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Reviews of African Identity in Asia: Cultural Effects of Forced Migration

“While it is of the utmost importance that all Americans know the histories and consequences of the transatlantic slave trade, other mass movements out of and into Africa deserve understanding. For millennia, eastern Africa has been connected through trade, military adventurism, proselytism, and slave trades different from the transatlantic with lands across the islands and around the rim of the Indian Ocean, all the way to South Asia and beyond. Afro-Asian histories are interesting unto themselves, but they also provide contrast and focus for study of black Atlantic cultural dynamics. Abyssinia (now Ethiopia/Eritrea/Sudan) once stretched across southern Arabia, and ancient commercial links led to the creation of Afro-Iranian and Afro-Indian communities still recognized by physiognomy, music, and religious innovation. Archaeologists have found Indian artifacts in Ethiopia, and vice versa. The extraordinary exploits of Malik Ambar, a 16th-century Afro-Indian of Abyssinian birth, are still celebrated in military annals. Other Afro-Indians manage the shrines of Bava Gor, a fourteenth-century (?) Sufi saint from the Sudan. Although attempts to unite their tiny, scattered communities are recent and social discrimination against them is acute, the lives of Afro-Asians introduced engagingly and accessibly here by Jayasuriya (Univ. of London) will fascinate US readers. Summing Up: Recommended.”

— Choice

“In African Identity in Asia, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya unites her own pioneering research on sub-Saharan Africans in Asia with a synthesis of scholarly literature to produce a good introduction to an ‘under-recognized migration’ (p. 99). She opens with the coming of Africans to various parts of Asia, as businessmen (from Ethiopians in ancient Sri Lanka to Nigerians in modern Hong Kong), employees of Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonial powers, or families seeking to build new lives in a new country (Falashas in Israel). A greater number arrived as victims of the Indian Ocean slave trade, which was initiated by Arabs in the sixth century CE and expanded after Europeans joined in at the end of the fifteenth. Many Africans, enslaved and free, were soldiers in the slave armies of Muslim monarchs and in European colonial regiments, and Jayasuriya devotes a chapter to African military service in Asia. She notes its function as a vehicle of social mobility, particularly in South Asia (where the African general Malik Ambar was the fiercest opponent of the Mughal emperors at the beginning of the seventeenth century), but also, for example, among Africans in the Dutch army in Indonesia.

“In a chapter on the survival of African musical traditions in the Arab world and South Asia, Jayasuriya convincingly argues that ‘music and dance are among the best indicators of an African legacy’ in Asia (p. 81). Not only that, Africans have contributed elements of their ancestral musical traditions to their Asian host societies, and one of the book’s goals is to highlight African Asians’ role as ‘cultural brokers between continents’ (p. xi).

“Jayasuriya is a linguist by training, and unsurprisingly, African Identity in Asia includes a chapter on language. Whether they arrived as slaves or freemen, Africans in Asia usually lost their own languages, although the lyrics of songs sung by their descendants sometimes include words that originated in Africa. Jayasuriya analyzes a list of ‘African’ words that Sir Richard Burton collected from men of African origin in Sindh (now the southeastern part of Pakistan). She identifies them as Swahili, and is unquestionably correct in the vast majority of cases (although babaya, for ‘father,’ and banduk, for ‘musket,’ could just as easily come from Persian or Urdu as from Swahili; and Burton’s p’hani, ‘sea,’ may represent parti, the common North Indian word for water, rather than Jayasuriya’s Swahili pwani, or “beach”). This is significant because Swahili would not have been the first language of Africans in Sindh, but Jayasuriya reminds us that as a lingua franca, it would have been initially used in Sindh when East Africans of different origins needed to communicate with each other. Then, they and their descendants continued to use some Swahili vocabulary even after they adopted Sindhi.

“A comparison of the experiences of Africans in Asia and in the Americas reveals both similarities and differences. Sometimes, Jayasuriya exaggerates the contrast. Thus, while the great majority of African slaves in the Western Hemisphere did indeed labor on plantations or in mines, many performed service-related functions that she suggests were confined to Asia (pp. 3, 11, 16). It is undeniable, however, that slaves in the Indian Ocean world often enjoyed more rights than their counterparts in the New World, as well as more opportunities to attain positions of leadership. Moreover, it could be easier for Africans to assimilate into host societies in Asia than in America. Indeed, largely because of the extent of assimilation, there is a debate as to whether the term ‘diaspora’ is even applicable to African Asian communities.

