All posts by Cosmic Yoruba

Homosexuality is “unAfrican” in pre-colonial history

Such a thing did not exist in the African jungle…or not

When I read a paper by an African researcher that insinuates that Africans learnt homosexuality from Europeans (and/or Arabs), I do not go to my happy place where only thoughts of first love and first kisses rule. Rather I think about waking up in the dead of the night to a ghostly white female figure hovering over my bed. The white woman that all African lesbians, bisexual women and women who sex with women know intimately, because after all we learnt this from Europeans. In this cult of gayness that the Europeans started, we are taught our colonial heritage and to venerate Margherita dos Santos, the first very bored, very gay Portuguese colonist wife who successfully seduced a young African woman in the 16th century thereby making homosexuality an African identity.

The above sound ridiculous? Well ridiculous is what I find Africans who go out of their way to argue how “unAfrican” homosexuality is. Africans who write lengthy “logical” papers, disputing various sources and references, all while ignoring the real lives of LGBTIQ Africans today. Their efforts are not only silly but dangerous to me and I probably wouldn’t spit on them if they were on fire. I recently read one such paper, but this one left me totally disheartened because I initially thought it was pro-African queers. The paper in question is “A name my mother did not call me: Queer contestations in African Sexualities” by Taiwo Oloruntoba-Oju. Perhaps when I saw this title I zoned in on the “queer contestations in African sexualities” part and for some reason believed that it was arguing for the presence of homosexuality in pre-colonial African history. Little did I know that the paper was written by someone who finds it “agonising that disputation about the status of homosexuality in Africa is often equated with “homophobia” even when some of the disputants have close and friendly relations with known homosexuals” and who believes that “the imputation of homosexuality as an African identity must of necessity generate [antagonism]”.

I happily settled down to read the paper, and it started innocently enough but the more I read the paper, the more my face fell and now days after reading it, I find that I am still angry with it. But I can’t stop thinking about it and need to let my jumbled thoughts out in this post.This paper evoked all sorts of feelings in me so this post may be lengthy, I’ve broken it down to sections based on what I found problematic in the paper, so you can leave and return easily. If I sound angry, I most likely am.

Africa as a monolith

Africa is such a big country, and what happens in one part of Africa happens in the other part. So you come from an ethnic group that has apparently never known what homosexuality is yet manages to somehow consider it an abomination, this must be the same all across the village that is Africa. It does not matter that your ethnic group numbers in the millions, and that different regions have always had different customs in spite of sharing a similar language (which turns out is not so similar considering dialects). In one corner of the continent, homosexuality is considered a deviance so this must be the same across the African continent. This ignores the diversity in which disparate African philosophies viewed homosexuality, while in some societies gays, lesbians and transgendered people were key to society’s psychic balance (as among the Dagara of Burkina Faso), in others there were witches who were exiled (see Izugbara O. Chimaraoke, “Sexuality and the supernatural in Africa”, pp. 533-558, in African Sexualities: A Reader, ed. Sylvia Tamale). The antagonists towards homosexuality as an African identity will do well in remembering this.

Western terms and African sexualities

When the antagonists argue that homosexuality did not exist on the African continent before the advent of the Europeans and/or Arabs, do they mean same-sex love or same-sex sex. Were Africans waiting to learn how to develop feelings for a member of the same sex from the European and/or Arab gay bogeyman? Or did queer Africans never practice any form of sexual activity before the foreigners taught them to? Then again the Europeans and/or Arabs supposedly taught our ancestors a lot, they civilised us, they brought complex religious systems and the One True God, they taught us manners, they taught us how to wear clothes, they taught us how to build civilisations, they taught us how to maintain personal hygiene, they taught us medicine…and they taught us how to develop feelings for the same sex and how to sexually act on these feelings.

