Yasuke: The African Samurai

Yasuke the African was the first non-Japanese member of the revered Ancient Samurai Order, and the only African to ever be inducted.

In the 16th century, the Portuguese in pursuit of Trade traversed the world’s Oceans establishing Trade Posts from Africa to the Asia Pacific. In 1543, they arrived on the shores of Japan and immediately established a brisk Silk Trade with the Japanese.

Nagasaki became a very successful Portuguese Trading Post, and soon Jesuit Missionaries from the Catholic Society of Jesus arrived, following the Traders as they had done in other regions like in Africa’s Mutapa Empire

It would be from the Portuguese African territory in Mozambique that Yasuke would rise from Christian Convert to Samurai Warrior in Japan.

Reportedly born around 1555 in Mozambique, Yasuke may have been given as a gift by the Mutapa King to Jesuits Missionaries who converted him to Catholicism. 

In 1579, he was chosen to accompany Jesuit inspector Alessandro Valignano to the Jesuit Mission in Japan. He arrived to find a feudal Japan characterised by Wars of consolidation amongst competing fiefdoms, with the Oda Clan proving itself to be the most succesful.

In 1581 Yesuka was brought to Kyoto, which was in the centre of power of the Oda Nobunaga Clan where his starkly different features made him a local celebrity because the  Japanese had never seen an African before.

Eventually news of the intriguing new resident reached Lord Nobunaga who ordered the Jesuits to bring Yesuka to his Court

Lord Nabunaga was impressed when he saw the African, and it was him who gave the enigmatic man the name Yasuke.

Yasuke’s integrity and strength endeared him even more to Lord Nabunaga and in 1581, Lord Nabunaga conscripted Yasuke into his service as a Samurai. He was given all the rights of a Samurai which included land and a household, Japanese garments, and a ceremonial Short Katana.

Its thought that Yasuke was instructed in the Bushido code, and how to fight as a Samurai.

Lord Nabunaga favoured him so much Yasuke was one of the few people afforded the privilege of dining with him. Yasuke aided his Master in his conquest of Japan where he fought in fierce battles against rival clans. 

After a series of battles in which Lord Nabunaga was victorious, Yasuke escorted him to Kyoto where the Lord decided to retire in isolation at the  Buddhist temple of Honno-Ji

Things would take a tragic turn however, as Lord Nabunaga would be betrayed by his close General Mitsuhide who attacked the Buddhist Temple which was largely unprotected. Facing defeat, Lord Nabunaga committed honourable suicide to avoid capture.

Yasuke escaped and rushed to protect his Lord’s Son, but this too was in vain as Lord Nabunaga’s soon also committed honourable suicide in the face of defeat.

After capturing Yasuke, the hateful Mitsuhide treated Yasuke with disdain, and because he was not Japanese, Yasuke not killed but was sent to the Christian Mission in Kyoto instead.

Little is known of what happened to Yasuke once he returned to the Jesuits and its unknown whether he died in Japan or returned to Africa.

Nevertheless his inspirational story reflects the unpredictable course destiny may have in store for us all. In addition, it demonstrates the intercontinental process of Cultural diffusion the activities of European Traders and Missionaries would have on the world. 

A process which still continues in our own world today.