March 30, 2020
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Malik Ambar, 1548-1626

The Dark-Fated One

Malik Ambar, 1548-1626
Malik Ambar, 1548-1626

Years ago, I managed to get tickets to the first cricket Test match to be played in the city of Ahmedabad in Gujarat. Opposing the Indian team was the West Indian team which included the peerless Viv Richards. The excitement as the crowds streamed to the new Test ground was manic, joyful, but I left the match remembering neither the score nor individual performances. The reactions of the Ahmedabad spectators, though, I won’t forget. As the West Indians took to the field, loud monkey whoops filled the air, and bananas came raining down from the stands. The pelted players—probably the greatest West Indian team in history—stood there in their flannels, stunned.

Indians’ particular contempt for people of African desc­ent—a racism shared even by Mahatma Gandhi, as evident in his South African years—doesn’t get talked about much, which is surely one reason little has changed in the 30-odd years since I watched that troubling match. It’s telling that a word still used in Hindi to refer to black Africans is habshi—shorthand in common usage for a dark-skinned slave.

The word habshi, derived from Arabic and Persian terms for an Abyssinian, has a long history in India, one that’s not often remembered in the contemporary nation, or bey­ond. The standard image of 16th and 17th century slavery is of ships moving west from Africa, their shackled human cargo destined to feed the New World’s demand for mass labour on cotton and tobacco plantations. But the slave economy was a genuinely global one, stretching from Africa to East Asia. Slaves were also sent eastwards across the Indian Ocean, to bolster the public and private militias of the Deccan Plateau of southern India.

One of these slaves, whose story is rarely told, rose to become a power broker, even a kingmaker, in the Deccan. A persistent tormentor and nemesis of the vast Mughal empire to the north, he helped set the contours of power in the subcontinent in the century before the dawn of the colonial era. His name was Malik Ambar.

In an early, unsettling 17th-century miniature painting of Malik Ambar, his severed head is impaled on a spear. A short distance away, a Mughal archer, balanced on a globe and dressed in a wine-coloured robe, jewelled belt and white slippers, takes careful aim at the African’s face. To Richard Eaton, professor at the University of Arizona and a scholar of Deccan history, “it’s a remarkable painting filled with symbolism. Around Malik Ambar you have owls—live owls and dead owls—associating him with darkness and rebellion.”

Malik Ambar was born in the mid-1500s. His given name was Chapu. He was probably a pagan, and he was sold into slavery—possibly by his own impoverished parents—very young. The interests that conspired to send the boy born Chapu to India were rooted in trade, a story that also has cotton at its heart. The flow of slaves “was driven largely by the demand for Indian textiles on the part of the Ethiopian kingdom”, Richard Eaton explains, “so on one side—the western, African side—you have demand for Indian textiles. And on the eastern side, you have an equal demand for military slavery.”

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