Truth is many Africans today are disconnected from the sexuality our ancestors knew. We do not know our philosophies, or argue that African philosophies do not exist. In the paper, the issue of “woman-to-woman marriage” is brought up, and Oloruntoba-Oju argues (rightly so) that this institution was not necessarily proof that the pre-colonial African societies that practiced them accepted homosexuality and lesbian marriage. The institution was probably not created to facilitate lesbian marriage, although it did develop for varied reasons depending on region. Western scholars and researchers have no right to impose their ideas of gay marriage on a society where a woman marrying another woman was a show of wealth. But who is to say that one lone African woman did not use this institution to her advantage and to be with a woman she loved? Maybe the antagonists have the ability to read through the minds and memories, and look into the houses and bedrooms of the female husbands and their wives. Apparently no researcher is yet to have asked women married to other women if there had ever been a sexual component to their “social” arrangement (see Amory P. Deborah, ‘“Homosexuality” in Africa: Issues and Debates’).

There is still not enough research into African history outside of Egypt

The majority of African history remains shrouded, under-researched, in the shadows or honestly ignored. Majority of us do not know history outside the racist colonial lens and are surprised to read that our ancestors engaged in complex medical procedures or evenwrote in indigenous script. Without this knowledge of pre-colonial African history, along with the reality that there is even less research on African sexuality in history, how can someone know for sure that “homosexuality” was not practiced before the Europeans and/or Arabs introduced it? That it wasn’t an identity?

Linking to the point below, the fact that most of African histories are oral as opposed to written makes no difference. How many Arabs, for example, would argue that homosexuality is a “Western deviation” today despite the fact that there is written evidence to the contrary. The activities of medieval Arab lesbians were well documented in studies from the 9th century by philosopher al-Kindi and physician Yuhanna ibn Masawayh. Written history can be destroyed and silenced just as oral histories can.

The role of colonialism

Africans tend to dismiss the ways in which colonialism (both European and Arab) damaged institutions and our view of self and history. Most of what we insist today as “tradition” is in most cases not, and I sometimes imagine our ancestors being shocked at some of the things we claim as tradition. For example, views on marriage, years ago I read a paper that argued that homosexuality would be strange to Africans because we have always placed a high value on marriage. I am sure I cannot find that paper now, in my recent readings on Igboland I’ve seen that there were actually several people in this pre-colonial African society who never married. The sex workers, the priests and priestesses (all wives of Gods and Goddesses), the slaves. I will not be surprised if there were more societies like the pre-colonial Igbo in this respect, it may be more accurate to say that high value was placed on children or that emphasis on marriage was reserved for certain classes of people.

There is no way one can discuss pre-colonial Africa, or in fact pre-colonial Asia, the Americas, Australia, while belittling the role of colonialism. One cannot ignore that colonialism drastically changed mindsets, as people adopted Victorian mindsets and mannerisms eschewing the “barbaric” ways of their ancestors.

The role of language

Oloruntoba-Oju is Yoruba, in the paper they argue that Yoruba people have no words, sayings or proverbs that indicate that they knew what homosexuality was. Yoruba is a colourful language, and can be quite explicit in detailing heterosexual sex emphasising the penis and the vagina, so Oloruntoba-Oju believes that it should have been the same for homosexual sex. At the same time, a saying “apparently” hidden deep within the Yoruba divination cult was produced by a Nigerian scholar and says obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo (“it is easier to sleep [have sex] with a woman than with a man”). This saying is dismissed as an isolated example, Oloruntoba-Oju drives home their point by demonstrating how metaphorical Yoruba is, something that all Yoruba speakers know. In praising twins, one says “twins, kindred of Isokun, born of an ape” however this clearly doesn’t mean twins are apes or monkeys. Perhaps this “isolated” saying refers to something else entirely, yet somehow the sayings which reference penises and vaginas are not metaphorical. Not to mention this widely popular saying, okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin (“you cannot sleep with a man as with a woman”) which is to be taken at face value because it is “more established”.

