The Unknown Fate of the Japanese Slaves in Portuguese India

A Namban ship on Namban Screen, used by the Portuguese in Japan (Image: Kano Naizen/ Public Domain)
In the 16th century, the Portuguese traded firearms for Japanese slaves. Some of these slaves landed up in Goa.

In the Autumn of 1542, a fateful wind blew a Chinese ‘junk’ ship off-course from the Southern Chinese coast. The ship, carrying a multinational crew of one hundred, docked in the Japanese island of Tanegashima. Two to three Portuguese merchants were among them. It was the first time Europeans had set foot in Japan.

The foreigner’s arrival sparked great intrigue within the island. Unable to read Japanese, they were deemed illiterate barbarians from a faraway land. Barbarians who could not even use chopsticks – but the island’s lord, Tanegashima Tokitaka, took a keen interest in them, nevertheless. For in their cargo were two curious instruments.

Arquebuses; primitive but effective firearms of the 16th century. Tanegashima must have smiled when he saw them – for these weapons would change the course of history in Japan. The Portuguese too would have smiled, for they were cunning traders.

Tanegashima assigned his best sword-smith, Yasuita Kinbei Kiyosada, to work on replicating the weapons. But the Portuguese demanded a terrible price in exchange – Yasuita’s daughter. The deal was made and the Portuguese captain took her as his wife, and the ship sailed into the horizon. It would be years before Yasuita saw his daughter again.

It was the dawn of firearms in Japan. And it was also the dawn of the Portuguese slave trade of Japanese men and women.

The heavenly abode

An 1817 depiction of the first guns in Japan, “Giving up the gun” by Noel Perrin (Image: Public Domain)

What did the Japanese know of the Portuguese? Only that they came from a legendary and mystical place of great learning – Tenjiku, the Eastern name for India. The Chinese called it Tienzhu, the centre, for it was where Buddhism was born. The Islanders were eager to believe that these foreigners came from Tenjiku, and as it turned out, they were.

The men were Portuguese Goans. Goa was the capital of the Portuguese colonies in Asia, from where all the holdings in South and Southeast Asia were ruled. Word travelled fast between colonies, and soon, Portuguese and later Dutch merchants were trading with the Japanese.

Amidst this trade, Portuguese merchants brought Japanese slave girls back with them on the return voyage to Europe. These slaves appeared in India, China and Macau, wherever there were Portuguese holdings. Goa became a pitstop on the way to Lisbon; for some, the final destination itself. As Oxford professor Thomas Nelson wrote:

Very probably, the first Japanese who set foot in Europe were slaves. As early as 1555, complaints were made by the Church that Portuguese merchants were taking Japanese slave girls with them back to Portugal and living with them there in sin.

Japan was a largely hermit kingdom until that point, one that had begrudgingly accepted Europeans into its midst. As the slaves grew in number, the Portuguese risked dampening their relations with Japan if these complaints grew out of hand. And so, in 1571, King Sebastian of Portugal issued an order prohibiting Japanese enslavement, “lest it hinder Catholic missionary activity in Kyushu”.

This didn’t go down well in Goa. In 1603 and 1605 A.D., the citizens of Goa protested the ban to the King of Portugal and Spain. They claimed their slaves were legally bought, and at great expense. The King of Portugal was thus faced with a dilemma. On one hand, the Portuguese had employed Japanese slaves well into the previous century. But on the other, slavery was making the Portuguese – and by association, Christianity – unpopular in Japan.

The winds turn again

Portuguese traders landing in Japan (Image: Public Domain)

In 1587, the Japanese emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi banned slavery in Japan – except as a form of punishment. His declaration read:

It has come to our attention that Portuguese, Siamese, and Cambodians who come to our shores to trade are buying many people, taking them captive to their kingdoms, ripping Japanese away from their homeland, families, children, and friends. This is insufferable…would the Padre ensure that all those Japanese who have up until now been sold in India and other distant places be returned again to Japan. If this is not possible, because they are far away in remote king doms, then at least have the Portuguese set free the people whom they have bought recently. I will provide the money necessary to do this.

He had a deep dislike of European activities in Japan. Resentment was stewing and the fateful moment came in 1597, when the winds proved fateful once again. A Spanish ship, the San Felipe, was blown off course and onto a Japanese island. According to a Jesuit retelling of the story, its captain was arrogant with the Japanese customs officials – and claimed the Spanish king would easily conquer Japan if he so wished. When Toyotami heard of this, he was enraged. He ordered all Christians expelled from the country.

It was in the context and aftermath of this that an East Indian trader, Gonsalo Garcia, was captured by the Toyotomi’s forces. Gonsalo was tortured and crucified in 1597.

Thousands of miles away, with the winds turning against the Europeans in Japan, the Spanish king was forced to concede. In 1605, Phillip III declared that slavery with a title and the accompanying documents would be alright. An excerpt from his ensuing order read:

It was not my intention, nor would it have been the wish of King Sebastian, to prevent Japanese being held as slaves when there are just and lawful titles and in those cases in which the law permits it to be done, as with the people of other nation.

It was, indeed, a carefully worded order. The king had relieved the Portuguese state of the burden of banning slavery – suggesting that the practice would be halted only if the Japanese objected. The blame was shifted away from the Portuguese and towards the Japanese traders. But it was very unlikely that the Japanese who were selling the slaves in the first place were going to make any objections.

From the 1600s, Japan had anyway closed itself off to the world. For 250 years, the sunrise kingdom embraced isolation. Steadily, the slave trade declined. But nothing is known of what happened to the slaves who were left behind in Goa. Did they escape? Was Toyotami able to purchase their freedom? Do their descendants live on in India?

Many questions still remain about the fate of these Japanese slaves in the Portuguese Empire.

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