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a brief note on the African exploration of Asia
plus; the African presence in Japan (1543-1639)
For much of Africa’s history, many of its travelers who ventured outside the continent often went to western and southern Asia.
In antiquity, the North-East African kingdoms of Kush and Aksum which were closest to Asia, extended their control over parts of western Asia and Arabia. African rulers, soldiers, merchants, pilgrims and other settlers established communities across the region —from Nineveh in Iraq to Sanʿāʾ in Yemen— and engaged in cultural exchanges which linked societies on either shores of the red sea.
Over the middle ages, envoys and merchants from Aksum travelled further into south Asia, sailing regulary to the island of Sri Lanka and the south-western parts of India. Their exploratory initiative was later taken over by the Swahili who plied the routes between the Persian gulf and India, eventually travelling to the south-east Asian islands of Malaysia, and reaching the east-Asian state of China.
What initially begun as sporadic contacts between China and the kingdoms of Aksum and Makuria, rapidly grew into regular diplomatic exchanges involving several African envoys from many different Swahili, Somali and Ethiopian states travelling to China during the Song dynasty. In the 10th-14th century period alone, more than 8 envoys are documented to have travelled to China from 5 different African kingdoms. Chinese travelers reciprocated these visits, sending two major exploratory missions that reached eastern Africa in the early 14th and early 15th century, a few decades prior to the European irruption in the Indian ocean.
The African exploration of Asia wasn't halted by the arrival of Portuguese interlopers, but was instead re-oriented to exploit the changes in the political and commercial landscape of the Indian ocean world. As political alliances shifted between different regional and global powers, African kingdoms alternated their external interests between western Asia and south Asia, depending on their relationship with the Portuguese. Africans converged in the Portuguese city of Goa in India, creating a diasporic community that included visiting royals and envoys, catholic priests, mercenaries, and servants.
It was from this African community in south-Asia that the first Africans who travelled to Japan originated, arriving on the island nation in the 1540s.
The history of African travel to Japan is the subject of my latest Patreon post,
Read more about it here:
detail of a 17th century folding screen depicting African guests in a house at the port city of Nagasaki, No. 2015.300.109.1, .2 Met Museum
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