Steamship labour, colonial racecraft and Bombay’s Sidi jamAt

Tania Bhattacharyya
race and capital Bhattacharyya

In the late nineteenth century freedpeople rescued from slaving boats on the Indian Ocean by British anti-slavery cruisers were sent to Bombay, where many of the young men found employment as stokers in the stokehold of P&O steamships. British administrators discussed the future of freed “Africans” strictly as profitable sources of labour. Freedpeople however went on to form their own Muslim communities or jamãt in Bombay known as Sidis or Habshis. While colonial “liberation” was bound up with ideas of race, Sidis rejected ideas of singular racial biological origin with their itinerant notion of a community descending from the Prophet. This article is a historical critique of the terms of the colonial racecraft that gives us the category of “African” and the natural division of humans into races, and an effort to read the colonial archive against the grain for the explication of a subaltern Sidi or Habshi notion of jamãt.

This piece is being made available as a preprint edition of the Race and Capital special issue of Historical Materialism. The final published version of this text will be made available on the Brill website in the coming months, we ask that citations refer to the Brill edition.

Issue 32(2&3): Race and Capital

The 1840s were marked as a significant decade in the history of the western Indian Ocean by two concurrent developments: the British Empire’s campaign against the slave trade in those waters and the introduction of transoceanic steam travel. In 1841 a British Agency was established in Zanzibar under the control of Bombay[i] and in 1843 the first slave trade prohibition treaty was signed between the Sultan of Zanzibar and Britain.[ii] The primary interest of the British Foreign Office in Zanzibar, apart from keeping the French out of East Africa, was to maintain it as a base for its anti-slavery crusade in the Indian Ocean.[iii] At the same time, the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company was constituted by a Royal Charter of incorporation (1840) and in 1842 they sailed the first steamer, SS Hindostan, from Southampton to Calcutta, inaugurating the first Indian mail service across the Indian Ocean. By 1853 the P&O had acquired the mail contract for India through the overland route via Suez and at the height of the British Empire’s grip over the ocean it ferried mail, passengers and cargo all across the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean and beyond. When the P&O was acquired in 2006 by Dubai Ports World for nearly £4 billion the New York Times described it as “a sinew of empire, a shipping line that ferried soldiers and diplomats, even royalty, on the Victorian mail runs that tied Britain to its outposts far to the east and beyond.”[iv]

These two developments- the abolition of slave trade and the rise of steam capital- were not coincidental but complementary pillars of the career of Victorian era imperialism in the Indian Ocean. The British East India Company had already begun converting its fleet to steamships in the 1830s, provoking the colonial Government of Bombay to conquer Aden on the southern Arabian coast as a coaling station in 1839. They were joined in the 1840s by the British Admiralty[v] and together these three steam-powered wings of empire- imperial navy, company fleet and merchant navy- laboured to claim the Indian Ocean as a “British lake”[vi] the way they feared the Mediterranean was becoming a “French lake” after the occupation of Algeria in 1830 and the Black Sea a “Russian lake”.[vii] These early steamships required huge amounts of coal to burn fires for adequate steam and the consequent expansion of overseas trade in coal spurred industrialization in Britain.[viii] Coal from Wales and northern England but also Bengal, Borneo and Natal[ix] flowed into Aden, Basra, Bombay and other imperial ports along the ocean rim, and goods, capital and labourers poured in and out of them.[x] Even before the opening of the Suez Canal, which gave yet another boost to British shipping and trade, the net tonnage of British goods transported by steamships had increased from 168,474 to 948,367 between 1850 and 1869.[xi] Alongside the explosion in trade and shipping the power of steam gave British gunboats in the IO a new force, a power not infrequently used to force new treaties on the Sultans of Zanzibar, Oman and chiefs of the Arabian coast, including the treaties for the abolition of slave trade.[xii] British ships-of-war were also deployed to patrol the waters off the coast of Zanzibar and Muscat on the lookout for dhows carrying people from Africa as slaves for sale in violation of the treaties.

The abolition of slave trade and the “liberation” of enslaved humans from dhows in the Indian Ocean became a boon for companies like the P&O. Men, women and children from Africa, emancipated by British steamers from the dhows of slavers were frequently sent to Bombay, between 1843 and 1890, where many of the men found employment as stokers and firemen in the stokeholds of steamships, both naval and commercial.[xiii] While Pathans and Punjabis from the Northwest Provinces of British India, and Yemeni Arabs and Somalis from Aden were also employed in the stokehold, companies like the P&O appear to have preferred Sidis and occasionally Yemenis. Sidis (likely derived from the title “sayyid”, signifying eminent descent from the Prophet Muhammad), variously known as Habshis, Seedees, Sheedis or Siddis, are identified in scholarship as South Asians of African descent whose jamāts (caste-like communities) are spread across Gujarat, Sindh, Baluchistan, Karnataka, Hyderabad, and Mumbai.[xiv] An 1890 collection of drawings by W.W Lloyd published for the company under the name P&O Pencillings included a drawing of Sidis labouring in the stokehold.[xv] In 1986 a book commemorating the hundred and fifty year history of the P&O Company included Llyod’s sketch with the caption, “For steamers, you had to have coal. That was difficult and dirty enough. Then you had to have stokers, frequently ‘seedies’ from East Africa, and the ‘stokehole’ where they had to work was indescribable.”[xvi] Even as late as 1921 when the value of coal had been diminished by the discovery of oil, the Shipping Master of Bombay reported that “approximately three to four hundred a year of Arabs and East Africans [found] employment annually in P. and O. ships”.[xvii]

The elision between “Sidi” and “East African” is common in colonial archives, because to colonialists Sidis were of interest for their presumed racial identity, a typology which linked Africa as a place to “African” as a race of human beings. Nineteenth century colonial and missionary discourses on emancipated Africans, indeed on emancipation and slavery itself, were steeped in ideas about racial “types” that linked human behaviour and abilities to biology and place of birth.[xviii] They insisted on the defining African-ness of the Sidis they encountered in Bombay, despite the fact that many Sidis had spent greater portions of their lives on Arabian and South Asian shores than on the continent of Africa, or were even born in the subcontinent. S.M. Edwardes, the Commissioner of Police in Bombay in 1912 knew better when he wrote in his book By-Ways of Bombay about the “Sidis or Musulmans of African descent, who supply the steamship companies with stokers, firemen and engine-room assistants, and the dockyards and workshops with fitters and mechanics.”[xix] In reality the Sidis whose labour powered the steamers were probably as mixed as the jamāts on shore themselves- a combination of people from Central and East Africa (including Zanzibar and Madagascar) who had been recently “liberated”, freedpeople from Africa who had lived for years in Aden and other ports of the Gulf, and descendants of older Sidis born in Bombay Presidency. Unlike the homogenizing racial category “African”, “Sidi” or “Habshi” (derived from the Arabic “al-Habash” or Abyssinia) in nineteenth and twentieth century Bombay marked a diverse and itinerant Muslim community with semi-porous borders. This article is a historical critique of the terms of colonial racial discourse that gives us the category “African”,[xx] and an effort to read the colonial archive against the grain for the explication of a subaltern Sidi or Habshi notion of jamāt, illuminated further in conversation with Sidi Abdul Rauf, the maqwā or head of Mumbai’s present-day community of Sidis.[xxi]

Sidis and freedmen aboard steamships were almost always employed in the stokehold, the boiler and the engine room[xxii]- the lowest, hottest and most manually exacting parts of the vessel. This was a direct consequence of the racialization of labour by colonial administrators, steamship companies and missionaries in the Indian Ocean alike. Labour aboard the nineteenth century steamship was severely hierarchized (even where the element of race was absent) and the stoker, fireman and trimmer came to occupy the lowest of these positions. The position was not automatically inferior- though it required extremely difficult and dirty work under very painful circumstances, British stokers in the early days of the Royal Navy’s conversion to steam were not only paid more than their seamen counterparts, they were also recognized as being crucial to the powering of ships and their smooth running, in some cases serving as effective engineers before the post of artifice engineer was formally introduced.[xxiii] In the Indian Ocean however commercial companies like the P&O (and their rival French Messageries Maritime Steam Navigation Company, as well as Dutch, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and German steamers[xxiv]) discovered the benefit of employing non-European men as seamen and stokers at far cheaper rates than Europeans, introducing a racial hierarchy of labour. In the mid-nineteenth century predominantly South Asian seamen known as lascars (which also sometimes included Adenese, Yemeni, Chinese, Malay and East African sailors) received between one-fifth and one-third the pay of European “able bodied seamen”[xxv] and made up roughly a quarter of the workforce on British merchant ships well into the 1960s.[xxvi]

While lascars manned the decks the position of stokers, firemen and coal trimmers were filled predominantly by Sidis, freedmen and Yemeni Arabs, and increasingly by Pathans and Punjabis as the nineteenth century wore on. Even though legally all these non-European seamen were often included under the category “lascar” when shipping from British colonial ports, in practice stokehold Sidis were ranked below deck lascars. The racist colonial imaginary could ascribe some kind of skill to the labour of “Asiatic” deck lascars, but Sidis were seen as valuable for some imagined raw, bodily strength and resistance to high temperatures. As commercial shipping companies strove to maximize the traveling speed offered by the “technology” of steam engines, the highest possible extraction of labour from stokers and firemen to maintain consistent fires became of utmost importance. The same racializing colonial discourse that permitted Asian, African and Middle Eastern seamen to be hired at substantially lower rates of pay than European seamen and have discriminatory legal restrictions imposed on their freedom of movement and employment on foreign shores, also classified “Africans” and “Yemenis” as more adept at grueling manual labour and inexplicably more acclimatized to the extreme heat of the stokehold. These ideas of body types predestined for certain kinds of labour became so ingrained as the century progressed that in 1872 an Admiral in the Royal Navy mourned the “well known inferior physique” of British stokers, saying that if the numbers of these stokers could not be increased or replaced by “the services of the same class and style of men that are to be found in the stokeholes of the great steam companies”, the navy would have to run ships-of-war at speeds far less than what they were capable of keeping.[xxvii] Thus what appeared as a purely technological “capability” for greater speed could only be realized by more intensive exploitation of labour.

