Home History Institutionalized slavery in the Muslim regimes (Part-III)

Institutionalized slavery in the Muslim regimes (Part-III)

Institutionalized slavery in the Muslim regimes (Part-III)
Representational Image - Courtesy: Scroll

While the trade of slaves was not unknown in India, the scale of slavery in India was extremely small in pre-Islamic times.  

By Shanmukh-Saswati Sarkar-Dikgaj-Aparna-Kirtivardhan

How Indic merchants facilitated slavery of Indics during the Muslim rule

Slaves were utilized both in India and also exported abroad through the trans-national trade. In post Mughal Awadh, slavery took the form of debtor servitude to the great landlords and/or the bankers, who were often partners.  The great bankers were so powerful that all the officials of the Nawabs were beholden to them, and the bankers, who owned land, tended to turn their peasants and landowners under their power, into debtor slaves.  At other times, the bankers (who were not sufficiently powerful to overrule the talukdars) would often go into partnerships with the Nawab’s officials and the talukdars, allowing them to buy up revenue contracts for districts.  With these, they would often proceed to turn their landowners into debtor slaves, who subsequently led a miserable existence.

The Indian merchants who engaged in exporting Indian (primarily Hindu) slaves to Central Asia were both Hindus and Muslims. The trans-national trade from India to Central Asia was conducted by both Hindu and Muslim traders from India. In 1581 a Portuguese Jesuit missionary Father Antonio Monserrate  who had travelled from Lahore to Kabul had reported that “one tribe in the Punjab, identified as the `Gaccares’, (Ghakkars), had made trading Indian slaves for horses such a regular practice that they had even become associated with the proverb, `slaves from India, horses from Parthia’’’. Some Ghakkars, whose conversion from Hinduism to Islam, had begun by the Timur era, were Hindus, some were Muslims then.

The Indian merchants engaged in exporting Indian (primarily Hindu) slaves to Central Asia were both Hindus and Muslims.

Reasonably large Diasporas of Indian merchants existed in different Central Asian towns throughout the medieval times. They comprised of both Hindus and Muslims.  Scott C. Levi has noted: “ The vast majority of the Indian diaspora in Central Asia was comprised of Hindu merchants  who belonged to any of a number of mercantile – oriented castes engaged in trans-regional trade, brokering or money lending, and were collectively referred to as `Banias’  (or `Banians’) ‘’.  In the sixteenth century Hindu merchant communities existed in Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent and other cities in Central Asia. In 19th century British secret agent Ghulab Khan estimated that there were 400 Hindus and 200 Indian Muslims in Bukhara. In the early nineteenth century Harlan asserted that Hindus were active in almost every Bazaar in Central Asia, and Vambrey similarly reported that they maintained a dominant commercial present in both urban and rural markets. The Hindu mercantile community in Afghanistan and Central Asia was extremely wealthy. For example, a single Hindu merchant in Durrani-era Kabul owned 10 million rupees in personal wealth. Bailey has noted that in the early twentieth century, when the Bolsheviks tightened their grip in this region, the merchants from Shikarpur in Sindh    feared that their wealth would be confiscated and asked him for assistance in transferring to India some two million rubles.  Small, but very wealthy Indic mercantile communities were the norm in this region.

Many of the inhabitants of the Indian mercantile diaspora in the early medieval times originated from Multan. Multani traders again comprised of both Hindus and Muslims, but owing to the numerical superiority of the Hindus among the Multani traders, the term Multani became the general name for a Hindu in Central Asia and Persia (as per the eighteenth century lexicon, Bahar-i-Ajam). Many of the traders from Multan were Khatris.  Jean de Thevenot, who travelled in India during 1665-1667, has recorded that “at Multan there is another sort of gentiles whom they call Catry. That town is properly their country and from thence they spread all over the Indies. ” Levi has noted  “because of the Khatris’ increasingly important role in India’s trans-regional trade under the Mughal empire, partly as a result of Mughal patronage, it seems reasonable to suggest that many of the Multanis and the Banias referred to in the historical sources can more specifically be characterized as Khatris “.

The Indic mercantile diaspora played a two-fold role in the export of (primarily Hindu) slaves to Afghanistan and Central Asia: 1) direct export and sale 2) financing the operations.

