Brief notes on the African Sultans of Mediaeval Bengal

Translation based on the original Bangla contemporary piece: “Bangla-r Habshi-ra o Habshi Shasanmale Banglar Shamajik o Arthonoitik Obostha” by Al Hasan

African Sultans of Mediaeval Bengal

Circa 1204. The era of Muslim rule over Bengal began in earnest with Bakhtiyar’s conquest. However, Arab traders had begun to settle in the Chattogram, Noakhali and such other ports areas and their hinterland. Those were the thriving hubs of Bengal’s and the eastern subcontinent’s international trade and commerce during those times. Throughout the Old World, ancient human lived histories were making way for the mediaeval times.

Iranian and Ethiopian traders would compete for profits in the Southern Hemisphere back in those days. The Ethiopian traders had settled along the coastlines of the eastern Indian subcontinent from before Bakhtiyar’s conquest.

In the words of the great scholar Maulana Mohd. Akram Khan (1868-1968):

Arab sailors and traders would regularly traverse Malabar, Bengal, Kamrup through to China. These Arab traders were the primary proponents of Islam in South Asia and Africa up to Hijri 7th century.

As it is well known today, Islam had begun to spread in Bengal from much before Bakhtiyar’s conquest. It was through Chattogram that Islam had begun spreading to neighbouring Myanmar.

Dr. Abdul Karim refers to the Razda Tu, a narrative hagiography/ genealogy of the ancient Arakan Kings[i].

The Razda Tu refers to a 22-year rule of King Mahat-Inga Ta’ Chandayat over the Arakan Valley between AD 788 and 810. Sometimes during his reign, a foreign ship wrecked on collision with the cliffs of the Ranbye island[ii]. 400 Muslim persons who were on the ship found refuge in the Arakan. In this way, the first traders began to settle in the coastal areas shared by south-eastern Bangladesh and north-western Myanmar today. Before long, the Sufi mendicants also began to travel through these areas and beyond on a regular basis. The development of Islamic society in late-ancient and early mediaeval Bengal that thus begun climaxed till its stasis in the 13th and 14th centuries AD.

With international trade, cross-border trafficking in human beings, a.k.a. international slave trade had also begun to thrive since the last half of the first millennia AD. As ancient Egypt and Sumer bears witness, slavery has been as old as the age of empires, if not older. As traders began to tread far and wide, trade in humans also began to thrive across the world. Both Christian-backed slavery and Islam backed slavery were on the rise.

Thus, the Arab traders had brought many Ethiopian or African slaves[iii] to Bengal. Subsequent to Bakhtiyar’s conquest, as the Sultanate spread over Bengal, a large number of Ethiopian[iv] people had begun to arrive/ be brought to Bengal. There were many reasons behind the burgeoning of this Africa-origin population in early mediaeval Bengal.

Firstly, there was a low supply of slaves in the market[v].

Secondly, the capacity for physical labour that the incoming Africa-origin slaves brought far exceeded those available to the owners of land and humans locally.

Thirdly, towards the initial phase of the post-Bakhtiyar Bengal Sultanate, very few local people would join the standing armies of the Sultans. In most of the wars aimed at territorial expansion and sovereign conquest, it would be the Africans who would fight, kill and die for the Muslim kings. Statistics recorded back in the day around 32000 Abyssinians were either enlisted as soldiers with the Bengal sultanate or otherwise engaged in regally ordained activities.

The Habesha people were noted for their equestrian skills. Their capacities as security-personnel were also well known. Many of them would be castrated and employed as harem-guards. They would also be engaged to train elephants and for the trademark shikaar-hunts of the Orient. Unlike in the Euro-Christian white man’s slavery, the Islamic brand of slavery still had some scope of upward mobility for those in servitude. Depending on the degrees of benevolence of the owners, some of the African and Asian slaves throughout the various Islam-based kingdom-states across Eurasia would receive education and be employed in administrative posts as well. A bit of statistics from those eras reveals that nearabout 8000 African slaves were brought to Bengal in the beginning of the 14th century. These numbers kept rising for the next two centuries.

The population and influence of African slaves brought from Abyssinia to Bengal began to rise throughout the Iliyas Shahi dynasty – which was the first dynasty of the Bengal Sultanate.  continued until Hussain Shah founded the Hussain Shahi dynasty in 1494 and, shortly thereafter, removed all the Habesha-people from administrative posts and replaced them with Turks, Arabs, Afghans and the local people.

