The Black Rulers of South Asia

Former slaves from Africa ascended to power during a time when the subcontinent had far greater social mobility and, perhaps, meritocracy.

LI 118 103-a-L black rulers
This painting of Sidi Masud Khan, a habshi minister at the court of Bijapur. Masud Khan remained in power until 1683, not long before Bijapur fell to the Mughals. He then moved to Adoni in the Kurnool district, where he governed for a short time and built a mosque. (Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford)

Sanchita Kedia


February 7, 2023


10 min

The Mughal emperor Akbar called Malik Ambar an “arrogant,” “evil-disposed” man. Dutch traveler Pieter van Broecke would write that Ambar had “a ruthless Roman face” and was “tall and strong of stature, with white glassy eyes, which do not become him.” 

Ambar, who had become the first African regent of Ahmednagar in 1607, was both feared and loved during his 25-year rule. He defeated the Mughals, built a new capital, reformed laws, married his daughters into the families of sultans, and lived a long life. But Malik wasn’t always a ruler. Before he was a regent, he was a slave. 

The story of Malik Ambar is not uncommon. Many Africans arrived in the subcontinent as slaves, but rose to hold important roles in the courts of regions such as Bijapur, Gujarat, and Hyderabad. Their stories represent something much more than a blip in history: a time when India had far greater social mobility and, perhaps, meritocracy. Like Ambar, they would go from slave, to kingmaker, and, sometimes, king or queen.

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