Outlying Areas of the Indian Ocean World

East Africans migrated to outlying areas of the Indian Ocean world: the Far East (China, Japan, and Indonesia) and interior regions of the Middle East (Turkey and Palestine).

China, Japan, and Indonesia

Africans traded with Chinese merchants and royal emissaries during the Sung (1127-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties. During the early 15th century the admiral Cheng Ho-an enslaved Muslim Chinese eunuch—led a series of seven imperial expeditions across the Indian Ocean; in 1415 his fleet brought a giraffe from Somalia, which Chinese court artists later painted in majestic fashion, so impressed were they by the kirin, as they called it (derived from the Somali word for giraffe, giri). Chinese porcelain dating from this period, and earlier, has been found in the walls of mosques and buildings along the East African coast. Although Chinese sailors and merchants had long made contacts with East Africans, it is not known whether Africans traveled to China prior to the rise of Portuguese naval power in the late 15th century.

Portuguese enlisted the services of Africans as sailors over the course of two centuries; some traveled as part of crews to China. In addition to ivory, tortoise shells and rhino horn from East Africa, some Africans were taken to China—mostly females, who were made concubines. African men also served as soldiers. In 1622 they defended the Portuguese base of Macau from Dutch attacks. That year, despite the seemingly overwhelming force of 13 Dutch ships and 1,300 soldiers, approximately 100Africans were given arms and, along with another 100 residents, repelled the Dutch.

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Africans traveled aboard Portuguese ships to Japan. They manned 2,000-ton carracks—three- and four-masted ships—especially after the Portuguese purchased Macau in 1557. These black sailors of the Indian Ocean traveled between Goa, Macau and Nagasaki; some of the African crewmen are depicted in Western attire in nanban byobu, Japanese paintings from the period of Portuguese contact.

Enslaved Africans were not only sailors, and in the case of women, concubines, but served as interpreters as well. While in Macau during the early 17th century, the English traveler Peter Mundy noted two "Abbasin [Abyssinians]"—Chincheo and Antonio—both of whom had run away from the Portuguese and had since become Cantonese interpreters. These Africans, like others in the Indian Ocean world, spoke languages in addition to their own and Swahili. Swahili, with a Bantu grammar and many Arabic words, served as a lingua franca for many enslaved Africans—a kind of bridge between the various linguistic and ethnic origins among captives in East Africa as well as those who crossed the Indian Ocean.


The "Belanda Hitam," or "Black Dutchmen," was the Malay name given to the 3,000 Ghanaians recruited by the Dutch colonial army between 1831 and 1872 to fight in Indonesia. The Asante kingdom of Ghana supplied the predominantly Kuma recruits whom they had enslaved. To avoid the charge of slave trading, the Dutch created a system of offering the enslaved Africans the opportunity to purchase their freedom using advance payment for their future military service. They were taken to Elmina on the Ghanaian coast and received a certificate of manumission upon payment, which went to the Asante. The recruits were then trained at Fort Saint Jago before departing on the long journey to Indonesia.

Typically, the soldiers were recruited at the age of 16 and worked until 30. Upon completion of their service, they were given the option of returning to Ghana. A number of veterans did return and settled down in the area of Elmina with a plot of land given to them by the Dutch governor. Others stayed in Indonesia and married local women, forming communities of their own in garrison towns at Java (Batavia), Purworejo, Solo and Semarang.

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The Ottoman Empire (1299-1912) initially secured enslaved men, women and children through conquest; however, as the empire expanded it increasingly looked to sub-Saharan Africa for slave labor. As the supply of white slaves from Central and Western Europe had been significantly reduced, especially after the Russian annexation of the Caucasus in the early 19th century, Ottoman Turks turned to the south. During the remainder of the 19th century Ottoman Turks, who controlled the major Red Sea ports, used the regular voyages of pilgrims to Mecca to purchase tens of thousands of African captives. By the 1860s, up to 15,000 individuals were carried annually on Ottoman ships during the pilgrimages to Mecca and Medina. Africans were taken aboard ships at Jeddah and transported up the Red Sea toward the center of the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia.

African males were used in various capacities in the Ottoman Empire, in households, in agriculture and industry, in the military and for specialized tasks. Some were apprenticed to their owners as assistants but sometimes advanced to become partners in businesses. Females served in a range of domestic capacities—as wet nurses, nannies, menials, cooks and washers—as well as concubines in harems. There they had contact with Nubian and Ethiopian eunuchs who protected and maintained the harems; eunuchs, with a value at least three times that of other slaves, also served as palace guards and staff, as confidential servants and as keepers of mosques and tombs.

Although most of the records of African captives concern those who served in courts and urban centers, there are occasional historical references to those who worked in the countryside. Africans were variously used for gang labor in agriculture—for instance, in state-maintained rice cultivation—as well as in mines and for draining marshes.

Africans regularly served in the Ottoman military, largely as infantry, and they also served as musicians, dancers and singers for the wider society. Respect for one of Islam's earliest converts and noted singers, Bilal ibn Rabah Al-Habash, is reflected in muezzin guilds in Turkey that venerate the founder of their sacred art form.

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Palestine and Israel

One of the early figures of African descent represented in the area of Palestine is a black maidservant assisting the biblical figure Judith, a Jewish rebel who charms her way into the quarters of a commander of a conquering army and cuts off his head while he is passed out from drinking. The image of the black woman assisting the rebel Jew, a story based on the apocryphal Book of Judith, appears in European Renaissance art and suggests a long presence of Africans in the region. Likewise, in the Christian story of the Magi from the Gospel of Matthew, Balthazaar, one of the "Three Wise Men," or "Three Kings from the East," has long been depicted in the Christian world as Abyssinian. According to biblical tradition, the three visitors present the baby Jesus with gold, frankincense, and myrrh—the last being an aromatic resin native to eastern Ethiopia.

Africans who came to Palestine and settled there included Muslims who had been part of the army of Caliph Omar ibn Al Khatab during the expansion of Islam into the area in A.D. 636. They were joined by others performing the hajj—including in the 20th century—who also visited Jerusalem and decided to stay. During the 13th century, at the time of Mamluk rule, two buildings were constructed on either side of Al'a Ad-Deen Street in the Old City of Jerusalem to house pilgrims. They were soon occupied by Africans who worked as guards of the holy sites. These building were later turned into prisons and remained so until 1914. Since 1948 they have been returned to the Africans.

During the later Ottoman period in the 19th century, East Africans—specifically, Nubians and Sudanese—were also taken to the area of Palestine as part of the larger slave trade into the Middle East via Cairo.

Muslims from Chad, Sudan, Senegal and Niger, who arrived during the British Mandate between 1917 and 1948—some to "defend the Muslim holy sites"—formed their own settlements in the area comprising Palestine and Israel. Many of their descendants have assimilated into the local cultures, marrying Arabs and speaking Palestinian Arabic. Christian Ethiopians also migrated, and many live and work on "Ethiopian Street," where they have established a number of Ethiopian churches and monasteries.

Between 1984 and 1991, Beta Israel or Jewish Ethiopians—often referred to by the derogatory term Falashas, from migrants in Amharic—settled in Israel under its 1950 Law of Return, allowing all Jews the right to settle and become Israeli citizens. They now number more than120,000, about a third being born in Israel. A community of African-American Hebrew Israelites—now about 2,000—originally from Chicago migrated to Dimona in the Negev Desert starting in 1969 after having been asked to leave Liberia, where they had first settled. They claim to be descendants of the tribe of Judah. After years of litigation with the State of Israel, they obtained permanent residency in 2003.

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