Christianity had already made deep inroads in ancient Ethiopia a.k.a. Abyssinia before the First Hegira or Migration to Abyssinia by the earliest apostles or sahabee-s of Prophet Mohammad. A good eight centuries after this, during the rule of Sultan Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah (Reign: CE 1390–1411), the third Sultan of the Iliyas Shahi Sultanate of Bengal, Yakut Ali, a Habesha Muslim preacher reached Medina to establish the Al-Madrasa Al-Bangaliya. Funded by the above-named Sultan, he had the fountains constructed in the gardens of Mount Arafat out there.

The famed king Rukunuddin Barbak Shah of the Bengal Sultanate reigned between CE 1459 and 1474. It was he who had begun to employ the Habesha-people of African origin in high-ranking offices.

About Ruknudiin Barbak Shah the British historian Charles Stewart (CE 1764–1837) writes that: – he (Sultan Barbak) was the first prince of Hindustan who began to employ the Habesha people.[vi] It was seen that they were loyal and capable. Later on, the Sultans or Gujarat and the South also began to follow his example[vii].

Malik Andril, an Abyssinian by origin, was the chief general of Barbak Shah. However, that Sultan’s durbar was filled with people from different ethnicities – the Iranians, the Turanians, the Turkish, the Afghan and so many more!

Firishta’s (CE 1560-1620) magnum opus Tarikh-i Firishta attests how satisfied Sultan Ruknuddin Shah Barbak of the Iliyas Shahi Sultanate of Bengal was with the work-efficiency of his African-origin employers. The Sultan had 80,000 such workers brought from Abyssinia – writes Firishta in his detailed hagiography of various dynasties of the medieval subcontinent. This is probably true because by the time Sultan Ruknuddin Barbak Shah’s reign ended in 1474, the Habesha people of Bengal had gained so much in strength and prominence that they become the de facto rulers of the Bengal Sultanate. Thirteen years down the line, the shift from de facto to de jure was complete.

Historians often ‘blame’ Ruknuddin Barbak Shah for facilitating the ascendancy of the Habesha Sultanate of Bengal[viii]. But the brief rule of the Ethiopian-origin chieftains over Bengal was enabled by and large owing to the ineptitude of Ruknuddin Barbak Shah’s successors. Sultan Ruknuddin Barbak Shah had expanded the sway of Bengal Sultanate far and wide. He had annexed large parts of Odisha, Kamrup and Chattogram for the Sultanate.  It was his Hebesha generals like Malik Kafur Habshi and Malik Andil who, with their battalions of African-origin soldiers who had made the Sultan’s conquests possible.

Sultan Ruknuddin Barbak Shah’s successor Sultan Yusuf Shah reigned from CE 1474–1481.

After Yusuf Shah’s death in CE 1481, a brief period of turmoil ensued. Sultan Yusuf had died childless. As a result, conflicts for succession unleashed between the two uncles of Sultan Yusf Shah – Sikandar Shah and Jalaluddin Fateh Shah. Then, in that very same year, Sultan Jalaluddin Fateh Shah emerged victorious, ascended the throne of the Bengal Sultanate as the last king of the Iliyas Shahi dynasty and ruled for six years from 1481 to 1487.

During the successive reigns of Yusuf and Fateh Shah, the Bengal Sultanate had a Habesha general named Malik Cafoor, in command of a battalion of 24,000 African-origin soldiers.

During the tumultuous reign of Jalaluddin Fateh Shah, powerful Habesha chiefs like Malik Andril, Sidi-Badar Dewan et al began to steadily declare the self-determination of their fiefdom-confederacies. They began to mint coins in their own names. These were but open calls of rebellion.

The reason being, unlike Ruknuddin Barbak Shah, his brother Jalaluddin Fateh Shah was not very favorably disposed towards the growing influence of the Habesha-peoples in his court. He was keen on reducing their influence. His ascendancy was shortly followed by mass discharge of Habesha soldiers from the imperial army of the Bengal Sultanate, coupled with mass retrenchment of Habesha-origin officials from the offices of its regency.

