We Americans are intimately familiar with the African diaspora in our own hemisphere. For 400 years the Afro-Atlantic slave trade uprooted untold millions of Africans and forcibly transplanted them to the Americas, permanently altering the very DNA of two continents. It’s a well-told story that every educated American, from both hemispheres, knows by heart and still lives every day.
But there’s another African diaspora that barely registers on cultural radar screens here in the West. While we naturally focus our attention on our own largely West African roots, we forget that East Africa, with its long Indian Ocean coastline, spawned a sea- borne diaspora of its own. One of the most fascinating chapters in the history of this East African diaspora is the story of Africans and their descendants in India.
Known as Sidis, Africans have been on the subcontinent for centuries, but have long been submerged in India’s dense multicultural masala to the point that many of their countrymen don’t even know of their existence. But lately a Sidi performance troupe from the Indian state of Gujarat known as Sidi Goma has been working hard to correct these oversights and put their culture back on the map.
Sidis began crossing the Indian Ocean from East Africa in small trickles as early as the 10th century. They came as sailors and soldiers, as merchants and navigators, as saints and slaves from all over East Africa: Nubia and the Sudan in the north, to the Swahili coast and the Bantu hinterlands and possibly even from as far south as Mozambique.
Sidis pop up sporadically throughout Indian history, as soldiers, statesmen, courtiers and minstrels. There’s even a persistent, if unsubstantiated, legend that a prince of Bengal once fielded a large African army that actually overthrew him and ruled for seven years before being evicted from the throne and dispersed!
Whether this story is true or not, there can be no doubt that Sidis once yielded real power in India, as the imposing ruins of their Mughal-era fort on Janjira Island attest.
They were often sought after by royal families as bodyguards, retainers and translators. Sidis were also prominent as court musicians in this period, frequently depicted with<