Black Africans in Asian Countries Impacted by Tsunami

San Francisco Bayview, News Report, Runoko Rashidi Posted: Jan 20, 2005

All of the countries in Asia impacted by the recent tsumani have Black populations. Sadly, far too many people, including many Blacks themselves, seem unaware of this.

Indonesia, for example, the country that seems to have suffered the worst damage, is made up of more than 13,000 islands stretching from the Asian mainland into the Pacific Ocean. Numbers of these islands have Black residents. Of course, many of the Black people in Indonesia live in the occupied territories, most notably the Papuans of Irian Jaya (the western half of New Guinea) or what they refer to as “West Papua.” These Blacks have been brutally treated by the Indonesian government in a policy that approaches genocide. Fortunately, the Papuans of Indonesia appear to have largely escaped the tsunami’s wrath.

Thailand and Malaysia

Thailand and Malaysia, towards the northeast of Indonesia, appear to have been next in the path of the tsunami. Thailand, like Indonesia, is a country with an extremely ancient but little known Black population. Here I am referring to the forest dwelling people called “Sekai,” sometimes identified by the pejorative term “Negritos” and probably more accurately known as “Mani.” These people live in southern Thailand in the region straddling the border with northern Malaysia. They are forest dwellers and seem to relish their isolation.

In addition to the Mani groups, however, the Black presence in Thai antiquity is perhaps best manifested and most clearly demonstrated in the numerous Africoid images of the Buddha. Making the great link between antiquity and the modern era, as far back as 1883 in his brilliantly written “History of the Negro Race in America,” African-American scholar George Washington Williams pointed out that:

"In the temples of Siam (Thailand) we find the idols fashioned like unto Negroes .... Traces of this black race are still to be found along the Himalaya range from the Indus to Indo-China, and the Malay Peninsula, and in mixed form through the southern states to Ceylon."

In Malaysia, these “Small Blacks” have been denoted as “Orang Asli” (Original Man). Pejoratively they are known as “Semang,” with the connotation of savage. They live in the rainforests of northern Malaysia and are probably the aboriginals of the land. It is tragic that the contributions of these small Black people to monumental high cultures characterized by urbanization, metallurgy, agricultural science and scripts remain essentially unexamined.

Sri Lanka

Someone recently asked me about African people in Sri Lanka. My response was, “It all depends on what you mean by ‘African.’” The majority Sinhalese population of Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) is itself very dark. Then you have the Tamils from South India residing in Sri Lanka. They, also, are very dark people. They are Dravidians with some of them being quite black. These are the Blacks currently fighting the Sinhalese Sri Lanka government for independence or at least a greater degree of autonomy.

Then you have the group of Blacks arrived more recently from Africa in Sri Lanka called "Kaffirs." They are very similar to the African populations in Iraq, Iran and Kuwait and known in Pakistan as “Sheedis” and India as “Siddis” and “Habshis.” There seem to be only a few thousand of these Kaffirs in Sri Lanka, but they represent the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the island within the past several hundred years. These Blacks have distinct recollections of Africa.

And certainly not to be left out of the discussion are the descendants of probably the original people of Sri Lanka and these people are generally called “Veddas” or “Veddoids” and have a strong resemblance to Aboriginal Australians. In respect to phenotype, all of these populations are Black.

The African presence in India

Since the first modern humans (Homo sapiens sapiens) were of African birth, the African presence globally can be demonstrated through the history of the Black populations that have inhabited the world within the span of recent humanity. Not only are African people the aboriginal people of the planet, however; there is abundant evidence to show that Black people created and sustained many of the world's earliest and most enduring civilizations. Such was the case in India.

