Category Archives: Sudan

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.

Leave a comment

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

An African Mercenary Arrives in Japan, 1579

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 19-20:

Yasuke was in his early twenties, no more than twenty-three.

He’d been a soldier for half his life, visited a dozen sultanates, kingdoms and empires. A young warrior who knew himself and more of the world than most ever do.

He was a very tall man, six-two or more—a giant for his time, comparable to meeting a seven-footer by today’s standards. He was also muscular by the standards of any day, thanks to relentless military drill and a childhood, and lineage, built on a diet of abundant meat and dairy.

Arriving in Japan, Yasuke’s eclectic attire revealed his familiarity with a much wider world. He was primarily dressed, quite smartly, in Portuguese clothing—baggy pantaloons to stop mosquito bites, a cotton shirt with a wide flat collar, a stylish doublet of dark velvet. But he carried a tall spear from India, its blade crafted into an unusual wavy shape with two “blood grooves” cut into the steel to make the blade lighter while still sturdy. He also carried a short curved Arab dagger at his side; both weapons shone like mirrors with constant attention from Yasuke’s whetstone. His dark head was wrapped in a stark white turban-like cloth to protect it from the sun.

This was not, clearly from his garb alone, Yasuke’s first arrival somewhere new, someplace utterly foreign. He was, rather, an experienced and well-traveled man in an ever-shrinking world.

He’d been on the move since he was a boy. From the swamps and plains of his birthplace on the banks of the Nile, to the mountains and deserts of northeast Africa, the fertile coasts of the Arabs, dusty Sind and the green of Gujarat. He’d likely fought alongside, and against, Hindus, Muslims, Africans, Turks, Persians and Europeans, and escaped death as a teenage soldier countless times before being employed by Valignano in Goa. The abducted child soldier was now simply the soldier. Well trained in weapons, strategy and security. Even, thanks to time spent beside leaders from several cultures, conversant in diplomacy. His experience and skills were of a caliber sought across the whole world, highly in demand among the rich and powerful.

This unexplored Japão (as the Portuguese called it) was merely the next place he was to be for some time as he put those same skills to work and did the job of protecting an employer and staying alive. The tide, he understood, must be taken when it comes.

Leave a comment

Filed under Ethiopia, Japan, migration, military, Portugal, religion, Sudan

Why Darfur and Not …?

Black Star Journal recently linked to a long and thought-provoking post back in July by Ethan Zuckerman at My Heart’s in Accra about why the West seems much more concerned about Darfur than about a number of even more horrible conflicts in Africa.

Because you may or may not be an Africa-based journalist, let me unpack the question for a moment. There are a number of international conflicts that have claimed more lives and displaced more people than the conflict in Darfur. The Second Congo War and its ongoing aftermath is believed to have killed more than 5.4 million people, mostly due to “excess mortality” connected to disease and starvation. Other conflicts compare to Darfur in terms of brutality and displacement, but have received far less attention. War between Ugandan forces and the Lord’s Resistance Army in Northern Uganda has displaced more than a million people from their homes, and one in three boys in the region have been abducted, for periods of time or permanently, by LRA forces. The war between Ethiopia and Islamist forces in Somalia – supported by the US military – has created 1 million internally displaced persons and 450,000 international refugees.

It’s admirable that activists have been able to draw so much attention to Darfur. I’m interested in the phenomenon not to criticize focus on Darfur over other conflicts, but because I’d like to help people working on other conflicts gather attention and resources. I see Darfur as a rare example of an international crisis that’s gotten huge attention in the US despite the fact that most Americans have no direct, personal connection to the region. (I’m not the only one trying to do this – John Prendergrast, who’s focused on Darfur for the International Crisis Group, is one of several Africanists who’s started a new organization, Enough, designed to harness some of the attention around Darfur and call attention to situations in DRC, Uganda, Somalia and elsewhere.)

Agreeing with the analysis that attention paid to Darfur is unprecedented, my friend offers a two-part analysis, which I’ve modified to a three part analysis:

– The time was right. Guilt over the failure to intervene in Rwanda, especially on the part of North American and European nations, offered an opportunity to demand intervention in another African conflict.

– In the US, there was already close attention paid to Sudan by human rights and by evangelical Christian communities, based on a perception of the Sudanese civil war as a religious conflict between the Muslim north and Christian (and animist) south. (My contribution to the analysis, based on my experience talking to evangelical friends about their anti-Khartoum activism as early as 2000.)

– The conflict in Darfur has been reducible to a fairly simple media narrative, with good guys and bad guys… even thought this narrative doesn’t accurately reflect the reality on the ground.

