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Curtis Abraham


Western history books tell us that Vasco Da Gama, the 13th-century, Portuguese explorer, was the first international trader to open up East Africa. But there is increasing archeological and archival evidence that Chinese explorers, traders and diplomats had gotten there first.


Foremost among them was Zheng He (Cheng Ho), a Mu,slim administrator, admiral and diplomat during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Imperial China. Circumstantial scientific and textual evidence suggests that He arrived on the East African coast several decades earlier than Da Gama.


Zheng He’s maritime travels took place from 1405 to 1433 and it’s documented that he led a vast fleet of no less than 62 ships ferrying an estimated 37,000 soldiers across the Indian Ocean or (‘Western Ocean’). In 1418, one of Cheng Ho’s ships in his vast armada is reported to have sunk near Malindi or Lamu on the Kenya coast (according to Kenyan lore, some twenty survivors swam ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay, converted to Islam, and married local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area).


On his voyages, Zheng was quite generous and gave gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk. In return, he brought home ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels. One or two giraffes were also ferried back to China. One animal was reportedly a gift from the Sultan of Malindi, on Kenya's northern coast.


In early 2010, a joint team of Kenyan and Chinese maritime archaeologists set out to find conclusive evidence of the shipwreck and whether or not it belonged to Zheng He’s fleet. During the course of the excavation later that year, they discovered a 15th Century Chinese Yongle Tongbao’ coin, a small disk of copper or brass and silver with a square hole in the center, at Mambrui village, north of Malindi on Kenya's north coast. According to experts, such coins were carried only by envoys of the emperor; adding further evidence of Zheng He’s presence in East Africa.


In October 2010, the Chinese-Kenyan team also announced the discovery of the remains of an iron smelter accompanied by iron slag, and a jade-green shard of porcelain believed to come from Long Quan, a kiln that made porcelain exclusively for the royal family during the early Ming Dynasty.


According to Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, the eminent Dutch sinologist and professor of Chinese at Leiden University who authored CHINA’S DISCOVERY OF AFRICA, the Ming Dynasty Emperor, Zhu Di, commissioned these expeditions because he was motivated by:


“The real need of overseas products felt particularly at Court and the desire to increase his own prestige, and reestablish the overseas renown of the Chinese Empire,”


These voyages of discovery required sea-worthy vessels. There is some archeological evidence that during the Qin and Han dynasties Chinese shipping technology was already quite advanced (the central rudder was invented around this time). In 1974, a large scale shipping factory archaeology site was unearthed in Guangzhou, capital and largest city of Guangdong province on the Pearl River, about 120 km north-northwest of Hong Kong and north-northeast of Macau.


The main source of Chinese knowledge about East Africa comes from documents in the imperial archive. Chinese knowledge about East Africa during the Tang dynasty (618-907) comes from primarily the Ching-hsing Chi (“Record of Travels”) and Yu-yung Tsa –tsu (“Assorted Dishes from Yu-yang”).During the Song dynasty (960-1279), most of the information is recorded in the Chu-fan-chih (“Gazetteer of Foreigners”) and Ling-wai Taita (“Information from Beyond the Mountains”).The record of the Ming (1368-1644) naval expedition into the Western Indian Ocean is preserved in Wu-pei-chih (“Notes on Military Preparedness”), Hsing-ch’a Sheng-lan   (“Triumphant Vision of the Starry Raft”), and Ming Shih (“History of the Ming Dynasty”).             


Historians and archeologists are unsure exactly when China established contact with Africa, but according to Li Anshan, author of A HISTORY OF OVERSEAS CHINESE IN AFRICA TO 1911, from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220AD) to the Sui Dynasty (581-618), there were practically no references to Africa in the Chinese historical documents. 

Nevertheless, some private contacts were taking place. Chinese merchant ships were very active in the Indian Ocean trade activities that centered on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) according to some foreign historical documents.

 “Early Chinese sources of the Han dynasty mention products from the ‘South’ like pearls, tortoise shells, incense, and spices, part of which might have been imported from the Red Sea area - in exchange with silk. Silk is one of the goods from China, which has probably reached the Red Sea already in early times," writes Wolbert Smidt, author of A CHINESE IN THE NUBIAN AND ABYSSINIAN KINGDOMS (8th Century).                                                                                                                                                                               

The Silk Road, which was established during the Han Dynasty and earned its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk (and horses) along its length, put Imperial China on a collision course with the African continent. These trade and cultural exchange routes effectively connected China with the rest of the world.


Very early trade contacts between Han China and Africa appears to have been preserved in the archeological record. There is some evidence that Chinese specialty goods had arrived in Egypt. For example, in 1993, while studying hairs of a female corpse from the Egyptian Twenty-first Dynasty (1070-954 BC), Austrian scientists discovered remnants of silk fabric. At the time, China was the lone silk producer. 


Further evidence for Chinese contact with East Africa (Horn of Africa) during the Han period comes fro Zhang Xiang, author of “On Several Ancient Sino-African Relation Research Issues”, who also mentions the country called “Dou Le”, mentioned in the classical Chinese text, Hou Han Shu Xi Yu Zhuan was the famous harbor Adulis of ancient Aksum, Ethiopia. Its envoy arrived at Luo Yang in 100 CE, which was an important milestone in the history of Sino-African relations.