As Andreas Malm has demonstrated so well for the history of the transition to steam power in the cotton mills of nineteenth century England, the real advantages of steam power lay in its mobility and ability to facilitate the extraction of ever greater rates of surplus value from human labour in less and less time (i.e., relative surplus value).[xxviii] In the case of steam companies plying the Indian Ocean greater traveling speeds meant greater profits, which they maximized not only by hiring lascar, Sidi, Somali and Adenese seamen at cheaper rates of pay, but also by subjecting some sections of that racialised labour force to particularly grueling intensive work to maintain the constant production of steam from coal. In other words, if capital’s drive for endless valorization was the motor for the explosion of steam technology in the nineteenth century, this technology in turn had to be attended by a hierarchical set of labours aboard the steamship at sea- a hierarchy that the colonial social order organized by the artifice of race.

By the late nineteenth century the job of the stoker had been rendered so menial in colonial imagination that even British naval stokers, no less educated or more alcoholic than British seamen (the much beloved “bluejacket”), came to be looked down upon as the sooty “black gang”, a drunken, insubordinate class of workers constituting “the lowest of the low”.[xxix] This article argues that the steamship which was a particularly globalized, mobile form of factory, produced and perfected in seas off colonized shores, created a racial hierarchy of labours, differentiating not only European seaman from non-European lascar as extant scholarship[xxx] has pointed out, but also between lascar and Sidi. This particular differentiation was made possible when colonial administrators engaged in the task of apprehending and freeing enslaved humans in the mid nineteenth century Indian Ocean were confronted with the “disposal of emancipated Africans” as a problem. To the colonial mind freedmen’s bodies, though no longer acceptable to be exploited under the whip of the slave master, were nevertheless still the most valuable thing about “Africans”. “Liberation” therefore transferred many enslaved humans from the dhows of slavers to the stokeholds of steamers, providing in effect a stable source of manual labour for burgeoning steamship companies.[xxxi]

Indrani Chatterjee describes this as a process of primitive accumulation.[xxxii] Marx’s idea of primitive accumulation specifically refers to the violent alienation of people from land by the creation of enclosures thereby producing a landless proletariat “doubly free” to become a source of capitalist accumulation. I interpret Chatterjee’s use of this term to mean that the “liberation” of bondsmen from Africa created a maritime proletariat which became a source for the production of surplus value for colonial capitalists, a description which is certainly accurate. However, the use of primitive accumulation as an analytical concept to describe this process does not adequately address the question of race. This article is concerned with explaining how strategies of “liberation” were integral not only to capital accumulation but also to the remaking of race in the maritime British Empire as nature’s way of ordering the social division of labour. Chatterjee’s article demonstrates very well how categories of race derived from Atlantic slavery have been erroneously superimposed on the study of “Afro-Asian” populations in pre-colonial South Asia. However, the study of colonial “liberation” discourse/practice and Sidi jamāt formation in nineteenth century Bombay has more to say not only about the history of South Asians of African descent but about the socio-historical underpinnings of the idea of race itself in imperial Britain.

While colonial discourse and policy corralled all freedmen in the Indian Ocean into their distinct racial identity as “Africans”, on the ships and shores of Bombay city the categories of living and association were not so neat. Newly “liberated” “Zanzibaris”, “Nubis” (Sudanese), “Habshis” (Ethiopians) and people from other parts of Africa were welcomed into Muslim communities of Sidis to form a particularly working class Muslim jamāt (caste-like community).[xxxiii] The jamāt’s origin narratives connected them to the continent of Africa through saints (Sidi Mubarak Nobi of Nubia or Sudan, Bava Habash of Ethiopia and Mai Misra of Egypt), but also to Arabia through Hazrat Bilal, a manumitted habshi who became a companion of the Prophet and the first muezzin (one who gives the call to prayer) of Islam.[xxxiv] Often, the introduction of newly arrived freedmen in the streets of Bombay to Islam was by way of the poor Arabs of the city, an ever-looming thorn-in-the-side for missionaries eager to bring these Africans under the fold of Christianity. As Yemenis and Sidis sometimes worked side by side in the stokeholds, so they lived and prayed side by side in the chawls (tenements) of the city.[xxxv] In 1874 Sidis and Arabs of Bombay, many of them shipworkers, certainly rioted together as they clashed against their Parsi (Zoroastrian) neighbours. Opposed to the racial colonial and missionary discourse of identity based on singular biological and geographical origins by birth, the fragmentary documentation on the Sidis of Bombay city in the nineteenth century offers an itinerant’s map of belonging: one that links Zanzibar and Kilwa to Ethiopia and Sudan, and also to Mecca, Medina, Aden, Muscat, Karachi and Bombay. These many stops of enslaved Africans’ journeys before “liberation” and arrival at Bombay were grafted into ritual narratives of kinship and belonging that united Africa, Arabistan and Hindustan and are performed through Sidi rituals and storytelling even today.  

Liberation as racecraft

The question of what was to be done with enslaved humans rescued from slaving boats in the Indian Ocean was not decided by asking those who had been “liberated”. The first freedpeople started arriving at Bombay city in the 1830s, with numbers picking up after the signing of the treaty with the Sultan of Zanzibar in 1843. In 1847 Reverend Eisenberg of the Bombay Mission of the Church Missionary Society (CMS) sought to bring as many of these Africans under the care of the society as possible. However, the government of Bombay refused his offer of asylum and Christian instruction to the former slaves, “having preferred to place some of the boys into the Mechanic’s Institution, the rest of the boys in the Indian Navy and to distribute the females indiscriminately among Christians, Mohammedan and other families in the island.”[xxxvi] While this policy was largely followed through the next few decades, in 1860 the Government sanctioned the formation of an African Asylum under the auspices of the CMS in Sharanpur, a hundred miles north of Bombay city. Between 1860 and 1872 the Asylum received about two hundred youth, while much larger numbers of people from Africa continued to be set free in Bombay city itself[xxxvii], either distributed amongst families in the city, employed in the navy, sent to institutions for vocational training like the Indo-British Institution or the Robert Money School, or left to their own devices.[xxxviii] 

It was not until the 1890s that manumitted individuals were given the choice to return to Zanzibar. By then those being freed were rarely youth from Africa who were rescued off boats taking them for sale. Instead they were people from Africa who had long been enslaved and lived along the Arabian coast, often since childhood, and who sought out the support of the local British consulate when they wanted to be manumitted. Many such people chose not to return to Africa after manumission but to continue working where they lived or travel to Bombay. In 1900 the Political Agent and Consul at Muscat informed the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf that manumitted slaves mostly preferred to remain in Muscat or go to Bombay where there was a greater possibility of employment, rather than returning to Zanzibar:

Once armed with a manumission Certificate these freed men have no wish as a rule to return to Zanzibar or their own forgotten country. There is a large negro population in Muskat among whom they apparently prefer to remain. Full grown men can command better wages in Muskat, as coolies or boatmen than they could in Zanzibar, and if they desire to leave Muskat at all it is generally for Bombay, which the description of their friends imbues them with a curiosity to visit, and about 20 find their way thither annually. Very few ask to be sent to Zanzibar and those that do go not unfrequently return.[xxxix]

Similarly for the Persian Gulf the Political Resident observed that based on his experience and his study of the slave trade files for the past five years, very few freedmen wished to go back to Zanzibar, preferring to stay on in Bandar Lengeh or Bushehr (in Iran) where they had been living, or go away to Muscat, Basra or Jeddah. “At the most 5% will like to go to Zanzibar unless we send the slaves there without consulting their wishes.”[xl]

The offer to return freedmen to Zanzibar instead of sending them on to Bombay came after the governments of both Bombay and Muscat objected to their increasing presence in their cities. In 1889 Bombay’s Commissioner of Police complained that “the number of Africans in the city [was] already considerable” and any expansion of this “excitable and turbulent element in the population” might become a source of danger. Besides, “the cost of maintenance of freed slaves who [were] too young to earn a living” was a drain on the government’s resources, and older youth with “insubordinate spirit[s]” posed a further problem when they had to be dismissed from the care of missionary societies.[xli] Accordingly, the Government of Bombay inquired if the Government of India might be able to suggest any way of “disposing of these slaves in other parts of India” or if “in regard to slaves landed at Aden, Her Majesty’s Government, which directs the East African policy, cannot be moved to arrange for their disposal, especially in the event of large captures being made, otherwise than by sending them on to Bombay or leaving them in Aden.”[xlii]

The racialized association of freedmen with “excitability,” “turbulence” and “insubordination” was echoed by both missionaries and mainstream English media in Bombay. The annual report of the CMS African Asylum in 1861 commented on the ease with which “Africans and Native Christians” in their care were getting along, adding that each “race” was benefitting the other:

No disagreements between the races; on the contrary much mutual benefit has resulted from their close connexion. The greater energy of the Africans has to a certain extent roused the feebler Indians, who on their part are exercising a somewhat softening & polishing influence on the more uncouth sons of Adam.[xliii]

After the riots in 1874 when crowds of poor Sidis and Arabs from the chawls of Umerkhadi in Bombay city clashed with their Parsi house and shop-owning neighbours, Parsi English language media in particular took a withering stance against the Sidis of the city. An anonymous correspondent to the Times of India wrote about the Sidis:

