Afro-Asian Capital and its Dissolution

By Indrani Chatterjee

The English courtier and poet of the late sixteenth century Edmund Spenser expressed the contempt of the freeborn Englishman for the bonded thus: “For why should he that is at libertie, make himself bond? / Sith then we are free borne / Let us all servile base subjection scorne.” In the Mughal empire at almost the identical moment, an eighty-nine-year-old man carved the opposite sentiment in marble: “This old slave of the court, Mahmud, the stirrup-holder, does not feel any shame in serving the kings and the good” (Persian text: az ghulami padshahan va az ghulami khuban na-darad ‘ar bandah-idargah qadim-al-khidmat Mahmud rakab dar va sar afraz kardah). The military-economic dominance and the hegemony of the aristocratic Englishman has led to a divorce between the historical realities of state formation in the subcontinent and the political theories through which the latter are studied. This divorce has been substantively negated by historians of early modern empires that connected the globe in the period before the Treaty of Westphalia. This essay addresses this historiography in three parts. The first part locates the use of the term bandah (sing. “slave”) in some epigraphic records. The records say very little about terms such as Habshi (Abyssinian) or Sidi (likely derived from Sayyid, a title of eminent descent from the Prophet Muhammad) until late in the seventeenth century. Only official titles survived in the records of the earlier periods. The second part of the essay outlines the ways in which Mughal chroniclers wrote about such figures. The third points to the processes that undercut the Mughal-Deccani bureaucratic systems in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It concludes with a summary of the theoretical-philosophical implications of obscuring this past in the present.

Terms and Records

Two questions arise regarding the epigraphs dated between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries: To whom did a person belong, and over how many generations did a relationship of clientage develop between descendants of a master and ancestors of an erstwhile slave? I have discussed the first question, with reference to monastic and clerical property, in an earlier essay. This essay focuses on the second. Epigraphs identify first-generation male slaves of the sultan’s household-entourage as “Sultani” (belonging to the sultan). This was true not only for the famous Altamish and Aibeg in northern India (who went on to become sultans and commanders themselves), but of many other male figures of the period. Such males were recruited as cadets into a soldier’s establishment and trained to hold significant posts and titles in a particular military-administrative corps. Personal attachment (as a slave) grew into naukari (from nokor, sing.), a term that represented a cluster of relationships — such as that of personal retainer, loyal friend, comrade in arms, and bodyguard. Those especially trusted with confidential assignments were the “favored slaves” (bandah-i-khass). As their master’s agents and delegates, they traveled to, and governed at, outposts of an empire that remained territorially disaggregated. As office holders, such men were part of the administrative elite. Take the royal bandah-i-khass of Gujarat in the mid-fourteenth century, Mufarrah Sultani, for example. At least two epigraphs identified him by his title of ennoblement (Malik Ikhtiyar-al-daulah va al-din), his official employment as the royal inkstand bearer (dawidar/dawatdar), and his claims to social eminence as the “pride of the elite and the nobles” (mafkhar al-khawass va al-’umra), exemplary in his generosity, martial skills, and justice (Hatim-i-Tayy, Rustam, and Naushirwan). A pattern of delegated authority, eectively exercised by the sultans’ slaves, also prevailed in western Asian and the African mainlands at the same time. A second characteristic feature of west and south Asian political hierarchies pertained to the reproduction of dependence. Both Islamic legal interpretation and the sultanate administration incentivized the production of loyalty by divorcing the reproduction of the jural status of the slave (Persian bandah, Arabic ghulam) from that of the physical reproduction of persons in households containing slave women. The latter, once they bore children to the master, were elevated as umm-iwalad, a dignified state claimed by two women, who in one case even built a step-well and a mosque to commemorate their erstwhile master. Their children would have been of the lineage of the father. If the parents served in a greater household, such children were referred to as “of the household” (khanahzada) as well. As clients, the latter were expected to grow closer in trust and intimacy with the lineage of ex-masters and mistresses. When they were men, they often succeeded in establishing their lineages in a modicum of secure holdings of wealth and dignity through their employment. For instance, a record from western India identifies a Shaban, son of a Tuhfa Sultani, who had built a mosque (in 1452 CE) and endowed it with 6 ploughs’ worth of land in the village of Rakhiyal (close to modern Ahmedabad, Gujarat). Since the builder was also a favorite of the ruling sultan, a royal decree declared the garden as well as its trees and wells to be the perpetual property of this man’s descendants — both in the sons’ and in the daughters’ lines — and forbade the sultanate’s other officials from interfering with this estate. In sum, the second generation of a slave of a sultan (Tuhfa Sultani) had successfully established a domain autonomous of the sultan’s own taxation regime.

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