During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD), knowledge about Africa went from indirect to direct. There are three historical documents from the Tang Dynasty that directly and explicitly involved Africa. Among them is Jing Xing Ji (“Record of my Travels”) by Du Huan. According to Li Anshan, Du accompanied the West Conquering Officer, Gao Xiangzhi, on a westward crusade. In 751, during the failed Battle of Dalas River, Du was captured by the “Dashi” (Arabs). More than ten years later, in 762, Du returned home by sea en route of Guangzhou (Kanton), and published Jing Xing Ji. Unfortunately, the book has been lost. However, over 1,500 words of the text have been preserved in the Border Defense section of the Tong Dian, which describes the “Molin Kingdom.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

In the kingdom, Du found the people “black, rude, and uncivilized”. Their land was equally harsh. He noted that it was devoid of trees, grasses and that agriculturally there were few grains (cereals) and little rice. There were pestilences like malaria. They refrained from eating pigs, dogs, donkeys, or their horses. But they ate Asian dates, while their horses feasted on dried fish. Du says the people worshiped deities and ghosts.


Experts such as Wolpert Smidt have deduced that Molin was located in the arid desert lowlands of the Sudan and Ethiopia, the region that is today Eritrea (the Aksumite and Nubian kingdoms were closely interrelated at this time). And that Laobosa, which Du also mention’s visiting lying south of Molin, is the first mention of Ethiopia (Abyssinia) in an ancient Chinese source. He would have left from the ancient port of Adulis, the outlet to the sea of the Aksumite Kingdom.


Another Tang Dynasty document, You Yang Za Zu by Duan Chengshi, also contained a paragraph describing supposedly another African kingdom, the Bobali (Somali) Kingdom. Here the people ate meat but no grain. They extracted blood from the jugular of their cows and mixed it with milk for drinking, a practice quite common among East African/Horn of Africa pastoralists. Duan says their land had never been subjugated and in battles, they used ivory shields and the horns of the wildebeest. According to Li Anshan, most scholars believe the Bobali Kingdom was located in modern-day Berbera, Somalia.


During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), official and private contacts between Africa and China increased. We know this not only from archival documents and books of that period but also from past and recent archeological findings.


In the absence of any written or oral history, it’s impossible to know what Africans in Antiquity thought of these early Chinese travelers. What is known, however, are Chinese attitudes towards Africans. Dynastic Chinese viewed black Africans with the usual racist stereotypes that have, sadly, transcended the ages. They saw Africans as lacking the “moral virtue”, which they (the Chinese) saw themselves as possessing in bucket-loads. For example, in Yu-yang Tsa-tsu, the scholar notes “barbaric” characteristics such as the semi-nakedness of the inhabitants. They perceived women in East Africa as sexually immoral because of their “barbaric” origins.


During the Song Dynasty (960-1279), official and private contacts between Africa and China increased according to archival documents and books of that periolso from past and recent archeological findings.


In 2005, Dr. Felix Chami, Professor of Archaeology at Dar Es Salaam University, Tanzania, and keynote speaker at the “Exploring China's Ancient Links to Africa World Conference”, discovered and identified Chinese coins dating back to the Song dynasty. The coins were found during an excavation of Kuumbi Cave on the island of Zanzibar (the site also contains stone tools and shows that humans occupied the site at least 22,000 years ago). These types of coins known as Chinese cash were minted from the III century BC to the XIX century AD and represent by far the longest span of coin serial production in history 


“My coins are nothing new in archeology,” says Chami. Chinese coins and ceramics are ubiquitous on archeological sites on the coast and islands of East Africa.”


By the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) there had been three maritime routes from China to Africa. These included China to North Africa, China to India, Aden and finally to Egypt. There was the China East Africa route: China to the Maldives and finally to East Africa. Then there was the China to Madagascar route, which had two branches: China, Socotra Island, and Madagascar. There was also the China to Malaba Coast and finally to Madagascar.    


These much-frequented routes facilitated both official and private contacts between China and Africa. This had much to do with the emphasis on foreign trade during the Zhao Song Period, and also the Yuan rulers’ public policy to advance foreign trade. In addition, Zhu Siben of the Yuan Dynasty made an accurate map of the African continent at the time. In the map, Southern Africa was already included, its end pointing towards the south.


During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), not only were Egypt and Ethiopia frequently visited by Chinese merchants and diplomats, the Somali region was also a popular port of call. Recent Archeological finds are revealing the nature of the interaction between early Islamic kingdoms in the Horn of Africa and the Chinese trade along the Silk Route.


According to Sada Mire, Assistant Professor of Archeology at the University of Leiden, Netherlands, archaeological records of trade relations between Ancient China and the Somali region go back to the middle of the First Millennium AD and continue to the present day.


In her native Somaliland, a decade and a half ago, Mire discovered ruined early or medieval Islamic towns, burial sites with decorated upright stone monuments of pre-Islamic origin called steglia, and pre-Islamic Christian burial sites.


“The ruined towns tell us about ancient trade between the Horn of Africa and Arabia, India and China,” says Mire. “We have found Chinese pottery from the Yuan and Ming dynasties, which is important since it brings the dating of the sites back to the 13th century. This helps us understand the period of seafaring and maritime interaction.”


Chinese historical records and chronicles do indeed refer to trade with ancient Somali coastal towns (including modern-day Mogadishu and Berbera). Such trade included goods such as incense from the Somali Red Sea coast used in the Chinese courts and temples through time. Trading activities facilitated not only the transmission of goods but also ideas and cultures.  


By the time of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), China-Africa relations had come full circle. Official contacts had dwindled but private contacts endured. Direct trade gave way to indirect trade and the Chinese had increased exposure to Africa through the publication of several books on African travels and history. It was not until the Nineteenth Century, with European nations’ intervention, that bilateral relations between the two resumed. 



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