If they are to be emancipated from the shackles of perpetual slavery let them be sent to some other place not so thickly inhabited as Bombay is, for we do not want such illiterate rif-rafs to break occasionally our public peace through the instigation of some of their co religionists.”[xliv]

This image of freedmen and Sidis as strong and “excitable”, “uncouth” “rif-rafs”, in essence an unintelligent but dangerous tinderbox waiting to be ignited at the will of more scheming others, became more popular among administrators and city elites after 1874, eventually provoking the Police Commissioner’s remarks quoted earlier. We encounter here the image of the fearful black man of the racist imagination[xlv], a human being reduced to the simple “cycle of the biological” as Frantz Fanon described in a different colonial context: “To have a phobia about black men is to be afraid of the biological, for the black man is nothing but biological. Black men are animals. They live naked. And God only knows what else.”[xlvi]  

The reverse side of this characterization of “Africans” as unmitigated bodily forces prone to being exploited by scheming anti-socials was the belief that if controlled by the right forces, these strong bodies could be put to work towards “profitable” ends.[xlvii] The Bombay Government’s reluctance to keep harbouring freedmen opened a conversation among the colonial administrators of the Indian Ocean rim about the most “profitable” ways in which to “dispose” of emancipated slaves. This discourse is remarkable because it begins to clarify the skeleton of what I call racecraft following the formulation of Barbara and Karen Fields: first, for colonial administrators the “liberation” of humans from slavery was seen as a problem of disposal; second, the disposal of humans was evaluated in terms of labour and its profitable use; and finally, the question of how and where to dispose of these displaced people as labour was solved by race, reducing hundreds of people to their bodies and their presumed capacity for grueling labour.

After making its plea to the Government of India for help in 1889, the Government of Bombay wrote to the Colonial Secretary in Fiji, asking if the government there would be willing to receive the rescued Africans “with the view of utilizing their services in the Fiji Islands”[xlviii]. In response the British government at Fiji asked a list of questions to decide if these Africans were fit “for the work required and the cost of their introduction as free (agricultural) labourers” in Fiji. The questions and answers of this interaction classified the humans in question through a taxonomy of “higher” and “lower” body types or “classes” that were valued according to their ability to do different kinds of work and be “amenable to discipline”: 

  1. Are the Africans referred to mentally and physically of a low class or otherwise? Mostly of good type mentally and physically.
  2. Are they inclined to good order and amenable to discipline? Yes. How do they compare with the average Seedee or Kruman? Many are similar. Some are of higher type as the Abyssinian.
  3. To what extent numerically is it likely they could annually be availed of? Impossible to say now as all the conditions are altered and are still in course of rapid alteration.
  4. Are they males or females or of both sexes? If the last in what proportion? Of both sexes—the proportion has been about 33 females to 100 males for 5 years from 1883 to 1887.
  5. Are they fit for service as agricultural labourers? The males doubtless would be. Most of those imported into Oman are employed on date plantations. Both males and females usually make excellent domestic servants.[xlix]

The fate of a person born on the African continent or to African parents was simply limited to the realm of physical labour or service (domestic service or spiritual service in the case of Christian missionaries) by colonial administrators, missionaries and “liberators”. Any education, in the few instances that it was provided (mostly by missionaries), was either vocational (as blacksmiths and carpenters for men, and needlework for women) or spiritual, with a view to using these “Bombay Africans” as assistants to preachers and explorers in East Africa. If the “African” was useful in the colonial view only for their capacity to do labour, often grueling labour of the kind performed in the stokehold or on plantations, or to serve the will of others, it was important for them to be “inclined to good order and amenable to discipline”, a function which missionary institutions such as the African Asylum served. And yet at the same time, “excitability” or “docility” were treated as inherent nature-given, race-bound traits. Africans were “strong” but “excitable” while Indians were “feeble” but “docile”, a pattern replicated in the characterization of obedient lascars and undisciplined Sidis on board ships as we shall later see. In practice, a refusal by those who had been “liberated” to cooperate with the plans of “liberators” branded them as being “insubordinate”, a familiar complaint about Sidis in the reports of missionaries and the police.

Of course, the “excitable” Sidi or African existed no more than did the supposedly “docile coolie”[l] or lascar. For example, as Ravi Ahuja has shown in great detail, any lack of trouble for shipowners (such as desertion or protests) on the part of South Asian seamen or lascars was to be attributed to the severe set of discriminatory labour and immigration laws that were in place for “coloured seamen” well into the twentieth century, as well as informal networks of power used by shipping companies to ensure obedience.[li] For example, under special “lascar agreements” of shipping laws, lascars were denied the customary right to shore leave on African and North American ports, or the right to gain employment with a different shipping company than the one with which they left South Asia. Additionally, desertion by lascars was punished by incarceration, a rule abolished for European seamen in the twentieth century but not until well after Indian independence for lascars. In effect therefore, a lascar or Sidi could not leave a ship at a foreign port in order to escape harsh working conditions or seek better employment under European rates. “A South Asian seaman’s only chance to terminate a contract outside South Asia was to break it, thereby committing the criminal offence of ‘‘desertion’’ and forfeiting all payments due from his employer.”[lii] Therefore, in reality not only were Sidi shipworkers circumscribed by the same set of legislations and extra-legal restrictions as their other lascar shipmates, the supposed “insubordination” of one race of workers and the “docility” of another were complementary racial fictions.  

In other words, there was a disjunct. On the one hand was the capitalist claim to discover in nature the perfect brute labourer in the figure of the “African”- the adequate amount of biological strength untethered by will embodied in a human, to supply the necessary labour-time required to produce the maximum possible surplus value given the current level of technological prowess (to run the ship at maximum possible speed, for example). On the other hand was the effort and intricate system of regulations and domination that went into disciplining and creating workers in the image of these racial types (“African” and “Asiatic”) that did not in reality exist. Borrowing from the conceptual labours of the Fields siblings[liii], if racism describes the latter set of actions which treated a certain group of people according to a separate set of standards from other humans based on assumptions about their different “physical and mental characteristics” (i.e., colonial administrators sending freedmen to work in the stokeholds of steamships, and the legal racism of shipping laws), the former social structure that enabled colonialists and missionaries to see in nature that which did not really exist (i.e. racial types that fit different classes of workers) and had to be produced through a regime of discipline can be called racecraft.

After the refusal of Bombay’s government to keep harbouring rescued slaves the conversation about the “profitable” use of freedmen’s labour continued, echoing similar ideological assumptions. In 1897 the India Office in London took up the Government of India’s suggestion that “the slaves freed in Turkish Arabia might with advantage be sent to the British possessions in East Africa.”[liv] The Foreign Office inquired of the British Agent and Consul in Zanzibar if these men may be employed in the building of the Uganda Railway.[lv] The British government in Zanzibar responded with a range of options- agricultural holdings on government estates at Zanzibar and Pemba (cultivated half the week gratis for government), or paid labor as “hamals or carriers” for European mercantile firms in Zanzibar, or as town laborers for the Railway, Public Works and Shipping Departments at Mombasa. He added that “The domestic slave born and bred in an Arab household in Arabia proper…and trained to follow their masters…as armed retainers, would probably not be very suitable for any kind of agricultural or porterage work, and any importation of freed slaves of this class would indeed constitute a very undesirable addition to our population both here and on the mainland. But ordinary agricultural freed slaves, employed in the date plantations, or accustomed to manual labour, whether born or not in Arabia, would probably be very useful, and both here and at Mombasa we would gladly arrange for their reception.”[lvi]

The classification of physically “strong” Africans into two “types” or “classes”- the manual labourer and the military man- characterized this racecraft. While some like the British Agent at Zanzibar feared the presence of men trained in the use of arms as social “undesirables”, others thought they could be a valuable addition to the cause of empire. Reverend Price of the African Asylum wrote in 1872 that it was better to give freedmen in Bombay a military training instead of leaving them free in the city, “strangers in a strange land” waiting to “fall into the hands of Arabs of Bombay whose first care is to turn them into Mussulmans, and then to use them for their own purposes.”[lvii] For one accusing Arab Muslims of having ulterior motives for fraternizing with freedmen, the missionary goes on himself to transparently state his case for military training: “Many of them would make capital soldiers, and the time may come when an African Battalion, inspired with gratitude and loyalty towards Government, might be felt to be an element of safety in the country.”

The British anti-slavery crusade in the nineteenth century Indian Ocean was therefore far from anti-racist. To the contrary, it was undertaken by both colonialists and missionaries as part of a civilizing project (different motivations but similarly conceived) that took race to be a given reality. This racecraft not only structured the question of freedom from slavery as an imperial project of liberation and disposal of labour (i.e., something that is done to the enslaved), it also set the limitations on the available futures for freedmen, destining them to nothing more than a life of difficult manual labour, (or in the case of a limited few a life in the service of the Christian Missionary Society’s East Africa Mission). At the same time the ideology of liberation, as an element of racecraft, obscured the fast-expanding relations of capital in the Indian Ocean that, coupled with the abolition of slavery, produced the need for large numbers of workers, human beings who would labour in the “indescribable” conditions of stokeholds and other “hidden abode[s] of production”[lviii] to enable the technological marvels of the century to perform to their fullest capacity. This is therefore in part a story of how “liberation” became a boon for companies like the P&O and how the recruiting practices of such companies and maritime law reinforced in turn the fiction of race.

