United Nations, Feb 15: Africans came to India as early as the 13th century as soldiers and there was no prejudice against them at that time.
They intermarried with local women, daughters of rulers and notables, and rose to become princes and generals in an era of slavery in America.
Their unique global saga will be on display Wednesday at the UN General Assembly building in an exhibition on Africans in India.
The contrast is striking between Africans taken in chains to the Americas to toil in plantations and those who were brought to India to fight as soldiers -- opening the way for their rise through the ranks to eventually becoming free and reaching positions of power.
"It is very different from what we see in the Atlantic world," said Sylviane A. Diouf, the director of the Lapidus Center for the Historical Analysis of Transatlantic Slavery in New York. She is the curator of the exhibition.
"At least at that time we cannot see any strong prejudice in India," she said of the African experience. "When we look at the high positions of some of the Africans, whether as rulers, as prime ministers, as generals etc., you can see that although they were foreign, they were black, they were of a different religion that did not prevent them from obtaining high positions."
"They also intermarried with local women, daughters of rulers and notables," she added. "There again we can see the absence of prejudice."
It is also a contrast to contemporary India, where Africans have come under physical and verbal attacks from politicians and thugs.
The exhibition is co-sponsored by the Indian Mission to the UN and the UN's Department of Public Information in association with the Schomburg Center. Along with Diouf, the exhibition is co-curated by Kenneth X.Robbins, an art collector, expert in the history of Africans in India and co-editor of "Africans Elites in India: Habshi Amarat".
The exhibition features reproductions of paintings of the remarkable Africans who attained positions of power and influence. They were collected from museums and private collections in India, Europe and the United States, and photographs of the monuments, forts and palaces they built.
The Africans brought to India were from the eastern part of the continent and were known as Habshis or Abyssinians and Sidhis. They went across India, to Bengal in the east to Gujarat in the west and to Delhi in the north to the Deccan in the south over centuries.
One of the first of the notables was a 13th century Abyssinian named Jalal-ud-din Yakut who rose from a job in the royal stable to become the political ally of Sultana Raziya of Delhi as she fought her brother for the throne willed to her by their father, the Turkish ruler Iltutmish. After a four-year rule Raziya and Yakut were killed in battle.
Another remarkable figure is Malik Ambar, an Abyssinian who was brought to the Deccan and in the 17th century rose to become the regent of the Nizamshahi dynasty of Ahmednagar. His portrait figures in the exhibition.
The portraits in the exhibition include Ikhlas Khan, another Abyssinian who was the regent of the Deccan sultanate of Bijapur in the 16th century.
In Gujarat, the princely state of Sachin founded by African Sufi Sidis held its own into the 20th century when it was incorporated into an independent India. A portrait of the last ruler of the princely state, Sidi Haider Khan, is included in the exhibition.
Diouf ascribes the meteoric slave-to-prince ascendancy to a "fluidity between freedom and enslavement" in the system and their military role.
In those times "Muslim armies throughout the world were made of free and enslaved men," Diouf said. "Africans were good soldiers and so they incorporated them into their armies, whether in India or in the Middle East. Then those soldiers who were enslaved could be generals and still be enslaved and then they would get their freedom."
Their alien status also worked in their favour. "The rulers put Africans in charge of the administration, the army etc. because they trusted them better than the local people," Diouf said. "The people who came from overseas had no family and no clan relations to anybody there and so the idea they were more loyal to the rulers than others."
Under the Portuguese, India also witnessed the brutal type of slavery found in the Americas. The slavery practised by the Portuguese "was more like the Atlantic one," Diouf said.
"So the slaves who were brought by the Portuguese would run away and live in the forest and in the mountains. And others would run away to the Muslim areas because they could become free and could also rise through the ranks."
The pictures in the exhibit and others of the African diaspora in India can be seen at An overview of the exhibition can be downloaded free on ibooks.