Belated Black History Month: a Black conquistador and a Black Samurai

When we think about conquistadors, the first thought we would have is probably of a typical Spanish man with spikes daring to enter the new world. And when we imagine a samurai, we would imagine a Japanese man with his katana. While these general concepts would be the majority, even in such unexpected places we could find footsteps of Africans.

Samurai in Armour, hand-coloured albumen silver print by Kusakabe Kimbei, c. 1870s–90s; in the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. There are few depictions of either the Black conquistador or Black Samurai. (Credit: J. Paul Getty Museum (object no. 84.XA.700.4.58), digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program)

Juan Garrido (1487~ 1547) was a member of the Hernan Cortes Conquistador expedition, Famous for causing the downfall of the Aztec empire. While records are scarce about his origins, he is said to have originated from the Kingdom of Congo or one of the southern Sahara’s Berber tribes. It is said he moved in his youth to Lisbon. Considering slavery was still active at the time, Historian Ricardo Alegira suspects Juan came from a powerful African Tribal leader or king whom the Portuguese have traded with. Other historians such as Peter Gerhard suspect he was a freedman ergo a former slave who has earned his freedom. This suspicion is due to one of the other Conquistadors, Pedro Garrido. 

In 1508 Garrido joined in his first expedition with Ponse de Leon and his conquest of Puerto Rico, making him the officially first African ever to fight a native of the new world. It is said he fought against the native revolt in 1511 and in 1513 after Ponce de Leon had been forced to step down in place of Diego Columbus.They even visited and found Florida despite being ill-prepared to conquer the land. By the time Cortes came into the picture Garrido was a veteran conquistador and one of the few that survived the Law Noche Triste (The Night of sorrows where Cortes had lost 2/3 of his army) and Battle of Otumba. (1) He was honoured as a veteran and given land by Cortes. He became wealthy as many did at the time in the New World through a use of slave labour. However, he was always looking for new adventures and participated in the expeditions to the North of Mexico and California where he spent an exorbitant amount of wealth leaving him destitute. In 1547 the man who saw the rise of the Spanish colonial empire in Americans had passed away after a lifetime of expeditions.

Yasuke (?~?) was a samurai during the Sengoku Jidai (Warring states period). It is unknown which part of African he had come from, but most agree he was probably from Mozambique. It is unclear if Missionary Alessandro Valiganano has bought him as a slave in Mozambique or in India. In 1581 when Valiganano met with Oda Nobunaga who took an interest in him. (2) Not believing there can be a black-skinned person Nobunaga is said to have ordered him washed but after seeing the skin colour hadn’t changed, intrigued Nobunaga requested to have him as one of his vassals in court and advanced Yasuke from a humble servant to a Samurai and bestowing the name Yasuke. Yasuke learned Japanese and the culture in just a short 2 years and impressed Nobunaga further through the fact he was recorded to be 188cm tall, making him a massive giant for the time period.. He served under Nobunaga until June 1582 when the infamous Honoji incident occurred where Mitsuhide betrayed Nobunaga. In some literary sources it is said before committing seppuku (Ritual suicide) Nobunaga asked Yasuke to kill him for him. After Nobunaga’s death, Yasuke joined Oda Nobutada as he rallied all his fathers’ men and fought to avenge Nobunaga, but he lost and was imprisoned for his efforts. But being foreign he was banished away instead of being killed. Some sources claim he was sent away back to the Christian church and afterwards this unlikely story end.However, some sources indicate he became a Ronin (A samurai without a master) and a record of a black gunman who fought for the Arima clan suggests perhaps it was the same Yasuke that did so. Considering gunman is a lower position in the feudal hierarchy and the fact Yasuke was recorded as having met many influential men during his stay with Nobunaga yet this man is only of a passing mention, it is unlikely this was the same African who ended up becoming a samurai. This wasn’t the end of Japanese interaction with Africans as during the Imjin War (Japanese invasion of Korea 1592~1598) when the Chinese reinforcement entered Korea there were 4 Africans who was introduced as Sea Ghosts (海鬼), that was set as a form of a special force that could hide under the sea at night time and attack the vessels effectively. While unfortunately there are no records of these 4 men being effective, there are records of the Japanese fearing the news of the fact Africans showed up on the other side which might indicate memory of Yasuke the giant who served under Nobunaga was still fresh in the minds of some Japanese.

Justin Kim, History in Politics Contributor


(1) As a side note at the same period a female conquistadora by the name of Maria de Estrada was also present for both battles being referred to by Bernal Diaz del Castillo who recorded the battles as the sole female combatant. And as part of the 23 cavalry that was instrumental in turning the battle in the Spanish favour. She like Garrido was recognized by Cortes for her valour and given land and lived a wealthy life before her death in 1537

(2) Oda Nobunaga was one of the Three leaders (三英傑) who is set to represent the Sengoku Jidai period. To understand each character’s significance, the poem at the time illustrates each individual beautifully.

Nobunaga prepared the rice,

Hideyoshi made the rice cake called Japan,

and Ieyasu sat and ate the rice cake.

織田がつき

羽柴がこねし天下餅

すわりしままに食うは徳川

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s