Context is ignored, the former saying seems to be coming from the perspective of a woman, while the latter from a man. If a Yoruba woman who has sex with other women, says “okunrin o se ba sun bi obinrin” is it not impossible that her next sentence would be “obinrin dun ba sun ju okunrin lo”.

It seems the antagonists prefer to find a term that directly translates to “lesbian” in Yoruba language. However what happens if this term is vague or unrecognisable, it could have been simply “witch” as in a recent Yoruba film I watched, Enisoko Soja, in which a man’s mother was branded a “witch” after his wife dreamt she “made love” to her. Most terms associated with lesbians in other languages are from the action of tribadism. In Arabic, the roots of words linked to “lesbianism” and “lesbian” (s-h-q) means “to pound” or “to rub” (see Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2). And in Urdu words which refer to female homosexual activity are rooted in words like chapta which means “flat”, chapatna “to be pressed flat” and chipatna “to cling to” (see Vanita Ruth (2004), “Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth-Century Urdu RekhtiPoetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1). African languages may be unique and different, or they may be similar, some antagonists may be searching for words they expect to clearly spell out L-E-S-B-I-A-N while ignoring words other words like “pounders” or “clingers” or even “witches”.

In addressing the difficulties of investigating lesbian women in history Judith Bennett introduces the term “lesbian-like” to cover those women who in the past lived lives that may have offered opportunities for same-sex love, or lived in circumstances where they could nurture and support other women. Rather than referring to such women outrightly as lesbian, Bennett suggests “lesbian-like” to extend over those women in the past who felt emotions towards other women, even if they never acted sexually on this; women who never married; women who cross-dressed or assumed masculine roles and mannerisms; as well as women who resisted established cultural norms of sexual propriety (see Bennett M. Judith, “Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms).  “Lesbian-like” recognises that not all societies had constructed terms for women who had feelings for or had sex with other women.

Oloruntoba-Oju mentions ‘yan ludu, a term that means sodomy in Hausa and is derived from Arabic. ‘Yan ludu literally means “people of Lot” and apparently the fact that Hausa people refer to sodomy with this term “exposes its modern and post-contact origin”. But what exactly does it expose? That the word is not indigenous to the Hausa, or that sodomy isn’t? Considering the tone of the paper, I’ll go with the latter. Notice the assumption that all gay men engage in anal sex, there is also no mention of language appropriation. Today some Yoruba people call milk, miliki, a term that clearly has roots in English, so I guess Yoruba people did not know what milk was before Europeans introduced it. Moving farther yet closer to the topic on hand, in Japan today, lesbians are referred to as レズ (rezu) fromレズビアン (rezubian) which of course comes from English, lesbian.  レズビアン is a foreign word in every way, even down to the characters that form it, this must mean that that there were no lesbians in Japan before European intervention, an estimation that is laughable considering how well documented same-sex relations are in Japanese literature and art history (although the bulk is on men loving and sexing men because this is HIStory).

What constitutes “gay behaviour”?

When I was growing up, it was a common to see two men holding hands while walking down the street in parts of Nigeria. Now, maybe a decade later, this scene has become rare because two men holding hands is “gay”.

Oloruntoba-Oju states “it is true that even in contemporary times, a good number of Africans go through an entire lifetime without coming into contact with gay behaviour either in the rural areas or even after having passed through such “high risk” urban locales”…with nothing to back his claim except for this footnote; “A colleague reading this article recently drew my attention to a forum observation by an apparently gay white fellow who had been in Nigeria and had noticed that straight Nigerians apparently do not have what he called a “gaydar”, hence a lot of gay sex does take place without them being aware. If this observation is true it may well be a further curiosity that these Africans seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries”. This falls back to several of my points above, especially the one on imposing Western definitions on Africans. Oloruntoba-Oju argues elsewhere in the paper against Western hegemony but fails to see how contradictory it is to then attach relevance to this “white fellow” who believes that Nigerians do not have a gaydar. There is no consideration that what constitutes gay behaviour in Nigeria and how gay Nigerians single each other out may be different from what this white man is used to. I mean how many straight people in the country this white person comes from possess a gaydar? Does this suggest further curiosity that these white people seem not to have developed a gay sensitivity over the centuries?

