Market for Mercenaries in Mughal India

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-157:

Afghans, Turks, Persians, Africans, Arabs, Mongols and Portuguese all flocked to the Indian subcontinent to make their fortunes in war.

Even so, the need for soldiers far surpassed the influx of voluntary global mercenaries. As a solution, African boys like Yasuke were forcibly brought to India and trained to become slave soldiers.

Many free Africans also made the journey, seeking the same opportunities as the Turks, Arabs or Portuguese. But the vast majority were children captured in Africa, as Yasuke had been, and sold to foreign slavers in coastal ports, most often Zeila (now in northern Somalia), or Suakin (in modern-day Sudan). Here, their young lives were traded for salt, Indian cloth or iron bars along with other commodities such as guns. If not immediately put to work on dhows or galleys, they were taken on Arab, Ottoman or Indian ships, north toward Egypt, Arabia, Turkey and Europe, or east toward Persia and India.

During the voyage, slave traders often chose to invest in their slaves, educating or even mutilating them to gain more profit at the next stage of sale. For instance, while some were taught their letters, many more young boys were castrated. Handsome eunuch slaves fetched astronomical prices partly because only 10 percent of the victims survived the cut. By the time the captives reached northern India, almost a fourth of those who’d boarded ships in Africa had perished. On arrival in India, the Africans found themselves in slave markets, where they were again sold and taken farther afield to wherever trade routes and eager customers waited—places like Gujarat, the Gulf of Cambay, the Deccan, Cochin (modern-day Kochi), and to Portuguese Goa.

First arriving in Gujarat in northern India, Yasuke and the others had been herded into underground cells, with only street-level barred windows for light and air. The conditions were dark, airless, cramped and horrific. (On the ships, they’d been kept above deck and out of chains, doing simple maritime chores.) He was thirteen now; the voyage from Africa had taken almost a year—as the ships he traveled on stopped to trade or take shelter from adverse weather on the way. He’d been stripped, subjected to a full body examination and checked that he’d not been overly damaged by punishments or abuse on the way from Africa. The slavers who inspected Yasuke were themselves of African origin, perhaps having passed through exactly the same slave cells years before. Their appraising eyes summed up the young Yasuke, observed his size and growth potential and purchased him on the spot.

He was now a member of a military caste called Habshi—African warriors, often horsemen, who fought for local rulers or were loaned out by a mercenary band leader to whomever was willing to pay. Some of these bands numbered in the thousands, but most were only a few hundred strong. The Indians called the Africans Habshi—a word derived from “Abyssinia,” the ancient name for Ethiopia—because a large majority of the Africans destined for India had started their sea journeys there. During the span of recorded history, it is estimated that as many as eleven million Africans were trafficked to India as slaves, primarily to be used as soldiers. During Yasuke’s time, when soldiers were in peak demand, estimates reach into the tens of thousands.

Yasuke spent his first years in India training to use weapons, to ride a horse, to kill and fight. Too valuable to be used as mere fodder (the weakest slaves, who were judged to have little military worth, were often used as human shields, driven before the main force to absorb bombardments), he took the field only after training. Throughout, he would have been both brutalized and baptized into the cult of the killer, through actual battle, but also by carrying out commissions such as executions for his new masters. In his teens, he’d likely supped with assassins, marched and fought beside fifty thousand men, helped slaughter entire villages, joked and bet as comrades fought to the death in camp over some village girl, missing token or misheard comment. He also grew taller and his muscles hardened. He learned to kill with his hands. To ignore the gore and screams of new friends and foe alike. By eighteen, he was a valuable warrior. Now training young boys, as he’d once been a lifetime ago. His body a chronicle of ever-fading scars, a book written in blood.

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Filed under Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Europe, Iran, labor, migration, military, Portugal, slavery, Somalia, South Asia, Sudan, Turkey

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