But even then, there were at least 9000 Habesha persons vested with various sovereign duties of governance till the last years of Iliyas Shahi Sultan Jalaluddin Fateh Shah’s reign over large tracts of the eastern subcontinent – much of which were annexed to the Bengal Sultanate by his brother Ruknuddin Barbak Shah.

However even Sultan Jalaluddin Fateh Shah’s bodyguards and aide-de-camps were from the Habeshi people till the last day of his reign and life. Given that he had sacked so many Habeshi people from royal posts and the army, given further the discontent that the Habeshi Malik-lords were expressing since the beginning of Jalaluddin Fateh Shah’s ascendancy over the Bengal Sultanate, retaining some among them as his personal security-force was a bad idea for the Sultan. Sultan Jalaluddin Fateh Shah was killed in his sleep by Khoja Barik[ix], the head of the royal guards – also of African origin.

Fateh Shah ruled from 1481 till 1487. By contemporary accounts, he was an able administrator. He had tried to rid the royal court at Gaud/ Gourh[x] of the powerful Habesha freemen’s influence, but failed.

It was not only the Bengal Sultanate of the eastern subcontinent but also the Bahmani Deccan Sultanate of the south that saw the Habesha people rebelling. But in the south, their uprising was staunchly quelled by the Bahamani Shahs.

Barik, the castrated Habesha slave who killed Sultan Fateh Shah became the first Habesha person to ascend the throne of Bengal. With Fateh Shah’s death, the Turkic Iliyas Shahi dynasty of the Bengal Sultanate came to an end. It is believed that Barik was a part of the 2,500 slaves that Sultan Ruknuddin Shah Barbak had bought and brought to Bengal to assist in governance and warfare.

On ascending the throne in 1487, Barik took up the epithet Sultan Ghiyasuddin Barbak. This first Habesha Sultan of Bengal was known for his immense physical strength and mental fortitude. It was these qualities that had made him rise through the ranks. On becoming the commander-in-chief of the standing army of the Sultanate, he could kill and depose Sultan Fateh Shah with assistance from this army.

On ascending the throne through this act coup d’etat, Khoja Barik, a.k.a. Sultan Ghiyasuddin Barbak sought to buy off all the influential noblemen of his durbar-court. But he failed because he was a Black person. Even, Malik Andril another African-origin freeman, who, by then, had become a prominent warlord and feudal chieftain of Bengal, refused to support Sultan Ghiyasuddin Barbak. At this point, Sultan Ghiyasuddin barbak began plotting to eliminate all his opponents. But before he could succeed in his skim, he met with a similar end as the last Iliyas Shahi Sultan Jalaluddin Fateh Shah whom he had killed to ascend the throne.

Malik Andril, on the under hand, gained favour from the influential Turkic nobility of the Gaud court. He moblised them and conspired to kill off the reigning Habesha monarch. Before long, Malik Andril set his plan in motion. The Habesha warlord and his Turkic supporters from the nobility went to the Sultan’s durbar in the pretext of swearing allegiance to the kind. However, during this process, when the Sultan stood up from his throne, Andil shoved Barik down to the floor and pressed him down. With the Sultan thus immobilized, Turkic nobleman Yugrus Khan who was standing close by leapt forward and stabbed the Sultan. Malik Andil stood up, took out his dagger and stabbed the wounded Khoja Barik alias Sultan Ghiyasuddin Barbak Shah multiple times until the latter succumbed to his wounds. The durbar was filled with people, none of whom came to the aid of the Sultan during this episode.

This event has been narrated by Ghulam Husain Salim Zaydpuri (d. 1817-18) in his Farsi hagiography of the Bengal Sultanate – Riyaz-us-Salatin (published 1788).

The year was still CE 1487-88. The first Habesha Sultan of Bengal lay dead and deposed. That year saw two successive Shahs of the Bengal Sultanate meet similar ends – the first being a Turkic one and the second a Habesha person.