The stokehold and the reification of race

Both the colonial government of Bombay and company administration of the P&O were responsible for tethering the future of male Sidis and freedmen to the steamship. Early records indicate that the Bombay police, when saddled with the problem of arranging for the futures of newly arrived freed youth in the city, sent them either to serve as domestic help in local households or to work in the Indian Navy. In October 1853 the Senior Magistrate of Police in Bombay sent five young men who had been rescued from a Portuguese brig to serve in the Indian Navy. He claimed that he had “consulted their own wishes on this subject, and they have all expressed their willingness to enter the Indian Naval Service. They are remarkably fine youths; and I am of opinion that they would be much better provided for in that service than in the families of Portuguese and others, as domestic servants.”[lix] He had earlier noted that all communications with the five youth (“boys”) had been conducted by “a Negro Seaman of the Indian Navy named Parry Williams, who interpreted in the preliminary investigations at this office, and also in the Supreme Court yesterday. He was the only medium we could obtain of communicating with the boys in their own language.”[lx] Sidis or freedmen on Indian Navy ships thus appear to have been a common feature by the mid nineteenth century.[lxi] Accordingly, the Commander in Chief of the Indian Navy wrote back that “The African Boys attested to in the accompanying letter can be received into the Indian Navy, and I have to recommend that they be sent to this office in order that their physical capabilities for sea service may be inquired into.”[lxii] The police magistrate’s promise of the “remarkable fineness” of the youths in question (presumably he was referring to their physical build, considering he could not have learnt much about their mental universe given the language barriers) had of course to be confirmed by a physical examination by the navy itself.

As the Sidi and the freedman became a common feature on Indian Navy ships, so did he on passenger and mail ships, especially of the P&O. Even British passengers who were disgruntled about the increasing employment of lascars and Sidis on board British shipping lines agreed that “A certain number of lascar seamen are of course required in a service like the P.&O., as in the Red Sea no European could face the engine room.”[lxiii] The idea that “Africans” and Sidis were somehow more naturally able to withstand the terrible high heat of the stokehold captured the colonial imagination. Frank Thomas Bullen, an officer on several British merchant ships who became a novelist, dedicated an entire chapter in his book about the merchant marine to the firemen and trimmers of steamships. After describing at length and with great sympathy and admiration the difficulty, skill and danger of these labours that were conventionally seen with much prejudice amongst sailors, he observed that “the engine-room of a large steamship is a terrible place”[lxiv] and that “no man with longings for decent life would or could remain in such employment”[lxv]. From this utterly humane observation he went on to remarkably conclude that since the job of firemen and trimmers in “tropical seas was so utterly unfit for white men to do… it would be a good thing if stokeholds were entirely manned by negroes, who from their constitutional experience of heat must be far better fitted to endure the conditions of the stokehold. Many southern-going ships carry them now. I should not be sorry to see them the rule, and my countrymen doing something better.”[lxvi] The need for speed dictated the need for a certain kind of extreme labour which in turn produced the desire in the metropole to seek in nature bodies “constitutionally” suited for that kind of labour.

Both deck and engine room labour for steamships in the Indian Ocean came to be recruited on an explicitly ethnic or regional basis. Companies established relationships via shipping agents and port officials with “licensed shipping brokers” and various other middlemen (recruitment agents called ghat serangs, trade unions, village clubs, boarding house keepers and moneylenders, village elders, and serangs or boatswains)[lxvii] to recruit particular groups for particular jobs on board. The French Messageries Maritime Steam Navigation Company employed Yemeni Arabs as stokers;[lxviii] the P&O preferred Sidis and sometimes Arabs as stokers, trimmers and firemen for most of the nineteenth century, until they began to be pushed out by Punjabis and Pathans[lxix], deckhands from coastal Gujarat and Ratnagiri, and Catholic stewards from coastal Goa; the Clan, British India and other companies preferred firemen from the “seaman’s zone” of central Sylhet; others hired Maldivian deckhands frequently.[lxx]

Romantic colonials who approved of the employment of non-European labour on British shipping lines described this diversity of labouring people as though the ship were a veritable garden of differently coloured animals “amicably” working away at their own tasks. An article in the Daily Telegraph in 1885 described the crew and passengers aboard a new P&O ship, the Paramatta in pointedly “pleasant” and colourful terms that illustrate the fantasy of racecraft: an image of perfect harmony between the order of the division of labour in society and the order of racial types supposedly given by nature.

Everybody knows and does his duty, from the veteran commander to the little Bengali boys scouring the screws of the Parramatta’s steam pinnace and the jet-black Seedees glistening like the coal they shovel into the huge furnaces. It is pleasant to observe how well the native sailors are treated, and how satisfied they appear with their service. The “tindal”, a small, wizened, wiry, indefatigable low-caste from Chittagong, with sparse beard reddened by lime and grizzled by many tempests, might have been boatswain to Sinbad, he has such a weather-beaten look. There are brown lively Bombay men, coffee-coloured Malays, ink-dark Africans, and most curious of all an Afghan stoker, while the quiet patient ayahs glide about like cats, purring Hindustani songs, and ceaselessly watching and fondling the blue-eyed English children, the tender shipmates of our bronzed colonels and captains, married Indian ladies, unmarried belles on their first visit, and travellers for pleasure.[lxxi]

The hierarchy in the ranks was smoothly glossed over by the praise that “everybody [knew] and [did] his duty”- that is they knew their place- and even the difficult, often dangerous task of the stokehole was rendered picturesque in this narration. Another account in the Times of India in 1892 similarly noted the many kinds of people who took refuge in the Stranger’s Home for Asiatics in London, and emphasized “how amicably they all [got] on together”:

The Home, however, is not only used by “Asiatics” but by Japanese, Chinese, Malays, Arabs, Seedees, and Africans of all sorts, the majority, of course, being lascars and firemen discharged from ships and steamers from India…..There are stewards, who maintain order without any difficulty, and see that each man has access to the particular kitchen of his race, where he can cook his own particular mess very savoury no doubt to his palate, but generally very unappetising to English taste, and fearfully high smelling withal. The “Surtee” apparently finds no difficulty in London in obtaining his favourite half rotten fish, or the Seedee his hideous offal, which he seems to prefer to anything else that can be bought. … It is wonderful how amicably they all get on together, and how they manage to make themselves understood, by the medium of “pigeon English”, which, though it differs from every port, has still a great many words in common.[lxxii]

The commentary on Sidi steamship labour has either been subsumed under this colonial gaze that saw the racial division of labour as a sign of necessary and harmonious diversity, or by scholarship that has pointed out the racist hierarchy between European seamen and lascars but included Sidis as lascars since they shipped under lascar articles on British ships.[lxxiii] The latter is obviously correct in some regards: in the administrative debates over the definition of “lascar” in 1921-22, the Shipping Master at Bombay argued that “the most suitable formula for the definition of “Lascar or other native seaman” would be— (1) Natives of India including the Native States and foreign possessions in India, and (2) Arabs or East Africans generally.”[lxxiv] Sidis, counted as lascars, had legal restrictions on foreign ports that did not apply to Somalis and other East African seamen because they did not ship under lascar agreements.[lxxv] The experience of all “Africans” at sea in the nineteenth century Indian Ocean were therefore not generalizable.

However, at the same time, the nature of labour aboard the steamship in the era of coal was undeniably organized on a steep ladder, a hierarchy that was spatially enforced, with the labours of the engine room and stokehole occupying the very bottom. The earliest seamen’s unions in Bombay— the Goa Portuguese Seamen’s Club (1896) and the later Asiatic Seamen’s Union (1918)— both excluded engine-room workers (stokers, coal trimmers, naval engineers) and were limited to saloon workers. Even the Indian Seamen’s Union formed as a merger of all existing seamen’s unions in 1919 limited its membership to saloon workers until 1926. When deck and engine room workers were welcomed into this union it caused a rupture and the Bombay Seamen’s Union was formed to maintain the old distinctions- a rupture that was not healed until 1931 when a single National Seaman’s Union of India Bombay came into existence.[lxxvi] In the context of a steeply hierarchized workplace such as this, the consistent hiring of particular regional or “racial” groups to fill particular rungs of the ladder not only reified such identities, making them appear natural, but also marked the groups thus formed by the kind of labour they performed. Thus, the figure of the “jet-black Seedee” was produced in the nineteenth century as synonymous with the stokehold and the “glistening coal” that it was full of, in colonial imagination and in the operations of the P&O. As these displaced humans of diverse origins, languages and itineraries gathered in Bombay city were incorporated into the capitalist labour market, they came to form a community known as Sidis[lxxvii], sharing origin stories and cultural practices with the Sidi communities of Gujarat, Sindh and Karnataka, but also unusual in its association with the steamship industry.  

Compared to the scholarship on lascars, their service on board steamers and their lives as immigrants in London, Wales and Tyneside, that on Bombay’s Sidi stokers, firemen and trimmers is negligible. This invisibilizing of Bombay’s maritime Sidi community in scholarship is owed in part to the barely visible (to passengers, officers and deck crew) nature of the work they performed at the very bottom of the ship. It was a function of the spatial ordering of power that rendered the Sidi or on board the ship invisible on the scene of history, except when he violated this spatial prescription, as when faced by death on the shipwrecked Tasmania. On 17th April 1887 a P&O steamer, Tasmania, sailing from Bombay to London was wrecked by a reef off the coast of Corsica. Though of the total loss of life numbering thirty-four not a single person was a passenger, and most were lascars and Sidis (apart from the European captain and a few officers), an outraged passenger wrote a letter to the Standard in London about the general failure of discipline amongst the crew of the ship and specifically about the “utter and lamentable collapse” of the predominantly “lascar crew”[lxxviii]. According to the correspondent, Mr. Allen, not only had several of the lifeboats been lost in the process of lowering them due to the inefficiency and “panic” of the lascar crew, who were “impervious alike to order, remonstrance or threat”, but more inexcusably, a few Sidi firemen had “calmly cut the rope before [their] eyes” and stolen one of two improvised rafts, in a bid to escape before their turn.

