Dr. Jane Hooper contextualizes "Africans in India" exhibit with historical lecture

Eager students and professors gathered as Dr. Hooper discussed the general history of African and Indian relations (photo by Amy Rose).
Eager students and professors gathered as Dr. Hooper discussed the general history of African and Indian relations (photo by Amy Rose).

Dr. Jane Hooper, a historian and professor at Mason, spoke at a lecture and reception held in Mason Hall’s Meese Conference Room on Jan. 30.

Although the general public was invited, History and Art History students and professors made up a majority of the audience.

The lecture was organized by the Office of Global & International Strategies in order to add an extra layer of depth to the neighboring art exhibit, “Africans in India: From Slaves to Generals and Rulers.”

As the exhibit’s title suggests, the lecture covered the general history and positions of power obtained by East Africans found throughout twelfth to eighteenth century India.

Hooper explained that the earliest recorded history of African culture and people came mainly from a European perspective. These texts were often inaccurate, skewed or only covered a fraction of the truth due to the limited knowledge Europeans had regarding Africa.

While historians today are developing a better understanding of different African cultures from non-European perspectives, Hooper stressed that texts alone hardly bring to life the personal stories traced through the centuries. The “Africans in India” exhibit covers a rare portion of history through colorful paintings and photos that display East African influence in India.

Hooper’s central explanation for this influence was the “longevity of connections across the Indian Ocean” between East Africa and its Indian neighbor.

Geography is partly responsible for the reliable travel established between both countries separated by the Indian Ocean. As a result, goods and ideas spread more easily. Both cultures gained a better understanding of each other.

Differences between the European and Indian slave trade markets also affected how Africans were received in different cultures. Hooper explained that slave trade in India took place on a far smaller scale than in Europe and the Americas. The sole reason India turned to Eastern Africa as a source for slaves was because competing markets had blocked off other sources.

African slaves also developed a stronger sense of loyalty to their Indian masters because it was easier and more common for slaves to gain their freedom in India. Some former slaves even became slave owners themselves in order to regain lost control.

Other East African slaves helped reshape Indian culture through religious, political and military positions of power. Many became kings, governors, artists, architects, city planners, musicians and much more.

For Hooper, the most striking thing about this exhibit is the fact that “Africa is not isolated.”

Her hope was that visitors would remember the lack of choice prevalent in African history and then see the number of African individuals in India that were able to reclaim their lives and reassert their free will. The exhibit tells a story of unity, reconnection and self-expression.

For more information on the exhibit, check out the lifestyle section in the upcoming print issue of Fourth Estate.

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