Saturday, August 13, 2005


Mystery Ship And Chinese Genes At the Kenyan Coast

By Mazera Ndurya
August 07, 2005

According to archaeological information, the Chinese connection with the East African coast, though not as heavily documented as that of the Arabs and Portuguese, dates back to the ninth century.

At first, the ties were maintained through intermediaries, mainly Arab traders who brought the Chinese porcelain that can today be found at all major historical sites and towns along the East African coast.

Mr Herman Kiriama, a National Museums of Kenya archaeologist, told Lifestyle that for years Arab merchants and sailors imported goods from India and China to places such as Kilwa in Tanzania, Mombasa and Malindi in Kenya and Mogadishu in Somalia.

"It was not until in the 15th century that Chinese sailors started their voyage to the East African coast mainly for trade but also to explore this region. The Chinese heritage at the coast is very strong," he says.

Historical evidence indicates that the Chinese introduced stone buildings, which are still found in the old Shanga town in Lamu. Chinese porcelain has been found adorning the roofs and walls of houses.

Mr Kiriama says the Chinese mission was not as aggressive as those by the Arabs and the early Europeans who conquered some states and imposed their culture and religion.

"It was one of those peaceful trading missions that brought the legendary Chinese sailor Zheng He, who led a large fleet of ships to the Kenyan coast about 600 years ago," he explains.

During his voyage back to China, Zheng He was given giraffes by a traditional ruler in Malindi.

The giraffes were a gift to the Chinese Emperor. This explains how, even though giraffes are not native to China, they are depicted in Chinese arts and crafts of the time.

The survivors
"It was on a similar voyage by Chinese sailors to the East African coast that a ship capsized in the Indian Ocean coast near Shanga. During this time, Zheng He had been sent back by the emperor to thank the people of Malindi and carry back to China more giraffes," the archaeologist explains.

The survivors of the ship tragedy provided what would be a long historical link between Lamu and China.

However, available evidence indicates that the Chinese sailors initially had it rough with the people of Lamu. This was attributed to their being different in appearance from those the people of the island had ever come across.

In fact, according to historical and oral accounts passed down over the years, the Chinese sailors were only accepted by the islanders after they agreed to convert to Islam and marry Shanga women.

That said, for years, those amongst the islanders with Chinese ancestry often kept the information secret as they were somewhat despised and discriminated against.

Shipwrecked sailors
It has taken a very long time for the descendants of the shipwrecked Chinese sailors to come out in the open about their heritage. When they finally did, Chinese scholars and researchers with an interest in the matter, and keen to record for posterity this vital link with Kenya, began making frequent visits to the island.

Their visits to Shanga and Siyu, where some of the families with Chinese ancestry live, began in 2000.

Mr Kiriama now says there is a new dimension that Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists are following up on to further document the link with the early visitors to the East African coast.

These are leads about the names of people in an effort to link them with their Chinese ancestry.

"The Chinese are also interested in establishing some more information about the wreckage of the ship that is believed to be in the Indian Ocean.

"They want to know what else sank with the ship and the exact location where it capsized. After the initial survey we will now be going for underwater excavation to establish more facts about the ship," Mr Kiriama told Lifestyle.


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