Articles in this series:
Series: Red Sea and Indian Ocean
02. Ethiopia Across the Red Sea and Indian Ocean
We saw last week that Ethiopia imported large quanlities of cotton and silk from India, in ancient and medieval times. Now read on:
Jewels were another costly import from India, destined largely for the richest Ethiopian churches. Emperor Galawdewos’s chronicle states that several places of worship destroyed by the soldiers of the Adal conqueror Ahmad Gragn had been thus decorated with “precious Indian stones”.
Pearl-encrusted thrones from India were yet another costly import. They were imported for several monarchs, among them Emperor Dawit (1314-1411) and Emperor Na’od (1404-1508), who are known to have presented them to the churches of Tadbaba Maryam, in Gaynt, and Zemedu Maryam in Lasta, respectively.
Evidence of Ethiopian interest in India is apparent in medieval Ethiopian art, and literature. A painting in the church of Yemrahanna Krestos, in Lasta, depicts an elephant with an Indian-style mahout, or driver, and a howdah, or seat, with two passengers. A similar motif is found in the church of Dabra Salam, near Atsbi in Tegray.Both scenes probably illustrated the travels in India of St Thomas, which were well known to Ethiopian Christians versed in the history of their faith. The holy man, his teaching and martyrdom, are featured in both the Gadla Hawaryat, or Contendings of the Apostles, and the Ethiopian synaxarium.
The “Kebra Nagast”
Medieval Ethiopian awareness of India is similarly apparent in the country’s national epic, the Kebra Nagast. It contains sundry, possibly apocryphal, references to ancient Ethiopian and other relations with the sub-continent at the time of the Queen of Sheba, and later.
The Hapshis of India
The long-standing trade between Ethiopia and India was accompanied by a considerable export of Ethiopian slaves. Such men, women, and children came to be known in India as Hapshis, a corruption of the Arabic word Habash, or Abyssinian. The word was, however, used loosely, apparently for any slaves from Africa, or their descendants. Denison Ross, a British scholar of Indian affairs, less familiar with Africa, observes that Habshi was “a term indicating Abyssinian, but no doubt includes other negroid races from Africa”. Though the word was, as he says, no doubt applied to non-Ethiopians from East Africa, it is, however, highly unlikely that negroid people, i.e. West Africans from the Niger area, were ever taken to India.
Hapshis played a major role in Indian history, for, as Ross declares, “like the Turks who founded dynasties throughout the Muhammedan world these Hapshis usually began as slaves, and seem to have shown the same wonderful capacity, as did the Turks, for rising from slavery to the highest positions”.Several indeed established ruling dynasties, the history of which lies outside the scope of this, and the ensuing, article.
Hapshis are known to have arrived in India as early as the thirteenth century. The first Hapshi of whom we have record was a slave called Jamal ad-Din Yaqut, who is reported to have won the favour of Queen Radiyya (1236-1240), in the kingdom of Delhi.
Hapshis subsequently arrived in many parts of the sub-continent. The largest concentrations were, as to be expected, in the areas with which there was the most considerable trade with the Ethiopian region, i.e. in the north-west, especially Gujarat and the Gulf of Cambay. Hapshis were also established to the east of the sub-continent, in Bengal which was also engaged in extensive Red Sea trade. The local ruler, Sultan Rukn ad-Din (1459-1474), was reported to have no less than 8,000 Hapshi slaves, some of whom rose to high positions.The Deccan, on the west coast of India facing Africa, likewise had a sizable Hapshi population, who were first reported in the area at the time of Bahmani Sultan Firuz (1397-1422). He employed some of them as his personal assistants, and others in hisharem.
Alvares, He Said
The importance of the Ethiopian slave export trade, which constitutes the background to Hapshi history, was duly recognised by Alvares. He noted, of the 1520s, that Ethiopian slaves from Damot in particular were “much esteemed by the Moors”, i.e. Muslims, and that “all the country of Arabia, Persia, India, Egypt, and Greece” was “full of slaves from this country”. Such slaves, he says, “made very good Moors [i.e. Muslims] and great warriors”.
Ethio-Indian Contacts of the 16th and 17th Centuries
Ethiopian-Indian contacts, which dated back, as we have seen, to ancient times, were enhanced, in the late fifteenth century, by the coming to the sub-continent, and to Red Sea waters, of the Portuguese. The latter were perceived by Ethiopian rulers as fellow Christians, and potential allies, from whom military assistance could be obtained. Ethio-Portuguese contacts took place thereafter almost entirely by way of India, the sub-continent’s western coast becoming to all intents and purposes a stop-over on the route between Ethiopia and Europe. The first Portuguese traveller to Ethiopia, Pero da Covilha, who arrived there during the reign of Emperor Eskender (1478-1494), and the subsequent Portuguese diplomatic mission described by Alvares, likewise travelled by way of India.