The news of Khoja Barik alias Ghiyasuddin Barbak Shah’s death spread far and wide like wildfire in rain-bereft storm. The dead king’s supporters went in hiding. Malik Andril requested Wazir Khan Jahan, the minister to the thus-dethroned and murdered Sultan, to take charge. A royal durbar sat in motion. It was proposed that the son of Jalaluddin Fateh Shah be crowned as the new monarch, thereby restoring the Turkic Iliyas Shahi Sultanate of Bengal. However, the said progeny was only 2 years old at that time. Crowing him as the monarch might have led to further rebellions. So, this child’s mother – the widowed queen of Shah – suggested that Malik Andril be made the Shah instead – given that he had avenged Jalaluddin Fateh Shah’s death. In this way, in CE 1487-88, Malik Andil became the second Abyssinian Sultan of Bengal.

Malik Andil was initially reluctant to take up on this offer. However, on being thus requested by multiple members of the nobility, he ascended the throne of the Bengal Sultanate. On becoming the Sultan, he chose for himself the regnal title Saifuddin Firoz Shah. He has been noted to have and a kind temperament and charitable disposition. The Habesha Sultan Saifuddin Firoz Shah, during his brief 2-year reign between CE 1487 till CE 1489, had spent a significant amount of the Sultanate’s wealth on charitable causes.

However, this put a strain on the imperial treasury.

About this second Habesha-person Sultan of Bengal, Ghulam Hussain Zaydpuri had written thus:

Sultan Saifuddin Firuz Shah’s levels of public expenditures, especially in supporting the poor, alarmed many officers and nobles at the court. On one occasion, Sultan Saifuddin Firuz Shah instructed his officers to distribute one lakh rupees to the poor, who disliked the ‘lavishness’ of the new ruler and used to say to one another: “This Abyssinian does not appreciate the value of money which has fallen into his hands, without toil and labour. We ought to set about discovering a means by which he might be taught the value of money, and to withhold his hands from useless extravagance and lavishness.” They laid out one lakh rupees in a place for the king to see for himself what one lakh looks like so that he can learn the value of money. But when the king saw the money, he said: “How can this amount suffice? Add another lakh to it.”[xi]

Habeshi Sultan Saifuddin Firoz Shah (reign: 1487-1489) had a large number of architectural wonders built within his brief 2-year rule as the second Habeshi Shah of the Bengal Sultanate. This includes the famed Firoz Minar of Gaud/ Gourh – named after the Shah himself. This is presently located in district Malda, West Bengal. The local people also call it Chiradgdaani. According to Rajanikanta Chakrabarty’s Gourh-er Itihash (History of Gourh, published 1999), the local Hindu people identify this eponymous monument built by the second Habesha monarch of the Bengal Sultanate as Pir Asha Temple. Some say Azan would be once be offered at the top of the Minar. British historians identify the Firoz Minar as a monument commemorative of victory – similar to the Qutb Minar.

The great Rakhaldas Bandypadhyay (1885-1930) writes how among all the architectural endeavours that happened in Bengal under Firoz Shah, only the Firoz Minar survives. When Henry Creighton (1764-1807) visited Gaud/ Gourh towards the end of the 18th century, there used to be a dome on top of it. But when the painter William Daniell (1769–1837) went there in CE 1705, the dome had broken away.

Sultan Firoz Shah, the second Habesha-origin ruler of eastern subcontinent, was also indubitably the finest African-origin Sultan that these parts of the world have seen. He had the largest number of architectural masterpieces built – all of which, save one, have been lost to the vagarious of time, history and human carelessness.

After the death of Firoz Shah, his infant son Mahmud Shah – II (reigned: CE 1489–1490) ascended the throne of Bengal. The Wazir or royal minister of the durbar – Habsh Khan, was the infant Sultan’s regent and the de facto ruler of the Sultanate. During this time, another Habesha person Siddi-Badr[xii] was consolidating his power. Siddi-Badr had also once been brought to Bengal as a slave. However, by the time of Firoz Shah’s ascendancy and death, he had rid himself off the yoke of slavery and had risen rapidly through the ranks as a Diwan or a minister in the court of the Sultanate. Minister Siddi-Badr killed Minister Habsh Khan under the pretext of ridding the young Shah from the latter-named Wazir’s influence.

Siddi-Badr did not stop there. Before long, he exerted influence over all the other noblemen and the standing army to turn them into his lackey. Next up, one night, he entered Sultan Mahmud Shah – II’s bedroom and killed the Sultan. The very next day, he ascended the throne of the Bengal Sultanate and fashioned for himself with the regnal name: Sultan Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah (reigned: 1490-1494).

