Malik Ambar: The Ethiopian Who Ruled The Deccan

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Malik Ambar, born Chapu in Ethiopia, was a slave who became Prime Minister of the Deccan. What does his story tell us?

Mughal emperors don’t take kindly to defeat. Jahangir, the eldest son of Akbar, was so humiliated by one such foe that he commissioned a painting of him. In it, the emperor whose name means ‘conqueror of the world’ is seen on a globe firing an arrow at point blank range against the impaled head of a black slave-turned-regent.

It was the closest he’d ever get to defeating the Ethiopian who had beaten both him and his father Akbar in numerous battles, halting the Mughal advance into the Deccan. Malik Ambar was a former slave from Ethiopia, who broke the odds to become Prime Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate – an empire that spanned much of modern day Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. His life tells the tale of slaves who were brought to India only to later cast off their shackles and take up the reins of power.

Malik was born under the name ‘Chapu’ in 1548 A.D. in Harar, Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia). At the time, Abyssinia traded slaves for textiles from India – a trade that saw thousands leave Africa forever to settle in the sub-continent. It is not known under what circumstances Malik was made a slave, only that he was sold several times – one Dutch record states him as being sold from a Red Sea port for the price of eighty Dutch guilders.

Ultimately, he ended up in Baghdad where he converted to Islam and met the merchant Kazi Hussein. Kazi recognized the boy’s intelligence and gave him a surname – Ambar. He passed away, leaving Malik to be sold again, this time traveling by Dhow to the Deccan.

He arrived in a time where the Mughal Empire was fast spreading its reach into the midlands. The inability of numerous warring small kingdoms to hold themselves together led to the import of military ability – knights carried in boats from the coast of East Africa. The ‘Habshis’ (named after the old name for Abyssinia) were considered skilled and loyal warriors – and are the ancestors of the Siddi people in India, who number around 100,000 today.

When Malik reached the Deccan court, he would have been surprised to find a thriving African community. His new master, Chenghiz Khan (Chief Minister of the Ahmadnagar Sultanate), was himself a former slave and had hired Malik along with other Abyssinians. In the Deccan, once their masters relieved them or passed away, the ‘Habshis’ were usually free to become mercenaries – marrying and owning property at will. They assimilated well into Deccan society, with their descendants, the Siddis, recognized as a Scheduled Tribe today.

Malik served Chenghiz for 20 years, during which time he developed a great knowledge of diplomacy and military affairs. When Chenghiz died, Malik was freed and became a renowned mercenary. As his reputation grew, so did the size of the armies around him.

By this time, the Nizam Shahi Sultanate was a fairly small kingdom, under constant attack by the mighty Mughal forces. Cities and forts were raided and taken over by Jahangir’s formidable forces. Malik soon made his name in these battles.

Developing a style of guerrilla warfare termed bari-giri, he used his own knowledge of the area from his days as an administrator to his advantage. Malik trained the Marathas of the hilly regions to attack at night, raid enemy supply chains and make use of the hills. These Marathas soon became the thorn in the Mughal’s Deccan campaign – and the tactics they used were a precursor to those that made Shivaji such a distinct success in the years to come.

By defeating Akbar’s forces in 1601, Malik kept the Sultanate intact for the succession of its new ruler – a young boy whom he married his daughter with. The mother-in-law disapproved of the wedding and hurled racial slurs at Malik – so he had her discreetly poisoned later on. Making the young boy the king at the age of five, Malik became the de facto ruler.

Jahangir succeeded Akbar on the Mughal throne and kept at the advance against Malik’s forces. He never succeeded. By 1620 A.D., Malik fielded an army of fifty thousand men, ten thousand of whom were ‘Habshis’. The battle of Mathwadi in 1624 was Malik’s crowning glory – defeating the combined forces of both the Mughals and the Bijapurs. Even at 76, Malik could not be ousted in battle.

In his time, the Deccan sultanates had among the most diverse elite class of any state in India – Ethiopian military commanders, Persian and Arabian nobles, Deccan-Turkish settlers and Marathi chieftains.

He was an able administrator and enacted reforms that made revenue collections based on average rainfall and fertility, a system that continued long after his passing in 1628. Among his legacies is the city of Aurangabad (which be built as his capital from the village of Khadki, later renamed after the Mughal emperor), the innovative systems of water and revenue management and the cementing of the position of Africans in the Deccan. The military expertise he built up among his men kept alive a powerful military tradition – though the Nizam Shah Sultanate was ultimately incorporated into Aurangzeb’s Mughal empire.

The Siddis, descendants of the Abyssinian slave knights, are an integral part of India’s history. The contemporary accounts of racism against African nationals in India belie a gross ignorance of India’s historic links to Africa. Rulers like Malik Ambar resisted the Mughal advance in much the same vein as Shivaji, yet only the latter is revered today.

There was a time when nobody could dream of beating both Akbar and Jahangir at once. It took a self-liberated slave-turned king to prove the contrary.

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