Mathew, the Armenian, and Empress Eleni
Ethiopians and others making their way to Europe in this period also usually travelled via India. Mathew, the Armenian merchant despatched by Empress Elni to seek Portuguese assistance in view of impending Adal/Muslim pressure, thus went to Goa, whence he sailed to Portugal.
Ethiopian Travellers to India
The first Ethiopian of whom we have record to undertake the trans-continental journey to India and Europe was Brother Anthony of Lalibala, who later proceeded to Venice, where he was interviewed by the Italian scholar Alessandro Zorzi in 1523.
Only a few years later Emperor Lebna Dengel despatched six young Ethiopians to study in India. Four of them apparently arrived in Goa, “two to be taught to be painters, and two others to be trumpeters”. Whether they in fact ever returned to their country or not is unrecorded.
Christavao da Gama
A generation or so later, at the height of Ahmad ibn Ibrahim’s invasion of the Christian highlands, a Portuguese military force, led by Christovao da Gama, intervened, in 1541, on the Emperor’s behalf. It was reportedly accompanied by “over seventy persons trained in all trades, namely cross-bow makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, masons, shoemakers, and other handicraftsmen”. Their impact, if any, on sixteenth century Ethiopian technology has still to be analysed.
Subsequent contacts across the Indian Ocean led, during the reign of the Mogul Emperor Akbar (1556-1605), to the arrival in India of what his chronicle described as a “sea elephant”, i.e. an elephant from overseas. It came to him from the ruler of Gujarat, which, as we have seen, was one of the areas of India in closest relation with Ethiopia.This leads us to suppose that the animal was probably of Ethiopian, or at least East African, origin.
The growth of Jesuit influence during the reign of Emperor Susneyos (1607-1632), and his adoption of the Roman Catholic faith, witnessed a rapid expansion in Ethiopian contacts with Portuguese India. The monarch was reportedly much interested in the sub-continent, about which he asked the Jesuit missionary Pero Pais numerous questions. Susneyos likewise took an apparently even greater interest than previous Ethiopian rulers in Ethiopian rulers in Indian imports. He is thus described, by the Jesuit Manoel de Almeida, as wearing “a white Indian bofeta”, and elegant Indian slippers, one pair of which was given to him by the Jesuit Manoel Barradas, who presented similar footwear also to the Emperor’s son Fasiladas, and brother, Ras Se’ela Krestos. Susneyos likewise had a bed, or couch, decorated with “coverlets and blankets” from Diu, Cambay, and Bengal, and a silk umbrella, which also came to him from India.
A Crucifix and Chain
Susneyos also had a crucifix and chain, made by an Indian goldsmith, which reportedly filled him with joy, and sent for “seed pearls from India” which he subsequently wore in his crown. The country was apparently recognised as a source of jewels, as suggested by Hiob Ludolf’s Ge‘ez lexicon of 1681 which contains a reference to an a’enaqwe hendake, or Indian jewel.
Other acquisitions from the sub-continent reported at this time included a copper or bronze bell, which was hung at the Emperor’s great church at Gorgora, by Lake Tana,papaya trees, which, according to Pero Pais, “yielded very good fruit”, and Indian figs, which were likewise said to be “very good’.
Highly Prized Animals: elephants, zebras, and a parrot
Several highly prized animals also travelled between Ethiopia and India in this period. The voyage of “a small elephant from Abyssinia” is reported in the Memoirs of the Mogul emperor Jahanger. They recall that the beast, was “brought by sea in a ship”, in 1616. Its ears were reportedly larger than those of Indian elephants, and its trunk and tail longer.
At least one Ethiopian zebra was also taken to India. Susneyos is reported to have sent it as a present to the Basha of the Red Sea port of Suakin, whence “a Moor from India”, purchased it for two thousand sequins to take to Mogul Emperor. This, or another such animal, is described by Jahanger himself. He recalls that it arrived at his court, in 1621, and, though an ass, was “exceedingly strange in appearance, exactingly like a lion” – by which he probably meant a tiger; and had an “exceedingly fine line” round its eyes. The creature seemed so strange that some people thought that it had been coloured by hand, but the monarch rejected this view, stating that it was in fact “the painter of fate”, who had “left it on the page of the world”. The animal was so remarkable, and highly regarded at the Indian court, that at least two paintings of it were drawn by the Mogul artist Ustad Mansur.
The reign of Susneyos witnessed the arrival at the Ethiopian court of a parrot. It was called dura, apparently a corruption of duri, the Gujarati name for this type of bird. The Ethiopian royal chronicle states that it came from Hend, i.e. India, spoke “hend”, presumably Hindustani, or some other language of India, and several other tongues, but was, unfortunately, subsequently eaten by a cat. God bless its soul!