Prior to the mid-nineteenth century, the Asian markets for enslaved and scorned African laborers were connected more closely with and even propelled city-states such as Zanzibar and Pemba into the slaving world of East Africa and Asia. Certainly, the Swahili city-states were well integrated in the trade network and politics of the Indian Ocean world and their markets. These markets drew slavers from Brazil, French merchants from Mauritius, Arab merchants from Oman and Hadramawt, Indian merchants from the Kathiawar peninsula and the Konkan coastal region, and Swahili merchants into a consortium that exploited gold, ivory, and human captives.
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.
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.