About this episode, the first Mughal Emperor Babur (ruled: CE 1526–1530) mentions the following in his much-celebrated autobiography Baburnama in the following fashion:

Before the father of Nasrat Shah[xiii] had ascended the throne, a Habesha person had killed the Sultan under whom he used to serve and lorded over Bengal for a while.

Siddi-Badr a.k.a. Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah was the last and longest serving African-origin Shah of the mediaeval Bengal Sultanate. He has been noted far and wide to be tyrannical in nature. However, the tales of his tyranny have stemmed from the fact that he would mobilise the royal army to loot from the wealthy upper-caste Hindu and ashraf-Muslim traders of his times.

Rajanikanta Chakrabarty writes how, during the rule of the Habesha peoples, folks at Gourh/ Gaud were angered by their power and presence.

As a result, other aristocrats from the feudal gentry of mediaeval Bengal had begun to plot against the ruling African-origin Sultans. The Ashraf Turko-Afghan-origin families mobilized under an Asharf-origin Minister of African-origin Sultan Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah. They united under secret leadership of this minister – a Syed–person named Hussain.

Hussain Shareef eventually ensured that the last African-origin Sultan of mediaeval Bengal was confined to his fortress. For all intents and purposes, it was a situation of house-arrest. Tensions were simmering all around.

The Sultan, despite being practically confined to his fortress, could still manage to mobilise 7000 African-origin soldiers who marched out of the Gourh/ Gaud fortress against his rebelling minister Syed Hussain Shareef’s army. War ensued. Some say Sultan Shamsuddin Muzaffar Shah of Bengal had fallen in the battle for Gourh/ Gaud. Some see that the defeated Sultan was finally executed. The rebel-army of Hussain Shareef had won. The year was CE 1494.

Four Sultans and seven years down the line, the African-origin Sultans of mediaeval Bengal ended. The victorious rebel-minister, Syed Hussain Shareef, ascended the throne of the mediaeval Bengal Sultanate at its seat of power in Gourh/ Gauda Gourh under the regnal title Alauddin Hussain Shah (reigned: CE 1494 – 1519) to initiate the famed Hussain Shahi dynasty of Bengal which held sway from CE 1494 till CE 1538 until Bengal was finally conquered by the great Sher Shah (ruled: 17 May 1540 – 22 May 1545) of the Suri Empire. But that tale is for another breeze-caressed night like this.

In this way, in CE 1494, the seven-year tumultuous reign of the four successive African origin Sultans of mediaeval Bengal were over.

As it stands, it was not just the last African-origin Sultan who had fallen in the Battle for Gourh/ Gaud that had raged in CE 1494. Many Habesha persons had fallen in that battle. The great Zaydpuri, in his Riyaz-us-Salatin, penned and published a shy off three centuries after this war had been fought, notes a total of 20,000 casualties from both the warring factions taken together.

The Battle for Gourh between the Habesha peoples and Ashrafi peoples that had raged in 1494 is definitely a turning point of Bengal’s history. Hussain Shareef also had active support from the savarna­-Hindu landholders[xiv]. As a result, royal posts, titles, ranks and lands were promptly and violently snatched from the remaining Habesha-people of Bengal. Their status as kings and kingmakers reduced drastically and faded, like an edifice built on quicksand.

Though I, the translator, have used the figure-of-speech ‘overnight’ above. Mr. Al Hasan, creator of this original sharply researched piece in Bangla, narrates how the few days and weeks after this watershed-battle for dominance over the Gourh/Gauda-seated early-mediaeval Bangla Sultanate were rife in bloodshed.

Hussain Shah, on ascending the throne in CE 1494, had ordered swift assassination of all the African-origin freemen and landholders in close contact with the Gourh/Gauda-based Bengal Sultanate. Cornered, the Habesha-persons rose and fell in a nipped-at-bud attempt and rebellion – leading to further widespread violence.

