Monthly Archives: October 2020

Kimjang in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 230-232:

IN THE SECOND WEEK OF NOVEMBER, SACKS AND SACKS OF garlic and cabbages were delivered on a truck at lunchtime, and several classes were called outside to unload them. They brought the garlic into the cafeteria, and for two consecutive days students and faculty spent more than an hour peeling them. That was how I learned that this was the week of kimjang.

In both North and South Korea, in the late fall, most families make enough kimchi to last through the winter. This tradition originated more than a thousand years ago, when vegetables were not readily available year round. When I was a child, the kimjang season was always festive. The women in my neighborhood got busy suddenly, buying the ingredients—cabbage, radishes, chili peppers, scallions, garlic, ginger, marinated baby shrimps, and anchovies. Then they gathered together to wash the cabbages and radishes, salt them, and make barrels and barrels of kimchi. It was a time of laughter, gossip, and good feelings all around. I would hover around my mother, waiting for a bite of freshly made kimchi dripping chili liquid. That piercing taste of crispy cabbage and raw seasoning was etched in my memory as the first sign of winter. The finished kimchi would be stored in earthenware pots and kept outside to ferment slowly. The increasingly pungent-tasting kimchi kept us strong through the snowy nights of the long, hard Korean winter.

I had not thought about kimjang in a long time. When we moved to America, my mother worked seven days a week and made kimchi less and less, so we got by on the store-bought kind. Besides, with most vegetables available fresh year round, there was no reason to make so much kimchi at once, never mind the fact that we had no garden or balcony to put out the pots. Yet, there I was in Pyongyang, peeling garlic for kimjang with hundreds of young North Korean men who rolled up their sleeves and obliged without hesitation, cheerfully sharing their memories of kimjang at their own houses.

One said he always helped his mother by carrying buckets of water up the stairs: “It takes a lot of water to wash one hundred fifty kilos of cabbage.” That suggested there was no fresh water at his house, despite the fact that his family was part of the elite. Another chimed in that his family was small, just he and his parents, so they only needed eighty kilos. Then they asked me how many kilos my government delivered to my house for kimjang. I could not bring myself to tell them that kimjang was a disappearing tradition for the modern generation, and that the city of New York did not distribute a ration of cabbages to each household, so I just said that my mother no longer did kimjang. They seemed confused and asked how my family then obtained kimchi during the winter. I explained that America was big and the weather varied from region to region, and that all kinds of foods were available during the winter because we traded with many other countries. I used their country’s trade with China as an example, which helped them to understand.

I confessed that I too was confused, about their way of doing kimjang. What about peppers and radishes and scallions, since each family, presumably, had its own unique recipe, with slightly different ingredients? A student explained that the rations varied. This year, for example, the harvest had been bad and there was not enough cabbage for families, so some people bought whatever extra was necessary. This was the second time a student had admitted to a lack of anything.

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Filed under economics, education, food, Korea, labor

Reporter Meets Minder in North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 23-26:

On the Philharmonic trip, Mr. Ri and I had chatted so effortlessly that at times it was confusing to make sense of our relationship, since his job was to report on me, and my job as a magazine correspondent, reporting on the event, was not all that different. It is remarkable how quickly camaraderie develops when tensions are high.

The thirty-six hours in Pyongyang on that trip were a whirlwind. It turned out that that was the whole point. It was a PR event carefully orchestrated by the DPRK regime, with the American orchestra providing the incidental music. There was nothing any of us could write about except what we were allowed to see, which was a concert like any other, a few staged welcome performances, and the usual tourist sites. It was a lesson in control and manipulation. The real audience was not those in the concert hall but the journalists whose role was to deliver a sanitized version of North Korea to the outside world, and what shocked me was how easily seduced they were. Both CNN and the New York Times reported that the performance drew tears from the audience, and soon the major newspapers around the world followed with stories about this successful experiment in cultural diplomacy. Lorin Maazel, then the conductor of the Philharmonic, declared that seventy million Koreans would thank him forever. I witnessed no crying in the audience—all handpicked members of the Party elite—nor did any of the correspondents I spoke to after the performance. The tears I recall from that trip were a different kind.

