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Yakut Khan: the Indian Admiral of African ancestry, story of the 1690 CE defeat of the East India Company

Written by Oadeye

Yakut Khan, whose real name was Siddi Qasim Khan and also known as Sidi Yaqub, was an Indian of the Siddi ethnicity (also referred to Sheedi or Habshi)[1]. The Siddi ethnic group is a social grouping for the identifiable descendants of East Africans that migrated to India during the second millennium of our era. They are predominantly found in the Karnataka and Kerala areas of India. During the time period referred to in this article, they were loyal to the Mughal Empire and were reputed to have the best seafarers. They also inhabit parts of Pakistan. Many of their ancestors were sailors, merchants and mercenaries who settled in these regions.

Portait of Yakut Khan

Yakut Khan was therefore of African descent and is often depicted to have dark skin. He was from the Murud Janjira area[2]. He converted to Islam when growing up as a child and was given the name Qasim Khan. It was only after he became Admiral of the Mughal navy that he was titled Yakut Khan by the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.

As a young man he served the Bijapur Sultanate, a Shia Muslim dynasty that centred in present-day Bijapur district, Karnataka India. Yakut Khan later went on to serve the Mughal Empire which was typical of the Siddi in those times. Under the Mughal Empire, he rose to become an admiral.

He led the Mughal fleet to many victories. Some notable deeds include the attack and defeat of the Marathas; for which, he had to enter the seven islands of Bombay to accomplish. He led the Mughal fleet in the defeat of the British during the 1689 siege of Bombay. There is also an account of how he saved the Portuguese from the Marathas after they were abandoned by Sambhaji Bhosale.

Emperor Aurangzeb, the Sixth Mughal Emperor of India

The siege of Bombay

Although the active part played by Yakut Khan during the Anglo-Mughal war took place in 1689, the events that led up to the English seizing and barricading themselves in Bombay actually began in 1682.

In 1682, the then British-owned East India Company wanted more trade control and privileges throughout the Mughal Empire. So they sent one of their own Sir William Hedges to meet with Shaista Khan the Mughal governor of Bengal in order to obtain a permit or firman[3]. During negotiations, Sir Josiah Child the company’s governor in London disrupted the process resulting in Emperor Aurangzeb cancelling all negotiations.

Sir Josiah responded by starting a war with the Mughals. In 1685 he dispatched Admiral Nicholson armed to the teeth, with orders to capture and seize Chittagong and its surrounding territories. Chittagong was then a major coastal city and very important financial centre in the Mughal Empire. However during the journey to Chittagong, his fleet was dispersed, and many of his vessels veered off the destination path and entered Hooghly not entirely far off Chittagong. They finally anchored at the company’s factory.

This battle-ready English army rattled Shaista Khan and indeed the Emperor. Shaista Khan attempted to settle the differences and negotiations were about to resume, but an incident involving three English soldiers beaten by some Mughal officials in the market place of Hooghly again erased all progress in the already tensed atmosphere. In retaliation, the admiral Nicholson commenced an assault on the town and went ahead to burn down over 500 houses.

1753 Bombay on the Malabar Coast belonging to the East India Company (HEIC)

The Mughals were enraged. They pretended to be interested in the start of new negotiations in 1686 and intentionally delayed progress until they had assembled enough troops to attack the British and re-gain military control of the areas seized.

In 1688 the British deployed a fleet to blockade the Moghul harbours on India’s west coast. They captured ships that were on their way to Mecca with pilgrims. This incident prompted Emperor Aurangzeb to re-commence negotiations with the British. The British rather sent reinforcements with Captain Heath at the helm. On his arrival he rubbished the pending treaty and destroyed Balasore, a city in the Mughal Empire, before setting sail to Chittagong. However, on getting to Chittagong he realised he had underestimated the Mughals as the resistance and fortification he met was not what he expected and many English fleets were destroyed. The English forces retreated to Bombay and barricaded themselves in. The Mughal Emperor ordered the extirpation of the British and the seizure of all their properties. This reduced the strength of the British to the fortified towns of Mandras and Bombay from where they mounted a resistance for a long time.

In 1689 the Emperor ordered a strong Mughal fleet from Janjira commanded by admiral Yakut Khan to take back the city.

Arial view of Janjira fort

Yakut Khan laid siege on the city and after a year of resistance, in 1690 the British finally surrendered. The East India Company sent envoys to Emperor Aurangzeb to plead for pardon; the envoys had to prostrate themselves before the Emperor, they swore to obey and conduct themselves better in the future and were made to pay a huge sum of about 150,000 rupees as restitution; going by present-day conversion this was well over a billion US dollars. In addition the Emperor insisted on the Company dismissing the governor of the East India Company Sir Josiah Child; bringing an end to the conflict. Sir Josiah Child died before he was sacked.

Not quite happy with the extent of the agreement, Yakut Khan had his men destroy fort Mazagoan, an English stronghold, before withdrawing his men. The company later re-commenced operations and established a new base at Calcutta.

The siege of Bombay in which he led the Mughal forces to victory was the final act in the first Anglo-Mughal war. There have been accounts of defections of soldiers from the East India Company to Yakut Khan’s side during the siege[4].

Yakut Khan died in 1733, an unlikely African hero in foreign lands. There are more Africans like him who accomplished great deeds in foreign lands. There is no clear indication as to where he was buried, but Indians and the British who know their history will always acknowledge the deeds of Yakut Khan especially his role in the defeat of the East India Company.

Sources

History Workshop Journal, Volume 84, 1 October 2017, Pages 149–169

The African dispersal in the Deccan: from medieval to modern times, By Shanti Sadiq Ali, Published by Orient Blackswan, 1996,Public Domain, ISBN 81-250-0485-8, ISBN 978-81-250-0485-1

Yimene, Ababu Minda. An African Indian Community in Hyderabad: Siddi Identity, Its Maintenance and Change. Cuvillier Verlag. p. 204. ISBN 978-3-86537-206-2.

Nandgaonkar, Satish (2003-03-22). “Mazgaon fort was blown to pieces – 313 years ago”. Indian Express. Express Group. Retrieved 2008-09-20.

Prakash, Om (1987). European Commercial Enterprise in Pre-colonial India. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-25758-9.

Citations

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siddi
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sidi_Yaqub
  3. A firman is an imperial directive that would grant England regular trading privileges throughout the Mughal Empire
  4. History Workshop Journal, Volume 84

About the author

Oadeye

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