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The African Samurai

A Novel


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About The Book

Set in late 16th-century Africa, India, Portugal, and Japan, The African Samurai is a powerful historical novel based on the true story of Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent—for readers of Esi Edugyan and Lawrence Hill.

In 1579, a Portuguese trade ship sails into port at Kuchinotsu, Japan, loaded with European wares and weapons. On board is Father Alessandro Valignano, an Italian priest and Jesuit missionary whose authority in central and east Asia is second only to the pope’s. Beside him is his protector, a large and imposing East African man. Taken from his village as a boy, sold as a slave to Portuguese mercenaries, and forced to fight in wars in India, the young but experienced soldier is haunted by memories of his past.

From Kuchinotsu, Father Valignano leads an expedition pushing inland toward the capital city of Kyoto. A riot brings his protector in front of the land’s most powerful warlord, Oda Nobunaga. Nobunaga is preparing a campaign to complete the unification of a nation that’s been torn apart by over one hundred years of civil war. In exchange for permission to build a church, Valignano “gifts” his protector to Nobunaga, and the young East African man is reminded once again that he is less of a human and more of a thing to be traded and sold.

After pledging his allegiance to the Japanese warlord, the two men from vastly different worlds develop a trust and respect for one another. The young soldier is granted the role of samurai, a title that has never been given to a foreigner; he is also given a new name: Yasuke. Not all are happy with Yasuke’s ascension. There are whispers that he may soon be given his own fief, his own servants, his own samurai to command. But all of his dreams hinge on his ability to protect his new lord from threats both military and political, and from enemies both without and within.

A magnificent reconstruction and moving study of a lost historical figure, The African Samurai is an enthralling narrative about the tensions between the East and the West and the making of modern Japan, from which rises the most unlikely hero.


Chapter 1 1
Home is a lost place, more dream to me than memory.

Even the fragments I held on to felt foreign and distant, like things that had happened in another’s life. The life of someone who had not been taken away, who had not been severed from his own beginnings. And yet sometimes, a memory would come through so clearly it ached.

As a child, my family and a few others from the tribe made the long hike from our village in the shadow of Mount Namuli to the coast. It was late in the year, the time of the laying of eggs. We set our camps on the edge of the beach and watched the turtles come ashore at night, waves of them, with hard, dark shells and soft, speckled underbellies. They seemed to be moving both independently, and in unison. They used their flippers to create indentations in the sand and rested atop them. We committed the spots to memory, and slept.

In the morning, when the turtles had gone, we dug up the eggs, taking only what we needed. We made the trek back to the village with the eggs carried carefully in baskets. About two months later we would make the long hike to the beach again. We set our camps in the same place on the beach’s edge. Under the light of the full moon, the sand began to pucker and shift. One tiny bill poked out from beneath it, then another, then a dozen more, a hundred. A mass of tiny turtles crawling toward the yawning expanse of green froth, drawn there by something we could never understand. I wanted to believe that they were crawling out to sea to find their mothers, to reunite themselves.

The first trip to the sea had been to gather food. The second trip had been to learn why to leave as many as possible, to take only what was needed. I can remember my mother’s voice, but not her face. Nor can I remember my father’s. I have flashes of reading and writing lessons under a mango tree. Of working alongside the other boys inside the mines, stripping the cave walls for ore; playing with them in the fields, using small pebbles for games of mancala in the dirt of the streets. Of festivals with drums and masks and brightly colored robes, the thrill of seeing visitors from other lands and the wares they brought to trade. And I remember the turtles, rising out of the sand and making their way to the sea.

It was the last time I was free.

“YOU DON’T NEED TO HOVER over me, there is no one on the boat but our own men.”

