Known as Siddis or Habshis in India, Africans have lived in South Asia for some two millennia. Over time, they played crucial roles in the politics, economies, religions, cultures, and arts of the region, especially in western parts of India. Though a large number came to the region as captive persons through Arab slavers across the Indian Ocean, numerous Siddis ascended to positions of power and authority in the military and government of various India rulers, and some even became rulers themselves between the fourteenth and nineteenth centuries. Two such persons were famed Siddi ruler Malik Ambar, who ruled Ahmednagar until his death in 1626, and his son Fateh Khan, who became governor of Janjira and its fort in 1655. Janjira was important for trade and Muslim pilgrims traveling to Mecca. Its importance is also supported by the failure of European naval powers to capture it and conquer the Siddis of Janjira, who continued to rule the fort.
After the international ban on transatlantic slaving, Cuba was second only to Brazil in the thousands of Africans illegally brought to its ports in the abolitionist period, during which Dr. Richard Robert Madden (1798 – 1886), physician, writer, and abolitionist, spent a year in colonial Cuba. In the selection, Madden examines the subject of Cuban slavery, at a time when Cuban beet sugar was cheaper to produce and thus created a greater demand for enslaved African labor.
The modern world owes its origin to transatlantic slaving, otherwise known as the transatlantic slave trade. If this seems surprising, it is because the overall significance of transatlantic slaving in the creation of the Americas and the modern world more broadly is not a celebratory history. It is a history of greed, immeasurable misery, and more importantly denial. To say slavery created the modern world is to say the historical obvious. But to accept this statement is to confront its denied cruciality, to bypass the idyllic scenes of picking cotton, and to come to terms with the barbarity and systemic humiliation of millions, the societies ruined, their lost possibilities, and the psychological if not financial debt owed to the collective skilled labor force that produced the opulence “modern” people enjoy or envy.
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, Mohammed Ali Ben Said settled in Alabama, where his narrative and the paper trail for his life ends, but where the research for my Transatlantic Africa book began. Transatlantic Africa: 1440-1888 retold the story of transatlantic slaving through the lived experiences and intellectual history of Africans who lived through it. In that way, uncovering Mohammed’s story was fortuitous because Mohammed was an African, a Muslim, and an enslaved or indentured person for most of his remarkable life. For all these insights Mohammed’s extraordinary story provided, it left an equal amount of questions. These questions became the legs of my research, conveying it along an exploratory journey.
Though I am aware of Coates’s new book, We Were Eight Years in Power, released today, what follows is a condensed version of my views, stirred principally by BWM but also by the repurposed essays and anecdotes that form the contents of Eight Years in Power. More importantly, there has been insufficient consideration of what BWM’s argument portends for the fate of “black” people—a race identifier used grudgingly but in no way do I subscribe to it. My concern is the defective premise, a story if you will, anchoring Coates’s argument and its dead-end implication if we were to follow that argument to its logical conclusion. I offer another way to think about the fate of black people in the United States and in white societies more broadly.