The African Diaspora in Asian Trade Routes and Cultural Memories

Volume 14, Issue 1  | 
Published 03/07/2017

Author: Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya
: The Edwin Mellon Press, Lampeter, Wales (UK), 2010
ISBN: 9780773436510
Reviewer: Shehina Fazal

This is another absorbing book from Shihan de Silva Jayasuriya about the presence of Africans in Asia, a subject that is only beginning to be addressed by scholars on the African migration from East Africa. The focus of the book on Africans in Southeast Asia is a timely one as the world’s geo-political landscape is shifting from its fundamental points in Europe and North America, to the East.

The theme of the book consists of various case studies focused ‘around how various loci of exchange, transgression and creativity have been confronted and negotiated by migrants’. (p14) While the resources for this area of research are somewhat ‘silent’ Jayasuriya’s book opens some doors towards an understanding of the prime contributions made by the African presence in Asia, thereby enriching the cultural diversity of the region. Archival records in the British Library in London were utilized for this important contribution to the study of African presence in Asia. As Jayasuriya writes, ‘By combining a macro-level approach with case studies, oral histories and local histories, we can begin to assemble the pieces of the giant jigsaw puzzle’. (p15)

Jayasuriya starts Chapter One with a pertinent paragraph:

‘Traditional European historiography is rooted in the revolution of nineteenth century archival research. Its own history, therefore, is tied to the written record. If we were to follow this path and the root it prescribes, it would be impossible to map the silent history of the Africans who moved to Asia.’ (p1)

She stresses the point that knowledge available from the ‘coerced involuntary’ migration is difficult to locate from those who were at the receiving end of enslavement. So while the movement of people across the Indian Ocean has been taking place for centuries, the movement of people as discussed in the book was primarily for filling labour shortages not only for the colonial powers but also enabled invaluable contributions by the Africans to the military, trade and sea-faring traditions of their masters. Additionally, the expansion of the European mercantile interventions not only involved particular nations but that Africans and Asians were also part of the colonial structures. When the Portuguese started using multi-ethnic crews in their travels to the East, these slaves and crewmen were vital to the European travellers and explorers on board.

Jayasuriya also touches upon the issues of the slave trade being officially abolished across the Atlantic while the movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean continued.

In Chapter Two, the author describes the free and enforced migration to Japan and China. In Japan, the slaves were often described as Kurobojin which according to Jayasuriya could be interpreted as black people. And contact between the Africans and the Japanese was well established since the fifteenth century. It was well known that the Africans arrived in Japan with the Portuguese, usually as sailors or servants to the Portuguese. These Africans conformed to and underwent cultural transformation adapt to their new environments.

While in China it seems that it was common practice to have slaves and the existence of trade links between China and Africa is recorded in the archives of the Ming dynasty. The author mentions that it is important to understand the passage of Africans from the East African coast to Japan, China and the Pacific, and states that more evidence is needed to further elucidate the reasons on how and why the Africans have a presence in East Asia.

Chapter Three discusses the slave route to south-east Asia and the importance of the island of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, for its role in the slave trade. However, the demands for slaves by the slave traders could not be supported by Madagascar and in some cases, the Malagasies conducted ‘slave raids in the Comoros Islands nearby’. (p31) Madagascar was also seen as a source of raw materials like gemstones and hardwood as well as a source of food products like cattle, rice and locally made rum. As Jayasuriya writes on the importance of Madagascar in the ‘global economy’ of the time:

‘Madagascar is an important location for histories of imperialism between the mid-seventeenth and the mid-nineteenth centuries. Even before that, European navigators stopped off at the “Big Island” during their Indian Oceanic voyages. The Dutch sought Malagasy slaves in the seventeenth century. The French and the British followed this pattern as it became a source of supply for Indian Ocean island colonies.  Many of these Malagasy slaves who had perhaps originally come from the continent then migrated to another Indian Ocean island in the Mascarenes enhancing the intra-African diaspora. Some moved longer distances because they were sold to foreign ships whose trading activities took them to faraway lands in the East. They were destined for British factories such as Fort St David (Madras) and Fort Marlborough (Bencoolen).’ (p31)

The author provides extracts of the Captain’s journal from the vessel Delaware. This vessel played an important role in the transport of its human cargo from East Africa, as well as raw materials to the East India Company factories in the east. These extracts provide an interesting dimension on the travails of the captain and his crew on these relatively long journeys.

The account of the British interests in Bencoolen (a British territory in Sumatra in the area of Bengkulu city today) makes very interesting reading in not only why the slaves were needed in Bencoolen. The main reason slaves from East and South Africa were required was because of the high death rate among British workers in Bencoolen. At the same time, the East India Company refused to send out more people from Britain to their graves. As Jayasuriya states:

‘Africans were not merely a factor of input to a production process as in the Atlantic, but they were a valuable workforce in sustaining British presence in the East.’ (p44)

In addition, the author also lists the significant number of slaves that were in Sumatra by the end of the eighteenth century through the lists of names which included the country of origin and the ages of the slaves. By doing this, the author has attempted to give each slave listed, an identity rather than the usual historical records that lists them as numbers.