Father Valignano spoke without looking up from his work. The Jesuit looked aged in the thin rays of sun from the porthole, the shadows highlighting the lines on his cheek and forehead and deepening the hollows around his eyes. His head bobbed in and out of the stream of pale light, showing the short gray hair atop it. His equally gray beard, trim and narrow, hung almost down to the paper he scrawled upon. His hand, though, was steady as he dipped the quill and quickly but carefully drew it across the page, and his voice, as ever, held the steadiness of one used to command.

“My job is to protect you from all men. Not just other men,” I replied.

“Have you so little trust in our fellow travelers?”

“A bodyguard who relies on trust often fails at his task.”

“In Japanese, if you will.”

Valignano had still not looked up from his desk. I hesitated, searching for the words. I’d spent many months learning Japanese language and history, both leading up to this voyage and during the long days aboard the ship, but I always struggled to make the switch from Portuguese. After a moment, I repeated my statement in Japanese. Valignano nodded approvingly, and made a few small corrections, then continued on in this language that was new to both of us.

“Why don’t you go above, get some air?” Valignano asked, waving me away.

“You know I do not like the sea,” I said.

“Yes. For such a large man you are afraid of so many things.”

“A man who lacks fear also lacks caution.”

“A man who fears too much lacks faith. You must trust in God, my son. He whose faith is strong walks untouched in this world. Unafraid.”

I accepted the rebuke silently. I’d learned much from the Jesuits. I could recite large swaths of their Bible in both Portuguese and Latin, and increasing amounts of it in Japanese. I admired the belief of the priests, and I believed it to be genuine, but a small part of me had resisted giving in to it completely. It seemed to me that a man who calls on God to fight his battles quickly forgets how to fight his own. Faith seemed a privilege that could be afforded to the protected, the comfortable, but I would always choose a sword to protect me over a cross.

Though he’d never say it, I suspected Valignano would agree.

The steel-eyed priest looked up from his work, his famously thin patience worn through.

“We will be to port soon, and there will be plenty of opportunities for you to tower behind me and scowl.”

I scowled at the comment, then smiled when I realized I was doing it. I bowed and ducked my head beneath the doorframe as I exited.

I had marked my twenty-fourth birthday on this boat, sailing toward Japan. It had been twelve years since I had last seen my village, and I had long since given up hope of seeing it again. I’d been away now for the same length I had lived there. Twelve years free, in Africa; twelve years enslaved, in India, Portugal, China, sold to mercenaries, to an army, to a church. Half my life amongst family, half my life amongst strangers. Half my life a child, half my life a soldier.

I loathed the deck, but I climbed up to it regardless. I had observed the captain carefully and had picked up the basic working of his tools and calculations, but I still could not fathom how men could navigate when there was nothing but water to be seen in all directions. I had tried to read the stars the way I had seen the captain sometimes do, but it was something I had little aptitude for. It frustrated me. In all other things I had proven a fast learner, whether the weapons and strategies of the mercenaries or the books and languages of the priests, but the ways of the sea remained a mystery to me.

I stood at the rail on the leeward side and avoided looking at the sea by watching the ruffle of the sails instead. A handful of men wrestled with ropes and knots while others scrubbed the accumulated salt from the ship’s forward deckboards. The decks, the masts, and the entire ship had been blackened with pitch, and the glittering white stain from the seawater showed the evidence of how far aboard the previous day’s waves had reached.

Most of the men were belowdecks, and while they had invited me to join them on a few occasions, they trusted me even less than I did them. I had sat alongside them while they told stories, and I had wagered a few coins against them while they threw lots, but it was my duty to remain vigilant at all times, so I did not drink with them, and that made them suspicious of me. Besides that, we had reached the point in the voyage where violence was just below the surface, ready to emerge over the slightest squabble, or the most innocent of slights. Valignano’s route to Japan had included stops in India and China, and though we had switched boats and crews at points along the way, this crew had still been close to a month at sea. I had no desire to play peacemaker, and had no patience to listen to the complaints of the men. Their cramped quarters and stale rations were luxuries compared to my own experience on ships.