Khatris have been reported to be present, and highly involved in Northwest India’s trans-regional commerce throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia in the late 17th up to the early twentieth century. For example, in the early 20th century the economic historian LC Jain has noted that the Aroras, a sub caste of Khatris, were known to “control the finances of much of the commerce of India with central Asia, Afghanistan and Tibet “. The British ethnographer Ibbetson has also observed that the Aurora-Khatris were centered in Multan and Derajat and were involved in business throughout Afghanistan and Central Asia. In mid-19th century, George Campbell has noted that the Khatris had monopolized the trade of the Punjab and the greater part of Afghanistan. They were present all over Eastern Afghanistan and were the only Hindus known in Central Asia. They were the chief civil administrators of Punjab and had almost all the literate work in their hands. Even under the Muslim rulers in the west they had risen to high administrative post. No village in Punjab and large parts of Afghanistan could get on without the Khatri who kept the account, did the banking business, and bought and sold the grain. Marwaris arrived in Central Asia somewhat later than the Khatris. Farah Abidin has noted that “ the work Sharaf-nama-i-Shahi mentions that a large number of Indian merchants from North India and Bengal were involved in the trading Enterprises of this region’’. She has also documented that “The most important among the Indian merchants groups who traded overland through Kabul in Iran and Turan in the 16th and 17th century, were  the Multani and Gujarati baniyas, Afghans and Marwaris. It is evident from the sources that thousands of merchants from Mughal India resided semi-permanently in Iran and Turan.. .. It is conceivable that nearly all the Hindus (Multanis) trading in Iran, Turan and Russia were Punjabi Khatris… Another merchant group who trade in this region in the 18th century was Jain baniyas, they were not Multanis but were Marwaris, the natives of Marwar areas of Rajasthan.’’

Indeed, Marwaris were active in the Indian mercantile diaspora in Central Asia from the late seventeenth century, they began to appear in Astrakhan and Central Asia in larger numbers from the early 18th century.  Late 18th and 19th century documents show presence of a substantial number of Marwaris in Central Asia, many of them came from Jaisalmer and likely practiced the Jain religion. Dale has located Marwari Jain Oswals in 17th-century astrakhan. In nineteenth century Bhatias, originally from Sindh, were present in Kabul, Bukhara and traveled up to Arabia.

This Indic mercantile diaspora played a two-fold role in the export of (primarily Hindu) slaves to Afghanistan and Central Asia: 1) direct export and sale 2) financing the operations. It is possibly both, but we believe that their prominent role was in financing.

Babur has written that caravans of ten, fifteen or twenty thousand heads of houses used to come from Hindustan bringing in slaves and other commodities to Kabul. During Babur’s time, the mercantile community in India was largely Indic. So many of the houses he is referring to would be those of the Indic merchants.  Thus, in other words, Indic merchants were exporting caravans full of (primarily Indic) slaves to Central Asia.

In 1558 Anthony Jenkinson has noted that Indian (and Iranian) merchants who visited Bukhara commonly exported slaves to the Bukharan slave market. Further, it has been noted that Indian traders often sold silk (raw and manufactured) and horses in the Russian empire in the middle of the 16th century, which they had likely purchased in exchange for slaves in Kabul, Astrakhan or Bukhara.  Indian slaves were sold in numbers in Bukhara and Astrakhan.

Mostly Hindu merchants from Shikarpoor Sindh had financed several of Ahmad Shah Abdali’s military campaigns. In return they had received a percentage of the captured booty.

In his book on Afghan history, Gulzad has written that “Afghanistan’s external trade was dominated by Hindus, Sikhs, Jews and Armenians. However with the decline of overland trade these communities diversified their professions. The Hindus and Sikhs, aside from trade, monopolized banking, goldsmithing and horticulture. Bankers from these communities rose to prominence in the Durrani Empire [18th century]. Originally they were [mostly Hindu] merchants from Shikarpoor [Sindh] who had financed several of Ahmad Shah’s [Ahmad Shah Abdali] military campaigns. In return they had received a percentage of the captured booty. In some instances this booty was left under their management. They, in turn, often sold the booty and put the money for the loot back into circulation.’’. Ahmad Shah’s booty comprised of several enslaved Hindus and Sikhs of Punjab, Delhi, Mathura and Brindaban. Thus, Indic merchants certainly engaged in direct sale of Indic slaves in Central Asia.