The debate that followed in British and colonial newspapers between supporters and critics of lascar labour made clear not only the lines that separated European passengers, officers and saloon crew from the Asian crew who manned the decks but also the further lines that separated the latter from the Sidi crew of the stokehold in moments of crisis. Mr. Allen, the outraged passenger ended his letter to the Standard with the accusation: “The deaths were almost wholly among the Seedee boys and lascars, from cold and exposure.”[lxxix] Another passenger, Mr. Roughton bemoaned that the native crew “began to die in the most horrible manner, quite early in the afternoon of the 17th, and the contemplation of their sufferings must have added infinitely to the horror of their position to those of us (the great majority) who were unused to such sights.”[lxxx] A woman, Miss Habgood, who had partaken of that “delightful passage from Bombay until the calamity occurred”, volunteered that “the lascar crew were worse than the ladies would have been in their places—completely lost their heads and thought only of saving themselves.”[lxxxi] Yet another passenger scoffed that “it [was] well known what sort of men these lascars [were], and that from the first moment that any danger assailed the vessel they would be wholly devoid of even the show of discipline.” “Of course,” he added, “we are well aware that for stoking the furnaces during some portions of the passage, and especially through the length of the Red Sea, the assistance of lascars is very desirable, and, indeed, almost imperative. Still, for the safety and comfort of the passengers, a fair proportion of white men ought to be a sine qua non.”[lxxxii]

Not only were the native crew blamed by passengers for trying to save themselves or for losing the lifeboats to a rough sea, they were, as one advocate for the lascars wrote, simply blamed for dying. If hot weather was an acceptable explanation for why Englishmen were poorly able to serve in the unbearable conditions of the stokehold in the Red Sea, the same compassion was not extended to lascars and Sidis who suffered, half-clothed, in the cold rain and storm of the deck. Accusations flew that “lascars have no stamina, and …. [they] die off like rotten sheep, in cold weather… and in any serious case of emergency they are worse than useless”.[lxxxiii] In response, several Englishmen who had served on P&O steamers, fierily rejoined that they had never seen a lascar dying from exposure, that they “stand cold quite as well as Europeans” and “that they do our work better than any European crew could is beyond question.”[lxxxiv] More importantly, their defense of lascars came at the cost of the reputation of the Sidis. A commodore of the P&O Company’s fleet pointed out in his letter to the Standard on April 30, “I fancy that it will be proved, when the trial takes place, that the men who misbehaved at the trial of the Tasmania were not lascars, but the native firemen and the Seedee, or African coal trimmers.”[lxxxv] Another article in the Globe which described the history and utility of lascars in favourable terms emphasized this distinction: the deck crew of P&O steamers consisted of lascars, “used to designate native Indian and Malay seamen generally”, while their engine room crews consisted of “coal trimmers, mostly African “seedie boys”; and stokers native of Bombay, amounting in all to about 50 more.”[lxxxvi] A few days later another sympathetic passenger reiterated that “it was the Seedee boys and not the lascars who died of cold.”[lxxxvii]

The lascar crew of the Tasmania gave an interview to a bilingual journal, which while it was sympathetic to the plight of their Sidi shipmates and not racist like the English commentators, participated nevertheless in distinguishing lascar from Sidi in trying to defend themselves. The lascar narrative of the incidents on board described how they had attempted to lower the boats successfully, at risk to their own lives as per orders and even going further. They then went on to clarify that the seamen who tried to escape on the stolen raft were Sidi firemen and coal trimmers. Their interview, published as an English statement in the Times, declared their loyalty to the company and explained why some Sidis died:

With such encouragement and guidance from officers, if we, who have eaten the salt of the company for so many years, were called upon to risk our lives in perilous times to save our ships, we would work away cheerfully and manfully, not caring a jot for the consequences. We remained without food or water, unsheltered and unprotected, for  nearly twenty-seven hours. Some of the men of the engine-room crew, the Seedee firemen and the coal-trimmers, began to die in the evening. They were necessarily very scantily clothed, as they had to work near the hot furnaces, as were also those men who came to relieve them when their watch for the day was over. Of the lascars only two men died doing their duty, and yet we have heard that on the representation of one or two of our passengers, the English Press raised a cry and denounced us as a class.[lxxxviii]

The lascars were the first to hint at the true plight of the Sidis on board, taking into account the conditions in which they worked, their scanty clothing and the biting cold as reasons for death instead of some inherent racial weakness. Nevertheless, despite their understanding, the racialized hierarchy of the ship reinforced itself in the lascars’ defense of their “class”. A Times of India editorial a few days later came once again to the defense of this “gallant class of men [who] were unwittingly wronged”, and reinforced the racial distinction: “Seedee boys and lascars are a different class of men altogether, almost as different as are English sailors from lascar sailors.”[lxxxix] The same author then put in a word for the Sidis who died on board:

On the steamer striking they came up to the deck with hardly a loin cloth to cover their bodies, from a temperature of some 150° to a cold wind of 46° and a still colder sea. In this sorry plight, shelterless and provisionless, for seven and twenty hours, it is cold hearted brutality to speak of them as having “died off like rotten sheep.” Taking the correspondent who denounced in the most uncompromising terms the mortality among the native crew, we can show even from his words that no European could have survived under similar circumstances. Describing the scene in the smoking room, he spoke of “the pitiful cry of the lascar or Seedee boy, who would force himself desperately into the doorway… and who was in mercy to the rest ejected only to die of exposure in the open.” It is to be remembered also that even the brave first officer had to be nursed back to life in the arms of some of his companions after twelve hours’ continuous exposure on deck. As for the other Seedee boys who cut the rope of the raft, we need only say now that they paid dearly for their treachery, all but one of their number perished from cold before they reached the shore.[xc]

The Sidi was thus either consigned to work under insufferable conditions, or die on board, clinging to the rigging, soaked and scantily clothed in the cold and forbidden to enter the dry smoking room where the European passengers and crew were sheltering with warm blankets, or to die at sea as punishment for their “treachery” and “cowardice” in seeking to save themselves out of turn.[xci] Space aboard the steamship was no simple metaphor for power. It was rigidly apportioned according to class, “race” and labour and held the power to decide over life and death in emergencies like shipwrecks.

Jamāt: producing likeness among itinerants

“Habshi, Arabi baddu sab ek hi hai.” “Habshis and Arab Bedouins are one and the same.”[xcii]

Branching off amongst the many by-ways of Dongri in South Mumbai is a lane that is easy to miss- Sidi Mohalla (Urdu or Hindi word for neighbourhood). On this lane stands a long low-ceilinged room, Arabic lettering on the front announcing the shrine of Bava Gor. The room is divided into two. The front room hosts the shrine of the saint, Bava Gor himself. In the longer backroom two more shrines- to Mai Misra and Bava Habash- share space with the family of the caretaker (mujāwar) of the shrine, Maqwa Sidi Abdul Rauf. That is their home. Sitting on the floor in the front room in July 2016, Sidi Rauf tells me about Sidi saints and ancestors, their history, their music and their jamāt. For months after we speak I struggle to fit the story he tells me with what ethnographic studies and archives have painted to me as “true”- that the history of the Sidis, Siddis, Sheedies, Habshis or “Africans” of South Asia begins in Africa.[xciii] Sidi Rauf however insists that I begin the story of Sidis with Bilal ibn Rabih (“Hazrat Bilal se hi shuru karna”) singing the first call to prayer (āzān) in Mecca. Confused by his narration of beginnings in Arabia, I ask naively what he makes of the books saying that Sidis hail from Africa. “The books are wrong,” he tells me confidently. “They don’t know. Where Saint Bilal and Islam begins, that is where we are from too.”

I learn later that the story of Bilal ibn Rabih, the Habshi who was manumitted by the Prophet and became one of his first companions and the first mu’ezzin (one who gives the call to prayer) of Islam was shared as an origin narrative by Sidi jamāts across the subcontinent. This origin story coexisted with the story of the three founding saints from Africa- Bava Gor or Mobarak Nobi of Abyssinia (though the name “Nobi” also suggests Sudan), his brother Bava Habash of Abyssinia and his sister Mai Misra of Egypt (Misr).[xciv] These descendants of Habshi Bilal, Sidi Rauf explained to me, came to Mumbai 780 years ago, a divinely pure land (pākīzāh sarzamīn). He does not deny his jamāt’s origins in Africa, but situates both Africa and his origin in an itinerary of places that were accrued through a collective, mobile past of slavery, manumission and Islam. “Africa” was tied to “Arabistan”, “Bambai” and “Hindustan” in this lineage of places.[xcv] The story of British anti-slavery cruisers or steamship stokeholds were nowhere present in this historical narrative. Instead, a past of violent individual displacements and slavery was reclaimed through an illustrious collective lineage of kinship and service that created a community. As Sidi Rauf said to me with pride, “Thanks to Allah we have three gifts: voice (āwāz), strength (tāqat), and loyalty (wafādāri).”

Sidi Rauf’s narrative of multiple origins and belonging importantly pointed to the dispersed and itinerant pasts of those who came under the wing of this jamāt in colonial Bombay, and to affinities built beyond race. Archival records amply suggest that many freedmen who arrived in Bombay in the nineteenth century spent great parts of their lives in ports of the Arabian coast. Upon landing in Bombay many among them preferred to socialize with “Arab Mussalmans” and adopt Islam instead of remaining under the care of missionaries, as betrayed by the reports of missionaries like Reverend Price. Shipping records indicate that companies like the P&O hired not only Sidis but also poor, itinerant Yemenis to work in their stokeholds, possibly often together. Above all, the colonial records on the Bombay 1874 riots repeatedly describe crowds composed of “Seedees and Arabs” rioting on the streets, either when leaving the Jama Masjid together after Friday prayers, or rushing out together from the same congested city circle of Chakla and attacking the liquor shops and temples of Parsi petty bourgeois neighbours on Abdul Rohimon Street. In the sparse and fragmented archival footprint of “liberated Africans” and Sidis in nineteenth century Bombay, the figure of the “Arab” frequently appears alongside.

