Miller Atlas Early 16th C Portuguese cartography
© CNRS-BnF, 2019
In the 16th century, the Mughals crossed the Indus from the Samarkand as victorious invaders, settling in the north of the country. Abkar the Great, grandson of the founder of this new dynasty of Persian culture, continued the conquest begun by his ancestors aimed at subjugating and unifying Hindustan under the imperial crown.
However, he encountered an obstacle in the shape of continued resistance from the Deccan Sultanates of Turkish-Afghan origin, established in the region since the 13th-14th centuries.
In the royal courts of this central region, Uzbeks, Turks, Arabs, Persians, Afghans, Africans, and Tajiks rubbed shoulders, alongside the native Hindu Marathi who would play their hand a little later in the game.
This melting pot was not to everyone’s taste, however, and particularly not the nobility who claimed to have their roots in the noble ancestry of the North. They coalesced in the Foreign Party, the Afaqis, defining political rule as their exclusive preserve and declaring that by virtue of ‘nature’ they and they alone were apt to rule, the defining feature of this natural election being their light skin. Standing in opposition to this party were the Deccan Muslims, a diverse and mixed group brought together by a form of ‘patriotism’ based on their land, their tombs, and their freedom, much like the historical characters in the novel.
This explosive context led to infighting among Muslims who also found themselves battling the imperial Muslims of the North. Westerners lost no time in taking advantage of the situation.
In this context, Malik Ambar’s political adventure had crucial stakes, reaching beyond the narrow interests of the royal princes who, in the absence of birthright, were killing one another left, right, and centre. In order to achieve political peace, society itself had to become more stable by overcoming the cultural divides of knowledge and religion.
The Great Mughal Akbar, in power when the Abyssinian slave began his political rise, was firmly convinced of this.
When he found time between massacres, the Emperor – who was illiterate and largely agnostic – was fascinated by metaphysical debates. He created an increasing number of Houses of Knowledge bringing together philosophers and poets.
He unified the calendars of Islam and Hinduism so that everyone celebrated festivities at the same time. He prohibited the more divisive or discriminatory traditions such as Sati or the marriage of young children. A Muslim himself, he married a woman from a Hindu minority, the mother of the future Emperor Jahangir.
He was at once Malik Ambar’s enemy and his inspiration. Like him, Ambar was an opportunist, moving his pawns according to the strategy most likely to serve the general interest, even when this came at the price of dishonest compromise. Or else he chose merciless war, which did not prevent him, unlike his model, from finding a source of inner equilibrium in prayer, practised in the street alongside the poor
The Portuguese arrived in Calicut in 1500. A century later, the English, under the banner ‘Trade not Territory’ were progressively establishing the East India Company. Neither the Dutch, focused on Insulindia, nor the French, who arrived later, were faced with the black hero.
In the novel, while the Portuguese in Goa play an important role in the early stages of the story they are then relegated to the background, whereas historically they remained present. I chose instead to place the English centre stage, focusing on their first steps in India in the presence of Malik Ambar, who could sense that these Westerners were driven by the lure of gain.
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Poster chromo of Shivaji.