One crewman, heavily bearded and probably heavily drunk, was berating another while standing over a crate that had been dropped and cracked. At their feet, vibrantly colored silks from China spilled out from the breach onto the salt-scrubbed deck.

In the cargo holds below us, an impossible number of crates held Bibles and crosses and European weaving, jewelry, and other fine items. But mostly guns. Crate after crate of matchlock pistols and long rifles and, Valignano’s prize, three powerful new cannons capable of tearing down a fortress wall, or laying waste to a row of cavalry.

The weapons would be offered to the Japanese if they proved pious enough. If they let the Jesuits build their churches. If they let them teach their religion to their Japanese sons and daughters. If they converted, and ordered their clans to convert as well, then they would have powerful European weapons to use against their rivals, and Valignano would have his foothold in Asia. Guns in exchange for souls.

There were parts of the Jesuits’ religion that still remained unclear to me, but trade was something I understood all too well. I had been given to Jesuits. In their schools I learned to read and write, was taught the white man’s history, the white man’s religion.

The stern-looking Jesuit priest who received me clucked his tongue in disgust upon hearing my name and gave me a Christian one instead. They named me after the son of Abraham. They told me the story of God asking Abraham to prove his belief by killing his only son. How Abraham built an altar and tied his son upon it and sharpened his blade, but God told him to hold fast. That he was pleased.

The Portuguese had named me well. Isaac. A man to be sacrificed. A thing to be offered.

About The Author

Photograph by Jay Crews Photography

Craig Shreve was born and raised in North Buxton, Ontario, a small town that has been recognized by the Canadian government as a National Historic Site due to its former status as a popular terminus on the Underground Railroad. He is a descendant of Abraham Doras Shadd, the first Black person in Canada to be elected to public office, and of his daughter Mary Ann Shadd, the pioneering abolitionist, suffragette, and newspaper editor/publisher who was inducted posthumously into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in the United States. Craig is the author of One Night in Mississippi and a graduate of the School for Writers at Humber College. He lives in Toronto, Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @CG_Shreve.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 1, 2023)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781668002865

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Raves and Reviews

“In The African Samurai, Craig Shreve tells an extraordinary story with dramatic intensity, sensitivity, and consummate imagination. Like all the best historical novels, it feels relevant and even essential to our present moment. Of the many admirable things about this novel, perhaps the greatest is Shreve’s feat of breathing life into Yasuke, its central character, and rescuing this remarkable man from obscurity.”
DAVID BEZMOZGIS, award-winning author of Immigrant City and The Betrayers

“A sweeping historical epic anchored by one man's fight for survival and the search for a home and identity ripped away. Fearlessly told and painstakingly crafted, The African Samurai explores rare literary territory and tells a singular, visceral tale of discovery and endurance.”
KEVIN HARDCASTLE, award-winning author of In the Cage and Debris

“[A] complex and deeply moving story . . . that powerfully resonates with our current times. [The] deftly drawn characters of European, Asian, and African origin inhabit a sometimes frightening but ultimately hopeful story due to Shreve’s immense skills at illuminating the power of the human spirit.”
JEFFREY COLVIN, award-winning author of Africville

“Remarkably suspenseful . . . Shreve has shaped the scant available Yasuke facts into a subtle hybrid of a novel. Part traditional historical saga, rife with blood, guts, and exotic details, and part empathetic meditation on cultural genocide and the annihilation of individual agency, The African Samurai is a riveting story.”
Toronto Star

“Allowing readers to explore the story of a real-life figure like Yasuke, Japan’s first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent, is basically why the historical fiction genre exists.”
— Paste Magazine

“During the 16th century, a young East African man sold into enslavement becomes an experienced soldier—and a samurai. Based on the true story of Yasuke, this compelling historical novel moves from Africa to India, Portugal, and Japan, weaving the mesmerizing story of the first foreign-born samurai and the only samurai of African descent.”
— BookBub

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