Earlier this year, my attention was drawn to a discussion on ‘India’s Elite Africans’ held at the University of London:
“The dispersion of Africans is generally associated with slavery and the slave trade. Most Afro-Asians have been written out of history. Within this scenario, how was it possible for Africans to rule parts of Asia, not just for a few years but for three and a half centuries? Three scholars will address this issue and consider the current status of Elite Africans in India today.”
Due to my interest in Afro-Asian history, I know of relations between India and Eastern African states and kingdoms in history; however, I remained largely ignorant of elite Africans in Indian history. Malik Ambar is perhaps one of the most well-known Elite Africans due in part to his important role in Ahmadnagar history and to standing up to the Mughals.
Conflicting years are given as Malik Ambar’s year of birth, he could have been born in 1546, 1548 or 1550 A.D, it is widely accepted, however, that he originated from Harar, a province in southern Ethiopia. There is little information on Malik Ambar’s life in Ethiopia except his name at birth, which was either Chapu or Shambu, and that he was sold into slavery. Some sources say that he was sold into slavery by his parents due to poverty, yet others suggest that Malik Ambar’s parents were forced to give him up or that he was a war captive abducted by either fellow Ethiopians or Arabs.
From Harar, Malik Ambar was moved first to Yemen then to Baghdad where he was enslaved to Kazi Hussein. Hussein recognising Malik Ambar’s intelligence educated him in finance and administration, and gave him his last name ‘Ambar’. Upon Hussein’s death, Ambar was sold to a slave trader who took him to India where in 1570 (or 1575) Chengiz Khan, a noble who served as prime minister to the king of Ahmadnagar, Nizam mul-Mulk Bani.
In the 16th century, the Deccan region of India was quite multicultural and diverse. It has been suggested that as early as the 13th century African mercenaries were serving royalty in several parts of India. There was a large community of Africans, referred to as ‘Habshis’ derived from the Arabic word for Abyssinia (Ethiopia). Habshis were popular as very loyal military slaves due to their lack of pre-existing allegiances in quarrelling factions of the Indian royalty as a result of their foreign origin. The Habshis were ‘imported Knights’ and were known to work professionally. Chengiz Khan, the man who purchased Ambar in India, was also of African origin and in the late 16th century, he was one of the several prominent Habshis in that area.
Under Chengiz Khan, Ambar learnt the working of the government, military and administrative affairs. This coupled with his past education, knowledge in Arabic and intellect led Ambar to become highly valued and respected, especially among the Habshi. Chengiz Khan gave Ambar a head position in military and administrative affairs among other military slaves in an attempt at strengthening his control over the Habshi.
There are different accounts of Ambar’s life after the death of Chengiz Khan. On one hand, Chengiz Khan’s widow granted Ambar his freedom so that he was able to get married and start his own family. Ambar then went on to build a group of mercenaries for hire to various rulers in the region, catering to the demands of Deccan rulers who constantly clashed with the Mughals from the North wanting to expand their dynasty further south. On the other hand, all sorts of chaos erupted after Chengiz Khan’s death and Ambar was sold again to noble family, the Shah of Golkonda and later to the king of Bijapur. His first name, or title, ‘Malik’ was given to Ambar by the Bijapur king who was so impressed by Ambar’s skill that he thought Ambar was “like a king” (Malik). In Bijapur, Malik Ambar was made a military commander but ended up deserted with the troops under his command after the king refused to grant additional funds for trainees. As time passed, Malik Ambar was able to build an independent army of mercenaries who provided services for various kings in the region. Malik Ambar’s mercernaries are said to have been of various ethniticies, Arab, African and Deccani. In 1595, the king of Ahmadnagar organised an army of Habshi and the then prime minister, Abhangar Khan hired Malik Ambar’s mercenaries to join the established army. It was from here on that Malik Ambar became a force against the Mughals.
Again, accounts differ as to how Malik Ambar rose to become the Regent of the Ahmadnagar kingdom. According to some sources, in 1600, the Mughals were able to take Ahmadnagar but could only lay claim to the fort and areas around it, and were unable to extend their control further. Malik Ambar was able to break through Mughal defence lines and escape with his mercenaries and supporters after which he took control over the countryside and much of Ahmadnagar. Apparently, there was no clear authority in place as regional rulers had been split into disputing factions for a long time. Thus, Malik Ambar seized the opportunity and took charge marrying his daughter to a distant relation of a previous Deccan ruler. Malik Ambar then appointed himself as regent minister and commenced ruling from behind the scenes. Another account has Malik Ambar imprisoning the king of Ahmadnagar and naming himself regent-minister. Malik Ambar married his daughter to Ibrahim Adil Shah II’s favourite courtier in the hopes of forming an alliance against the Mughals.
As a regent, Malik Ambar changed capitals, founded a new city, Khadki and became well established in the region. He launched several architectural projects including a sophisticated water supply system. Ambar’s employment of guerrilla tactics prevents Emperor Akbar and his successor Emperor Jahangir from conquering the Deccan region. In protecting the region from the conquering Mughals, Malik Ambar formed many alliances using artillery obtained from the Portuguese, British and Dutch, and naval support of the Siddis of Murud-Janjira. Malik Ambar’s continued resistance to the invasion of the Mughals posed a big problem to Emperor Jahangir’s. The Emperor Jahangir commissioned a painting from Abu’l Hasan’, in which he is portrayed shooting an arrow through Malik Ambar’s severed head.
Malik Ambar’s reign as regent was not smooth he constantly fought with rivals in order to strengthen his position. He died in 1626, aged eighty years old after suffering many defeats from the Mughals. Malik Ambar’s son, Fatteh Khan succeeded him as regent but only for a short while as he was imprisoned in 1629.
African presence in early Asia, Volume 7, Issue 1, Ivan van Sertima and Runoko Rashidi
The Indomitable Marathas
Malik Ambar: A remarkable life
The Life of Malik Ambar
Malik Ambar: Military guru of the Marathas