Around 12,000 people died. But Syed Hussain Shah benefitted out of this violence in two ways:

Firstly, the Habesha-people lost their power, influence and proximity in relation to the regency. This widespread carnage was managed by him in such a manner that quelled any possibility of any future disturbance on this front for the Hussain Shahi Sultanate of Bengal. Alongside the prompt executions though this blitz-attack on the Habesha rulers and their supporters – being other Habesha freemen owing land and persons, Hussain Shah had also de-established the Habesha-army and removed all Habesha-persons from royal posts. He then ensured that those posts get filled by caste-Hindu landlords.[xv]

The rule of the African origin freemen Sultans of Bengal was too short and too tumultuous for any economic development of Bengal. On the other hand, Sultan Saifuddin Firoz Shah (reigned: CE 1487-1489), had nearly emptied out the treasury through his architectural-establishments commissioning-spree.

Sultan Hussain Shah (reigned: CE 1494 – 1519) is widely regarded as one of the greatest Sultans of Bengal. During the rule of the Habesha-person Sultans, the historical Vaishnava-worship site of Nabadwip had become almost deserted. A sense of peace and security that followed this bloodbath and mass-disenfranchisement enabled the formation of a pre-classically Bangali syncretic ambience wherein flourished Sri Chaitanya, – the said bhakti-movement guru being the most celebrated godman in the history of Gourh/ Gauda.

The last quarter of the 15th century CE/AD was, for all intents and purposes, the period when the rule of the Afro-Sultans of Bengal held sway. They would be bought and brought to Bengal from Africa, primarily from the Abyssinia of yore, by the late Iliyas Shahi Sultans of the mediaeval Gourh/ Gauda Sultanate of Bengal. They would be put to tasks of labour and warfare.

But Islamic Slavery, unlike its Christian counterpart, had always enabled the scope for such persons to redeem their dignity in the eyes of their masters as Malik or freemen. The arche of the empowered feudal gentry of medieval Bengal under the Iliyas Shahi Sultanate would allow sufficient mobility to the Habshi Sidi Malik-s to own land and other people – to use such people to raise standing armies, engage such slaves procured this flourishing industry of international cross-border human trafficking as farmers, artisans and artists of the mediaeval ‘exclusively-cottage’ industry within their fiefdom. Soon, the Habesha-person Malik-s they had begun to become experts in matters of governance, administration, bureaucracy and politics.

But this hegemony did not last long enough for the seven-year rule of the Afro-Sultans and landlords of medieval Bengal to have a lasting social impact on the lived everyday histories of the people of Bengal at large. Because, in terms of numbers, the Habesha freemen of medieaval Gourh/ Gauda were a miniscule minority of the society. They would live as close-knit communities in and around Gourh/ Gauda since the end of the 15th Century AD.

The Gourh of ancient and medieval history encompassed a kingdom and Sultanate stretching across the following modern day administrative jurisdictions, a.ka., districts, of West Bengal and Bangladesh – Malda, Murshidabad, Rajshahi, Ch(n)apai-Nawabganj. In time, the Habesha peoples of Bengal, thus disempowered, took to agriculture en masse. In time, this stream of a community mingled with those of the many communities that we still have in Bengal today.

Soon, the male among the Habesha clans and communities of medieval Bengal ended endogamy. Three mediaeval Farsi-language hagiographies narrate the history of the turbulent rule of the Habesha-person Sultans of Bengal. There are: Riyaz-us-Salatin (published: CE 1788), Maasir Raheemi (published: CE 1616) and the much-celebrated Tarikh-i Firishta (published CE 1612). These mediaeval compilations would count and note the years following the Hijri-calendar and not in CE/ AD. These annals and antiquities record how the Habesha freemen’s rule over the Gourh/ Gaud Sultanate of yore began in A.H. 893 and ended in A.H. 898.

A little bit of our story still remains. A flow of Habesha people and their communities continued through their lives – lived, down the stream of the Middle Ages arrive. The (proto-) Modern a.k.a. colonial era was knocking at the doors of history. Cavalry-men and the countless gallant Telanga-persons soldiers clad in red uniforms of the redcoat-battalions of 18th CE Bengal commandeered by Robert Clive were being moulded by the invisible hand of time and history to clash against the Paik-s, and Laskar-s of Meer Madan, Mohun Lal, the great last Nawab of independent and united mediaeval Bengal a.k.a Siraj, at the mango-garden by the river Bhagirathi as it flows through Plassey.