Oloruntoba-Oju then continues, “many may have “heard stories” but these are mostly about gayness being a “foreign import” and occurring in proximal geographical locations where foreign contact has occurred over the centuries”…again with no references. Oloruntoba-Oju mentions “logical” reasons in being an antagonist to this preposterous idea that homosexual identity is African but it is really debatable whether their paper exhibits logic.


Oloruntoba-Oju argues that it is speculative to debate that there was “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. In my humble opinion, it is just as speculative to argue that there was no “homosexuality” in pre-colonial Africa. While majority of these African researchers do not like stating whether they are talking about same-sex emotions, or same-sex sexual activity, I am referring to both. I am not speculating when I state that some of my African female ancestors must have developed feelings of attraction to other women. Whether my female ancestors acted on these feelings may be speculation, yet in societies were initiation ceremonies and sexuality training schools involved women touching, massaging and pulling breasts and vulvas, usually under the guise of “training” in order to please future male partners, it is not inconceivable that my female ancestors physically loved the women they adored. Maybe they did this secretly, maybe they were in the open and society did not mind because it recognised that these things happen (getting speculative here).

Albeit confusing, the paper was at times well written and even convincing, I can agree that Western hegemony should not be imposed on queer African identities but every other point was like someone inserting needles in my skin. I suggest that heterosexual African researchers leave criticisms of homosexual labels and identities to African queers themselves. We are not as close-minded as you, and this is not an insult, a privileged heterosexual worldview is limiting.

Homophobic African antagonists, yes homophobic, fail to realise that part of their antagonism is attempting to wipe the thousands of Africans who engaged in same-sex relationships, whether sexual or not, from history. Oloruntoba-Oju positions as being largely for queer Africans stating that “a synchronic focus on today’s sexuality realities in Africa may well offer safer grounds of analysis of queer representation…” but then rounds up  with “…than the frequently strained colonial imaginaries on pre-contact African sexualities”! This is someone who finds the pain of being labelled as a homophobe (because homosexual friends!) greater than the pain of LGBTIQ Africans who have to face homophobia daily. Oloruntoba-Oju, in this paper, completely ignores and, pardon the colourful language, shits upon the feelings, thoughts and experiences of queer Africans. It could be that the paper is addressed to the West and Western scholars, hence the mention of “colonial imaginaries”, but this further emphasises my point on Oloruntoba-Oju completely ignoring that queer Africans will find their presented historic picture problematic.


I would like to end with a call to the queer African women reading this, especially if you have a link to histories in some way, even if it is access to the elders or ancestors. We need to gather the stories and voices, keep them in a safe space where people can access this information. Perhaps now or in the future, one woman will appreciate that there was a woman who loved another woman in 13th century West Africa.

Amer Sahar (2009), “Medieval Arab Lesbians and Lesbian-Like Women”, Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 18, No. 2 Vanita Ruth (2004),

Married Among Their Companions”: Female Homoerotic Relations in Nineteenth- Century Urdu Rekhti Poetry in India, Journal of Women’s History, Vol. 16, No. 1


This article was first published on HOLAAfrica! by Cosmic Yoruba

The Lost Kingdoms of Africa

BBC Four’s “The Lost Kingdoms of Africa” is a series presented by Dr Gus Casely-Hayford a student of African culture and history and an art historian. The four episodes that make up the series start with this refrain;

The African continent is home to nearly a billion people. It has an incredible diversity of communities and cultures, yet we know less of its history than almost anywhere else on earth.

But that is beginning to change. In the last few decades, researchers and archaeologists have begun to uncover a range of histories as impressive and extraordinary as anywhere else in the world.

The series reveals that Africa’s stories are preserved for us in its treasures, statues and ancient buildings – in the culture, art and legends of the people.

