressive and brutal in India and slaves were flogged or forced to work with little food, many still had access to some wealth and power, particularly during the Muslim era.[3] For example, as slaves, the Siddis were allowed some degree of social mobility so it was possible for them to be placed in high positions within the military and governing bodies.[4] Muslim slaves were also allowed to become educated, marry freely, become political advisers, recruit other slaves through purchase, inducements, or capture.[4] Slavery in India and the Indian subcontinent was not the same as chattel slavery that was found in the Atlantic, where people were treated like property. Most slaves were domestics or worked in the military, navy, or other trades. They could gain their freedom over time. The slavery practiced in South Asia encouraged assimilation.

Abolition of slavery[edit]

By the 18th century, the British abolished the slave trade but efforts by the British in the colony and other European imperialists were made to circumvent this.[2] Across all eras though, there was a steady demand for personal slaves employed as domestic helpers. They were seen as indicators of high social status.[5] The economic situation of the people determined the demand for slaves and was the underlying factor in the nature of slavery that developed in the Indian Ocean.

During the era of European imperialism and colonialism, the African Asians became further marginalized as it is believed that the imperialists brought in attitudes about race into a complicated social and class system. Many of the Afro-Asians were systematically divided into settlements so that they could not organize politically. They were encouraged to assimilate.

Assimilation and acculturation[edit]

Due to the type of slavery that encouraged assimilation, many of the Afro-Asians assimilated into the main culture of the country and adopted the language, religion, names, and rituals of the people. For survival purposes, the enslaved adopted the culture of their slave masters.

Many Black African descendant groups still retain some of their African traditions. Some Siddis of India for example, still speak Swahili, sing Swahili songs, and worship African gods.

In recent years, after the World Conference Against Racism in Durban South Africa, many of them tried to organize politically so that they can improve their poor economic conditions.

Afro-Asians have largely been marginalized after the rise of the imperialist or colonial era in India and the subcontinent. Many live in poor economic conditions.

Influences on Afro-Asian culture[edit]


There have been athletes who rose to fame in the fields of running and wrestling.

Afro-Asian Diaspora in South Asia[edit]

African Diaspora in India[edit]

The Siddis are the largest settlement of slave descendants in India, many settled around the western coast and hinterland in cities like Janjira, Gujarat, and Goa. Today, it is estimated there about 6,000-7,000 Siddis in Gujarat (India), 400 in Mumbai and 40,000-50,000 in Pakistan (formerly, India).[6]

African Diaspora in Pakistan[edit]

Pakistani African descents consist of the "Makrani", "Sheedi" or "Habshi". The Makrani (Urdu/Persian: مکرانی) are the inhabitants of Makran coast of Balochistan in Pakistan and lower Sindh.[citation needed] The Siddis (Sheedi) In Karachi live in the area of Lyari and other nearby coastal areas. Although most people use the term Siddis to describe many of the African populations in Pakistan, they are not all Siddis.

Shada ayesha[edit]

The Sheedis are divided into four clans, or houses: Kharadar Makan, Hyderabad Makan, Lassi Makan and Belaro Makan. The Sufi saint Pir Mangho is regarded by many as the patron saint of the Sheedis, and the annual Sheedi Mela festival, is the key event in the Sheedi community's cultural calendar. Some glimpses of the rituals at Sidi/Sheedi Festival 2010 include visit to sacred alligators at Mangho pir, playing music and dance.

Black African identity[edit]

Many of Afro-Pakistanis are described to have "assimilated" themselves into the "dominant culture"[citation needed]. The Sheedis have assimilated into Pakistani Baloch culture; the instrument, songs and dance of the Sheedis appear to be derived from Africa. Linguistically, Makranis are Balochi and Sindhi and speak a dialect of Urdu referred to as Makrani. Their local culture has been influential in shaping the dominant culture of Pakistan. The musical anthem of the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party, Bija Teer, is a Balochi song in the musical style of the Sheedis with Black African style rhythm and drums.[clarification needed]

African Diaspora in Sri Lanka[edit]

The Sri Lankan Kaffirs (cafrinhas in Portuguese, rendered as kāpiriyō (කාපිරි) in Sinhala, and kāpili (காப்பிலி) in Tamil, are a Sri Lankan community that emerged in the 16th-century due to Portuguese colonialism.


When Dutch colonialists arrived in about 1600, the Kaffirs worked on cinnamon plantations along the southern coast. The Kaffirs ancestors were chained up and forced by the Dutch to take on the Sinhalese Kingdom. After the Dutch were successfully repelled by the Sinhalese in 1796, the Kaffirs were further marginalized by an influx of Indian laborers, who were imported by the British and who took most work on tea and rubber estates. The descendants of the original Africans or Kaffirs survive in pockets along the island's coastal regions of Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Negombo.

African identity[edit]

Sri Lankans of African descent are proud to be Sri Lankans. They also acknowledge their African history. Kaffirs have an orally recorded history by the families who are descendants of former Sinhalese slave traders. A substantial population among those Sri Lankans of African descent are believed to have roots in the region that today corresponds to the Republic of Mozambique. The community's classical traditions of dance and song performance are described as the strongest indicators of the communities cultural retention of and fidelity in preserving Africa's ancient traditions of religions, culture and civilization. The term Kaffir means 'non-believer' in the Arabic language, though it does not hold the same pejorative implications of the word as it would in countries like South Africa; its continued use by certain sections of Sri Lankan people is defended on the basis that term is not intended to be used as a racial slur.[citation needed]

Many Sri Lankans of African descent speak what has been described as a "creole" mixture of both the Sinhalese and Tamil languages.[citation needed] The community of Sri Lankans of African descent are also described as having been "'assimilated"[dubious ] over the years as they have married Tamils and Sinhalese Sri Lankans.[dubious ]

Afro-Sri Lankans today[edit]

The education level of the community is consistent with that of rural Sri Lankan populations. They have become dis-empowered (they were used as soldiers by the Europeans) since the European colonizers have left the island and have tried to find their role in Sri Lankan society.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Harris, J. E. (1971). The African Presence in Asia. Evanston: Northwestern University.
  2. ^ a b Jayasuriya, S. D., & Pankhurst, R. (2003). "On the African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean". In S. d. Jayasuriya, & R. Pankhurst, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (pp. 7-17). Trenton: Africa World Press.
  3. ^ Basu, H. (2003). "Slave, Soldier, Trader, Faqir: Fragments of African Histories in Western India (Gujarat)". In S. d. Jayasuriya, & R. Pankhurst, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (pp. 223-250). Trenton: Africa World Press
  4. ^ a b Oka, R., & Kusimba, C. (2007). "Siddi as Mercenary or as African Success Story on the West Coast of India". In J. C. Hawley, India in Africa Africa in India: Indian Ocean Cosmopolitans (pp. 203-224). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
  5. ^ Alpers, E. (2003). "The African Diaspora In the Indian Ocean: A Comparative Perspective". In S. D. Jayasuriya, & R. Pankhurst, The African Diaspora In the Indian Ocean (pp. 19-51). Africa World Press.
  6. ^ Basu, H. (2003). "Slave, Soldier, Trader, Faqir: Fragments of African Histories in Western India (Gujarat)". In S. d. Jayasuriya, & R. Pankhurst, The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (pp. 223-250). Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press.