The tragic and brutal slave trade is a well-known facet of African history. But many other stories of Africans outside that continent are known by few today: tales of royal dynasties in India; of knights, bishops, and teachers in Portugal; of interpreters in China; and of the first foreign-born samurai in 16th-century Japan.
This man known to history as Yasuke (possibly a Japanese corruption of Isaac) was most likely a member of the Jaang (Dinka) people, of what’s now South Sudan, who had been trafficked to India as a boy. There he entered the service of the chief Jesuit in Asia, Alessandro Valignano, who was on an inspection tour of the Indies. Valignano’s ultimate destination was Japan, home of the most successful mission in Asia, where he arrived in 1579 with his bodyguard and valet, Yasuke.
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The first record of Yasuke in Japan describes a 1581 visit to Kyoto, then the country’s capital. En route the Jesuit’s party passed the port city of Sakai, where huge crowds clamoured for a glimpse of the African; buildings collapsed under the weight of spectators, and the Jesuit procession was severely disrupted. In order to escape, Yasuke had to ride a horse through the throng of enthralled locals.
He was not only the first African they had seen but was, by Japanese measures, a ‘giant’ – 188cm tall – good looking, intelligent and entertaining, with the strength of 10 men. And, because the Buddha was often portrayed with black skin, many saw him as a divine visitor.
That raucous reception was repeated in Kyoto, where thousands turned out to witness his arrival. He took refuge in the Jesuit church but the mob broke down the doors, demanding to see him; some spectators were even crushed to death.
The most powerful warlord in Japan, Oda Nobunaga, was holding court in the Honno-ji temple nearby. He demanded to know who was disturbing his peace and, when he heard about Yasuke, ordered an immediate audience.
By that time Yasuke had learned quite a lot of Japanese, so was able to engage in conversation. The fascinated warlord had the African strip from the waist up, and scrubbed his skin to see if the dark hue was real. Finding it was, the delighted warlord threw a party for this astounding guest, and bestowed on Yasuke a large gift of cash, making him instantly rich.
A few days later, Nobunaga asked Valignano if he could take Yasuke into his service; Yasuke became Nobunaga’s weapon bearer – a position of great honour – and confidant about overseas matters. Within months he received a stipend, a residence in Azuchi Castle, north-east of Kyoto, servants and a katana sword. The katana is the symbol of a samurai warrior, so it is traditionally understood in Japan that Yasuke was the first documented non-Japanese samurai.
Over the course of the next year, Yasuke accompanied Nobunaga in battle at least once. They were conquering the territories just north of Mount Fuji, long held by the Takeda clan, the Oda’s mortal enemies. Yasuke was observed by a Japanese diarist just south of the holy mountain on the journey back to Azuchi.
In June 1582, Nobunaga launched a major campaign against his long-time enemies to the west, the Mori clan. A large army was already in the field, and he set out for the front with around 30 men, Yasuke among them. In Kyoto they slept in Honno-ji, the temple where Yasuke had met Nobunaga 15 months earlier. In the hour before dawn on 21 June they were attacked by the 13,000-strong army of Akechi Mitsuhide, formerly one of Nobunaga’s most trusted generals, who stormed the compound. Most of the defenders were dispatched with gunfire, the survivors finished off by hand.
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During the fighting, the temple caught fire. As flames swept through the temple, Nobunaga performed seppuku (ritual suicide). According to legend, his last order was issued to Yasuke, telling the African to keep his head from falling into enemy hands. Yasuke fled to the new head of the clan, Nobunaga’s son and heir, Oda Nobutada; however, he commanded only about 200 men, who were swiftly dispatched by the rebels, and he, too, was forced to take his own life. Yasuke was brought before Akechi, who ordered him to be returned to the Jesuits.
That is the last definitive historical mention of Yasuke. Records include sightings of similar men in Japan, but it is impossible to be sure whether or not they were Yasuke. There is evidence to suggest that he was remembered in Japan for another century before his story was forgotten. Today, the African samurai has been reborn as a character in computer games, anime, manga comics, films, books and theatre.
Thomas Lockley is associate professor at Nihon University College of Law, Tokyo, and co-author with Geoffrey Girard of African Samurai (2019, Hanover Square; published in the UK by Sphere as Yasuke)
This article is from the October/November 2019 issue of BBC World Histories Magazine. To gain more insight into how our world has been impacted by the past, subscribe to BBC World Histories Magazine today and save up to 60% off the shop price.