Originally recorded in 2008 for the CHUO Black community radio program “Black on Black”. I intend to write a more thorough profile of Malik Ambar in the near future.
I’m going to tell you something about the life of Malik Ambar. The story of Malik Ambar is just one of the many stories I could tell you about the history of the slavery of Africans in India. Ya, you heard me right. India! You listening now.
Okay, it all starts back in Africa, in southern Ethiopia. We know his name was Chapu and that he was probably born in 1548. It’s not too clear how Malik Ambar became a slave. It could have been that his parents were forced to give him up in order to pay a debt or he was a war captive, or he was abducted during a slave raid by either Ethiopians or Arabs. The enslavement of people who weren’t Christian was legal in Christian Ethiopia and it was religiously legal for Arabs to enslave anyone who wasn’t Muslim. Either way, Malik Ambar ended up sold to Arab merchants in Yemen. He eventually ended up as a slave in Baghdad where his master converted him to Islam, gave him the name Ambar, and taught him some things about finance and administration. This education made him an even more valuable slave and he was eventually sold to the Ethiopian prime minster of Ahmadnagar a province in the Deccan region of India. There’s was an Ethiopian prime minister? Ethiopians, then called Habashis were popular in the region as military slaves. They were consider to be more loyal and less likely to rebel against their masters, then say, their masters own children.
Malik Ambar was eventually freed and built up an militia of mercenaries which he would hire out to various rulers in the region. Ambar developed a reputation as an skilled military commander. At the time, the rulers of the Deccan were fighting off the attempts of the Mughal Dynasty of Northern India to invade them. Ambar was so successful that he was able to replace the ruler of the Nizam Shahi Sultanate with his own son-in law, Sultan Murtaza Nizam Shah. Ambar was officially his regent but everyone one know that Sultan Murtaza was just a puppet and Ambar was the real ruler of the Sultanate. Ambar led the resistance against the invasion of the Mughals, whose Emperor Jahangir, took a personal dislike against Ambar and often wrote in frustration about how his army was being defeated by a “black-faced slave”!
Despite Emperor Jahangir’s rather racist rantings against Ambar, Mughal court historians acknowledged Ambar’s skill: “In warfare, in command, in sound judgement, and in administration, he had no rival or equal. History records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence.” Perhaps the best evidence of Ambar’s special talent was the fact that the Sultanate fell to the Mughals soon after he died.
The story of Malik Ambar is one of extraordinary success: beginning as a slave in Southern Ethiopia and ending as the de facto ruler of a Sultanate in India. But, I can’t help but wonder if, despite his glorious rise to power, if Malik Ambar didn’t want to do the one thing that it was truly impossible for him to do, the one thing that was so impossible for all slaves taken so far away from the land of their birth to do, to go back home.
Slavery and South Asian History, edited by Indrani Chatterjee and Richard M. Eaton, published by Indiana Unversity Press (The image on the cover of this book is of Malik Ambar by Hashim c. 1610)