This sets the stage for fascinating and eye-opening insights into the histories of some of Africa’s “forgotten” kingdoms. Dr Hayford travels through several countries including Tanzania, Sudan, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Mali and Zimbabwe in search of amazing information on four prominent African kingdoms of Nubia, Ethiopia, Benin and Great Zimbabwe.
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Girls’ Sports Day

Today is the official Blog to Rally for Girls’ Sports Day hosted by the National Women’s Law Center in celebration of the importance of girls in sports.

The idea behind our Blog to Rally for Girls’ Sports Day is simple: “What did you win by playing sports?” You can use this theme to begin discussing what the chance to participate in athletics programs meant to you and/or your daughter and how it has impacted your lives.

Some things to keep in mind as you’re writing:
Research has repeatedly shown that participation in sports has many benefits for young women. For example, participation in sports decreases girls’ chances of becoming obese and developing heart disease, osteoporosis, and breast cancer. Female athletes have higher levels of self-esteem, a lower incidence of depression and a more positive body image than non-athletes. Girls who play sports have higher grades, better test scores, and are less likely to drop out. They also have more opportunities to apply for athletic scholarships, which can help them attend college. Female athletes are also more likely to participate in traditionally male-dominated occupations, which are typically higher paying. In addition, more than four out of five executive businesswomen played sports growing up, and the vast majority reported that the lessons they learned on the playing field contributed to their success in business. By playing sports, girls win more than a game.

You can sign up for Blog to Rally for Girls’ Sports on December 8th by visiting

I am not particularly interested in sports for several reasons including the fact that as a child, my mother would not let me participate in any form of sport (including bicycle riding) because she did not consider it ‘feminine’. I was encouraged to spend time indoors and read books which in itself was not too bad but I do wish I had been encouraged to participate in sports. I wonder if my experience is unique. I also wonder at the importance of sports to African women.

These days there is lot of talk on the Super Falcons, Nigeria’s national women’s football team. Several of my female friends don’t watch women’s football because they find it boring and not as exciting as “normal football”. I believe such attitudes have to change. Let’s support and encourage sports regardless of the gender.

More on Zheng He

Zheng He’s 7th expedition was his last and after years of moving back and forth between the East African coast and China, all contact seized. Some people may look at this and say that the Chinese turned their backs on Africa but if you look at the situation within China in that time, it sheds more light on this situation.

In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424—1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426—1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage.

…Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared.[citation needed] The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels. Source.

China decided to close itself from the outside world. Also,

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time. (Source).

Yet private relations continued to flourish. Even in the 16th century, men from Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa were spotted by the Portuguese on the Malay seaport of Malacca. These men were traders who came in their own ships to trade and buy silk and porcelain which were Chinese of origin.

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Zheng He’s Star Fleet

In 1414 a Chinese fleet heralded by the Muslim Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures, Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) sailed into the western Indian Ocean for the fourth time since his journey to the East began in 1405. In previously, that is between 1405 and 1414, Zheng He and his ships had reached the ports of Indonesia, south-west India and Ceylon. However, the trip in 1414 was special because the fleet was advancing into more distant regions beyond South Asia and the Arabian Gulf and in the process, covering a larger total of water than any seafaring people had before.

Zheng He is frequently referred to as the Chinese Columbus and today he has become the personification of maritime endeavour for China. I am personally not fond of this comparison between Zheng He and Columbus, no way Zheng He was much cooler they shouldn’t even be compared. They are not on the same level in terms of their maritime adventures. Really to me calling Zheng He the Chinese Columbus actually dims his shine.
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Ancient African Writing Systems

I wonder if I am the only one that gets seriously disturbed when I see claims that ancient Africans (excluding the Egyptians of course) were not using any writing systems before Arabs came into the continent bringing Arabic script. I believe such an assumption taken as fact is not only erroneous but is  also one in several attempts to paint Africans as “lesser” in that everyone else in the world had writing systems except ancient Africans.

