Monday, 26 July 2010
African quest for sunken ship of mighty armada of Zheng He
Chinese archaeologists' African quest for sunken ship of Ming admiral.
Search for remains of armada which came to grief on a pioneering voyage to Kenya 600 years ago
It's another chapter in the now familiar story of China's economic embrace of Africa. Except that this one begins nearly 600 years ago.
A team of 11 Chinese archaeologists will arrive in Kenya tomorrow to begin the search for an ancient shipwreck and other evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century. The three-year, £2m joint project will centre around the tourist towns of Lamu and Malindi and should shed light on a largely unknown part of both countries' histories.
The sunken ship is believed to have been part of a mighty armada commanded by Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He, who reached Malindi in 1418. According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by recent DNA testing, a handful of survivors swum ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area.
A likely shipwreck site has been identified near Lamu island, according to Idle Farah, director general of the National Museums of Kenya, which is working on the archaeology project with its Chinese equivalent and Peking University.
"The voyages of the Portuguese and the Arabs to our coasts have long been documented," Farah told the Guardian. "Now, by examining this shipwreck, we hope to clarify with clear evidence the first contact between China and east Africa."
The project forms part of a recent effort by the Chinese government to celebrate the achievements of Zheng, a Muslim whose ships sailed the Indian and Pacific Oceans many decades before the exploits of more celebrated European explorers such as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama. Starting in 1405, Zheng made seven journeys, taking in south-east Asia, India, the Middle East and Africa, in fleets of up to 300 huge ships with nearly 30,000 sailors in total, according to Chinese records.
On his voyages, Zheng dished out gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk. In return, he brought home ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels. But it was a giraffe that caused the biggest stir. The animal is known to have been a gift from the Sultan of Malindi, on Kenya's northern coast, but theories vary as to how exactly it got to China. One account suggests that the giraffe was taken from the ruler of Bengal — who himself had received it as a gift from the Sultan — and that it inspired Zheng to visit Kenya a few years later.
Herman Kiriama, Kenya's head of coastal archeology, said the joint archeological team will this week try to locate the Sultan's original village, which is though to be around Mambrui village, outside Malindi, where Ming porcelain has been discovered. In late August, the project will move underwater, with the arrival of specialist maritime archeologists from China.
"Though we have not located the shipwreck yet, we have good indications of where it might have gone down," said Kiriama.
The team's confidence in finding the sunken ship is bolstered by work done in the run-up to the 600th anniversary of Zheng's first voyage. As part of the 2005 celebration, in which the Beijing government sought to present Zheng as a sort of maritime goodwill ambassador – a portrayal disputed by some scholars who point to his use of military force – China sent a team of scholars to Lamu.
In Siyu village they conducted DNA tests on a Swahili family whose oral history and hints of Chinese facial features led them to believe they were descendants of Zheng's shipwrecked sailors. The tests reportedly showed evidence of Chinese ancestry and a 19-year-old woman called Mwamaka Shirafu was given a full scholarship to study traditional medicine in China, where she remains.