Expanding the Scope of African Diaspora Studies: The Middle East and India, a Research Agenda
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Radical History Review 87 (2003) 157-168



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Expanding the Scope of African Diaspora Studies:
The Middle East and India, a Research Agenda

Joseph E. Harris


Since ancient times, Africans have traveled across the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean and settled both as free and enslaved people. They traveled as merchants, proselytizers for Islam and Christianity, entertainers, soldiers and sailors, concubines and laborers, and as adventurers. They have shared their cultures, adapted to host cultures, and contributed to the development of overseas societies; and many of the descendants of those settlers remain in a number of countries around the world today. Their presence therefore is essentially global.

Most notably in the pre-Atlantic phase of the slave trade, Africans participated in the expansion of trade and Christianity into southern European cities like Nantes, Seville, Toulon, and Genoa; they also participated in the expansion of Islam from the Middle East and into South Asia from the eighth century and encountered non-Muslim Africans who over the centuries had established residence in the Persian Gulf region and South Asia. Thus, centuries prior to the global slave trade, Africans had settled in both Europe and Asia as merchants and missionaries as well as singers, dancers, and adventurers. And in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Ethiopians joined the European Crusaders in the Middle East and accompanied some of them to Europe—Rome, Venice, Aragon, and elsewhere. Over time, these African missionaries became more involved in the Christian faith in Europe and settled among African merchants and others in European cities. In both Europe and [End Page 157] Asia, therefore, free communities of Africans emerged before the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade. It was, however, the slave trade that took most of the millions of Africans abroad to both Asia and the West. As free and enslaved Africans and their descendants settled throughout the world, they became stereotyped by previous beliefs embedded in publications of classical and other writers, general cultural lore, and as a result of the slave trades across the Mediterranean and Red Seas, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. 1

Pre-Islamic Arabs conducted a trade in Africans from northern and eastern Africa to parts of Europe, across Turkey, the Middle East, India, and as far as China centuries before the Atlantic slave trade peaked in the nineteenth century. They and Muslim Arabs enslaved Africans as domestic servants, concubines, soldiers, sailors, dockworkers, agricultural laborers on date plantations and coconut groves, pearl divers, and on salt flats. Although the Arab dhows generally carried only about a dozen Africans at a time, and often fewer, the numbers added up over time and left descendants throughout large stretches of the Asian continent, for example, Arabia, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, India, and beyond. 2

From the fifteenth century on, the Portuguese took shipments of captive Africans to the Persian Gulf region, India, China, and Japan; the Dutch transported them to India and Indonesia; the French shipped them to India and the Mascarene Islands (Bourbon and Mauritius); the British took them to India, Mauritius, and China; and of course all of them and the Danes shipped captive Africans to Europe and the Americas. The Euro-North Americans brought them to the Americas as well. Thus communities of African descent have made the African presence global. 3 Although this international displacement of Africans has proven a major force in world history and culture, only now is it beginning to receive the serious research attention it deserves. This research is promising because it is, for the most part, interdisciplinary and global. What is required, however, is a continued refinement of the definition of the concept of diaspora, the focus of this essay.

The African diaspora concept subsumes a triadic relationship—Africa as homeland, Africans and their descendants, and the adopted residence/home abroad—built on many years of voluntary and involuntary dispersions, with secondary and tertiary migrations as well. In addition, this diaspora has the following characteristics: Collective memories and myths about Africa as the homeland or place of origin; a tradition...