The truth of the matter is that ancient Africans were writing and there are several African writing systems even though most of them may be forgotten now. I have been following with keen interest Naijablog’s posts on the Nsibidi script yet the Nsibidi is not the only script that I’ve come across, there is also Tifinagh or Shifinagh, the written form of Tamasheq which is the language spoken by the Tuareg a nomadic people scattered through West and North Africa. Tamasheq is a southern Berber language and apparently bears significant resemblance to Pharaonic Egyptian. The roots of the Tamasheq writing system can be traced directly to the ancient Berber script that was used by the Numidians in pre-Roman times.

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Some Images of Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti

Yesterday, I came across this album that contains pictures from the private collection of the much loved Nigerian feminist, shero and inspiration to several young girls and women, Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti. With Sokari’s help, here are some pictures from the album below but make sure to click on the link above to see more pictures and click here to learn more about Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti or FRK for short.


The Legacy of Nigerian Feminism

Since I returned to Nigeria earlier this year, I have not met any woman who openly identified as a feminist. It almost seems as though the word ‘feminist’ is blacklisted, that is to say people don’t identify with it regardless of whether their actions and behaviour screams ‘feminist’. Now there may be many reasons for this, I understand that some women choose not to identify as feminist, yet from experience I’ve noticed  that there is something of a stigma attached to the label here that several women do not want to be identified with. I guess this is one effect of the stereotypical image of feminists as being angry unmarried women, it seems Nigerian women do not wish to be identified with this image. Also in my experience, people tend to call women ‘feminist’  to insult them and being an open-minded woman can put you in some really dangerous situations.

Likewise, there seems to be little or no information available on feminism in Nigeria and Nigerian feminists. Isn’t it somewhat distressing that there are only THREE people in the Wiki category for Nigerian feminists? I know we have more feminists than that yet I do not know their names, I do not know who they are.

However this post is not just to lament on what I believe is the stagnant state of feminism in Nigeria but rather to propose a solution. I firmly believe that through the learning of history things can change. Thus if we Nigerian women learn more about the women who fought for women’s rights and Nigeria’s independence alongside our ‘founding fathers’ we may be able to learn that feminism is not as foreign as we’d like to think. Most people know about Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti, I knew her as the first woman to drive a car in Nigeria but at the same time she was refered to as a ‘troublemaker’ it was only after reading more about her for myself that I learnt to admire her.

Margaret Ekpo

I recently came across an interview with a woman described as ‘a giant of 20th century Nigerian politics…a pioneer activist of women’s rights and an icon’. That woman is Margaret Ekpo, someone I had never heard of till I came across the interview. After reading the interview, I found myself feeling a little cheated that I was not taught about her during Social Studies classes in primary school. We were taught all about the great men from the period of Nigeria’s independence like Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo yet the great women from that period were excluded. I did not know of Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti till I was in my late teens and her name was mentioned in a conversation with my mother.

Margaret Ekpo and her contemporaries — Nnamdi Azikiwe, Obafemi Awolowo, Mazi Mbonu Ojike, M.I Okpara, Janet Mokelu, Jaja Nwachukwu, MT Mbu, Malam Aminu Kano, Alhaja Gambo Sawaba, S.L Imoke and many others — were at the forefront of relentless agitation for the nation’s highly desired Independence from Great Britain. With the much respected Mrs. Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Margaret Ekpo routinely toured the country, mobilizing women to become politically conscious and participate in the emerging political affiliations in order to protect their interest and ensure the advancement of the Nation.

A fierce defender of women’s rights, Margaret Ekpo never apologized for being a woman and that, it can be argued, was her greatest strength. With grace of carriage, she stood her ground as an equal of men, representing women resolutely and with great dignity in multiple capacities.

Please click here to learn more about Margaret Ekpo and to read her interview which was taken before she passed away.

