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In the 1670s, when the Maratha hero Shivaji commissioned Kavindra Paramananda to produce his epic Sivabharata, extraordinary praise was reserved in its verses for a dead Muslim warrior called Malik Ambar. Shivaji’s father Shahaji, like his grandfather Maloji, had been a close lieutenant of this man, so much so that in a battle scene, we read how, “As Kartikeya the gods protected in his battle with Taraka, so did Shahaji and other rajas gather around Malik Ambar." The general was not only “as brave as the sun" and “wondrous in power", according to Shivaji’s poet, but also a “man of most-terrible deeds", before whom enemies quaked in fear. What is not highlighted in this eulogy, however, is another striking detail—that Malik Ambar, who even in death was “like a brilliant setting sun", was originally a slave, born in Africa.

Though largely forgotten now, African presence in India, in itself, was not unusual. In the 14th century, the traveller Ibn Batuta recorded how they were “guarantors of safety" for ships that plied the Arabian Sea, with reputations so fierce that “let there be but one of them on a ship and it will be avoided by…pirates". In the 1230s, queen Raziya of the Delhi Sultanate was accused of being closer than acceptable to Yakut, an African confidant—a pretext used to justify her murder. Unknown, perhaps, to many present-day residents of Uttar Pradesh, there existed for decades in the 15th century a near-sovereign state in Jaunpur founded by an African. Even in Bengal, a coup in 1487 by a group of warriors like Malik Ambar led to a short-lived ruling dynasty. Harems in the Deccan featured habshi women—so called after their origins in Abyssinia—and at least two sultans had black begums as consorts.

Ambar, however, remains the greatest of the habshis who made history in India. Born in the 1540s into the Oromo tribe in Ethiopia, he was captured and enslaved when still a boy called Chapu. An Arab bought him for 20 ducats; soon after, in Baghdad, Ambar passed into new hands. Yet another transaction followed, and it was his third master who converted him to Islam, gave him the name he would make famous, and eventually brought him to be sold in India. This buyer in the 1570s—by which time Ambar was a trained warrior—was the peshwa, or minister, of the sultan of Ahmadnagar, who too, incidentally, was black. It was the launch of a remarkable career. And by the end of it, our slave-soldier would become king in all but name, thwarting the ambitions of such mighty men as Akbar and Jahangir for decades.

Indeed, for all the respect he commanded among the Marathas, Ambar’s name provoked quite the opposite response from the Mughals. Akbar lambasted him as “arrogant" and “evil-disposed", while Jahangir found this “black-faced", “disastrous" man a distinct nuisance. But it was, seen another way, a back-handed compliment, with the irony that Ambar’s rise was actually catalysed by the Mughal imperial mission. Given his freedom in the late 1570s by his fourth master’s widow, for 20 years Ambar was a warlord who served different rulers in the Deccan with a band of fighters. Mughal invasions into the region in the 1590s, however, altered local dynamics forever—over the following years, as war shred the nobility to pieces, new loyalties were forged. And, from 150 cavalrymen a few years ago, by 1600 Ambar commanded as many as 7,000 men of war who answered his call.

The Mughals took the capital of the Ahmadnagar sultanate, but the wider country around it was still in rebellion. Edging out a rival, Ambar became the leader of the resistance—as he wrote to the sultan of Bijapur once, it was his “design to fight the Mughal troops as long as life remains in this body". Other Deccan princes sent money and resources to Ambar to prevent inroads by Akbar and Jahangir’s armies into their territories, even as the habshi general cemented his own position—not only did he unearth and enthrone a scion of the old line of Ahmadnagar, he also got his daughter married to this puppet sultan. By 1610, he led 10,000 African troops, not to speak of 40,000 others, including, prominently, Marathas such as Shivaji’s grandfather, also establishing a reputation as a devout Muslim.

Interestingly, it was under Ambar that bargigiri—or guerrilla warfare, which Shivaji would later perfect—was first strategically employed against the Mughals. In 1610, in another action that would be repeated by the future king of the Marathas, Ambar swept into the wealthy Mughal port of Surat and relieved it of its riches. He did, of course, also face defeat, and betrayal. But as one chronicler noted, though “sometimes defeated, and sometimes victorious", he “did not cease to oppose" Agra’s emperors. When his puppet sultan began to make inconvenient sounds, he had this son-in-law murdered and replaced with a minor, and while he faced mutiny from his Marathas more than once, in the end the African retained control. As Jahangir wrote with disappointment, “A very little more (effort by the mutineers) would have made an end of this cursed fellow."

Ambar never gave Akbar’s son the satisfaction of conquering the Deccan. Though a painting shows Jahangir taking aim at the habshi’s impaled head, in actual fact Ambar died in supreme military confidence in his fortress, approaching the grand old age of 80. As the Sivabharata laments, however, his “dimwitted son" and successor was not capable of preserving Ambar’s legacy, paving the way for a Mughal triumph. But even in victory, the invaders recognized the formidable talent of the habshi lord, who had died in 1626. Honouring him as an “able man", one chronicle concludes: “History records no other instance of an Abyssinian slave arriving at such eminence." It was high praise indeed, coming as it did from the imperial court, where two generations of emperors revealed nothing but spite for the man called Malik Ambar.

Medium Rare is a column on society, politics and history. Manu S. Pillai is the author of The Ivory Throne (2015)and Rebel Sultans (2018).

He tweets at @unampillai

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