Tag Archives: Sri Lanka

What happened on the other side of Africa? Afro-Asians in Sri Lanka

Black history in British secondary schools focuses mainly on the Atlantic slave trade and civil rights movement in the US. The question of what happened on the other side of Africa is rarely touched on and it would be a mistake to think that some sort of parallel or symmetrical experience was at work here, that the Indian Ocean was some sort of mirror reflection of the Atlantic experience. The Indian Ocean, unlike the Atlantic, was, prior to the ascendancy of the European colonial powers, a busy region which people criss-crossed on monsoon winds between Africa and Asia, trading goods and spreading ideas and knowledge for a thousand years or more with little reference to Europe. This was brutally interrupted in 1497 when the Portuguese arrived seeking a sea route to Asia. From this point on, the histories of most of the peoples of this region would be at least partially defined by their relationships with European powers and somehow, in this process of colonisation, their relationships with each other which once were rich in cultural exchange and even some mutual tolerance would be submerged – hidden from history.

Author and academic Amitav Ghosh describes this process whereby the cosmopolitanism of the Indian Ocean became dominated by Western colonial power as being one in which Asians and Africans are now all `travelling in the west…[participating] in the dissolution of centuries of dialogue which had linked us…` (from `In an Antique Land` by Amitav Ghosh 1993).

And so it may come as a surprise to people to hear that there are communities of African descent living in South Asia including in Sri Lanka. According to author Jihan da Silva Jayasuria

“Afro-Asian communities are the result of a continuous centuries-old phenomenon but why are they not widely known? The obvious reason for this is their hidden presence as forest-dwellers, villagers and people on the margins. Those who live in urban areas are not easily identifiable either and are lost in the diversity of South Asia’s cosmopolitan cities. Afro-Asians are taken for African tourists until they begin to speak in the local Asian language!” ( http://www.historyworkshop.org.uk/south-asias-africans/ )

Despite the present day marginality of many of these these Afro-Asian communities, their ancestors had a significant impact on the culture and history of South Asia including Sri Lanka.

It is estimated that around 12.5 million Africans moved from Africa to South Asia but unlike the Atlantic Slave trade, this happened over a much longer period of about a thousand years. Sri Lanka was one of the important points of contact according to the sixth century Greek traveller Cosmos Indocopleustes who wrote

“As its position is central, the island is a great resort for ships from India and from Ethiopia and in like manner it dispatches many of its own to foreign ports.” (From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Many Africans moved across the Indian Ocean as free people and this continued even during the European slave trade era. They travelled as soldiers, sailors, policemen, traders, bureaucrats, clerics, bodyguards, concubines and servants.

“The island of Janjira (off the west coast of India near Mumbai), for example, was a base for African traders long before it became the powerbase of a princely state ruled by Africans from 1618 for about three and a half centuries. Another state, Sachin, was also ruled by Africans from 1791. In 1948, the year after India gained independence, both these states became part of the new nation. Ex-Royal Africans, still live in India and are well respected locally. (From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Many African people were also traded as slaves throughout this time, not so much during the pre-colonial era as labour for plantations and mines but mainly as high status servants for Indian and Sri Lankan princes.  Many were given military training and became elite and trusted bodyguards and were able to achieve positions of power, wealth and prestige over a number of generations.

Sinhalese King Raja Sinha II (1635-87) had a “guard of Cofferies or Negroes in whom he imposeth more confidence than in his own People. These are to watch at his chamber door and next to his person” ( From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

“Elite military slavery, though not unique to Africans or South Asia, provided the mechanism for some slaves to reach high positions and wield power” ( From `The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed. Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

So, although these could be brutal times, it could also be true to say that the Indian Ocean experience of Africans even when enslaved was not the intensive and mass brutalisation perpetrated against a large number of African people over a short period of time in the Atlantic slave trade.

Africans continued to come to or be brought to Asia throughout the colonial period and played a significant part in the history of those times as soldiers and also to work on building and plantation projects. In 1630, the Sinhalese army defeated the Portuguese at the battle of Randeniwala and advanced on the what is the present day capital Colombo, a trading port held by the Portuguese. The Portuguese only managed to stop them by bringing in a company of African soldiers from Goa. A Sri Lankan ballad composed in the 17th Century to commemorate this war mentions the role of African mercenaries in the Portuguese army. (Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003)

Of the 20,000 Portuguese soldiers in Portuguese forts in Sri Lanka, 19, 000 were from Portuguese African and Asian colonies. At the end of Portuguese rule in Sri Lanka, some African soldiers went on to serve under the Dutch while others settled in the Kandyan kingdom which was still under Sinhalese rule and served the Sinhalese kings.

The Dutch brought in more Africans including slaves from Malagasy (present day Madagascar) to do heavy building work on the forts and battlements throughout their colonies in South and South East Asia. Slave Island is the name of a suburb of Colombo where slaves were housed under the Portuguese and Dutch. It is just south of Fort – now Colombo`s central business district – where the Portuguese landed and built a fort, later reconstructed by the Dutch – or perhaps more accurately we should say by Africans under Portuguese and Dutch rule. In the early 18th Century, the African slaves in Colombo Fort revolted killing the Fiscal, Barent van der Swann and his wife and causing massive damage to property.

The British also brought Africans to Sri Lanka. Many were freed from slavery in return for military service. In 1803, they fought for the British against the Kandyan Kingdom which was finally defeated. During the British era, Africans formed a large part of the Ceylon regiment. They also worked on road construction. But during the nineteenth century their numbers declined in Sri Lanka – many returned to Africa but many were also killed by the Kandyans. They also intermarried with the local populations and they gravitated towards the Portuguese burgher population who, like the Africans spoke Portuguese creole.

Those Africans who retired from British military service were given some land to settle on and small Afro-Sri Lankan communities known locally and not derogatorily as Kaffirs continue to exist to this day. In Leonard Woolf`s book `The Village in the Jungle` based on his experiences in the colonial civil service between 1904 and 1911, there is a Kaffir character whose father is a trader and who like many Kaffirs in Sri Lanka traces his origins back to Mozambique although this may not be strictly accurate.

In Sri Lanka the Kaffir community along with the Portuguese burghers has had a significant impact on popular music. Kaffrinha or Kaffrinha Baila is a fusion of African, Portuguese and and South Asian music and often accompanied by dances. Music and dance is a very important part of the community life of those remaining Kaffir villages as the video clips below show.

Two really good books about African Asians are

`The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean` ed by Shihan de S Jayasuriya and Richard Pankhurst 2003

India in Africa Africa in India Indian Ocean Cosmopolitanisms ed John C. Hawley 2008