Around this time, a caste-Hindu king who had sided with the East India Company forces named Raja Krishna Chandra Ray (reigned: CE 1728 – 1783) of Krishnangar, located in the modern-day district of Nadia alias Nabadwip, Bengal, had deployed royal employees from the Habshi people. They were engaged by many aristocratic families of the medieval post Hussain Shahi feudal gentry of Bengal as it then were, under the successive sways of the broader Suri and Mughal Empires and the 18th century Nawab-s with their seat at Murshidabad.

The Hindu Raja for the better part of the 18th century AD Krishnanagar had a celebrated court poet named Bharat Chandra ‘Ray Gunakor’ (lived: CE 1712-1780). Bharat Chandra’s widely appreciated literary magnum opus Annada-mongol Kabyo was written between CE 1752-53[xvi]. This Song of Benediction – the last of the 4 primary Mongol-Kabyos heralding the veritable dropscene over the six century long literary tradition of Bengali Mongol-kabyo-s – mentions a Habesha-person – “Habshi Imam Bux” – as one of the highest-ranking royal employees of Raja Krishna Chandra Ray’s royal court at Krishnanagar.

The Hebesha peoples would be bought and brought as slaves in Bengal by the early Sultans of the Gourh/ Gaud Sultanate from the shorelines of faraway Africa. Seven of them ended up as the Sultans of the Gourh/Gaud-Shahi of late-15th century CE Bengal. This is not just a flash in the history of the “Golden Gourh” for which mystical minstrels from rural Bengal sigh and yearn for. The seven-year rule of the African Sultans over the medieval Sultanate of the Gourh-Shahi of yore lost to the times and tides of history was indeed a unique one in the mediaeval power-political history of Bengal in all its feudal hegemonies that are a trademark of the Middle Ages.

Sources as cited by the original author:

  1. Bangla-ey African Obhibashi, Akhtar-uddin Manik, Adorn Publications, Dacca, 2013 (pp. 13-15, 53-54, 108-112)
  2. Bangla-r Itihashe Dusho Bochhor – Shwadeen Sultan-der Aamol (1338-1538), Sukhomay Mukhopadhyay, Dibyo Prokash, Dacca, 2015 (pp. 123-125)
  3. Bangla-r Itihash Sultani Aamol, Abdul Karim, Jatoyo Shahityo Prokash, Dacca, 2007 (pp. 91-92)

About the Author: Al Hasan is a prolific writer of sharply analytical pieces in Bangla – mostly on various interesting historical topics with key insights on social, cultural, political and economic aspects of such histories. The original Bangla piece was published by him through his personal Facebook ™ profile on 17th July 2021

About the Translator: Atindriyo Chakrabarty – The translator has a keen interest on working for the cultural front of the great Lokayata that lords over our collective-unconscious in the endless war against injustice. He took the author’s permission to translate on the same date and completes this work now, on the date of 22.07.2021.

[i] Translator’s Note 1: Though the Arakan Valley largely falls within the modern-day Rakhine-states of Myanmar, historically, Chattogram and other adjacent areas of coastal Bangladesh of today have often fallen within jurisdictional sway of Arakan Valley rulers and dynasties of yore.

[ii] Translator’s Note 2: The Ranbye Island is in the modern-day Rakhine State, Rakhine, Myanmar

[iii] Translator’s Note 3: The generic term ‘Habsha’ has been used in Arabic and Farsi Islamic scriptures and secular sources since before the First Hegira (613-615 CE). The Latin equivalent to ‘Habasha’ had evolved into the term ‘Abyssinia’. The Axum empire of ancient Ethiopia was well known to the scholars from the Middle Eastern and Southern European antiquities alike. Indigenous naturism, ancient Semitic polytheism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam had their influences throughout Ethiopia’s ancient, medieval, colonial and post-colonial histories. Through the medieval ages, the term ‘Habshi’ had spread across the Indian subcontinent to denote all African or African-origin persons. Even today, just like the racist minded uncles out here do not bat an eyelid to use the N-word to refer to African or African origin people, their racist minded granduncles use this H-word to denote such persons.

[iv] Translator’s Note 4: By ‘Ethiopian’ here, it is not the ancestors of the citizens of the modern-day nation-state Ethiopia but those of the historical Ethiopia/ Abyssinia/ Habesha region comprising of the North/ North-Eastern African countries of Ethiopia, Eritrea and Sudan who have been denoted. In vernacular text, ‘Habshi’ is still the accepted nomenclature bearing the same connotation.