Although it was my second time visiting North Korea, I burst into tears while saying goodbye to my minder. I was not a journalist on assignment in that moment. Instead I was thinking of my grandmother and my uncle, and my great-aunt and her daughters, and of the millions of Korean lives erased and forgotten. Right there, on the tarmac, before boarding the chartered flight with everyone in our mission, I told Mr. Ri that I was sick of this division, and that I would probably never see him again because the people of his country were not allowed to leave or even have contact with the rest of the world, that his country was so isolated that even I, a fellow Korean, could only visit it as part of the American delegation, shadowing the American orchestra, and that it broke my heart to see how bad things really were there. I said all this standing on that tarmac, my face covered with tears, the floodgates open after thirty-six hours of enforced silence. This, in hindsight, was thoughtless of me. I was about to climb onto that flight and return to the free world, but he was stuck there, and the other minders saw this encounter. But, surprisingly, tears ran down his face too, along with the faces of two other minders nearby. They said nothing, just cried and cried.

My first reaction to seeing Mr. Ri here, three years later, was that of relief. He had not been punished for crying with me at the airport. He was okay! Then I felt afraid. He had met me as a journalist, so what would he make of the fact that I stood before him as a missionary teacher? It was a mystery to me why I had been allowed in. Joan and President Kim knew that I was a writer, although they thought of me as a novelist, which they must not have considered a threat. But they had only to Google me to find out that I had in fact published a fair number of articles and op-eds about North Korea. The most recent piece had been a feature essay on defection, a taboo topic. But President Kim had also been very interested in the Fulbright organization—which had given me a fellowship—and asked me to arrange a meeting between him and the Seoul division’s director, which I did. And I had been referred to him by the powerful Mrs. Gund. Whatever the reason, I had passed their vetting.

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Filed under education, Korea, nationalism, publishing, U.S.

Twelve Wonders of North Korea

From Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite, by Suki Kim (Crown, 2014), Kindle pp. 105-106:

The students proudly said that the apple farm was the eleventh songun (military first) wonder of their country, and that they had helped to build it. They told me that in April and May 2009, college students from throughout Pyongyang had spent every Sunday digging holes for the trees, working in teams. They seemed genuinely fond of their memories of working there, though one student admitted that it had been hard because it was extremely cold that spring. I asked if they had since visited to see—and taste—the fruits of their labor. There was a pause before they told me that they had not seen the farm since the trees had been planted. Yet the farm was less than half an hour’s drive from the school.

To ease the sudden awkwardness, I asked about the other wonders. They seemed relieved and volunteered information eagerly. When General Kim Jong-il took over after Eternal Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994, they told me, there had been only eight wonders, but now they had twelve. The first one was the Sunrise at Baekdu-san (Mount Baekdu), where Kim Jong-il was born. The second was the winter pines at Dabak Military Base, where Kim Jong-il had first thought of the songun policy. The third was the azaleas at Chulryong hill near a frontline base, where Kim Jong-il often visited. The fourth was the night view of Jangja mountain, where Kim Jong-il had taken refuge during the Korean War as a child. The fifth was the echo of the Oolim Falls, which Kim Jong-il said was the sound of a powerful and prosperous nation. The sixth was the horizon of Handrebul field, the site of Kim Jong-il’s 1998 land reform. The seventh was the potato flowers from the field of Daehongdan, where Kim Il-sung had fought the Japanese imperialists and Kim Jong-il upheld his revolutionary spirit by starting the country’s biggest potato farm. The eighth was the view of the village of Bumanli, which Kim Jong-il had praised as a socialist ideal that shone bright during the Arduous March. The ninth was the beans at the army depot, which Kim Jong-il once said made him happy that his soldiers were well fed. The tenth was the rice harvest in the town of Migok, so plentiful that Kim Jong-il had declared it to be a shining example of socialist farming. The eleventh was the apple farm, and the twelfth was the Ryongjung fish farm of southern Hwanghae province whose sturgeons swarmed toward the sea, just as the satellites of the DPRK, under Kim Jong-il, flew toward the sky. The students uniformly remarked that the increase from eight to twelve wonders under the Great General’s guidance meant that their country was powerful and prosperous and would continue to be so.

It was at moments like these that I could not help but think that they—my beloved students—were insane. Either they were so terrified that they felt compelled to lie and boast of the greatness of their Leader, or they sincerely believed everything they were telling me. I could not decide which was worse.

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They Shot Horses, Didn’t They?

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

One of the more unpleasant jobs I had to undertake at Ubon was to condemn and destroy the Japanese army horses. They had already marched over 1,500 miles from China and were in a terrible condition, both from starvation and ill-treatment. I had Tom Phillips to help me, who had been a racehorse trainer in Norfolk before the war, and out of 1,200 horses we inspected, we condemned 700 to be shot; they were dying at the rate of about ten a day from starvation and had only their droppings to eat. Some of the saddle sores were so big and deep that I could put my fist in them; I had never in my life seen such ill-treated horses.