In Greater India, more than a thousand years before the foundations of Greece and Rome, proud and industrious Black men and women known as Dravidians erected a powerful civilization. We are referring here to the Indus Valley civilization, India's earliest high culture, with major cities spread out along the course of the Indus River. In his “African Origin of Civilization: Myth of Reality,” Dr. Cheikh Anta Diop pointed out:

"There are two well-defined Black races: one has a black skin and woolly hair; the other also has black skin, often exceptionally black, with straight hair, aquiline nose, thin lips, an acute cheekbone angle. We find a prototype of this race in India: the Dravidian. It is also known that certain Nubians likewise belong to the same Negro type ... Thus, it is inexact, anti-scientific, to do anthropological research, encounter a Dravidian type, and then conclude that the Negro type is absent."

The term "Dravidian" itself is apparently an Aryan corruption of “Tamil.” In 1288 and again in 1293, the Venetian traveler Marco Polo visited the Tamil (Dravidian) country of South India and left a vivid description of the land and its people. In his “Travels,” Polo exclaimed:

"The darkest man is here the most highly esteemed and considered better than the others who are not so dark. Let me add that in very truth these people portray and depict their gods and their idols black and their devils white as snow. For they say that God and all the saints are black and the devils are all white. That is why they portray them as I have described."

Dalits: the Black Untouchables of India

Possibly the most substantial percentage of Asia's Blacks can be identified among India's 250 million "Untouchables" or "Dalits." The Dalits along South India’s coastal periphery were dramatically affected by the tsunami.

The Dalits, brutally crushed underfoot by India’s Hindu caste system, are demonstrating a rapidly expanding awareness of their lineage and their relationship to the struggle of African people throughout the world. In April 1972, for example, the Dalit Panther Party was formed in Bombay, India. This organization takes its pride and inspiration directly from the Black Panther Party of the United States.

The formation of the Dalit Panthers and the corresponding ideology that accompanies it signals a dramatic change in the annals of resistance, and Dalit Panther organizations have subsequently spread to other parts of India. In August 1972, the Dalit Panthers announced that the 25th anniversary of Indian independence would be celebrated as a day of mourning.

In the 1987 edition of the “African Presence in Early Asia” anthology edited by Rashidi and Van Sertima, Dravidian journalist V.T. Rajshekar stated: "The African-Americans also must know that their liberation struggle cannot be complete as long as their own blood-brothers and sisters living in far off Asia are suffering. It is true that African-Americans are also suffering, but our people here today are where African-Americans were two hundred years ago.

”African-American leaders can give our struggle tremendous support by bringing forth knowledge of the existence of such a huge chunk of Asian Blacks to the notice of both the American Black masses and the Black masses who dwell within the African continent itself."

The Andaman Islands

DNA studies published in The New York Times Dec. 11, 2002, focusing on the inhabitants of the Andaman Islands, a remote archipelago east of India, state that they are the direct descendants of the first modern humans to have inhabited Asia. “Their physical features - short stature, dark skin, peppercorn hair and large buttocks - are characteristic of African Pygmies. They look like they belong in Africa, but here they are sitting in this island chain in the middle of the Indian Ocean," said Dr. Peter Underhill of Stanford University, a co-author of the new report.

Only four of the dozen or so tribal groups that once inhabited the island survive, with a total population of about 500 people. This was before the tsunami. These include the Jarawa, the largest group, who still live in the forest, the Onge, who have been settled by the Indian government., the Great Andamanese and the Sentinelese.

These studies of the Andamanese suggests that they are part of what is described as a “relict Paleolithic population, descended from the first modern humans to leave Africa.”

Dr. Underhill, an expert on the genetic history of the Y chromosome, said the Paleolithic population of Asia might well have looked as African as the Onge and Jarawa do now, and that “people with the appearance of present-day Asians might have emerged only later.”

Initially, there was some fear that the recent tsunami may have wiped out these ancient African people. But apparently they have survived largely intact with a resilience, tenacity and determination that all humanity might look upon with admiration, pride and respect.

Runoko Rashidi is an African-American historian, lecturer and world traveler madly in love with Africa. He is currently organizing educational tours to Vietnam and Cambodia for April 2005 and Brazil for November 2005. For more information, contact Runoko at

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