[v] Translators Note 5: It is true that the caste-system and its forms of slavery were pretty much prevalent in pre-Islamic subcontinent. Even the brand of Buddhism prevalent in the Pala era of late-ancient subcontinent had begun to get coopted by Brahminical ideals – as contemporary literature from those eras like Sandhyakara Nandy’s Ramcharit (penned in early 12th century AD, less than a century before Bakhtiyar’s conquest), as well as exploits of historical god-men i.e., spiritual gurus and Brahminical guru-lineages like those of Saraswat Gaudapadacharya, his disciple Govinda Bhagvatpadacharya and his disciple, the famed Adi Shankara (788-820 CE) reveals.

However, when the Islamic sultanate was spreading over Bengal, the caste system had begun to make inroads into the societies governed by Islamic tenets in the form of a racial bias in favour of those among the Muslim families and communities who claimed descendance from persons of Middle-Eastern stock as against those who were converted from the Dalit castes, indigenous tribes and/ or Buddhism. However, the open and direct form of slavery, with African people as the victims and survivors, had barely entered Bengal through Islamic-Middle-Eastern practices of slave-trade before it did, once again and a few centuries down the line, through the Christian-European brand of human enslavement for commercial gain.

[vi] Translator’s Note 6: Charles Stewart being a white Britisher from the 18th-19th centuries AD, it is no wonder that he refers to the Habeshi people whom Sultan Ruknuddin Barbak Shah had employed in high offices with the N-word.

[vii] Translator’s Note 7: Charles Stewarts work on this reveals how the Habesha peoples’ settlements in Bengal and the Sidi communities of Gujarat, Maharashtra and the Deccan developed through the Middle Ages. The words Sidi, Habshi and Habesha denote by and large the same ethnicities in the subcontinental context– persons of Abyssinian/ African/ classical Ethiopian ancestry

[viii] Translator’s Note 8: If you must know why historians need to ‘blame’ someone for facilitating an African peoples’ lineage to attain suzerainty over mediaeval Bengal, pray read through the subtexts of a few millennia of approaching history that the mainstream human civilization has facilitated.

[ix] Translator’s Note 9: The term ‘Khoja’ added before his name indicates that Barik was castrated as a slave to the Sultan

[x] Translator’s Note 10: Gauda/ Gourh, alias Lakhnauti alias Lakshmanavati alias Jannatabad one of the most prominent seats of power in Bengal in the first half of of the last millennium. By the 15th Century CE/AD, it had become one of the most populated and prosperous urban centers not only of the Indian subcontinent but of the world

[xi] Translator’s Note 11: The portion within quotes was given in its English translated version from Ghulam Husain Salim ‘Zaydpuri’’s Farsi hagiography by the original author of this piece

[xii] Translator’s Note 12: The prefix ‘Sidi’ before the name of this medieval Habesha-origin Dewan Badar indicates his origin. Throughout the Indian subcontinent, the words Sidi and Habshi indicates the same Habesha ethnicity

[xiii] Translator’s Note 13: Nasiruddin Nasrat Shah (reigned: CE 1519 – 1533) – a contemporary to the Mughal Emperor Babur, was the son and successor of Alauddin Hussain Shah (reigned: CE 1494 – 1519)

[xiv] Translator’s Note 14: This race-alliance was to shape United Bengal’s history for the next very many centuries. As it still does.

[xv] Translator’s Note 15: This perhaps also indicates a source of Sultan Hussain Shah’s historical image as a tolerant Shah of the Gourh/ Gauda Sultanate of medieval Bengal

[xvi] Translator’s Note 16: The proto-modern Bangla text in long-verse format and then-prevalent Oriental meter-schemes as were popular in the 18th century AD of Bengal belongs to the Bengali mediaeval literary traditions as the last masterpiece or the last of the 4 Major Medieval Mongol-Kabyo a.k.a, “Songs of Benediction” – the earliest of which – Dhormo-mongol Kabyo was penned in the 12 Century CE and the last of which was this Annoda-mongol Kabyo of Bengal’s beloved 18th CE romantic court-poet Ray Gunakor Kobi Bharat Chandra, quilled out between the Common Era (CE)/ Anno Domini (AD) years 1752 and 173

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