Tom Phillips and I shot a great many, and I was often sick afterwards. The first day a deputation of Thais formed up and asked me not to kill the horses because it was against their Buddhist principles. I replied that it was a duty I very much regretted. I noticed plenty of Thais around afterwards removing their horses’ tails, before they were buried in huge pits dug by Japanese working parties.

Word reached me after the first day that the Japanese were saying that I had shot the horses for motives of revenge, because we had won the war. I therefore had them all paraded and through Sergeant Thomas told them that I was not shooting the horses because we had won the war, but to put them out of their misery after the ill-treatment to which they had been subjected.

I did not understand the Japanese mentality, for when leading their horses up to be shot, many of the men were in tears, and after they were shot they would take off their caps and bow at the graves, and even put flowers on them. A signal came from Bangkok suggesting that I was killing these animals unnecessarily, and that a veterinary officer would be coming to Ubon to inspect those that remained. A few days later a very fine-looking Indian colonel arrived and the Japanese paraded the remaining 500 that we had not shot for his inspection. He promptly condemned a further 400 to death.

Tom Phillips had left when I still had to shoot these 400 horses, and so I gave some of the Japanese vets back their pistols and told them to help me. After I discovered that they were taking up to three shots per horse, and found that some of the horses were being buried still alive, I stopped them and had to deal with the rest myself. Out of the 700 horses that I shot personally with an American .30 carbine with a folding butt which I used like a pistol, I had to give only one horse a second bullet. This was a horse that I shot in the correct place — at the centre of the X drawn from the ears to the eyes — but it trotted off apparently uninjured. When it was caught and brought back again, it was found to have a neat bullet hole in exactly the right place. It did not appear to be either frightened or in pain, or upset in any way. I fired the next shot downwards into its skull from above its ears and it dropped dead — I can only think it had a freak skull. I was very thankful when this distressing job was over.

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Filed under Britain, Buddhism, disease, Japan, military, Thailand, war

Thailand’s Ambiguous Status in WW2

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 153-154:

My briefing gave me the first indication of the extraordinary political set-up in Thailand. Technically, my briefing officer told me, Thailand was at war with the Allies, against whom she declared war when she was occupied by the Japanese. ‘Didn’t she fight against the Japanese when they invaded Thailand?’ I asked. ‘And why did she have to declare war on us?’ She only offered ‘token resistance’ against the Japanese, I was told, and declared war on us ‘under strong Japanese pressure’. She was, however, a most unwilling ally of the Japanese. ‘How do you know that?’ I said. One had only to look, he replied, at the size of the underground movement. It included not only a number of high-level politicians, service chiefs and government officials, but was led by the Regent himself. He went on: ‘You’ll hear a great deal of the Regent from now on. His real name and title is Luang Pradit Pridi Panomyong but he is known to all of us as “Ruth”, which is his codename.’

At the end of April 1944 the first British officer from Force 136 to visit Siam was Brigadier Jacques, codenamed ‘Hector’. He and Chin had been landed off the coast of Siam by Catalina flying boat and had then transferred to a fishing boat that took them to Bangkok. Hector had been a prominent lawyer in Bangkok before the war and had many friends and contacts there; he also spoke the language fluently. In Bangkok they had meetings with Ruth and some of Ruth’s friends, then returned the way they had come.

After Hector had reported to Mountbatten he returned to Bangkok by the same means, taking with him a radio and radio operator. He came out once more, when I met him, then stayed until the end of the war. As a soldier he insisted on wearing uniform, which caused Ruth a security problem. However, Ruth found him a safe house either in his own palace or the University of Moral and Political Science, where he was in daily communication with Force 136 HQ. As he was in close contact with Ruth, who had frequent meetings with the Japanese, he was able to pass on much vital information which would be on Mountbatten’s desk in Kandy within twenty-four hours. Hector remained the senior BLO [British Liaison Officer] throughout his time in Thailand.

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Filed under Britain, Japan, military, nationalism, Thailand, U.S., war

Guarding Egypt’s Docks, 1941

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 47-49:

The only useful job we did in Alexandria was regular dock guard, which was not as dull as it sounds. Air raids were an almost nightly occurrence and there were other diversions as well….

