The first Africans who reached India in the modern era were not captives but merchants. Commerce between East Africa and India goes back more than 2,000 years. The kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia had established a very active commerce with India and Axumite gold coins minted between 320 and 333 found their way to Mangalore in South India where they were discovered in the 20th century. Ivory, silver, gold, wine, olive oil, incense, wheat, rice, cotton cloth, silk, iron, copper, skins, salt, and sesame oil were some of the main items traded on both sides of the Indian Ocean and on to China. Axum was also involved in the slave trade. Trade between East Africa and India was boosted with the spread of Islam. Indian Muslims from Gujarat migrated to African trading towns in Kenya, Zanzibar and the Comoros Islands where they worked with African and Arab merchants.
While African traders traveled to and from India, some settled. In the 1300s, Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta met Ethiopian merchants in what are now India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia. The most famous African trader was Bava Gor, who was also called Sidi Mubarak Nob, and made Ratanpur in Gujarat his home.
Till this day, the descendants of the Nawabs of Janjira, and the people of the town — once a principality near Mumbai — and in the neighboring state of Gujarat, in Sachin, another erstwhile principality, where the tradition of the Nawabs and their regal customs of old still thrive, revere the Sufi saint Bava Gor, who became the patron saint of the agate bead industry and is credited with increasing the trade of quartz stone between East Africa, the Persian Gulf, and India .
The Noble Ikhlas Khan With a Petition. Muhammad Khan (17th century), India. Opaque watercolor and gold on paper, c. 1650. 4 23/32 in. x 4 1/4 in San Diego Museum of Art.
In 1490, an African guard, Sidi Badr, seized power in Bengal and ruled for three years before being murdered. Five thousand of the 30,000 men in his army were Ethiopians. After Sidi Badr’s assassination, high-level Africans were driven out and migrated to Gujarat and the Deccan. In the Deccan sultanate of Bijapur, Africans formerly enslaved—they were called the “Abyssinian party”—took control. The African regent Dilawar Khan exercised power from 1580 and was succeeded by Ikhlas Khan. The Abyssinian party dominated the Bijapur Sultanate and conquered new territories until the Mughal invasion in 1686.
Amongst the most notable African rulers in India of the period were the Sharqi Sultans of Jaunpur (1394-1479 – the first or all the Sharqui sultans may have been Africans); Habshi Sultans of Bengal (1486-1493); Nawabs of Janjira (1618-1948); Sidi Masud of Adoni (17th century); and Nawabs of Sachin (1791-1948). one of the reasons why the African slaves managed to etch their mark in India was because they were good soldiers, whom the Indian rulers trusted for their prowess and loyalty.
“The Africans were renowned as good soldiers,The rulers probably thought them to be trustworthy and to be used in frontier areas of battle, where they had no link to other clans and other families of the rulers. They were subsequently put in position of authority, and took power for themselves.” High-ranking Africans were prominent in Bahmani Sultanate (1347-1518); Ahmadnagar (1496-1636); Bijapur (1490-1686); Golconda (1512-1687); Khandesh (1382-1600); Gujarat (1407-1572); Kutch (1500-1948); Bhavnagar (1660-1948); and Hyderabad (1724-1948).
One of the most famous high-ranking officials was Ikhlas Khan, an Ethiopian slave, who from the 1580s onward, was in charge of administration, commander-in chief and minister of finances under Sultan Ibrahim Adil Shah II and his son and successor, Muhammad Adil Shah of Bijapur. He was the real master of Bijapur and appears in numerous paintings. Another notable personality was Sidi Masud, an African vizier of Bijapur. He served three sultans until 1683. He lived in the city of Adoni and was essentially an independent ruler. The most celebrated of the Ethiopianpowerful leaderswas Malik Ambar (1548-1626). Born Chapu in Kambata, in Ethiopia, he was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen. He was later sent to Arabia where he was educated in finance before being brought to Baghdad, Iraq. Converted to Islam, Chapu was renamed Ambar. He was later sold to India where he arrived in the early 1570s. He became a slave of Chengiz Khan (believed to have been an Ethiopian and a former slave), the prime minister of the sultanate of Ahmadnagar.