Goa’s Japanese slaves

April 30, 2012 in Uncategorized | Comments (4)



I met Daniel Botsman recently in New Haven, Connecticut. An Australian by origin, he is a scholar of Japanese history and teaches at Yale. When he heard of my connection with Goa he asked if I was aware that Goa’s population had once included a fair number of Japanese.

I suppose I should no longer be surprised by the ‘connectedness’ of the world, but I confess that I was astonished to hear this. Cosmopolitan as Goa is, I have seen no signs of a Japanese presence there.

But of course Dani was not referring to the Goa of today. He explained that in the 16th century there had been a flourishing transcontinental traffic in Japanese slaves. The Portuguese had taken many slaves from Japan to Portugal, and since Goa was then the capital of the Portuguese empire in Asia, a good number had ended up in Goa.

Shortly afterwards he sent me an article on the subject, by Thomas Nelson: it is called ‘Slavery in Medieval Japan’ (Monumenta Nipponica, vol 59, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 463-492). Here are a few passages from the article.

“Portuguese and other Occidental sources are replete with records of the export of Japanese slaves in the second half of the sixteenth century. A few examples should serve to illustrate this point. 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. By 1571, the trade was being conducted on such a scale that King Sebastian of Portugal felt obliged to issue an order prohibiting it lest it hinder Catholic missionary activity in Kyushsu.

‘Political disunity in Japan, however, together with the difficulty that the Portuguese Crown faced in enforcing its will in the distant Indies, the ready availability of human merchandise, and the profits to be made from the trade meant that the chances were negligible of such a ban actually being enforced. In 1603 and 1605, the citizens of Goa protested against the law, claiming that it was wrong to ban the traffic in slaves who had been legally bought. Eventually, in 1605, King Philip of Spain and Portugal issued a document that was a masterpiece of obfuscation intended both to pacify his critics in Goa demanding the right to take Japanese slaves and the Jesuits, who insisted that the practice be banned.

‘”I have been informed of a number of abuses and injustices concerning the taking and captivity of people from Japan. My late cousin King Sebastian ordered in 1570 that this be prohibited. I ordered that the said decree should be published and obeyed in those regions. I have no been told that it has been claimed that this edict should be extended to slaves who are legally and properly held. This has created many problems in addition to the damages incurred by the inhabitants of the Estate [of India] as well as the problems in that are likely to arise if they are set free. It was not my intention, nor would it have been the wish of the 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 nations. In order to prevent other problems that have been reported to me by the cities of Goa and Cochin, I have enacted the accompanying provision, which you will order to be published so that it will come to the notice of everyone; you will see this is obeyed, taking care that all the abuses presently existing and that hitherto have existed in this matter be prevented, and that the said slaves have the right to seek justice if they claim their captivity is illegal and lacks legitimate title”‘[p. 463-464]

The Jesuits realized that the Portuguese participation in the slave trade was endangering their missionary efforts in Japan (to add further to the ‘connectedness’ of the story, one of the most prominent Catholic missionaries in Japan was an East Indian from Vasai/Bassein, near Mumbai: St. Gonsalo Garcia, who was crucified near Nagasaki in 1597). The Jesuits’ fears, writes Thomas Nelson ‘were confirmed when Hideyoshi, the great unifier of Japan after a century of civil strife, arrived in Kyushu. He shared the disgust of many of his countrymen at the custom, common in Kyushu, of selling Japanese slaves to foreigners, and he questioned the Jesuits sharply on this practice. On 24 July 1587, he sent the following letter to the Jesuit Vice-Provincial Gaspar Coelho, preserved in Luis Frois’s Historia de Japam:

‘”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. Thus, 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 kingdoms, then at least have the Portuguese set free the people whom they have bought recently. I will provide the money necessary to do this.”‘ [p. 465]

The article is fascinating but leaves many questions. What became of Goa’s Japanese slaves? Some of them must have had children and if so, what was their fate? I’m sure I’m not the only one who would love to know more.


4 Responses to “Goa’s Japanese slaves”

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  1. Comment by Veeresh Malik — May 1, 2012 at 3:30 am   Reply

    Where did the offspring of the Japanese slaves go?

    One of the top-end culinary delights, now gone secret in many parts of the world, used to be to nibble the brains of a human while said unfortunate human was alive. Made famous in a rather grisly scene at the end of the movie HANNIBAL, but not unknown, apparently, in Vietnam during the war.

    But gory aspects apart, since reference has always been made also in the Doon Valley of how Europeans simply ate up many of the cross-breed offspring that emerged, is the fact that reference to Japanese slaves is well documented in South Africa. Conversely, we once met people who were supposed to be mixed breed offspring of Indian men and Japanese women in the Northern Island, Hokkaido.

    Here’s some links from a simple google search, now time to activate some more . .


    and page 108 of this book:-

    The Japanese and the Jesuits: Alessandro Valignano in Sixteenth-century Japan


    ps: I am currently trying to research WW-2 Indian Armed forces and INA soldiers/sailors who were abandoned in Rabaul/PNG and many who were also eaten by both the Japanese as well as the Brits/Indonesians.

    This is the opening article on the subject . . .


  2. Comment by Joseph Velinkar — May 5, 2012 at 2:13 am   Reply

    Dear Amitav,
    I have already replied on the Goa Research Net. I have found a reference to Chinese slaves in the 16th century, but not Japanese. I hope the Portuguese could distinguish between Chinese and Japanese. That’s as far as I have gone. J.V.

    • Comment by Chrestomather — May 6, 2012 at 5:13 pm   Reply

      The original article provides a list of references. There can be no doubt that they meant ‘Japanese’. I am not on Goa Research net so have not seen your response. Will try to find it. all best. Amitav

  3. Comment by segofalcon — August 9, 2014 at 2:18 pm   Reply

    The correspondences never indicates how many of the Japanese had
    been kidnapped, or sold as slaves.

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