Among our other duties in the docks we had to prevent the pilfering of stores. Local Australian ack-ack gunners were the worst offenders and since their officers seemed to condone it, we gave up handing over any men we caught and merely beat them up. The sailors from the merchant ships were also pretty bad. They would unload attractive stores such as NAAFI supplies during the day, then steal them at night and take them back on board. We caught several and they got quite stiff punishments from their captains when we handed them over. The Egyptian dockers were the other looters, but after we had shot one they became less of a problem.

For some reason the French sailors from the pro-Vichy naval ships that had been interned were allowed complete freedom to wander about Alexandria. Many had pro-Axis sympathies and frequently became involved in brawls, especially with our Spaniards, one of whom died of knife wounds.

During the evacuation from Greece most of the commando was on guard, not only to prevent unauthorised people from entering the docks, but to prevent any from getting out, whether civilians or servicemen. Most troops disembarked in an orderly manner with their arms, were entrained and taken off to camps; but we had a great deal of trouble with the Australians. They disembarked, luckily without any arms, with the one objective of getting into the town as quickly as possible to have a drink and a woman. They strongly resented our guards for preventing them from leaving the docks. ‘Yellow bastards, why weren’t you fighting in Greece?’ they taunted. ‘Why did you run away and leave all your weapons behind?’ countered the commandos. They soon came to blows and free fights started. More guards and military police were rushed to the scene to restore order. It was all very unpleasant.

The most impressive disembarkation that I watched was when HMS Ajax came in at high speed, made fast, and disembarked a battalion of New Zealanders with their arms in perfect order. She was speeding away again in under an hour, bound back to Greece to carry out further rescue work.

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Filed under Australia, Britain, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Mediterranean, military, New Zealand, war

Earliest British Commando Units, 1940

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 30-31:

At Geneifa I joined my new unit — No 52 (Middle East) Commando. All the officers arrived first; the men were due ten days later. Before their arrival we had to learn as much as possible from specialist instructors, most of whom had come from England, in order to pass our training on to our men. I was appointed a company commander, which meant promotion to captain.

Intensive training, interesting and wide-ranging, started at once. I was already proficient at compass work and map reading, and had some knowledge of explosives and demolition, but new subjects for me were boat work, weapon training with the new Thompson submachine gun, unarmed combat and less orthodox subjects such as camel riding and camel mastership, first aid, and scientific roughhousing.

When the men arrived it was obvious that with a few exceptions — notably the Brigade of Guards and the cavalry regiments — their commanding officers had seized a golden opportunity to get rid of their most undesirable characters. Twelve men came from every unit in the Middle East, some of whom had conduct sheets with up to eight pages of crimes. By the time the last stragglers had arrived under military police escort from Cairo, where they had already been arrested for a variety of crimes, the commando numbered about 600 men.

Some of these were criminal types, but GHQ in Cairo refused to allow us to return them to their units unless they were physically unfit. After a week I took my company on a forced march in full kit, during which we covered thirty-three miles in eleven hours in blazing sun in the desert. Many of the men fell out, and as a result I was able to return some thirty per cent of my undesirables as unfit. Only my orderly knew that I had no skin left on my heels and was almost a casualty myself; but the exercise paid off.

Our commando, being a new type of unit, was used as a guinea-pig for every sort of unorthodox idea. The private soldier was given the rank of ‘raider’, which was well thought out as it avoided calling men by their branch of service such as ‘private’, ‘trooper’, ‘guardsman’, ‘gunner’ or ‘sapper’. It also fostered an esprit de corps which would otherwise have been lacking. For the same reason all identities with former units were dropped, and everyone wore the same uniform and insignia. The majority of men chosen for the Commandos were bachelors, on the theory that a bachelor was more likely to take risks than a married man.

Drill and inspections were out, because they were alleged to destroy initiative. We were not allowed to shout orders on parade, but had to give them by hand signal — the object was to ensure silence and keep the men alert. We marched out of step, which was supposed to be less tiring and quieter. Officers were not saluted, to prevent the enemy identifying them. No welfare comforts were allowed, for fear they might make the men soft. On night guards the entire guard stayed awake all night instead of the normal change at regular intervals, though I was never quite clear as to what was the advantage of this method. Even the eating of raw food was encouraged in order to increase mobility; this may indeed have helped those who were taken prisoner and later escaped to the mountains in Crete. In tactics other experiments were carried out such as making an attack without previous reconnaissance in order to achieve surprise. This was a complete failure.

