Africans in South Asia

The long histories of Africans in South Asia, including the case of Africans arriving as slaves in India and whose descendants are still in India and Pakistan.

Sidi Masud Khan, chief minister to the Sultanate of Bijapur in the 16th century. (Ashmolean Museum. University of Oxford).

Sylviane Diouf and Joaneath Spicer are the curators of two important exhibitions of African diasporas–Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe and Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers ­—that were held in 2012 and 2013. Both have now closed.  This is the second of two interviews.  Here’s the first. Jean-Philippe Dedieu and Noémie Ndiaye, respectively on the faculties of New York University and the University of Chicago, who conducted the interview, began by asking Diouf about the juxtaposition of East African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade in Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers.

East African slavery and the Atlantic slave trade are juxtaposed in your exhibition. It allows you to explore the question of the African diaspora on a global level. What is at play here?

Sylviane Diouf: Our exhibition doesn’t talk at all about the Atlantic slave trade. What we show, tacitly, is the difference between the Atlantic slave trade and the East African slave trade, whether it be Arab or Indian. We point out the differences. And one of the fundamental differences is Islam. How does Islam define slavery? How does it treat slaves? Slavery in India was more flexible than in Europe, but solely in its Muslim version. For example, slavery carried out by the Portuguese in Goa was the same as Atlantic slavery. With Islam, we see an enormous difference, and it is that which interests and surprises people. The fact that slaves could become prime minister, found dynasties, and achieve important positions, was impossible in the European system, but was possible in the Muslim system. In the European system, the children of an enslaved woman were born as slaves; in the Muslim system it was the opposite, the children inherited the father’s status. When the father was free — which was often the case with owners — the children were born free. Emancipation of slaves in the Muslim system was very easy — it was a means of earning God’s favour. There was no need to complete a large amount of paperwork. With regards to the recruitment of slaves — and they came from Africa as well as Europe, Turkey, and Asia, another difference with the Atlantic world –, there was no requirement for them to work the soil in India because there were already plenty of people available to do so. The people who were taken there – since it was a more complicated and expensive procedure — were generally, in the case of the men, soldiers, which allowed them to rise up through the ranks. Many of the women were domestic servants in the royal courts (in which there were thousands of people working), concubines, nurses, cooks… The concubines had a very prestigious status — well removed from the western view of them –, their children were born free, and the women themselves were generally freed, either at the birth of the children, or the death of the owner. The children were integrated into the family, which was completely different from the Atlantic system. It is one of the aspects, once again, which are of interest in this exhibition: to show people that the western model is not the only one, and that it could have been different.

The case of the African arriving as a slave in India and who, due to the flexibility of the Muslim system, managed to rise through the ranks – this was surely an exceptional case?

Sylviane Diouf: As regards the highest positions — prime minister, nawab, finance minister — the options are limited. But we must think in terms of the culture of those countries. To be a eunuch was very important — not as much as in Turkey, but important all the same. Army general, captain, religious leader or concubine: these were also important positions. Even in the 20th century, the domestic servants of the court who took care of the elephants and the horses were considered to hold significant positions. One of the first well-known Africans was in charge of the sultana’s stables in Delhi, and it is even rumoured that they were lovers. The position of stable master was a very high honour, an important position from a non-western viewpoint.

Is there a specific way to paint and portray an African person in Indian art?

Sylviane Diouf: In Indian art, we find real people, depicted with their true characteristics, shown as they really were. The impression that I have, after having viewed many items, is that Indian art is very realistic and treats Africans in the same way as others.

The Walters Art Museum insists that this exhibition constitutes an attempt to “create an increased sense of a shared heritage” with the African-American community of Baltimore, and to serve a more “diverse audience”. Do you feel that the attempt was successful in this respect?

Joaneath Spicer: Yes, I do. People care about other people, and people care also about their sense of their own role in history. There is a reason that traditionally African-Americans have not come so much to art museums to my mind. We should not be astonished by this. There is a feeling underneath that they are looking back at history. One of the reasons that there is a tendency to look towards more contemporary art or modern art in African-American culture is that the past is not necessarily a comfortable place, and people would rather look forward. African art is not necessarily appreciated more. Not everybody, just because they are of African ancestry, is going to care about African art. There is no necessary relationship there at all. So that leaves you a little bit in a vacuum. What I really want to share is: “I know you were there, I want you to know that you were there, so that we can just go on. Of course I’m expecting you, because this is your heritage too.” Not only does this seem to me absolutely true, but from a museum perspective I also think it is critical for us. One of the reasons that I kept pushing and pushing for this show is that I personally think that it is absolutely critical for how we operate as institutions. There are all kinds of layers here in which something operates, and I will certainly say that we sold apparently a record number of memberships during that show.

According to both of you, what are the contemporary stakes of the representation of the African Diaspora?

Sylviane Diouf: Here at the Schomburg Center, there has been a realization that, when they are presented with their history, people are absolutely enthralled, sometimes completely incredulous: “We had no idea that this existed! We didn’t even know that there were black people there!” The academic research has been carried out and continues to grow; there is now a need to pass it on, to successfully repackage it, and present it to the public at large. That is what we are doing here, and we have noticed a great interest in the subject. It’s not only a discovery but there is also a feeling of connection to a much larger African Diaspora. And even though the experiences were  different, of shared history.

Joaneath Spicer: I think the stakes are actually considerable. If you are thinking about the Renaissance, just imagine yourself in an upland meadow. There are all these little streams running through it, and it’s all very interesting, it’s beautiful, it’s very lush, many sorts of possibilities here, and they’re all interesting in themselves, but you don’t know which ones, from just focusing on that, are going to be important 200 years later. After all, as a point that I kept having to make, we are not saying that this is a central issue of the Renaissance, this is one small thread within the Renaissance, because the African presence, numerically, was not so great. To my mind, one of the most compelling aspects of this subject, besides just the natural fascination of the untold story, is that I have the advantage of standing downstream. And I can look upstream. And I can see where that stream came from. And what was a little stream is now a river. And, in some degree, it waters our world.

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