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From Slavery to Monarchy – The Rise of African Elites In India

Sub-Saharan Africans have had a longstanding presence in India. They were originally taken there as slaves by Indian merchants; as the years went by, some of those Africans in India became top military leaders and monarchs. John McLeod is the chair of the History Department at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. McLeod is a specialist in the history of India and the author of a new book entitled “African Elites in India.”

He explained how the African presence in India first came to his attention. “My co-editor, who is an art collector, started noticing in medieval Indian paintings that there were distinctly African figures standing around and then remembered in Indian history books isolated mentions of Africans rising to positions of power….”

So they documented this aspect of Indian history, which they said nobody had ever fully looked into. McLeod said he thinks that was because the role of Africans “is not seen as part of the mainstream Indian history.”

As a matter of fact, it was only in recent years that scholars began examining the issue. McLeod said even today there are communities of Africans in India and most Indians don’t know about them. He said some African descendants can still be identified by their physical features. “There are non-elite Indians of African origin who are very, very African in appearance.”

McLeod said the Africans in India lost their African names. “When they were brought as slaves, they were converted to Islam and given Islamic names.” But he adds there are some names that are distinctively associated with Africans families, such as Sidi or Seddi: “That’s often the clue that people are of African origin.”

McLeod said last year he attended a conference that brought together African Indians, Africans and scholars. “They were very eager to compare notes and to make these kind of connections,” he said, adding that Indian activists and their friends in Africa and the West are working on establishing ties on a firmer basis. “In a couple of years, there’s going to be a conference in Mozambique that will bring together African Indians with people interested in this study.”