As part of a series, TRT World explores fascinating stories of African figures whose contribution to humanity has been largely neglected.
Some time in the 16th Century, a man named Malik Ambar was captured by slave traders in Ethiopia alongside thousands of others and sold to the merchants in the Middle East.
A couple of decades later, Ambar emerged in India as a towering military figure. He gave a tough fight to the Mughals, challenging their invincibility until he died at 86 years of age.
Born with the name of Chapu in the Harar province of eastern Ethiopia in 1548, Ambar became the victim of slave trade as a child. He was bought and sold several times, changing between many masters and hands and different routes through the African continent until he landed in Baghdad via Yemen. He was lucky to escape castration, a common practice that was applied to slaves, as the merchant who bought him turned out to be a kind man. Kazi Hussein, his master, was a devout Muslim. He converted Ambar to Islam.
Hussein was impressed by Ambar’s intelligence, multilingual abilities and his exceptional memory power. He mentored Ambar, imparting strong administrative and financial skills to him.
At 22, Ambar lost Hussein's protection and slavery pushed him to India, where he served Chengiz Khan, who was the Regent Minister of the Sultan of Nizam Shahi in Ahmednagar.
Ambar's utmost loyalty toward his new master helped him earn military skills from Khan. Over the years, Khan also taught him battle strategies, diplomacy and other critical leadership traits.
When Khan died, Ambar gained his freedom by the decision of Deccan court and rapidly became a famed mercenary with an increasing number of soldiers following his command.
The Mughal Empire dominated the subcontinent but Ahmednagar, which is now the Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra states of modern India, resisted their authority. Ambar soon became the face of a resistance movement against the Mughals in the southern states, preventing the empire from entering into what was called the Deccan region.
His defiance and battle victories against the mighty Mughals made him famous in the sub-continent and he was given the title of Malik, which means king in Arabic. By 1600, he became a full-fledged military general, who defeated the armies of two Mughal emperors, Akbar the Great and his son Jahangir. Ambar led a compact fighting unit of 1,500 men from diverse ethnic backgrounds, Africans, Arabs and the Deccanis, who for a quarter of a century were hired by local kings to stop the Mughals from penetrating into the south and southwestern parts of India.
Following the defeat of Akbar’s forces in 1601, Ambar chose his son-in-law, who was just five years old, as his successor. With a juvenile on the throne, Ambar became the de facto ruler of Ahmadnagar.
He declared the areas he controlled as sovereign and named Khadki as its capital. He introduced a sophisticated irrigation system, built several palaces, and even married his children into the families of Indian nobility with the aim of integrating Africans into the South Asian elite.
During his reign, he faced a lack of water in Khadki and decided to use the underground reserves which were located in the mountains further north. Although he faced a lot of skepticism about his water policy, he undertook the project of building aqueducts to bring uninterrupted water supply to the capital for the entire year. He built water channels, still recognised as Nehers, within 15 months, a major feat at the time for which he was praised for a long time.
To build strong defences against the Mughals, he formed many alliances with foreign powers. His diplomacy paid off as the British, the Portuguese and the Dutch empires supplied him artilleries.
He died in 1626 at the age of 86 and was succeeded by Fatteh Khan, his son whose reign did not last long as he was imprisoned in 1629. But Ambar’s memory is still deeply etched in Aurangabad.