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The First Sub-Saharan Africans in China? November 14, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

The following extraordinary passage appears in a twelfth-century Chinese text, by one Zhu Yu. The text is entitled Pingzhou Chats on Things Worthwhile – the Chinese have such a way with titles – and has several treasures. Consider though this passage and the wildmen.

The wealthy in Guangzho maintain numerous foreign slaves. These slaves are unequalled in strength and are capable of carrying – on their backs – several hundred catties. Neither their language nor their passions bear any connection to ours. Their natures are simple; they do not attempt to flee. For their part, the people of Guangzhou call them ‘wildmen’. As for the colour of these slaves, it is as black as ink. Their lips are red and their teeth are white. Their hair is curly as well as ochre-coloured. They are both male and female, and they inhabit the various mountains across the sea. They eat raw food. But once they are acquired as slaves, they are fed cooked food. They, thereupon, endure days of diarrhoea, which is referred to as ‘converting the bowels’. As a consequence they occasionally die of illness. But if they do not die, then they are capable of being socialized. After a long period of socialization, they become able to understand what people say, even though they themselves are incapable of speech [i.e. our speech?]. (trans Wyatt)

The question here is where have these wildmen slaves come from? The physical description seems to suggest Africans. But is that really possible in twelfth-century China? The other possibility is that these were East Asian ‘blacks’, perhaps from Malay. But the lack of linguistic sympathy and the problems at adjusting to Chinese cooking, suggests that we could here be in the presence of a population of Somalians or other sub-Saharan Africans, who had somehow ended up in China.

Guanghzho was the Chinese port that acted as a gateway to ‘the Western Ocean’ so the position within China makes sense: it also had a large foreign population including Persians and perhaps Europeans. As to whom brought the African slaves this far over, perhaps two hundred years before the Chinese treasure fleets ‘sailed the oceans blue’ we have good evidence for Arab trade with China. Perhaps then it was Arab slavers then who carried the ‘ink-black’ slaves eastwards and sold them to the bemused Chinese. It begs the question of when the first Chinese reached Africa. Have we really to wait for Zheng He in the fifteenth-century? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


16 Nov 2012: ML, JKMOL, ANL and Lehmansterms all got in touch to make essentially the same point. I’m going to quote Lehmansterms who can speak for all and I find myself persuaded: ‘Please don’t mistake me for an amateur anthropologist, it’s just that your last couple of blog entries have nearly begged for speculative information I felt I might supply by way of comment without sounding too silly. The description of the slaves being black with ochre colored hair puts me in mind of the inhabitants of the (?) Marquesas Islands, New Hebrides, etc. (the area of the Pacific in which are located islands referred to as “Melanesia”, I believe) who might easily be mistaken for Africans at a casual glance – but are not genetically or racially related - they merely exhibit some superficial similarities (as do, for example, the Australian aboriginal peoples).  The curly red hair, however, does seem significant as a distinguishing feature – and not common among Africans. As admittedly plausible as the theory that Arab traders brought Sub-Saharan Africans to China might be, we also have some significant evidence, if not a solid historical record, of Chinese voyages of exploration in the Pacific.  I have nothing more to suggest that this was the case, but the ochre hair seems not to fit very well with Africans and perhaps this potential connection needs to be considered.’ It is certainly true that this entry is often connected by Sinologists with Africa and it is also true that in Somalia (allegedly) there are Africans with blond in their hair on occasion. But surely this is the more economical explanation. There is also the point that another text suggests that the wildmen were often good swimmers. This is something we associate too perhaps above all with the Pacific Island people rather than Somalians. Though apologies if there is a strong coastal swimming tradition in Somalia too! Great thanks to ML, JKMOL, ANL and Lehmansterms for sorting this out (at least to my satisfaction).

20 November 2012: Michael Dunn of the Mideasti blog writes: I was  struck by the fact that these (seemingly) African slaves were in Guangzhou. That city, long known in the West as Canton, has long been (and still is today) one of China’s main contacts with the outside world. During the Abbasid Caliphate, in the years folloing 750 AD, the Arab/Islamic world developed a busy trade with China,  most of it conducted bet2een Basra in Iraq and the southern Chinese ports of Guangzhou (which the Arabs called Khanfu) and Quanzhou (which they called Zeitoun). That’s point one. Point two: in the hinterland of that same Iraqi port of Basra there was for a time extensive plantation slavery which led to a revolt in teh 860s to 880s known as the Zanj or Zanji revolt. These were African slaves: “Zanj” was the Arab name for East Africa, particularly the Kenya-Tanzania area, and the island of Zanzibar takes its name from Zanj-i-bsarr, “land of the Zanj”. So there were a lot of East African slaves near Basra who drop out of history after their rebellion was crushed. And Basra was trading with Guangzhou. Even if the Zanj rebellion has nothing to do with the Africans in Guangzhou, the fact that there was trade between Guangzhou and Basra from at least the 8th and 9th centuries (a Muslim tradition claims a companion of the Prophet Muhammad is buried in Guangzhou, having been sent to carry the Prophet’s message to the Chinese Emperor), and the fact that well before the period you’re talking about the Arabs were trading slaves from East Africa, ought to suggest an obvious potential source of African slaves in Guangzhou. Especially in Guangzhou. In the past couple of centuries Gunagzhou created a foreign colony on Xiamian Idand, where the US and other consulates are still located. (Been there.) But it was China’s gate tot the West as far back as the ninth century. No evidence: but if you’re wondering how they got there …. Judith from Zenobia writes ‘A possible contemporary alternative puts blacks on the Malabar coast of India. In the early 1160s, a Sephardic Rabbi named Benjamin set out from Tuteila  in Navarre on a wide arc across the known world. His intent was to document the lands he visited, with particular emphasis on the Jewish diaspora. His peregrinations took him to France, Italy, the Balkans, Constantinople, the Holy Land, Mesopotamia, Khuzistan, Persia, Quilon, and then, on his journey home, Yemen, Egypt, Sicily, Germany, Bohemia, Russia, and finishing in Paris, where he completed his Itinerary.  To make a very long story short, when he got to Khulam (Quilon) on the Malabar coast, he mentions Kushites (bnei Kush) living there, and he says: “And throughout the island, including all the towns there, live several thousand Israelites. The inhabitants are all black, and the Jews also. The latter are good and benevolent. They know the law of Moses and the prophets.” From Khulam, it takes 23 days by sea to reach Ibrig (Ceylon?) and from Ibrig to the land of Zin (China) a further voyage of 40 days.  Entirely do-able. Who knows how much of his journal is true?’ Rebis meanwhile writes: What immediately came to mind for me were the Adaman islands just off the coast of Burma. The island chain belongs to India but are so far east that they appear to be a continuation of Indonesia. Being relatively close to China they seem to be a good possibility as a source of blacks in early China. Genetically the black Adamanese are thought to be the remnants of the very early homosapiens that left Africa. Due to the extreme isolation and restricted access by the Indian government they remain genetically pure africans to this day.  Thanks Michael, Judith and Rebis!