Magazine article New African

China's Long History in Africa

Magazine article New African

China's Long History in Africa

Article excerpt

Despite the current frenetic media salvo unrelentingly declaring China's "new inroads" into Africa, nothing could be further from the truth. China's presence in Africa dates back centuries and spanned a number of ancient dynasties. Curtis Abraham traces China's ancient and imperial past into Africa and sees how it still affects the relationship of today.

As tackled in other articles in this edition's cover story. China is currently Africa's largest trading partner. But actually, China has been in Africa for a long time.

In fact, in the past 10 years, scientists have been making spectacular field and archival discoveries about China's early presence on the African continent. These latest findings were the inspiration for an international conference, "Exploring Chinas Ancient Links to Africa World Conference", which was held last October in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa.

The conference was co-sponsored by Aksum University, Ethiopia. African, Chinese, American and Australian experts gathered to examine and debate recent archaeological and historical evidence of China's ancient cultural and economic relationship with Africa.

Western history books make a lot out of Vasco da Gama, the 15th and 16th century Portuguese explorer, being the first international trader to open up East Africa. He arrived in 1498 on an expedition to find a sea route to Asia, and as we all know, his trip opened up more than 450 years of colonial domination by European maritime powers. But what is not made so much noise about, despite increasing evidence, is that Zheng He, a eunuch administrator and diplomat during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Imperial China, arrived on the East African coast several decades earlier than Vasco da Gama.

Zheng He's maritime travels took place from 1405 to 1433 and it is documented that in 1418 he led a vast fleet of no less than 62 ships ferrying 37,000 soldiers across the Indian Ocean ("Western Ocean").

According to Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, the late eminent Dutch sinologist, and author of Chinas Discovery of Africa, the Yongle Emperor 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 to reestablish the overseas renown of the Chinese Empire."

Sadly, most of the official records about Zheng He's voyages were destroyed (the result of jealousy on the part of the Emperor's court officials towards the eunuch clique that Zheng He belonged to). Consequently, most of today's understanding of Zheng He s expedition comes from Ma Huan, a Muslim interpreter, and Fei Hsin, a member of the scholar class who served as a junior officer on some of Zheng He's voyages.

But according to surviving documents in China's imperial archives, Zheng He is said to nave paid a visit to the Sultan of Malindi --the most powerful coastal ruler of the time, in present-day eastern Kenya (this encounter probably took place at Mambrui, a small village just north of Malindi on Kenya's north coast, since it mentioned that the town was by a river mouth). Aboard one of Zheng He's ships is rumored to have been a giraffe, a gift to the Chinese Emperor, when it sank en route to China. No one knows for sure where the ship sank but some experts speculate that it happened somewhere off the Malindi coast or near the island of Lamu. No one knows for certain if the sunken ship was even part of Zheng He's fleet.

Envoys of the emperor

In 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 centre, at Mambrui village, north of Malindi on Kenya's north coast. …

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