Saturday, June 22, 2013

Remnants of the African Slave Trade in India 
Candles are lit and a cigars offered to 'Kappiri muthappan' at a shrine at Mangattumukku at Mattancherry. Photo: H. Vibhu

As reported in The Hindu,"Once a slave, now a deity, by Nidhi Surendranath, on 17 June 2013  -- Candles are lit and a cigars offered to 'Kappiri muthappan' at a shrine at Mangattumukku at Mattancherry. Photo: H. Vibhu
The Hindu At a shrine for 'Kappiri Muthappan' at Mangattumukku at Mattancherry. Photo: H. Vibhu

Kappiri Muthappan, believed to be a slave of the Portuguese traders, is worshipped in Mattancherry

The small shrine at Mangattumukku in Mattancherry bears no religious markings, idols, or symbols. It consists of a simple platform built onto an adjacent compound wall and a tiled roof covering it. Yet, people visit this shrine every day to light candles, offer flowers, cigars, tender coconuts, and even toddy to the ‘deity’ unique to Kochi – ‘Kappiri Muthappan.’

“‘Kappiri’ is the local slang for African slaves shipped to Kerala in the 16 century by the Portuguese. The name is a corruption of the word ‘kafir,’ meaning non-believer, which is what Arab travellers called the people of Africa,” said historian M.G.S Narayanan.

Brought to Kerala as slaves, kappiris were kept in inhuman conditions in dungeons or small cellars. “Kochi was a centre for slave trade in the 16 century,” he said. The legend goes that when the Dutch pushed the Portuguese out of parts of Kerala in the 17 century, Portuguese traders buried their riches under large trees and sacrificed their African slaves so their ghosts would be around to guard the treasure. Kochiites believe that these ghosts still linger to protect the lost treasures of the Portuguese. Today, the ‘kappiri’ is a benign spirit or deity who smokes cigars, drinks toddy, and helps lost travellers.

“An old uncle of mine used to say that Kappiri Muthappan showed him the way home when he was a boy and he had gotten lost,” says Blaze, who runs a tailoring shop close to the shrine to the spirit at Mattancherry. Blaze says several large trees, especially mango trees, in the area were believed to be inhabited by the Kappiri. Most of these old trees have been cut or have fallen dead. “A kappiri mango tree was present at a house nearby. They cut it off a few years ago. Many bad things happened when they tried to cut it. The large rope broke off and someone was injured too,” says Blaze. 

Many people here are firm believers in the powers of the Kappiri. They also claim to have seen a ghost-like figure of the kappiri at night and the light from the cigar he smokes. Some have seen him sitting on walls drinking toddy and humming a tune. Even the police have been called in on occasion to investigate the Kappiri. A policeman from Mattancherry remembers a case a couple of years ago when they caught a youngster trying to scare local people by pretending to be the ghost of the Kappiri. “We don’t get any such complaints these days,” he says.

Religion and modernity have not dulled the local people’s faith in Kappiri Muthappan. Those who believe in his powers still make offerings so that he may cure a loved one of some illness, or bring better fortune. 
The Indian Ocean African Slave Trade

“African slaves were treated very badly here, just like everywhere else. I remember stories about how people here found a skeleton when they broke down the wall of a house,” says K.J. Sohan, former city Mayor and State convener of The Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage. “Today, the Kappiri is a deity worshipped by people of every religion.

Not much remains in Fort Kochi and Mattancherry to remind people of the African slaves who once lived here, though there are plenty of structures in memory of the Portuguese and Dutch slave owners. Dungeons used to hold slaves have now been broken down or converted into new housing. They left no buildings or plaques to indicate their presence in Kochi. What the slaves did leave behind are stories of their powers that give them a special place in Kochi, long after their masters left the land. (source: The Hindu)


  1. Ron, now that you've posted on blacks in India I hope you'll go further and explore this theme further. These links might be useful:

    1. Oh man, I know SO LITTLE about the African slave trade in India. I ran across this article serendipitously. Hindi is such a foreign language to me...I can't read it, I can't pronounce it, I can't understand it, I can't even pick-out any words. Why is that important? Well, I try to research primary source materials BEFORE I post an article to verify the historical accuracy of said material. This story seemed to pass the smell test, so to speak. In that, other sources corroborated the central premise of this story.

      A plethora of stories exist that connect the East Indian diaspora to the plantations in the Caribbean as well as in the former Confederate states. As far as I can tell, the East Indians did not directly import African slaves, rather it was the Portuguese that brought the Africans to India. Again, I don't know enough of this history to assess the trafficking correctly.

      Thanks for your comments and the links. The links just whets my appetite for more information. This topic needs more research for me to feel comfortable. I'll continue to research on Africans in India.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  2. Ron, The only "Indian" language you need to know is English. The last link I provided you is as authoritative as you get since it's from the premier institution on black culture. Here's a sample: Bengal and Deccan

    Several kings in Bengal, in east India, secured enslaved African soldiers to protect and expand their kingdoms. From 1460 to 1481, the sultan of Bengal, Rukn al-Din Barbak Shah, had 8,000 Africans in his army, some of whom held high command. Another king, Habesh Khan, was overthrown in 1490 by one of his African guardsmen, Sidi Badr, who seized the throne for himself and ruled for three years as Shams-ud-din Abu Nasr Musaffar Shah. Five thousand of his 30,000 soldiers were Habshi. Sidi Badr was overthrown, and Africans in Bengal, especially those in high command, were expelled, as they were then seen as posing a threat to indigenous Indian rulers. Many of these Africans, both rank-and-file soldiers and commanders with experience, went either to the five Muslim sultanates of the Deccan or to Gujarat, where local rulers employed them as mercenaries—continuing the military contributions of Africans in India.