I found it interesting but was not surprised, to see that Margaret Ekpo worked alongside Funmilayo Ransom-Kuti. A third name popped up, Janet Mokelu. Apparently she was one of the three women to be appointed to the House of Chiefs in the 1950s, Janet Mokelu was appointed a Cheif in the Eastern House alongside Margaret Ekpo but there does not seem to be more information on her. I’m curious to learn more about Janet Mokelu. Wouldn’t if be great if we could make a sort of archive dedicated to our ‘founding mothers’?

The Kunlun Servants & African Merchants in Ancient China

In my previous post I mentioned that I had read somewhere that two slaves given as gifts to the a Chinese Emperor by an Arab delegation were the first Africans to enter ancient China. This may have been wrong really because dark-skinned people were talked in China as early as the 4th century. They were referred to as kunlun, a term which had many previous meanings but by the 4th century was at attached to the people with dark skin.

That Arab delegation with the African servants reached the court of the Song dynasty (960-1279) in 977 with attendants that had ‘black bodies’ and these servants were called kunlun slaves. The first of these kunlun slaves to have been presented to the rulers of China must have been presented sometime in the Tang dynasty (618-907) between the 8th and 10th centuries but they may not have been gifts from Arab delegations.

Apparently these slaves were supplied from Sri Vijaya and Java, both Indonesian kingdoms. I had always thought that the Arabs were the first people to buy/take slaves out of Africa but traders from these kingdoms are thought to have started slaving out of Africa before the Arabs did. Through them a few Africans were supposedly brought into China and were employed in Tang households.

The Kunlun people were small and black (dark) and were imported from the South Seas as servants (slaves) for the southern Chinese, but by the Tang period there were many in the capital Chang’an. The earliest martial arts short story in China, which was written in Tang times, was called Kunlun Nu. During the Yuan dynasty the servants (slaves) were Kunlun people and Korean people. The costume of the Kunlun people was that of the South Seas, i.e., India and Southeast Asia. (Morohashi, 1968, 3673). Source

The presence of kunlun slaves is plentiful in several short stories that appeared during the Tang dynasty. In these stories, they are portrayed as culturally Chinese (speaking Chinese, acting Chinese etc), heroic and resourceful. One example of these stories is Kunlun Nu also known as The Kunlun Slave or The Negrito Slave. The main character of this story, Mo Le is a time-honoured knight-errant in almost every way except that he is black. In Kunlun Nu, Mo Le uses his supernatural physical abilities to save his master’s lover from the harem of a court official.

The kunlun are portrayed as magical even though this magic is not always apparent. Some kunlun are excellent divers who can go deep into the rivers, lakes and wells bringing up treasure for their Chinese masters. Yet at other times the magic seems to lie, well, in their actual appearance as their black skin was regarded as unrealistic to the ancient Chinese.

In the Tang period though the African slaves were very few in number, they were regarded as strong, mysterious, and a little frightening and the stories show that they were regarded with a mixture of admiration and awe in Chinese minds.

However during the Song dynasty the number of African slaves in China had increased leading them to becoming familiar to those Chinese who saw them on a day-to-day basis. The stories in which the kunlun servants are knights-errant, ghosts and other mysterious and amazing beings disappeared and the kunlun were instead found in factual records.

The factual records placed the origin of the kunlun was placed in the land of Kunlun Zengji (most likely Madagascar or the Comoros islands). This ‘kunlun zengi’ also appears to be a combination of both the Chinese and Arabic terms for ‘blacks’. The kunlun slaves were supposedly kept by most of the rich people in the Canton region. However, it is arguable that the owners of these slaves were ethnically Chinese as many of the rich people in Canton may have been Arabs; members of the Islamic trading colony that prospered in Canton.

Kunlun child servant figurine

The kunlun lost their heroic and magical touch and became realistically regarded as a displaced people who could not adapt to the Chinese environment. They ceased being knights-errant and instead were described as being simplistic of nature and their speech referred to as ‘unintelligible’. The kunlun themselves are ‘savages’ and ‘devil slaves’ and are referred to using terms that are reserved for animals.
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