“Slips are inevitable in a book that covers so much ground. There is repetitiveness, as on pages 74 and 75, where two almost identical passages describe the fate of African soldiers in Sri Lanka after the Dutch conquest. Jayasuriya frequently elides the terms ‘African’ and ‘slave’ (e.g., pp. 33,42,138-39), even though elsewhere she makes it clear that not all Africans arrived in Asia as slaves, and of course most slaves in Asia were not Africans. Non-Asian scholars who have learned Asian languages will not agree that ‘Asians have an advantage in writing the story of African migrants because they have the necessary communication skills to interact with contemporary Afro-Asian communities’ (p. 9). Some readers may be uncomfortable with Jayasuriya’s support for the Indian government’s attempts to capitalize on African Indians’ supposed innate athletic ability by recruiting them for sports teams (pp. 112, 135-36), or her assertion that ‘Afro-Asians have not changed their sense of rhythm’ (p. 134).

“But these do not detract from the value of African Identity in Asia. Academics and laypersons alike will thank Jayasuriya for this fine contribution to what is still a new area of investigation, and they will also second her call for further study of Africans in Asia.”

— The Journal of Asian Studies

“African migration is intertwined with a number of issues: slavery, slave trading, integration, social mobility, assimilation, marriage, miscegenation, religious conversion, colonization, decolonization, self-expression, ethnic and cultural identities.

“Continuing our look at east Africa we explore links with Asia in African Identity in Asia: Cultural Effects of Forced Migration by Dr Shihan De Silva Jarasuriya of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London. While the western hemisphere African enslavement holocaust is much documented (and even celebrated by some) there is still much work to be done on the African diaspora in Asia, the Indian Ocean, China and the Pacific. This book is a contribution to revealing that history. Given the geographical size of the area (from Turkey to China) and a time span of roughly two millennia one book could only ever hope to touch on some of the major trends and interesting avenues for future study. However, an area where Dr De Silva has been able to devote much of her own personal time are the African descendants who live in northwest Sri Lanka around Sirambiyadiya. She has spent much time recording their music, dance and speech patterns. They were originally brought to the island when it was a Portuguese colony and so they contain similarities to people in former Portuguese colonies such as Mozambique, Angola, Brazil and Sao Tome. Being a musician herself Dr De Silva devotes a whole chapter to some of the musical retentions and spirit possession ceremonies for which Africans are renowned across the whole of Asia either as Sufi mendicants, healers or for general rejuvenation. There were still ceremonies in Basra, Iraq, in recent times that were exclusively for African or ‘dark-skinned’ Iraqis. In Sri Lanka Kaffrinha is a type of African-Portuguese music and song, that influences the Baila dance style. If you go to any Spanish or Portuguese speaking country in the Caribbean and Americas they will immediately know the kind of funk groove you mean when you mention baile.

“On the Indian mainland the Sidis (Shedees in Pakistan) perform African language songs, mostly Swahili, and still live in African-Asian villages where they continue to live their culture although they have been out of Africa for six centuries. The cultural group, Sidi Goma, are actually named after the term for drum, ngoma, in many central and southern African languages. While we were reading the book an even more direct correlation came to our mind in the town of Goma in eastern DR Congo, remembering that many Africans were used as porters to carry goods from the African interior to the coast and then sold along with the cargo as chattel. There was a strong Islamic involvement in eastward African migrations either for trade, as converts or enslaved Africans. Dr De Silva does analyse the differing treatment of many Africans compared with the Atlantic slave holocaust. While for many a life removed from your family, culture and environment was always going to be a traumatic experience some Africans did manage to gain a foothold such as Malik Ambar, who became Regent Minister in Ahmednagar and the African dynasties of Sachin and Janjira which were powerful in India until the mid-20th century. Not all migrations were related to slavery and there are coins in India and Ethiopia that show strong trading relations between the regions from as early as AD 230. While much noise is made about China’s current involvement in Africa the regions were trading in ivory, rhino horn and tortoise shells before the Sung (1127-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. In Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and what are now the UAE there were large numbers of Africans many from Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya classed as Habshi (Abyssinians) or Zanj. The longest rebellion against the Abbasid empire in Iraq (762-1258) was in 869-883 when Bantu, Sudanese and Nubian and local slaves occupied Iraqi cities and built their own capital. Many Africans were considered to be aligned with the European rulers who had brought them to Asian countries and suffered as the indigenous people struggled to gain independence. Ghanaians, whom the Dutch had brought to Indonesia, were left marginalized on independence in 1949 and by 1956 those who had not wanted to be repatriated to Ghana were taken to Holland. In Sri Lanka the Africans are seen as being more Portuguese than aligned to the Sinhala or Tamil Sri Lankans. The prospect for forging stronger links in the future with Africans who went eastwards is fascinating. On the issue of diasporas Dr De Silva raises some pertinent questions, ‘The application of the term diaspora to today’s Afro-Asians has been contested by some academics. One may ask, how many generations does it take for a migrant group to become indigenous? … While Afro-Americans look to Africa as a homeland, this is generally not the case with Afro-Asians, highlighting the extent to which Africans have been assimilated into Asian society.’ (p 105)