Chapter Four discusses the emancipation of the slaves in Sumatra and the machination by the British and the Dutch in carving out the spice trade in the region. This impacted on the exchange of territories between the two countries and more importantly the slaves who had been brought to work for the colonial masters in these territories. In 1824 the slaves in Bencoolen were moved to Penang (Malaysia) or Bengal (India), the territories which the British acquired from the Dutch who in turn were given Bencoolen. However, it seems that the freed slaves chose to remain in Bencoolen and put their roots in their new home.

There was fierce competition for the trade of spices in the nineteenth century. And the East India Company records show that African slaves were moved along the European trade networks. Not only do these records provide evidence that African slaves were used during the British presence in Indonesia and Malaysia, they also indicate the small pension entitlements for the freed slaves following the transfer of Bencoolen to the Dutch. The rest of Chapter Four is dedicated to the list of pensioners and their entitlements.

Discussing the issues concerning African settlements in Sri Lanka, Chapter Five is devoted to exploring their arrival on the island, as well as their status during the colonial period plus their status following the abolition of the slave trade in the Indian Ocean. The island was colonised by the Europeans from early sixteenth century until mid-twentieth century. It was under Portuguese rule from 1505 to 1658, then the Dutch from 1658 to 1796 and finally it was the British colony from 1796 to 1948. Whilst under colonial rule, slaves were brought to Sri Lanka and engaged in many tasks including road building by their colonial masters.

Chapter Six examines the linguistic dimensions of the lives of the slaves who were taken away from their homelands to work and live in other parts of the world. The chapter starts by examining the records of the voyages of discovery by the Europeans and the linguistic changes that resulted from these primarily due to ‘the unexpected contact situations into which the Africans were thrust upon’. (p132) The African slaves accompanied the Portuguese explorers and traders and were often used as translators due to their linguistic skills. In some cases, the African slaves were seen as an asset as they spoke many other languages including Kiswahili (the lingua franca in East Africa) and English as well as one or more of the Indian languages. And the table that Jayasuriya provides in this chapter makes interesting reading for both Kiswahili and Sindhi speakers as it indicates the origin of some words from Kiswahili to Afro-Sindhi words - the language spoken by Africans in the Sindh region of the sub-continent of India.

In Chapter Seven, Jayasuriya discusses the loss of home language(s) among the African slaves when they were forcefully sent to countries in the East. The evidence points to the slaves adapting to their new home and speaking the local language. However, there are some elements of their culture that are still alive: music and dance. While there are many instances of music and dance surviving and spilling over into other groups from the Atlantic crossings of the African slaves, there is not much awareness of the same in the African movement in Asia. As Jayasuriya writes, ‘Invisibility is a crucial obstacle to recognising the African presence in Asia’. (p156) Jayasuriya also tracks the trajectory of the musical instrument the lyre common in Egypt, Greece and eastern Mediterranean as well as the Horn of Africa and the east coast of Africa. In Western Asia, it is called the tanburah.

In the final chapter (Chapter Eight) Jayasuriya writes that while African migration across the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans is intertwined with cheap labour, commerce, slavery and abolition, it cannot be dismissed as something that happened in the past. Issues of crucial importance are:

‘Cruelty inflicted on the victims, the disregard of human rights, public recognition of slavery as a crime and the natural desire of descendants of slaves to bring the truth to light over-rides any easy dividing line between the past and the present’. (p173)

To increase our understanding Jayasuriya argues that the Atlantic slavery provides us with a model that was supported plainly by an economic underlying principle where labour was essential ‘in the plantations in the New World’. But this model cannot be applied to the movement of slaves across the Indian Ocean as it occurred over a longer time-frame and over a wider geographical area. Across the Indian Ocean movement, there seems to be greater adaptation and it appears that the slaves were not allowed to build their own networks and therefore, assumed new identities in either the European or Asian societies. But within these transformed identities there are features that signal African heritage. And as Jayasuriya states, it seems that while ‘traditional scholarship tends to concentrate on belief systems, religion and ideology,’ other cultural aspects like music and dance played a major role in the transformation of the identities of the migrants.

To conclude, the East India Company’s presence in South East Asia could not have survived without the help from outside labour, that is, the slaves from Africa. It seems that local labour was expensive in the east and African slaves were cheaper. While there are no accounts or narratives of slaves who were taken to South and South East Asia, the movement of Africans across the Indian Ocean happened over a long period. And further exploration of the process of settlement in the post-colonial period has thrown up some interesting paradigms of assimilation.

As Jayasuriya sums up:

‘Mixed identities are both simultaneously dependent and independent of ethnic origins. While a new language and religion came as a package and replaced their African tongues and religious beliefs, they found a vehicle - music and dance - through which they could assert their African identity’. (p130)

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