It’s this last point my friend and I focused most of our discussion on. The process of covering the conflict in Darfur has convinced my friend that a narrative centered on a merciless proxy army raping, chasing and killing innovent civilians in an attempt to ethnically cleanse a region isn’t wholly accurate. “This isn’t good guys versus bad guys. This is bad guys versus bad guys.”

The rest of the post then provides supporting examples, and faults aid agencies like Save Darfur and reporters like Nicholas Kristof for sacrificing accuracy for advocacy.

Leave a comment

Filed under Africa, Darfur, Europe, NGOs, publishing, Somalia, Sudan, U.S., Uganda, war

Sudan’s Second Civil War, 1980s

From The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence, by Martin Meredith (PublicAffairs, 2005), pp. 358-360:

As in the case of Chad, Sudan’s second civil war drew in an array of foreign players. Mengistu‘s regime in Ethiopia supported the cause of the southern Sudanese in retaliation for Khartoum’s support for Eritrean secessionists and Tigrayan rebels. In Libya, Gaddafi, who had once supported the Eritreans but who switched sides when Mengistu came to power, joined Mengistu in supporting the southern Sudanese. Numeiri meanwhile supported an anti-Gaddafi Libyan group, the National Front for the Salvation of Libya, which set up offices in Khartoum in 1981 and broadcast propaganda programmes attacking Gaddafi. Numeiri also gave assistance to anti-Gaddafi groups from Chad. The United States, for its part, despite the repression Numeiri unleashed in southern Sudan, invested heavily in his regime to bolster him as a counter-weight to Gaddafi and Mengistu, both of whom it regarded as pro-Soviet activists; US assistance to Numeiri totalled $1.5 billion.

With American support, Numeiri was confident he could deal with any threat posed by rebels in the south. But he was beset by a host of other difficulties. Hoping to establish Sudan as the ‘breadbasket’ of the Middle East, Numeiri had encouraged massive investment in mechanised agriculture, but the overall result was a decline in agricultural production and a foreign debt of $12 billion that Sudan had no means of repaying. When drought struck in 1983 and again in 1984, causing mass hunger, Numeiri, like Mengistu in Ethiopia, ignored the consequences, desperately trying to avoid jeopardising Sudan’s image as a suitable destination for agricultural investment. Only after an estimated quarter of a million people had died was he prevailed upon to take action. Forced by foreign creditors to accept austerity measures, Numeiri found his grip on power slipping. Shortages, inflation, unemployment, deteriorating social services and rampant corruption caused widespread discontent. The famine itself provided a rallying point for organised protest. A coalition of trade unions and professional groups, including lawyers, doctors and civil servants, led the opposition. When urban strikes, riots and demonstrations erupted, not even the army was willing to stand by Numeiri. In April 1985, after sixteen years in power, he was overthrown.

An election in 1986 brought to power northern politicians fully committed to the establishment of an Islamic state. As prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, the leader of the Umma Party, pronounced himself in favour of ‘the full citizen, human and religious rights’ of non-Muslims. But he also declared: ‘Non-Muslims can ask us to protect their rights – and we will do that – but that’s all they can ask. We wish to establish Islam as the source of law in Sudan because Sudan has a Muslim majority.’ The sharia code introduced by Numeiri in 1983 remained in force.

Under Sadiq’s regime the north experienced many of the benefits of liberal democracy – parliamentary debate, a vigorous press, an independent judiciary, active trade unions and professional associations. But for the south there was unrelenting warfare. The SPLM refused to accept a ceasefire or to take part in the election, demanding a constitutional convention. Sadiq responded by arming Baggara Arab militias in western Sudan – murahalin – licensing them to raid and plunder at will in the Dinka and Nuer areas of Bahr-al-Ghazal, just as their forefathers had done in the nineteenth century. Dinka and Nuer villages were attacked and burned, their livestock stolen, their wells poisoned; men, women and children were killed or abducted and taken back to the north where they were traded or kept as slaves. Atrocities were commonplace. In revenge for an SPLM attack on a Rizeigat militia group in March 1987, Rizeigat survivors attacked Dinka men, women and children in the town of Al Diein in southern Darfur, setting fire to six railway carriages where they were sheltering, killing more than 1,000; those who were not burned to death were stabbed and shot as they tried to escape. A report on the massacre, written by two Muslim academics at the University of Khartoum, blamed the killing on the government. ‘Government policy has produced distortions in the Rizeigat community such as banditry and slavery, which interacted with social conflicts in Diein to generate a massacre psychosis … Armed banditry, involving the killing of Dinka villagers, has become a regular activity for the government-sponsored militia.’ Rizeigat militias, they said, made a practice of selling Dinka women and children to Arab families for use as servants, farm workers and sex slaves. ‘All this is practised with the full knowledge of the government.’

Leave a comment

Filed under Darfur, religion, slavery, Sudan, war