Black Samurai

I’ve written before about the Portuguese and Spanish voyages of exploration in East Asia, including the possibility of a group of Portuguese sailors being the first Europeans to land in Australia.

These early european sailors had in part been driven to find a sea route to Japan, a country that had acquired near mythological status in the late medieval and early renaissance imagination.

Of course, when they got there, they found something different from the myth, but equally fantastic. No gold roofed pagodas waiting to be plundered, but instead a wonderfully exotic culture and a set of feuding polities, whatever their nominal loyalties, as interested in expansion as the Spanish and the Portuguese.

Both the Spanish and the Portuguese armed and used Japanese mercenaries in their wars of exploitation in East Asia, and introduced the use of firearms into warfare in Japan.

At the same time we find stories of Japanese going the other way, either formally, as in the Tenshō embassy, or less formally as in the story Christopher and Cosmas, two Japanese men who were captured off the coast of Baja California when Thomas Cavendish’s commerce raiders intercepted a Spanish galleon bringing cargo from Manila.

The two Japanese were captured, and there’s circumstantial evidence to suggest that the spent time in England before setting out on a second voyage, on which they disappeared from the historical record.

However, the traffic was not all one way. Those of us of a certain age will be familiar with James Clavell’s Shōgun, a fictionalised account of the life of William Adams, an Elizabethan sailor who rose to prominence in Japan.

William Adams was not the only one, but this weekend I happened over an even more remarkable story, that of a Black samurai. In its telling the story is not that remarkable – a black youth, taken as a slave in Mozambique, or perhaps Guinea or the Congo, becomes a page to a Jesuit official who is visiting Jesuit missions in Japan. A Japanese warlord, known to be fascinated by all things Western, is fascinated by the black page and somehow acquires him, perhaps as gift from the Jesuit official.

The page, the Japanese called him Yasuke, we don’t know his African name, somehow became a member of the samurai class and served as a warrior.

A fascinating story, and perhaps there were other instances. And of course there’s a tenuous link to the story of the Kilwa coins – coins from the coast of East Africa that somehow ended up on an island off the coast of northern Australia.

I’ve speculated on various possibilities in the past, one of which was that there were black sailors from east Africa and Somalia working on Portuguese and Dutch ships sailing to the spice islands, which are now part of present day Indonesia. The story of Yasuke, while fascinating in itself, also provides indirect evidence of the presence of black people from Africa among the Portuguese and Spanish mercantile and religious community in early renaissance east Asia ..

Written with StackEdit.

About dgm

Former IT professional, previously a digital archiving and repository person, ex research psychologist, blogger, twitterer, and amateur classical medieval and nineteenth century historian ...
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