    Malik Ambar, who became famous in the Deccan, is the best known of the Africans who seized power in India. With several surviving paintings of him accompanied by written documentation, his story is among the most detailed of the historical Habshis. Born in southern Ethiopia in the mid-16th century, Ambar was enslaved as a young man and taken to Mocha in Yemen, where he converted to Islam. Noted for his intellectual abilities, he was educated in finance and administration by his owners in western Arabia before being taken to Baghdad and then arriving in central India's Deccan.

    Ambar's recognized abilities brought him increasing responsibilities, including military authority. Under the minister of the king of Ahmadnagar, Ambar commanded both Indian and Habshi soldiers. By the turn of the 17th century, however, he rebelled and formed his own army of 150 men, which he eventually grew to 10,000 cavalry and infantrymen, many of whom were Africans. In 1610, an English merchant, William Finch, writing from near Ahmadnagar (where Ambar had become peshwa, or regent minister), noted that the Habshi general commanded "some ten thousand of his own [caste], all brave souldiers, and som[e] forty thousand Deccanees." The runaway had become a mercenary general with a mobile armed force. Over the next two decades he fought for various rulers in the Deccan and fended off the incursions of the Mughal emperor Akbar and his successor Jahangir, each of whom attempted but failed to take control of the region.

    By 1616 Ambar not only commanded a powerful cavalry force that used British artillery, but was successfully cutting off Mughal supply lines through his naval alliance with the Siddi rulers of Janjira. Over the course of his campaigns against the Mughals, he continued to infuse his army with Habshi soldiers, whom he trained, provided with an education in the Quran, and used for his private guard.

    1. Touche! You make a strong argument. I'm just saying that my expertise lies in slavery in the Americas, specifically North America, hence the name "US Slave" ... I'm not pooh, poohing your argument down the toilet of life, I just need to do more research to get my arms around this topic.

      Since this is an EDUCATIONAL BLOG, I'll need to self-educate on India's relationship with Africa as it relates to slavery. It's fascinating history, I just need do more reading and research. Albeit, you do make a compelling argument for more postings on this subject.

      Thanks again.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  3. Slavery in the Americas is a part of slavery in Asia and Africa. the following links should be of interest to you. and a youtube trailer for the book:

    1. Of course, slavery in Africa and Asia are of interest to me. That's not the point. The purpose of this blog is for education. Now, what do I mean exactly by education. I'm from the Ira Berlin school of history, that is history as ARGUMENT. But, in order to understand the ARGUMENT, one needs to be EDUCATED by looping the thread of African American enslavement back through the woof and weave of the American tapestry.

      Unfortunately, most Americans don't know jack about our collective history. All of the stories that are posted are meant to enlarge the historical narrative. You can connect the historic dots and draw straight lines from the introduction of tobacco in Virginia, to the importation of African slaves, to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Robert E. Lee, to the American Tobacco Company, to Lorillard Tobacco Company of Greensboro, North Carolina (manufacturer of Newport Cigarettes), to the university system of Glasgow (Scotland), Cambridge University (UK), the founding of the University of Virginia, the US Tobacco Barons that built Washington, DC, the surplus tobacco slaves that were sold to the emerging Cotton Kingdom of Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas.

      You see, with just one commodity like tobacco and one geographical location like Virginia we can illuminate the founding of America and the amassing of America's wealth. Not so much with China and India. Perhaps I could repost more about the whole India grown Opium with respect to the Qing Dynasty and the British Opium Wars with China and our American drug problem that separates black Americans from their freedom, sanity, money and citizenship. America jails more black men today, than America enslaved --mostly due to Afghanistan grown heroin and Columbia grown cocaine.

      There are plenty of angles to interject India and China in the discussion of American slavery. Black Americans are catching hell and we just need to connect the dots to find the origin of the oppression. It lies hidden in plain sight, just scratch the surface and a slave generally falls out.

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog

  4. The tie you make between the drug trade and slavery is interesting and should be pursued.

    1. Oh man, I could write a book or a Ph.D. dissertation on the whole drug war thing. Unfortunately, the readership of this blog doesn't seem to care much about this topic. The pageviews for drug blog posts are in the double digits at best, which contrasts wildly with the blog posts on the chamber of tortures. ANY blog post on tortures has over ten thousand pageviews on the low end, or over one-hundred thousand pageviews on the upper end. I don't even know why this phenomenon exists, but it does. Each and every week, tortures represent over half of this blogs traffic.

      Before I go off too deeply into a torture tangent, here's a sample of the blog posts on drugs:

      "Opiate Addiction and Cocaine Use in the South, 1860-1920" --

      "Guns Slaves and Drugs" --

      "East India Opium Trade" --

      "The Dopeman in Afghanistan" --

      --Ron Edwards, US Slave Blog


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