There was once a man who is described as having ‘a stern Roman face, skin as black as coal, and white glassy eyes’ who began his life as slave and rose to command thousands of soldiers in the defence of the Deccan against the Mughals. His enemies quaked in fear, and though he was despised by some for the colour of his skin, he was nothing short of a champion.
His name was Malik Ambar.
Malik Ambar was captured as a boy from what is now Ethiopia. He passed through multiple masters, one of whom educated him and converted him to Islam. By the time he was sold to the Peshwa of Ahmadnagar he had changed his name to Ambar. This helped him strategically gain the faith of the nobles at the time.
When the Peshwa died, his widow granted Ambar his freedom. For the next twenty years he served as a mercenary, mostly serving the Adil Shahs of Bijapur (they gave him the title ‘Malik’).
Over time, as his reputation of intelligence, strategic thinking and efficiency grew, the number of men he commanded did as well, until his force reached a size of around 50,000 men.
It was Malik Ambar who freed Chand Bibi from imprisonment, and he played a major role in defending the Deccan against the Mughals. Much to Mughal Emperor Jahangir’s fury, he could never defeat Ambar, no matter how many times he tried. There is a painting of Emperor Jahangir, illuminated in a heavenly light, pointing a virtuous arrow at the impaled head of a dark skinned enemy (meant to signify evil), presumably Malik Ambar. It was only in a painting that Jahangir could defeat Ambar, something he could never achieve in real life.
Ambar valued his position of power. So when he became involved with Nizam Shah in a struggle to assert authority, Ambar poisoned him and his wife. However, he raised their son, the Prince, dutifully and loyally, taking the position of regent until the boy came of age.
Malik Ambar spent his life in service to his kingdom, never attempting to seize the crown, but strategically defeating its enemies, and earning great prestige. His enemies tried to poison him many times, but they never succeeded. Ambar died peacefully of old age, surrounded by wealth and glory. After his death, even the Mughals conceded that he was an ‘able man’.
Jahangir’s only consolation was that Ambar died before him.
Pillai, Manu. Rebel Sultans. New Delhi: Juggernaut Books, 2018. Print.