I stumble upon a possible explanation for this recurring archival proximity of “Sidi” and “Arab” when I ask Sidi Rauf where most Bombay Sidis live today. He answers that most Sidis have dispersed to different parts of the city and elsewhere, but his description of his neighbourhood defies the automatic affinity of identity assumed by race as an objective category and suggests one built on shared religion, habitation and language. He says that the neighbourhood is all Sidi Mohalla, even though the only remaining Sidi family there is theirs. “The others are all Arabi Baddus (bedouins).” I ask who the Baddus are and he explains that they are the same as Habshis, adding “Those who were negroes in Arabistan, they came to be called Habshis. And those who were not, those who were sheikhs, they came to be called Arabi. They’re all one and the same.” While Sidi Rauf notes “Habshis” and “Arabi Baddus” as distinct to some extent, he fundamentally identifies the kinship or sameness between them. Itinerant Habshis and Arabs are “all one” (sab ek), united by an illustrious genealogy of place (Arabistan and Bambai) and Islam, in this twenty first century Sidi’s representation of himself and his jamāt. It is possible that because the colonial census apparatus never counted Sidis as a separate community because of their small numbers, including them variously under the category of “Other Mussalmans”, “Negro Africans” or “People from Africa”, this jamāt was able to elude objectification and retain its porous identity under the modern state.[xcvi] 

Another complementary explanation for the affinity between Sidi and “Arab”, emphasizing occupational solidarities, may be arrived at by way of speculating with the grain of the archives. The shared experience of working to load coal onto steamships, firing, stoking and cleaning large fires in the awful heat and sound of the engine room, and shoveling coal into the stokehold from the dusty darkness of the bunkers, all amidst the unpredictable roiling of the ship and with the many layers of the ship- physical and social- bearing down upon them, could conceivably have contributed to creating a sense of kinship not imitable by race. Such solidarity would have been produced not by the automatic fact of doing a difficult job together but by the recognition of the precarity of their lives and the racist structure that made them invisible and derided as a “class” even if indispensable to the working of the ship.  The extraordinary memoir of Ibrahim Ismaa’il, a Somali seaman in the early twentieth century, describes an event in the stokehold that gives us a rare glimpse of how solidarities may have been built by the structure of hierarchy aboard the ship instead of automatically following from racial identities.

Ismaa’il was born into the Warsangeli tribe who inhabited what was then the British Somaliland Protectorate. He was Somalian and had never been enslaved, but like many Sidis he spent much of his youth in Aden, working odd jobs with and for Arabs, and was Muslim himself. A friendly observer in England once described him as being “rather like an Arab in appearance”[xcvii]. The exact meaning of that statement is unclear. Once when employed on a ship to Liverpool and Lisbon he was put to work stoking fires with “a West Indian called Moses”[xcviii]. Besides them the crew consisted of “a German, a Pole and two jolly Irishmen.” Ismaa’il starts this tale by telling us that he became “great friends” with the German, while Moses developed an inexplicable animosity for him. What began as an argument over who would use the better shovel developed into a violent situation when Moses threw a red hot slice (a long tool for cleaning ashes from the fire) at Ibrahim, saying “Take it you Arab bastard.” Whatever Moses’ reasons for thinking of Ismaa’il as an Arab may have been, it is clear that he considered Ismaa’il more foreign than familiar. There was no natural alliance, liking or friendship between the two men of colour on board the ship by virtue of a shared “race”.

An alliance, a friendship, was forged nevertheless. After retaliating at Moses by trying to kill him with a hammer, missing and then fighting him until they were both exhausted, Ismaa’il wrote:

At the same time we realized what fools we had been. If one of us had killed the other, he would have been hanged, and nobody would have cared about either of us. And after that we became good friends.[xcix]

Affinity was born not from spontaneous liking or recognition of sameness, kinship did not follow from nature-given bodily characteristics (if anything Ismaa’il’s physical appearance seems to have misled Moses), but from the understanding that society valued both their lives equally poorly and on the ship they were allies. Sidis and itinerant Arabs hired as coal loaders, trimmers, stokers and firemen working together at sea, praying together and living as neighbours in Bombay could very well have been allies, kin and friends in much the same way.

The jamāt offered a way for a community of formerly enslaved itinerants in colonial Bombay to cohere around a collective prideful identity in a way that made room throughout the nineteenth century for new arrivals from distant shores. While this article has offered the jamāt as a concept for expressing affinity and likeness used by Muslim freedmen in South Asia that rejects the colonial taxonomy of race, and the locally familiar identifiers Sidi or Habshi instead of the homogenizing “African”, jamāt is by no means a simple alternative to race which we should uncritically embrace. While the Sidi’s jamāt is a critique of racecraft, it is similar to caste or jatī in many ways, and thus a part of a rigid structure of social hierarchy that serves to disenfranchise and impoverish Sidis in contemporary South Asia.  The research on the cultural and spiritual universe of the Sidis of South Asia is rich and complex and this article is not intended to address those questions. It is instead the study of how a specific set of modern subaltern subjects were interpolated as members of a race of brute labourers by colonial “liberators” on the one hand, and as kinfolk of a Muslim jamāt on the other by the subjects themselves. This juxtaposition allows us to examine the socio-historical production of race as something that appears to be natural (as opposed to racism which is conventionally treated as social discrimination between nature-given races). I hope this will encourage further critical research on concepts of collective identification such as jamāt used by subjects who continue to be incongruously treated in scholarship as specimens of a given racial entity.[c]

The British colonizer liked to view the nineteenth century Indian Ocean as an arena populated by slavers (“Arabs”), slaves (“Africans” or “negroes”) and liberators (secular English servants of the Queen or Christian missionaries). These roles were racially scripted and the British anti-slavery crusade sought only to end the trade in enslaved human beings and rewrite the role for formerly enslaved Africans as “free” labourers, not question or demolish race or racism. Instead, a belief in the existence of racial “types” or “classes” watered the capitalist desire for tailormade labouring forces, particular forms of abstract labour given human form by nature so to speak. The displacement of formerly enslaved people from East Africa to colonial Bombay via the Arabian coast and their incorporation into a burgeoning steamship industry as stokers, firemen and trimmers reinforced a racial identity that was created in the first place by European racism. The categories of race thus sought to be definitive in their characterization of human beings, leaving little scope for expression outside of their own terms. As Fanon asked of the colonized in a different colonial context (North African “Arabs” and Algerian subjects of the French empire specifically): “Who are they, in truth, those creatures, who hide, who are hidden by social truth beneath the attributes of bicot, bounioule, arabe, raton, sidi, mon z’ami?”[ci]

The Sidis of Bombay however, while accepting the racialized futures prescribed to them of manual labour in steamships and dockyards and domestic labour in households, appear to have tried to answer Fanon’s question by moving beyond race. Africa, the continent, is an important part of the Sidi jamāt’s ritual construction of kinship, origins and self, but so is Arabistan, the land of Hazrat Bilal the Habshi, Prophet Muhammad and Islam, and Bambai, the pākizāh sarzamīn (pure land) where their ancestors arrived. “Negro”, Sidi Rauf tells me, is an insult that the English created. He refers to himself as a Habshi, sometimes as Sidi.  “I will tell you things that you will not find in books, things that only the poor, that fakirs know. Perhaps Sidi Rauf is right and the Sidi jamāt, in ways that are alien to the taxonomy of race, has always had room to encompass Muslim Habshis and Arabis alike.


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[i] In 1840 the sultan of Oman shifted his capital to Zanzibar, his East African dominion, and the British agent reluctantly followed. The establishment of the British consulate at Zanzibar in 1841 marked the inauguration of a dual role for the British agent stationed there- Political Agent of the Bombay Government and British Consul of the imperial government in London. The British Agency at Zanzibar was under the command of the colonial government in Bombay from 1841 to 1873, when administrative control was transferred to Delhi and eventually to London in 1883. In 1890 Zanzibar became a British Protectorate and remained so until 1963.

[ii] While slavery had been abolished in Britain in 1833 it was not until 1843 that it was abolished in the colonial territories of the British East India Company, which is also when the British campaign against slave trade in the Indian Ocean began in earnest. See Campbell 2005.

[iii] It is important to not be misled, however, by the rhetoric of this abolitionist crusade- that tireless British abolitionism ended Indian Ocean slavery by the end of the nineteenth century. As Matthew Hopper’s work (Hopper 2015) demonstrates in detail, slavery in some parts of the Indian Ocean such as Arabia and the Gulf began to thrive in the late nineteenth century, driven by the demands of the expanding global capitalist market for commodities such as pearls and dates, and persisted into the 1920s. He attributes the incoherence of colonial policy with regards to slavery in the Indian Ocean to the fact that the aims of imperial abolitionism were often contradicted by the imperatives of empire’s economics. For the halting history of colonial abolitionism and the end of slavery in the Indian Ocean also see Campbell in Robert Harms (eds.) 2013, pp. 23–44.

[iv] Cowell and Timmons 2005.

[v] Khalili 2020, p. 23.

[vi] Alpers in Harms (eds.) 2013, pp. 45–54.

[vii] Hoskins 1928, pp. 140–41.

[viii] Barak 2015, pp. 425–45.

[ix] Headrick 1988, p. 44. 

[x] Barak 2020.

[xi] Fletcher 1958, p. 556.

[xii] Sheriff 1987, pp. 223–38.

[xiii] Chatterjee in Campbell (ed.) 2005, pp. 150–68. Also, Mathew 2016, pp. 76–9. A large number of freedpeople were those coded as women, though they are not the subject of this essay, largely due to their relative absence in archival records. Freedwomen were usually employed as domestic labourers in Bombay households, or sought to be married off to “respectable gentlemen” (Mathew 2016, p. 78), or when possible to Christian “Bombay Africans” who were tutored as wards of Christian missionaries.

