The eastern coast of Africa has a long relationship of trade with the western coast of India. However much of it is undocumented and hence it is not part of the popular imagination.
In the coast of Karnataka, we find a temple to Kappiri Devaru. It is said that if you give Kappiri Devaru blankets, alcohol and cigarettes, he is pleased and fulfils mundane wishes, like giving children to childless couples. The story goes that he was an African slave who escaped slavery from Portuguese Goa and found his way to Karnataka. Here, he was a wise man who helped local fishermen and healed the sick. When he died, a shrine was built in his honour, which is venerated even today.
Further south, in Kerala in Fort Cochin, there are many shrines without images that are given to Kappiri Muthappan. The story here, but, is far more sinister. African slaves were used as servants, soldiers and mercenaries by the Portuguese, who came to Kerala in the 16th Century. In the 17th Century. When their colony was attacked by the Dutch, they had to flee rapidly. They hid their treasures in the walls of the fort or under the ground. African slaves were chained and buried along with the treasures. It was believed that such a human sacrifice would transform them into powerful spirit gods. These in turn, would protect the treasure until it was claimed by a future descendant. Even today, local people offer traditional food (puttu) as well as alcohol, cigarettes and meat, to these African guardian spirits, indicating subaltern roots.
This belief of humans protecting treasures and giving them to descendants is a theme that we find also in Hindu lore. It makes its way to one of the short stories by Rabindranath Tagore called Jokhon. Here, a stingy man buries a young child alive with his treasures, hoping that he could transform into a Jokhon and give the wealth to his descendants. Ironically, the child turns out to be his own distant grandson, the heir to his property.
African slaves were brought often from the eastern coast of Africa to India, by the Portuguese. If ever a ship was caught in a storm, it was believed that sacrificing one of the slaves to the sea god would protect it. Over time, many sailors believed in the connection of Africans with the magical realm of spirits. This belief continues till today where shrines are built wherever the Africans slaves were sacrificed or buried. This mirrors an ancient tradition in rural India of commemorating burial sites of great heroes who died protecting the village from attacks of wild animals and raiders. Even the sites where holy men die or where women immolate themselves on the funeral pyres of their husbands become shrines. Their spirits are believed to hover around giving protection and prosperity to those who pray to them.
Stories of life of African slaves owned by the Portuguese Christian sailors are remarkably different from stories of African slaves owned by Arab Muslim merchants and Turkish Muslim rulers. African slaves were highly prized in the households of Muslim rulers and aristocrats. They were treated as family. In fact, sometimes, they were closer than family. This was often because the Sultans did not trust their own family. So they created a ring of slaves around them as protection. Naturally, the slaves rose in ranks as administrators and ministers. The greatest of them was the 16th-century Malik Ambar, who was Peshwa (prime minister) of the Ahmednagar Sultanate of the Deccan. He built the famous Murud Janjira coast in the sea near Mumbai. He was so powerful that he intimidated even the Mughal Emperor, Jahangir, who had paintings created, where he imagined Malik Ambar’s defeat by his hands.
Many of the Africans brought by the Muslim rulers are found in the Deccan regions. Here, access to talent from Persia and Afghanistan was limited because of Mongol invasions and later Mughal Rule. Thus, we find African communities like the Siddhis in Karnataka and Gujarat region who assimilated with the local people. They often follow the Islamic faith. Those who practice Hinduism follow caste rules and have assimilated with the Indian population.
The word Kappiri probably is derived from ‘kafir’ or non-believer in Arabic. It also means a black person. The western coast of India has many such African spirit-shrines, but information about them comes from oral sources only. They are a reminder of the long history of contact between India and Africa. They brought with them their own tribal beliefs and practices, which fascinated locals along with their size, strength and colour.
In North India, the word ‘habshi’ is used today for Africans. It is derived from Abyssinian, an ancient name for the East African coast, especially Ethiopia. Habshi is a term of derision, a reminder of India’s colour prejudice. This is reinforced in Bollywood films like Razia Sultan, where the hero merrily sports a black face to show, and in the more recent film Fashion, where the suggestion is made that intimacy with a black man indicates the worst fall for a woman. This idea is found even in the famous diasporic film Bhaji on the Beach. Fear of African man’s sexual prowess is a consistent theme in cultures where Africans were enslaved.
How various Hindu, Christian and Muslim communities of India engaged with African slaves is a great window to appreciate the dark sides of glamour-seeking Indian and Western civilisations.