When Elephants Meet; How African And Indian Cultural Patterns Are Mixing; Part One

by hermes7 on January 1, 2013

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I’ll continue the New Year’s fireworks in this blog by exploring more cultural patterns that most people consider exotic. Studies of Indian and African cultural blends are growing–as both economies grow and their people do more business with each other and exchange art and pop culture, this will be an increasingly vibrant field.

It’s already more prolific than most people realize.

We’ll get into a bit of the history of contact between Indian and African cultures in this post.

1. Gujaratis (on India’s northwestern coast, a little north of Mumbai) were prolific traders and sailors. Their Islamic sultanate became one of the main centers of Indian Ocean trade in the late 14th century. Gujarati textiles were still widely sold in East Africa in the 19th century. Gujaratis still have reputations for business among Indians. A woman from Bangalore once told me a joke: How was wire invented? 2 Gujaratis were fighting over a coin.

2. Thousands of Africans went to Pakistan, India and Sri Lanka in the Middle Ages and early modern period. Many were sold as slaves by Arabic merchants, and others ventured east free. Africans comprised part of the Bengali Sultanate’s administration and military, and African sailors and warriors formed communities in Gujarat–they enlivened both ends of northern India. The 14th century Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta wrote that a ship he sailed in along India’s west coast carried 100 African archers and warriors for protection. Hindu pirates didn’t even try to mess with them.

3. More Africans went to India in the mid 16th century when the Adal Sultanate expanded from the Red Sea and engulfed people in wars and displaced them. They followed established trading routes, and African military elites recruited them.

4. Africans called Siddis built a naval base off of India’s west coast, at Janjira, and it dominated India’s sea power in the Indian Ocean by the 17th century. An elite class of Siddis got rich as they leased naval services to anyone who could pay for them. Thousands of their descendants still live in India, and most are dirt poor.

5. In the 19th century, Indians under the British Empire emigrated to Africa. Skilled Indians became administrative elites and wealthy merchants. Even Mahatma Gandhi lived in South Africa as a young man. I’ve met several Indians in America who grew up in privileged families in Africa.

This amount of contact has inspired a lot  of multicultural fusions. We’ll explore some in the next post on India and Africa.

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