Zheng He’s 7th expedition was his last and after years of moving back and forth between the East African coast and China, all contact seized. Some people may look at this and say that the Chinese turned their backs on Africa but if you look at the situation within China in that time, it sheds more light on this situation.
In 1424, the Yongle Emperor died. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor (reigned 1424–1425), decided to curb the influence at court. Zheng He made one more voyage under the Xuande Emperor (reigned 1426–1435), but after that Chinese treasure ship fleets ended. Zheng He died during the treasure fleet’s last voyage.
…Chinese merchants continued to trade in Japan and southeast Asia, but Imperial officials gave up any plans to maintain a Chinese presence in the Indian Ocean and even destroyed most of the nautical charts that Zheng He had carefully prepared. The decommissioned treasure ships sat in harbors until they rotted away, and Chinese craftsmen forgot the technology of building such large vessels. Source.
China decided to close itself from the outside world. Also,
But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.
He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time. (Source).
Yet private relations continued to flourish. Even in the 16th century, men from Ethiopia, Mogadishu, Malindi, Mombasa and Kilwa were spotted by the Portuguese on the Malay seaport of Malacca. These men were traders who came in their own ships to trade and buy silk and porcelain which were Chinese of origin.
The prevalence of Chinese silk also meant that when the Portuguese reached East Africa they found people swathed in silk. From Malindi through Mombasa to Mozambique, courtiers wore satin turbans and silk below their waists.
The wealthier citizens of these states used Chinese plates and bowls as tableware and to eat millet, rice or fish. Chinese vessels were used as containers for all kinds of objects. Chinese snuff boxes and inkwells were used to store kohl for women’s eyelid, ginger jars to carry pens and trinkets and big jars to hold perfume or oil.
As mentioned previously the east coast of Africa is littered with Chinese debris, still only a tiny fraction of it can be associated with Zheng He’s voyages of 1418-33 A.D for example, in Mogadishu only 6 coins from Yongle’s reign have been found.
With all these stories of merchants and adventures interacting albeit impersonally, what are the possibilities of Chinese settlers in different parts of Africa? We have already discussed the possibilities of Africans in ancient China. Zheng He was allegedly able to successfully relocate large numbers of Chinese Muslims to Malacca, Palembang, Surabaya and other places throughout his 7 voyages. Could one of the East African states be added to this list? The answer will be no if you believe that the Chinese of Zheng He’s crew looked down on Africans because to them all non-Chinese were barbarians. However, there is a possibility even though the proof may not be concrete.
In 1602 Pyrard de Laval, a French navigator met Chinese people on Madagascar. These Chinese by Pyrard’s accounts were descendants of people who “were on a ship which was lost in this place”. While it is possible that these men were the descendants of castaways from an estranged vessel from Zheng He’s fleet, it is also possible that they were of the people native to the island who have Asiatic features and are generally accepted today to be the descendants of not Chinese but Malay or Indonesian settlers.
There are a number of African ethnic groups such as some Igbo who claim Jewish heritage and the Swahili who claim Arab heritage that claim to have been descended from non-African peoples. Some of these may be bogus but others may actually be legitimate which I believe is the case of the Swahili and Lemba of Zimbabwe. Did you know about African ethnic groups that claim Chinese heritage such as the people of Shanga of the Pate Island in Kenya. In 1980, an elder of this clan told a researcher that according to a centuries-old tradition, their ancestors came from Shanghai from whence the name Shanga actually came from. You know ever since I learnt about the lost Jews of Zimbabwe, I have stopped being such a sceptic.
There have also being rumours of old houses in the bush near Mombasa where Chinese used to live and also of a village, camp and monument called ‘Zheng He’s village’ on the outskirts of Brava. While reading ibn Battuta‘s account of Mali in the 14th century, an Arab quarter in the ancient capital of Mali was mentioned so I will not cross out the possibilities of Chinese quarters in East African towns and kingdoms. There is also a ruin connected with the Chinese at Gedi near Mombasa though this connection was made because several Chinese coins were found there even as there has been no evident of Chinese settlers there.
It will be excellent if someone could actually do some DNA sampling in order to find out if there is some truth to the rumours. Since I am not sure if that will ever happen, I will instead be satisfied with the fact that as I type this Chinese and Kenyan archaeologists are paying special attention to the east African coast in order to uncover more of Zheng He’s visit to Africa.
Please check out my previous posts on historical globalisation and Sino-African relations;
What I read
Snow Philip (1988), The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa
Liu Gang (2007), The Chinese Inventor of Bi-Hemispherical World Map, e-Perimetron, Vol. 2, No. 3, pp. 185-193
Shen John (1995), ‘New Thoughts on the use of Chinese document in the Reconstruction of Early Swahili History’, History in Africa, Vol. 22, pp. 349-358
Wilensky Julie (2002), ‘The Magical Kunlun and ‘Devil Slaves’ Chinese Perception of Dark People and Africa before 1500′, Sino-Platonic Papers, Number 122