As to the financing, Scott C. Levi has written that “For nearly four centuries [sixteenth to early twentieth] lines of credit stretched from the great financial houses of Northwest India, through tens of thousands of Gumashtas, to ruling elites, village industrialists, agriculturalists, trans-regional traders, retail merchants, and other groups [in Central Asia] in need of capital.’’ Export of Indic slaves consisted of an important component of the trans-regional trade.  Farah Abedin has documented, “A great part of the trade conducted with India via the Bolan Pass and Jalalabad was controlled by Hindu merchants and bankers. The center for their financial exchange was Shikarpur on the Indus, a small entrepot at the Eastern entrance of the Bolan Pass location’’. The route between India and Jalalabad through the Bolan Pass lay on the Southern trade route for transnational trade between India and Central Asia, this is the route the caravans carrying slaves and other commodities would take.   We also know that the Afghan Muslim Lohani merchants led caravans from Punjab and Sindh   to Central Asia. The Lohanis were connected to the Pashto tribes whose territories the caravans had to cross on their way between the Punjab and Sindh and Kabul. Their massive presence mostly ensured safe passage for the Caravans, provided the duties were paid to the various tribal chiefs. The Shikarpuri merchants likely funded the Lohanis, the duo shared a symbiotic relationship. Also, note that the upper layer of Shikarpuri Merchants residing in the major towns of Central Asia, such as Bukhara and Khokand, provided credit to the Central Asian traders buying the Indian goods brought by the caravans. Indic slaves comprised an important component of the caravan trade.  Any event, the Indic mercantile diaspora in Afghanistan and Central Asia was heavily involved in financing and usury.  The merchant-money lenders of the Indian diaspora in Central Asia emerged from heavily capitalized financial organizations, or family firms, largely centered in the Multan and Marwar regions of Northern India. In 1676 Tavernier reported that “Multan is the place from whence all the banyans migrate who come to trade in Persia, where they follow the same occupation as the Jews… And they surpass them in their usury.” In the late nineteenth century, Swedish archaeologist Sven Hedin has noted that in a particular caravanserai in Kashghar the “principal inhabitants were half a score Hindus from Shikarpur, their chief business was money-lending… “Even as late as early 20th century, Danish geographer Olfusen noted that the Hindu merchants were dominant elements in the money-lending industry in Bukhara and `their usurious operations were said to extend even to the Bokharan villages’.

In hindsight, it is not surprising that Indic merchants would finance the trade of Indic slaves in Central Asia and Afghanistan, or even export and sell them directly. They, primarily those from Gujarat and Sindh, heavily financed the trade of African slaves, and transferred them to different parts of the world in the ships they owned.  It is also known that as part of debt collection, the Shikarpuri merchants used to seize the women and children of Uighur peasants as sureties.  Would they treat Indic slaves any different from African slaves, owing to common bonds of national origin and religious persuasion? Unlikely, because of their extreme clannishness, they did not view the lowly slaves who invariably emerged from less privileged social groups as their people; unlikely, also because they commoditized and monetized all values, land and people.  To reinforce the same, peruse the following account narrated by Pedro Machado:   “ Portuguese authorities expressed mounting concern over the use (and “conversion’’) of African slaves by Muslims on Mozambique island.  Indeed, “ Arab’’ and Swahili merchants were regarded as owning and trading slaves by the 1720s to a degree that the Portuguese considered alarming.  Islam was perceived as a menacing threat to the European presence on the coast because of the belief that any growth in the number of slaves in Muslim hands would enlarge the general population of Muslims in East Africa.  Official rhetoric stressing the “nefarious’’ influence of Islam on the African population actually disguised a fear of Muslim commercial competition that led to Portuguese attempts over the course of the century to curb this merchants’ ownership of, and trade in, African slaves.  It was in this environment of general and innate distrust of non-Christian that the Portuguese published a proclamation in the early 1740s extending prohibition against Muslim ownership of slaves to “Hindu’’ merchants.  In protest, and reflecting the extent to which the slaves had become integral to their labor requirements  in the territory in the first half of the 18th century, [Gujarati] Vaniyas drafted a petition which demanded that they be allowed to trade and own slaves. “As they have until the present, to make use of them while they [Vaniyas] are on [Mozambique] island’’.  They argued that, as “Hinduism’’ was not a proselytizing religion and their “inviolable laws’’ did not allow them to convert Africans, the prohibition should not apply to them.  They added, moreover, that they allowed their slaves to be baptized and encouraged them to attend Catholic Church services on the island regularly.’’ So, the Muslims converted non-Muslim slaves to Islam, the Christian Europeans and Americans converted the non-Christian slaves to Christianity. But,  Indic merchants owned and traded in non-Hindu slaves alright, just did not convert the Hindu slaves to their religion; they converted them (the African slaves who likely earlier followed their native religion) to Christianity, just so that they would be allowed to own and trade in those slaves.  This was their commitment to humanity (trading slaves) and their religion (not converting the slaves they owned). (Continues)  


Courtesy: Myind.net

Click here for Part -I , Part-II


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