[xiv] Janet Ewald writes at length about Sidis and seafaring in the northwestern Indian Ocean from the sixteenth through the twentieth centuries, tracing the changing meanings of the term. However, despite the incredible range of her historical knowledge and observations, the geographically located identifier “Sidi” does not cause her to reconsider the use of “African” as a descriptor of the historical subject. “Sidi” appears as a local variation of an universal category “African”. Here I make a conceptual and historical argument for why that is incorrect. See Ewald in Harms (eds.) 2013, pp. 200–15.

[xv] The P&O heritage website offers this drawing for sale, describing it as “View inside the “Stokehole” with “Seedie boys” “Firemen at work””.

[xvi] Howarth & Howarth 1986, p. 82.

[xvii] Letter from the Shipping Master, Bombay to the Secretary to Government, Marine Department, Bombay, 24th February 1921, in “Seamen: Definition of the term “Lascar or other native seamen”,” File no. 193. 1921- 22, Marine Department, MRA, Mumbai.

[xviii] Indeed, British ideas of slavery were so centred around the figure of the “African” they often neglected the Indian Ocean trade in enslaved people, frequently women, from Balochistan, the Arabian peninsula and Circassia. Johan Mathew describes how it was easy for slavers to pass off enslaved women as their wives as long as they were not “African” because colonial administrators were inclined to suspect the latter of being enslaved subjects by virtue of their Africanness, and not others. Mathew 2016, pp. 67–73.

[xix] Edwardes 1912, p. 88.

[xx] When I use the word “African” in quotation marks I am referring to the colonial category of African as a race. In my own usage I try to use Sidi or Habshi to be specific, except in cases where I am speaking of recently enslaved people who were rescued and sent to Bombay, whom I describe as freedmen. The implication is that such people may not have yet been incorporated into the Sidi jamāt or were assigned to Christian missionaries, many of whom tutored their wards to think of themselves as “Bombay Africans”.

[xxi] I met Sidi Abdul Rauf in the summer of 2016, when I visited the Sidi shrine of Bava Gor in Mumbai for research. We conversed in Hindi or as he called it “Bambaiyya”. I knew from the work of ethnomusicologist Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy about Asumaben, the previous mujawari (head and caretaker) of the shrine, who had recently passed away. Sidi Rauf introduced himself to me as the current mujawar (caretaker) of the shrine and maqwa (“patel” or head) of the Sidis of Bombay. His detailed narrative of the pasts and present of the Sidis of Bombay enhanced the lens through which I analyzed and interpreted the fragmentary evidence of the archives.

[xxii] Ewald 2013, pp. 211–12.

[xxiii] Chamberlain 2013, pp. 30–2.

[xxiv] Lawless 1994, p. 35.

[xxv] Ahuja 2006, p. 112.

[xxvi] The strict hierarchy of steamship labour and wage discrimination continues into contemporary times, though modified by significant changes in the nature of shipping technology and maritime law. Most shipping companies based in Europe depend on Filipino crew, for example. “The processes of cost-cutting, the trough in shipping business, and the national deregulations of the 1970s saw an exponential expansion of ships sailing under flags of convenience. The latter came about when European states established a secondary or ‘international’ registry to relax crewing rules and slacken health and safety standards aboard ships. The requirement to hire nationals to staff the ships was also set aside under deregulation and with the open or international registries. From the 1970s onwards, the number of foreign crews on ships proliferated, and some countries began to specialize in supplying shipboard labour. While the top five ship-owning countries- Greece, Japan, China, Germany, and Singapore- together marshaled 49.5 per cent of all shipboard tonnage, in 2015, the five largest suppliers of officers and crew, were China, the Phillipines, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and India. The number of seafarers in that year was estimated at 1.6 million, and Chinese officers surpassed the number of Filipino officers, though the latter still dominated among crews. Filipino seafarers are an astonishing 14 per cent of all seafarers. Arbitrage on the international wages of crews earns shipowners handsome profits.”  Khalili 2020, p. 239.

[xxvii] Report by Admiral George Elliot and Rear-Admiral A.P. Ryder, Members of the Committee Appointed to Examine, 'The Designs Upon which Ships of War Have Recently Been Constructed,' (London, HMSO, 1872), House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online, C. 489, 31–2. Quoted in Chamberlain, pp. 68–9.

[xxviii] Malm 2013. For a much more extensive treatment of the subject see Malm 2016.

[xxix] Chamberlain 2013.

[xxx] Ahuja 2006 & 2012; Seddon 2014; Sherwood 1991; Visram 1986; Hyslop 2014; Jaffer 2015.

[xxxi] It is likely that the Bombay government referred freedmen to P&O recruiting agents. Jones 1989, p. 339.

[xxxii] Chatterjee 2018.

[xxxiii] As mentioned before, this community of Sidis being formed in abolition era Bombay comprised not only of recently emancipated “Zanzibaris”, “Nubis”, “Habshis” and others, but also incorporated those who had arrived from the shores of Africa in the preceding century, mostly as slaves brought by the Portuguese and British. (Archival evidence suggests the presence of a “Madagascar Town” in eighteenth century Bombay in “Dungaree” or Dongri, the neighbourhood where Mumbai’s Sidi shrine still stands today. I am grateful to Amy Catlin-Jairazbhoy for drawing my attention to this evidence.) These mid-to-late nineteenth century “liberated” arrivals in Bombay are also not to be confused with the Sidi rulers of the neighbouring princely state of Janjira- South Asians of Ethiopian lineage who first arrived on the subcontinent in the medieval period as military slaves and administrators. (See Banaji 1932). The Sidi jamāt of Bombay city was diverse, and accrued over time with multiple waves of arrivals, acquiring a historically specific form through their incorporation into the world of steamship labour in the nineteenth century. This is the process that this article sheds light on.

[xxxiv] As told to me by Sidi Abdul Rauf in Mumbai, 2016. Also see Basu 2001, pp. 3–4.

[xxxv] Ewald points out that by and large Sidis were employed as stokers on large British steam liners while Yemenis and Somalis were employed on smaller tramp steamers. Ewald 2013, p. 212. However, her own archival evidence suggests that while the numbers of Adenese employed alongside Sidis in British steamship stokeholds were few, they nevertheless occurred (footnote 84). As the evidence cited in this article also suggests, the P&O Company itself hired both Sidis and “Arabs”. Thus stokehold socialization between Sidis and Yemenis was certainly possible, and on land in Bombay it was certain.

[xxxvi] Letter from Reverend Eisenberg to the Bombay Corresponding Committee, 15th December 1847. CMS/B/OMS/CI3/01/11. Cadbury, Birmingham.

[xxxvii] Report on the African Asylum by Reverend Price, 30th June 1872. CMS/B/OMS/C I3 O61/261C.

[xxxviii] The Sidi population of the city is hard to estimate because Sidis were usually subsumed in the category “Other Mussalmans” in the census. In 1872, the population of “Negro Africans” was 2074, which was 0.3% of Bombay city’s population (644,405). The 1901 census lists the population of “People from Africa” as 694, or 0.08% of the city’s population (776,006). S.M. Edwardes, Census of India-1901, Vol. XI: Bombay (Town and Island). Part VI: Tables (Bombay: Times of India Press, 1901), 128–129.

[xxxix]  Letter No. 351 of 1900 from the Political Agency and Consulate, Muskat to the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, Bushire, 4th  July 1900. ‘File 5/65 I. Question of disposal of emancipated slaves and proposal to check traffic between Muscat, Oman and Zanzibar’. IOR/R/15/1/200: 18 Jan 1889-14 Jul 1905, pp. 968. BL, London.

[xl] Note from the Political Resident in the Persian Gulf, 27th May 1900. Ibid., p. 91.

[xli] Letter from Secretary to the Government of Bombay to the Foreign Department of the Government of India, 2nd February 1889. Ibid., p. 5–7

[xlii] Ibid. Italics mine.

[xliii] Copy of report on the African Male Asylum at Sharanpur, Nasik to the Director of Public Instruction, Poona. September 13, 1861. CMS/B/OMS/C I3 O38/65A. Italics mine.

[xliv] Common Sense, writing on the “Mahomedan riot” of 1874, The Times of India, Bombay, Feb 19, 1874, p. 3, (ProQuest Historical Newspapers: The Times of India). 

[xlv] For a very illuminating, parallel discussion of abolitionists’ preoccupation with the body of the enslaved African woman see Turner 2017. Turner demonstrates the centrality of childbearing Jamaican women’s bodies and reproductive abilities to the plan of abolitionists like Wilberforce to produce an industrious and moral new population of “free” labourers who would keep England’s West Indian colonies running profitably and blamelessly after slavery had been phased out. She also argues that the struggle between enslaved mothers, midwives and caregivers on the one hand and slaveholders, doctors and abolitionists on the other, over control of reproduction on the plantation, displays the resistance offered to the imperialist and capitalist purposes attributed to birthing and raising children by the latter.

[xlvi] Fanon 2008, p. 143.

[xlvii] Hylton White argues that the racist caricature of “the Black of anti-blackness… as a brute biological force that lacks self-governing will and is thus in need of socializing violence to make it useful to civil society” is the fetish form of abstract labour that is produced by the alienated structure of social action in a capitalist society. White 2020.

[xlviii] Letter No. 2233 of 1889 from Colonial Secretary’s Office, Fiji to the Acting Secretary to Government of Bombay, 19th August 1889. File 5/65 I, IOR/R/15/1/200: 18 Jan 188914 Jul 1905, pp. 1213. 

[xlix] Ibid., pp. 15–16.

[l] Ghosh 1999.

