More than 12 million Africans were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to work as slaves between 1515 and the mid-19th Century. Some two million of the enslaved men, women and children died on their way to the Americas. But beyond the transatlantic slave trade was the traversing of the Indian and Pacific oceans by ships belonging to the Chinese empire. Before the 1500s, these ships delivered human cargo from Africa to the shores of the Chinese, according to historians.
Today, the history of African slavery in China is not widely known because it is not taught in schools or portrayed in books or films as done in the west. Meanwhile, African slavery in China was just as brutal as slavery in the U.S. in the 1800s.
According to a report by Areo Magazine, the first Africans arrived in China as gifts from the King of Kalinga in Java to the Tang emperor in 813 A.D. They were young boys and girls who were gifted to the king alongside animals such as rhinoceros. The Chinese called these child slaves Zangzi, referring to Zanzibar, which was what the Eastern African coastal region was called. It is not known what happened to these child slaves as they disappeared from history.
But other African slaves would later appear in the households of Arab merchants working as their personal property in Guangzhou, which had a lot of Arabs at the time. Rich Chinese men subsequently started demanding the services of African slaves. As Aero Magazine writes: “This required a supply line beginning from East Africa, traversing the Indian Ocean, stopping in India and finally crossing the Malaccan Straits to reach the port cities of China. The journey took approximately six months and shipwrecks were a common hazard.”
Many of the African slaves captured even died before reaching their destination. Those who successfully reached China also had to adjust to a new environment and those who found it difficult to do so died.
Most of the African slaves sent to China engaged in hard labor including doing dock work and carrying heavy goods. Some also worked as gate attendants. Over time, the Chinese started referring to the increasing number of Black Africans as Kunlun. That was the term they were using to refer to their neighbors to the south, such as the Malays and Khmers, who were darker-skinned and who were deemed inferior. Other slave owners called their African slaves guinu — devil slaves.
Historians are yet to determine what really happened to the population of African slaves after the 11th century. “A combination of factors such as the disruption of the supply chains, disease, death from overwork and a non-existent birth rate could have led to the collapse of the community after a few decades,” Areo Magazine writes.
Slavery was formally abolished in 1912 when the Republic of China was established. Nevertheless, the practice of people, especially children being bought and sold was still common, historians say.
Thanks to China’s history with slavery, most Chinese would start viewing people with Black skin as inferior as seen in their attitudes towards Africans. During the pandemic in April 2020, reports said Chinese officials evicted hundreds of African residents and businessmen from hotels and apartments as they were being accused of having the novel coronavirus.
The Africans said they were just being targeted under the guise of a testing campaign for COVID-19. The Africans, who were based in China’s southern city of Guangzhou, described the development as discriminatory. Guangzhou houses one of the largest African communities in China. African traders, especially those from the informal sector, buy most of their goods from the area to the continent.