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Book Review


Omar H. Ali, Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. xxii + 154. Key Figures, Timeline, Primary Source Excerpts and Study Questions, Further Reading, and Index. $16.95 (paper).


     Malik Ambar: Power and Slavery Across the Indian Ocean by Omar H. Ali is a short biography about a remarkable African leader that has superb potential for a variety of history classrooms.1 Part of Oxford University Press's "World in a Life Series," this thoroughly researched biography follows the life of an enslaved Ethiopian who eventually became one of the most powerful leaders in early seventeenth-century Southern India. The author, Omar H. Ali, is an associate professor and Dean of Lloyd International Honors College at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. A scholar of global and comparative African diaspora history, in Malik Ambar Ali introduces readers to the lesser-known African diaspora in the Indian Ocean world. This biography promotes nuanced classroom conversations about the meanings of ethnicity, social class, gender, and forms of inequality in historical contexts. I highly recommend it for a wide range of classrooms as well as to students, scholars, and history enthusiasts alike.

     Malik Ambar is organized chronologically in eight short chapters followed by helpful study questions and short primary source excerpts. Smoothly narrated, the biography strikes a fine balance between its subject and the wider historical context. Malik Ambar began his life as a young Oromo boy named Chapu in central-east Ethiopia in the mid-1500s. In this era, the Oromo often found themselves fighting against two expanding Ethiopian states: the Christian Ethiopian kingdom and the Muslim Adal Sultanate. Likely captured in the course of a war around 1560, Chapu was enslaved and sent to Mocha, then Baghdad, and finally Southern India. Along the way, Chapu acquired a new name, Malik Ambar, and a new identity as a Muslim educated slave-soldier.

     Late sixteenth-century Southern India (known as the Deccan) was home to many small independent states. Their future autonomy was uncertain as the powerful Mughal Empire began to expand southwards. Malik was one of many Ethiopians (known as Habshi in India) who arrived during these fraught times. Leaders in the Deccan valued outsiders like him as an ideal military fighting force. Without kinship ties to local royal lineages vying for power, such slave-soldiers were considered more trustworthy than free soldiers. Treated as fictive kin by their masters, many slave-soldiers gained privileges, social mobility, and, sometimes, formal manumission through these client-patron ties.

     Malik entered the household of Mirak Dabir, a Habshi slave-soldier, who had become the chief minister to the Nizam Shah of the Ahmednegar Sultanate. Quickly distinguishing himself, Malik learned leadership as well as military skills. After Dabir's murder in 1574, his widow formally freed Malik. During the next decades, Malik continued to serve in the army under the female Regent Chand Bibi, and he gradually rose through the ranks. Another powerful influence upon him, Chand Bibi led the Deccani military against the Mughals in 1595. Unfortunately, she did not survive long after the battle. After her death, Malik galvanized soldiers to continue fighting.

     In 1600 with a force of more than seven-thousand cavalry, Malik declared himself Regent of Ahmednagar. Malik relied on more than his large army for this move. He named himself Regent by invoking namak halal or "fidelity to salt" (40). This was a widespread custom where people swore a loyalty oath to an individual or leadership office. In this case Malik pledged his loyalty and skills to whoever occupied the position of Nizam Shah of Ahmednagar. Malik further bolstered his position through marriage ties: Malik married his daughter to the young royal family member he had selected as the next Nizam Shah.

     As Regent, Malik remained very much the de facto ruler. His responsibilities were many, ranging from managing the kingdom to handling court intrigues and navigating trade agreements with European merchants. A pious Muslim, he drew inspiration from the Qur'an and, like many Muslim rulers in the Deccan, he also respected the Hindi traditions of the majority of his subjects. Malik received widespread admiration for his land-revenue reforms. His innovation was to base land-revenue taxes on an area's potential for crop yield, rather than merely the land usage itself. This reform meant that peasants paid what they could afford (adding to Malik's popularity) and that the kingdom received more reliable revenue flows (97-98). A practical, not radical leader, Malik continued to further connect his family to regional elites. In 1609 his son married the daughter of a prominent nobleman in "a spectacular display of pomp and circumstance, commensurate with the standards of the two kingdom's nobility" (63). Throughout these years, Malik continued to battle the Mughals. Eventually, Malik's patience, genius for strategy, and leadership paid off; in the Battle of Bhatvadi of 1624, he soundly defeated the Mughal forces. Malik died two years later of natural causes. He considerably outlasted (and outlived) many of his rivals, with a military and political career of more than fifty years.

     Malik Ambar's experiences reflect trends in the wider African diaspora in the Indian Ocean world, a diaspora concurrent with the African diaspora in the Americas. There is no doubt, however, that Malik's life was exceptional. His very success encourages thoughtful classroom discussions about what factors shape inequalities and opportunities in particular historical contexts. Malik certainly had his detractors, most famously the Mughal Emperor Jahangir who, unable to actually defeat Malik in battle, commissioned a painting of himself shooting Malik's head with an arrow (61). Yet this very rivalry where Malik did politically and militarily threaten the Mughal emperor underscores the most relevant factor: Malik lived in a context where ability and skill mattered most, more than ultimately practices of ethnic difference.

     This biography does more than challenge readers to ponder definitions of enslavement, power, ethnicity, and freedom. It also shows how those factors tie into questions of social class and gender. Complex themes of gender run throughout this history from Malik's childhood when he was deemed valuable because some exoticized male Ethiopians as "brave warriors" to later court politics where gender and social hierarchy complicated webs of relationships. The biography also discusses one of Malik's early role models, the aforementioned female Regent and military leader Chand Bibi, who successfully led the kingdom and military in battle, leadership roles often considered "male" in this society. By asking when, how, and to what extent various categories of difference mattered in Southern India directs attention to how these categories became fluid or fixed in other contexts, a factor that makes this biography particularly well-suited for many classrooms.

     Malik's well-documented life means readers can also explore contemporary perceptions of his rule. The appendix includes, among other accounts, short descriptions of Malik written by a Mughal court chronicler, a Persian historian, the King of Spain, and Italian and Dutch merchants. Paired with the biographic text, such accounts enable discussions of historical method and introduce the historian's challenge of reconciling different points of view. Such primary texts also remind us that while Malik's life and the wider African diaspora in India may be less familiar today, Malik was well known to his contemporaries. Given the many strengths of this biography, one can hope that soon Malik's life will be widely known in western classrooms.

Andrea Felber Seligman is an assistant professor of African history at City College of New York. Specializing in pre-eighteenth century Africa, Seligman's research interests include the Indian Ocean world, African art, African-European encounters, and the use of non-documentary sources. She can be reached at



1 Readers interested in the topic of biographies in the classroom are invited to read the recent forum, "New Biographies in World History," World History Connected 14, no. 1, (February 2017),



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