— Nubiart—A Different Perspective On The African World

“In the years before 2007, the bicentenary of the British Parliament’s abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade in 1807, there was a ready made readership for histories of slavery. There was a pre-determined official script in the UK, with a focus on the heroic efforts of Wilberforce, persuading Members of Parliament to change their votes, and making an irreversible change in the moral climate. Some writers took different perspectives, either offering a revisionist account of Wilberforce, or highlighting the extent to which British economic prosperity and social stratification were linked to slavery and the slave trade. Human Rights campaigners took the opportunity to raise awareness of forms of modern slavery, such as trafficking women for sex. Others again chose a central theme of control and participation, and identified ongoing issues in working life (Ennals 2007).

African Identity in Asia: Cultural Effects of Forced Migration comes as a breath of fresh air. Rather than illustrating a single ‘black and white’ story, based on the Atlantic Ocean, with Europeans cast as villains, transporting millions of Africans to the New World as slaves, Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya introduces a more complex and nuanced drama. As she argues: In the Atlantic world, the slave was a chattel who labored in plantations and mines. In the Indian Ocean world, however, slaves performed a variety of tasks as, for example, sailors, soldiers, musicians, water carriers, road builders, seamstresses, concubines, palace guards, body guards, harem guards, and pearl fishers. Some slaves were financially better off than free people because they performed very specialized tasks.

“She has yet to secure the necessary support of the UNESCO Slave Routes project, whose focus has been on the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and on completing processes of decolonization. Resources have been reduced. History has generally been written by the powerful. Even histories of slavery tend to have come from the colonial powers, with a perspective tied to their own national history. In the United States, black history has carried a moral and political agenda. Transatlantic slave trading was inextricably linked to race, with a continuing legacy.

“Around the Indian Ocean, the patterns of forced migration have left complex traces. Very often the history has been undocumented, so Jayasuriya has taken novel approaches to assembling evidence, for example from languages and music. The text includes poems from her husband Hemal Jayasuriya. African influences can be found across Asia, but have often not been recognised or explained. African migrants have not been isolated from Asian cultures, but have integrated, taken on senior roles, for example in the military, and have blended into a diverse population.

“Some of the stories are related to European ventures in Asia, for example by the Portuguese, Dutch, French and British. Gaps in the published picture may be linked with feelings of shame, or sustained denial which has inhibited the conduct of research. After the focus on the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean has yet to be given proper attention.

“The richness of Jayasuriya’s work comes from her collection of fragments from across a vast geographical canvas (Jayasuriya 2001, 2008). Typically local historians have tried to illuminate their own culture and traditions. She does not make the mistake of offering premature grand theory: she declares the need for a concerted program of research, building up shared understanding.

“The book casts new light on the reality of globalization. Stereotypical views of racially pure national cultures as the basis of nation states are not intellectually defensible, in light of the wealth of evidence of long-standing diversity. Such a realization needs to be shared. It makes a peaceful international future more possible. Furthermore, it provides a renewed rationale for the existence of organisations such as the Commonwealth. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya, of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at London University, is by background a Sri Lankan Buddhist. She is a published expert on Indo-Portuguese verse, and has led research on the African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (with Richard Pankhurst) (Jayasuriya and Pankhurst 2003). She has opened an important new field.”

—AI & Society: Journal of Knowledge, Culture and Communication

“In essence, this book is a good source for following the patterns and tentacles of the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trade. Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya’s work in developing African Identity in Asia: Cultural Effects of Forced Migration was no small feat. The writer assembled a great deal of information from varied sources. … I conclude that this book instills a desire for further research. ”

— Rosetta Codling, PhD, The Examiner

“Having co-edited The African Diaspora in the Indian Ocean (2003), Jayasuriya (U. of London) here takes a broader view, mapping the migration of Africans to Asia and their contributions to their host societies. Slavery and the slave trade certainly played a large part, she says, but should not obscure African contributions particularly in military activities and music, nor the role of Africans as cultural brokers between the two continents. Her topics include eastbound Africans, the dispersal of Africans across the Indian Ocean, sounds of Africa, and the history and sociology of African migrants.”

— Book News