Very early in our training many of the ideas were discarded, particularly since the ill-disciplined men who had been sent to join the commando took every opportunity to abuse them. Parades and marches rapidly became a shambles; even marching out of step proved not only more difficult but more tiring. Gym shoes worn for comfort, silence and speed very soon wore out. It was some months before we were equipped with a rubber-soled commando boot.

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Travails of a Royal Horse Guards Cornet, 1930s

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 5-8:

In September 1936 I had arrived at Hyde Park Barracks, Knightsbridge, commissioned a 2nd lieutenant (cornet) in the Royal Horse Guards (The Blues). At Sandhurst I had lost six months’ seniority by ‘dropping a term’ after a crashing fall in a point-to-point which put me in hospital for six months. My only academic achievements at Sandhurst were passing out top in map reading and bottom in economics.

Rules in the Household Brigade were strict, even off parade. I was soon to find this out when I was awarded fourteen extra orderlies — an officer’s equivalent to CB (confined to barracks) — for dancing downstairs in the Café de Paris in a dinner jacket. If you chose to dance downstairs in the Café de Paris you had to wear a white tie and tails; in a dinner jacket you had to confine yourself to dancing on the less conspicuous balcony upstairs. White tie and tails were also de rigueur at the theatre and I was once reprimanded for being seen in a party at the theatre wearing a dinner jacket — at my hostess’s request.

I accepted these rather strange rules and customs, chiefly because life as a cornet in the Blues was, in most ways, idyllic. Like our sister regiment The Life Guards, we were a very small unit, almost a kind of club. The peacetime strength in 1936 was 14 officers, 419 men and 250 horses. Our only motorised transport was about a dozen Austin Sevens and a few motor cycles used by the signals troop.

Everything in a young officer’s life depended on his NCO. We had no experience; many of the NCOs had served ten to twenty years. They knew all the tricks of the trade and the characters of our senior officers. A good NCO was one part nanny, one part coach, and one part poacher turned gamekeeper. I was lucky to have an excellent corporal of horse (sergeant).

Soldiering, however, played only a small part in our lives. Officers were encouraged to seek adventure on leave. Bob Laycock sailed home from Australia in a windjammer. Others went on big game safaris to Kenya. Some did a stint as ADCs, usually to the Viceroy of India or Governor-General of Canada. Hunting, shooting, polo and steeplechasing were regarded as duty; in other words they didn’t count against one’s leave. Before the war leave was the same as it is today — six weeks in the year; but adding to it the days spent away hunting, and weekends, it must have amounted to three or four months. In those days we were informed that leave was a privilege and never a right. All my army life I failed to understand the logic of this, but I did find that the higher you climbed the ladder of promotion, the less leave you seemed to get.

The Munich crisis caused a flap. I was orderly officer and had to telephone every officer who was on leave recalling him to barracks. This did not make me very popular. We dug slit trenches and weapon pits in the sports fields in Hyde Park just opposite the barracks. To the delight of the more insubordinate, so many sandbags were piled on the roof of the Orderly Room block, which included the colonel’s and the adjutant’s offices, that the roof collapsed.

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African Slaves Save Macao, 1622

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 310-311:

Chinese pirate crews in the South China Seas, an area which no state power adequately controlled and where it was often in minor rulers’ interests to turn a blind eye for their own financial benefit, often employed Africans who had escaped from slavery or gone it alone. An example, though shortly after Yasuke’s time in the 1620s, was the Chinese pirate, smuggler and merchant, Zheng Zhilong.

Zheng had a large African bodyguard corps, more than three hundred men at its peak. The bodyguards were recruited from various places, but most entered his service via Macao, the Portuguese enclave in southern China, and many were escaped slaves. They could also have been men freed in reward for their part in the successful defense of Macao against the Dutch in 1622.

In this battle, an attempt by the Dutch to wrest control of the inter-Asian trade from the Portuguese, Macao found itself virtually defenseless as the Dutch attacked when most of the Portuguese merchant militia were away on trading missions in China. In a desperate bid to defend the outpost, all African slaves—a large group who did most of the manual labor in the colony—were granted their freedom, and as much alcohol as they could drink, in exchange for fighting in the city’s defense. These drunken, newly freed men and women were wildly successful in destroying the Dutch, and their mercenary Japanese and Thai troops, despite being heavily outnumbered. The Africans charged the Dutch musket fire fearlessly and gave no quarter; and as it was the feast of John the Baptist, allegedly celebrated by removing heretic Protestant heads from their bodies. The former slaves, having been released from their bondage, would have been searching for better employment (and quickly), and pirates such as Zheng Zhilong could provide this.