[li] Ahuja 2006.

[lii] Ahuja 2006, p. 119.

[liii] Fields & Fields 2012.

[liv] Enclosure No. 1, letter from India Office to Foreign Office, 16th February 1897. File 5/65 I, IOR/R/15/1/200: 18 Jan 188914 Jul 1905, p. 17, BL, London. Italics mine.

[lv] Enclosure No. 2, letter from Foreign Office to India Office, 24th February 1897, Ibid.

[lvi] Enclosure in No. 3, letter from A.H. Hardinge, British Agent and Consul General at Zanzibar, to the Marquis of Salisbury, Foreign Office, 14th April 1897, Ibid., pp. 18–19. Italics mine.

[lvii] CMS/B/OMS/C I3/O61/261 C.

[lviii] “The consumption of labour-power is completed, as in the case of every other commodity, outside the market or the sphere of circulation. Let us therefore, in company with the owner of money and the owner of labour-power, leave this noisy sphere, where everything takes place on the surface and in full view of everyone, and follow them into the hidden abode of production… The sphere of circulation or commodity exchange, within whose boundaries the sale and purchase of labour-power goes on, is in fact a very Eden of the innate rights of man... When we leave this sphere of simple circulation or the exchange of commodities, which provides the ‘free-trader vulgaris’ with his views, his concepts and the standard by which he judges the society of capital and wage-labour, a certain change takes place, or so it appears, in the physiognomy of our dramatis personae. He who was previously the money-owner now strides out in front as a capitalist; the possessor of labour-power follows as his worker.” Marx 1976/1990, pp. 279–80.

[lix] Letter from Senior Magistrate of Police, Bombay to J.G. Lumsden, Secretary to Government, 6th October 1853, in Slavery. Vol. 95, No. 1048, 1853, Judicial Department. MRA, Mumbai.

[lx] Letter from Senior Magistrate of Police to Secretary to Government, 5th October 1853, Ibid.

[lxi] A Times of India article from 1882 describes an athletic entertainment event for seamen of the Indian squadron, both British sailors and native lascars. The man who is noted as having won the flat race as well as the sack race for sailors of the Indian Marine is described as a “Seedee, who took to the race with considerable jollity”, “made a very favourable impression” on the onlookers, and “once his feet were off the ground, … ran along with amazing rapidity, and, excepting in one instance, outdistanced his competitors.” He is depicted as a figure of entertainment, an “irrepressible” “son of Ham”, but his appearance in the ranks of the sailors is not treated as an anomaly (“Entertainment to the Indian Squadron,” The Times of India, Bombay, November 20 1882, p. 5). Another article from 1903 mentions a row in Bombay involving “Seedee seamen” from “His Majesty’s Ship Perseus”, with the man who died being described by one of the European witnesses as a “Seedee seaman in man-of-war costume” (“Row in Bazaar Gate Street. Alleged Assault on a Seedee,” The Times of India, Bombay, July 24 1903, p. 6).

[lxii] Report of the Commander in Chief of the Indian Navy, Bombay to Secretary of Government, 18th October 1853, Slavery. Vol. 95, No. 1048, Judicial Department, 1853. MRA, Mumbai.

[lxiii] Letter in the Standard, reprinted under the heading “The Wreck of the Tasmania” in The Times of India, Bombay, May 17 1887, p. 5.

[lxiv] Bullen 1900, p. 317.

[lxv] Bullen 1900, p. 324.

[lxvi] Bullen 1900, p. 327.

[lxvii] Ahuja 2006, p. 129.

[lxviii] Lawless 1994, p. 35.

[lxix] Hood 1903, p. 11. Also, Hope 1990, p. 324.

[lxx] Ahuja 2006, p. 130.

[lxxi] “India Revisited,” The Times of India, Bombay, December 10 1885, p. 5. Italics mine.

[lxxii] “Talk Of the Town. An old Anglo Indian. The Wanderer,” The Times of India, Bombay, May 4 1892, p. 4.

[lxxiii] The exception to this pattern is Janet Ewald who points out in detail that “the P&O Company displayed particularly sharp divisions between almost exclusively Indian deck crews and often predominantly African engine room crews.” Ewald however speaks of Sidis often as synonymous with Africans, pointing to the birth or departure from Zanzibar of many stokers in the crew lists of P&O ships. Part of this problem is a result of grappling with the difficulty of knowing which terms to use to designate groups in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that did not fit the moulds (“African”, “Arab”, “Indian”) which we use for categorization today or simply accepting colonial terminology when they used those categories of identification for “native peoples”. Ewald 2000, p. 87.

[lxxiv] “Seamen: Definition of the term “Lascar or other native seamen”,” File no. 193. 1921–22, Marine Department, MRA, Mumbai.

[lxxv] Ewald 2000, p. 88.

[lxxvi] “National Seaman’s Union of India Bombay, Constitution and Rules,” 1933, in ‘Bombay’, IOR/Q/IDC/6: 19131935, BL, London.

[lxxvii] Wolf 2009, pp. 353–69.

[lxxviii] Letter from G.W Allen in the Standard, reprinted under the heading “The Wreck of the Tasmania” in The Times of India, Bombay, May 17 1887, p. 5.

[lxxix] Ibid.

[lxxx] Letter from James W. Roughton in The Times of India, Bombay, May 24 1887, p. 5.

[lxxxi] “The Wreck of the Tasmania” in The Times of India, Bombay, May 17 1887, p. 5.

[lxxxii] Ibid.

[lxxxiii] Ibid.

[lxxxiv] Letters in The Times of India, Bombay, May 24 1887, p. 5.

[lxxxv] Letter from Fred Cates, Commander of Steamship Rome and the Commodore of the P&O Company’s Fleet, in ibid.

[lxxxvi] Republished in The Times of India, Bombay, May 17 1887, p. 5.

[lxxxvii] “The Wreck of the Tasmania: The Vexed Points Cleared up by a Passenger,” in The Times of India, Bombay, May 31 1887, p. 5.

[lxxxviii] “Statement by the Lascar Crew of the Tasmania,” in The Times of India, Bombay, June 16 1887, p. 4.

[lxxxix] The Times of India, Bombay, June 27 1887, p. 4.

[xc] Ibid.

[xci] The same coal and steam-powered process of accumulation premised on the abstraction of labour and time that did this violence to Sidi men’s bodies in steamship stokeholds, also destroyed the landscape of the coal-rich Chhota Nagpur plateau in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Matthew Shutzer writes in detail about how colonial law, in its effort to legitimize mining since the coal boom of the 1890s, abstracted land from its crop and tree bearing concrete attributes into a space governed by the value of minerals beneath it. Shutzer 2021, pp. 400–32.

[xcii] Notes from the author’s interview with Maqwa Sidi Abdul Rauf, 24th July 2016. Mumbai, Sidi Mohalla, shrine of Bava Gor.

[xciii] Catlin-Jairazbhoy & Alpers 2004; Jairazbhoy & Catlin-Jairazbhoy 2003; Shroff 2013; Obeng 2007; Basu 2008; Jayasuriya & Pankhurst 2003; Prasad 2005; Ali (eds.) 2020.

[xciv] Helene Basu’s detailed work on the Sidis of Gujarat also explains the importance of Bava Gor and his siblings, Bava Habash and Mai Misra, in the construction of a Sufi, African-Gujarati jamāt united by ties of kinship. Basu 2001, p. 265. Unlike the Sidis of her study however, who disliked the use of the term “Habshi” to describe themselves because of its connotations with slavery, Sidi Rauf of Bombay proudly laid his claim to “Habshi”, using it to denote his jamāt more frequently than “Sidi”, and also explicitly claiming a past of slavery through a narrative of strength and loyalty.

[xcv] Sidi Rauf’s representation of Sidi origins through a lineage of travel and service to Islam resonates in many ways (though not all) with Mana Kia’s description of itinerants in the early modern Persianate world (Iran, Turan, Hindustan) and their articulation of origins not in simple terms of birth but as lineages of place, service, achievements and learning. While the many individual subjects of Kia’s study are scholars and administrators who authored histories and commemorative texts unlike working class Sidis, her description of lineages as “polyglot, multiple, aporetic, and contextually determined” still apply to Sidi Rauf’s origin story. Names, she says, were “condensed narratives of origin” that accrued over time and changed contextually, taking a fixed form only when demanded by the modern state. (Sidi Rauf initially introduced himself to me as Abdul Rauf, then added, “Please write Sidi. And before that write Maqwa, which means the leader (patel) of this jamāt.” “Maqwa Sidi Abdul Rauf” was thus how he chose to represent himself to me, an interviewer seeking to write about the history of his community.) “Although place was part of origin, it did not by itself structure origin’s meaning. Even in lineages of place a person’s birthplace and subsequent homes constituted a list, along with other types of places, such as ancestral homelands, … destinations marking passages, or locations of… devotional apogee.” Kia 2020, p. 104.

[xcvi] Cohn 1987, pp. 224–54.

[xcvii] Shaw 1935, p. 208.

[xcviii] Ismaa’il 1928/1977, p. 375.

[xcix] Ismaa’il 1928/1977, p. 376.

[c] I am grateful to my anonymous reviewer for drawing my attention to the work of Milinda Banerjee on the violence done by the abstract, patriarchal and bourgeois notion of “dynasty” globalized and imposed by European colonialism (similar to that of “race” in this article), and the more collective forms of regality (such as ‘rajvamshi’ and ‘Kshatriya’) embraced by subaltern communities of Tripura in resistance against both colonisers and upper caste elites. Banerjee 2020. Also see Banerjee & Afnasyev 2020.

[ci] Fanon 1964, p. 4. I know from Fanon that “sidi” was used by French colonialists to refer to Algerians, but am unaware of the history of that name in the Algerian context.