The ‘Christopher Columbus Of China’ May Have Visited Kenya, A New Find Reveals

Kenya
An explorer from medieval China may have visited an island off the coast of Kenya, archaeologists say.

A joint expedition by The Field Museum and the University of Illinois at Chicago unearthed a 15th-century Chinese coin on the Kenyan island of Manda, according to a Field Museum press release. Starting around 200 A.D., Manda was a trading hub and home to an advanced civilization.

The coin, shown here, is an alloy of copper and silver and was issued by the Ming Emperor Yongle, who reigned from 1403-1425 A.D. The coin bears the emperor’s name.

Emperor Yongle sent Admiral Zheng He, also known as Cheng Ho, on an epic mission of exploration to find new trading partners. He traveled around the coasts of south and southeast Asia, east Africa as far north as Somalia, and the Arabian Peninsula.

“Zheng He was, in many ways, the Christopher Columbus of China,” said Dr. Kusimba, curator of African Anthropology at The Field Museum. “This finding is significant. We know Africa has always been connected to the rest of the world, but this coin opens a discussion about the relationship between China and Indian Ocean nations.”

Sadly, later Chinese rulers took a more insular policy and banned foreign expeditions. If they had continued Yongle’s work, the great Age of Exploration may have been more Chinese than European. Manda was mysteriously abandoned around 1430, shortly after Emperor Yongle’s death.

Chinese contact with east Africa has become a hot topic of research in recent years. Back in 2010, we reported that a DNA study found genetic links between China and Africa.

While the focus has been on Kenya, researchers might want to take a look at the city of Harar in Ethiopia, which has been a trading center for centuries. Some Hararis have vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. When I was doing research there some Hararis told me that the city used to trade with China many centuries ago.

In the nearby early medieval settlement of Harla, which may have been the predecessor to Harar, farmers have uncovered two Chinese coins dated to 1040 and 1080 A.D.

[Photo courtesy John Weinstein/The Field Museum]

Archaeological discovery reveals China’s link to Africa

A Chinese and Kenyan archaeological team has discovered evidence that Chinese traders visited Kenya in the 15th century. A coin minted between 1403 and 1424 and a sherd of porcelain dating to the early Ming dynasty were found in the remains of a village. The excavation by Peking University and local archaeologists was searching for clues to the voyages of Zheng He, who led a fleet of more than 200 ships on numerous trips across the Indian Ocean.

The coin was of a special make used by representatives of the emperor and the porcelain may have came from a kiln reserved for the use of the royal family, so these finds are evidence of an official visit.

An article on BBC gives further details, and adds that China is renewing its historic ties to Africa. In 2008 China had $107 billion in trade with the continent, a figure that’s been increasing dramatically every year. This trade outstrips every other nation including the United States. During my trip to Ethiopia I saw Chinese engineers with Ethiopian road crews building highways and bridges, and the Chinese are beginning to build factories too.

In the past few years there’s also been a dramatic increase in Chinese tourists. Ten years ago I never saw a Chinese tour group in Oxford or London; now I see them every day. The face of travel is changing.

While the discovery is big news to Western archaeologists, it only confirms what the Chinese and Africans knew all along–that there have been centuries of ties between the regions. Residents of Lamu, a port near the excavation site, have a tradition that they’re descended from one of Zheng He’s shipwrecked crews. Many have Chinese features. DNA tests show some of the residents do have Chinese ancestry. When I was in the medieval trading center of Harar in Ethiopia I noticed several people with vaguely Chinese features, and Harari coins have been found in China. Perhaps Chinese researchers should conduct some DNA tests in Harar.

[Photo courtesy user Hassan Saeed via Wikimedia Commons]