Zheng had lived much of his life in Japan, where he was safe from Chinese government authority and could take advantage of Japanese and European trade and smuggling opportunities. At the height of his power, his fleet was estimated at up to a thousand ships and controlled almost all interactions in the South China Sea.

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Filed under Africa, China, Japan, labor, migration, military, Netherlands, piracy, Portugal, slavery, war

Market for Mercenaries in Mughal India

From African Samurai, by Geoffrey Girard and Thomas Lockley (Hanover Square, 2019), Kindle pp. 155-157:

Afghans, Turks, Persians, Africans, Arabs, Mongols and Portuguese all flocked to the Indian subcontinent to make their fortunes in war.

Even so, the need for soldiers far surpassed the influx of voluntary global mercenaries. As a solution, African boys like Yasuke were forcibly brought to India and trained to become slave soldiers.

Many free Africans also made the journey, seeking the same opportunities as the Turks, Arabs or Portuguese. But the vast majority were children captured in Africa, as Yasuke had been, and sold to foreign slavers in coastal ports, most often Zeila (now in northern Somalia), or Suakin (in modern-day Sudan). Here, their young lives were traded for salt, Indian cloth or iron bars along with other commodities such as guns. If not immediately put to work on dhows or galleys, they were taken on Arab, Ottoman or Indian ships, north toward Egypt, Arabia, Turkey and Europe, or east toward Persia and India.

During the voyage, slave traders often chose to invest in their slaves, educating or even mutilating them to gain more profit at the next stage of sale. For instance, while some were taught their letters, many more young boys were castrated. Handsome eunuch slaves fetched astronomical prices partly because only 10 percent of the victims survived the cut. By the time the captives reached northern India, almost a fourth of those who’d boarded ships in Africa had perished. On arrival in India, the Africans found themselves in slave markets, where they were again sold and taken farther afield to wherever trade routes and eager customers waited—places like Gujarat, the Gulf of Cambay, the Deccan, Cochin (modern-day Kochi), and to Portuguese Goa.

First arriving in Gujarat in northern India, Yasuke and the others had been herded into underground cells, with only street-level barred windows for light and air. The conditions were dark, airless, cramped and horrific. (On the ships, they’d been kept above deck and out of chains, doing simple maritime chores.) He was thirteen now; the voyage from Africa had taken almost a year—as the ships he traveled on stopped to trade or take shelter from adverse weather on the way. He’d been stripped, subjected to a full body examination and checked that he’d not been overly damaged by punishments or abuse on the way from Africa. The slavers who inspected Yasuke were themselves of African origin, perhaps having passed through exactly the same slave cells years before. Their appraising eyes summed up the young Yasuke, observed his size and growth potential and purchased him on the spot.

He was now a member of a military caste called Habshi—African warriors, often horsemen, who fought for local rulers or were loaned out by a mercenary band leader to whomever was willing to pay. Some of these bands numbered in the thousands, but most were only a few hundred strong. The Indians called the Africans Habshi—a word derived from “Abyssinia,” the ancient name for Ethiopia—because a large majority of the Africans destined for India had started their sea journeys there. During the span of recorded history, it is estimated that as many as eleven million Africans were trafficked to India as slaves, primarily to be used as soldiers. During Yasuke’s time, when soldiers were in peak demand, estimates reach into the tens of thousands.

Yasuke spent his first years in India training to use weapons, to ride a horse, to kill and fight. Too valuable to be used as mere fodder (the weakest slaves, who were judged to have little military worth, were often used as human shields, driven before the main force to absorb bombardments), he took the field only after training. Throughout, he would have been both brutalized and baptized into the cult of the killer, through actual battle, but also by carrying out commissions such as executions for his new masters. In his teens, he’d likely supped with assassins, marched and fought beside fifty thousand men, helped slaughter entire villages, joked and bet as comrades fought to the death in camp over some village girl, missing token or misheard comment. He also grew taller and his muscles hardened. He learned to kill with his hands. To ignore the gore and screams of new friends and foe alike. By eighteen, he was a valuable warrior. Now training young boys, as he’d once been a lifetime ago. His body a chronicle of ever-fading scars, a book written in blood.

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Filed under Arabia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Europe, Iran, labor, migration, military, Portugal, slavery, Somalia, South Asia, Sudan, Turkey