African Diaspora to the Indian Ocean

I haven’t taught an “Introduction to Pan African Studies” course for undergraduates for two years due to other teaching assignments from the department. I’ve always enjoyed teaching the class because it introduces students to the “black” intellectual tradition and the academic discipline of Pan African, Africana or “Black” Studies as it is variously known. But unlike some introductory courses that bear the same or similar names, I designed my syllabus to place the African American experience within the broader context of the African Diaspora(s). African Americans make up a small percentage of African descendants in the Americas, and the African Diaspora to the Americas also constitutes only one part of the story of the worldwide distribution of African peoples. To provide a foundation and context for understanding the global presence of peoples of African descent, I teach students about four African Diasporas:

  1. The peopling of the world by the first modern humans on the planet. Our earliest modern human ancestors appeared first in Africa and then migrated from the continent to populate Asia and Europe. All peoples living in the world today are descendants of those intrepid explorers.
  2. The African Diaspora within the African continent. The African continent is a vast land mass large enough to contain within its borders the United States, China, India, and Western Europe. The history of migrations of African peoples within the African continent does not receive the attention it deserves.
  3. The African Diaspora to the Indian Ocean. This movement of African peoples also includes the Arab/Islamic slave trade in Africa that created a global market for enslaved Africans by trafficking millions of captives across the Sahara Desert to North Africa and the so-called Middle East, and across the Indian Ocean to India, Pakistan, China, and other parts of Asia.
  4. The African Diaspora to the so-called New World. The European/Christian transatlantic slave trade began in the late 15th century when Columbus took captive Native Americans from the Caribbean to Spain and sold them. By the early 16th century, as Native American populations in the Caribbean were decimated from diseases and forced labor under Spanish rule, enslaved Africans, brought first from Spain and later from the West Coast of Africa, became the focus of the transatlantic trade. This trade, which didn’t end until the late 19th century, constitutes one of the largest “forced migrations” of human beings in world history.

At some point I may consider adding a fifth Diaspora to the list. The fifth one would examine a very recent phenomenon—the fact that more Africans have immigrated legally to the United States in the last four decades than were brought here in bondage during the four centuries of the European/Christian slave trade.

Of the four described above, the least known here in the U.S. is Diaspora #3: the African Diaspora to the Indian Ocean. The movement and settlement of Africans across this vast region has received significant scholarly attention in recent years, but little exposure in schools and universities. And the Arab/Islamic slave trade to the so-called Middle East and to Asia also receives scant attention despite the fact it began more than 700 years before the European/Christian slave trade and continued well into the 20th century. Although lasting far longer, the Arab/Islamic trade is estimated to have taken the same number of captives in Africa (approximately 12 million) as the European/Christian trade. A major difference between them is the Arab/Islamic trade purportedly took two female captives for every male captive, while the European/Christian trade preferred to reverse that ratio. And while we generally are more aware of what happened to the descendants of enslaved Africans in the Americas (although many of us in the US remain ignorant of the “black” presence in Latin America and the fact it is at least four times larger than our own), the histories, lives, and experiences of the millions of Africans who traveled or were shipped from East Africa to Asia currently seem far beyond our comprehension.

The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture and the New York Public Library have created a remarkable online exhibition to examine this neglected aspect of the African Diaspora. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World contains essays, images, maps, multimedia, and a comprehensive bibliography of books, articles, and documentaries. It maps, illustrates, and documents this third Diaspora from East Africa across the Middle East and into India and beyond.

The women depicted below are part of an estimated population of at least 250,000 persons of East African descent that live on Pakistan’s southern coast. According to The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World, Pakistan has the largest African-descended population in South Asia.

Sheedi Women of Pakistan

Here’s an excerpt from the exhibition website:

“Over the course of nearly 20 centuries, millions of East Africans crossed the Indian Ocean and its several seas and adjoining bodies of water in their journey to distant lands, from Arabia and Iraq to India and Sri Lanka. Called Kaffir, Siddi, Habshi, or Zanji, these men, women and children from Sudan in the north to Mozambique in the south Africanized the Indian Ocean world and helped shape the societies they entered and made their own.
Free or enslaved, soldiers, servants, sailors, merchants, mystics, musicians, commanders, nurses, or founders of dynasties, they contributed their cultures, talents, skills and labor to their new world, as millions of their descendants continue to do. Yet, their heroic odyssey remains little known. The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean World traces a truly unique and fascinating story of struggles and achievements across a variety of societies, cultures, religions, languages and times.


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