Sidis in Gujarat celebrated the historic win of Barak Obama, the man of mixed-race African-American, as the 44th President of America. These small communities of people of African origin felt one with the president elect. Though they have completely assimilated into the local communities of Gujarat, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, Sidis still yearn for their identity.
Tracing their journey to the west coast of India, it is likely that their predecessors may have come as slaves, or may have been traders, or even sailors who voluntarily settled on the land.
“‘Tracing the route’ is, perhaps, a bit exaggerated. There are quite a few good historical studies about the East African slave trade and its range in the Indian Ocean world, which give some clues about the areas from where slaves were drawn as well as about the geographical shifts of the recruitment areas over time. They also tell us that the numbers of the slave trade never even approximated those of the transatlantic slave trade from West Africa to the American continent,” says Prof Helene Basu, a leading authority on Sidis.
“ In the 13th and 14th centuries, slaves were mainly drawn from lower Egypt, Ethiopia, Somalia and Sudan – the Nile area. Many of them ended up being so-called ‘slave-soldiers’ in the armies of conquerors and Sultans all over the Islamic world. After the 16th century, when the Europeans, specifically the Portuguese, entered the scene, slave-trade routes moved further south along the East African coast, as far as Mozambique. Slaves were drawn from the hinterland of the coastal regions, such as inland Tanzania, Malawi or even the Congo,” she adds.
According to her, Zanzibar emerged as the hub for the distribution of African slaves mainly to Arabia, southern Persia and western India in the 19th century. “About three quarters of the population of Zanzibar consisted then of slaves serving the aristocracy and wealthy traders. Even after the nominal abolition of the slave trade by the British, a small number of male and female African slaves continued to be shipped to the western coasts of South Asia, especially to Makran and Gujarat, where they were mostly employed as servants and bodyguards at the courts of local rulers.”
Today, especially in Gujarat, where there are only 10,000 of them, Sidis have merged with the masses and identifies with the urban-working class quarter. A fragmented East African Muslim community of mixed ancestry, Sidis speak Gujarati and Kutchi with only a few Swahili/Bantu words and expressions that is said to be mostly associated with their Sufi ritual dances and music.
Thanks to Western anthropological and historical interest in the various Sidi communities, they are going global.