Their ancestors were said to be from indigenous women who intermarried with Chinese Ming sailors when they were shipwrecked. The earliest contacts between Kenya and China.
Six centuries later, the descendants of these Chinese sailors are visible in Lamu where China’s ancient Maritime Silk road terminates. In Siyu village, archaeologists have discovered artifacts like porcelain and coins that were symbols of the Ming dynasty.
According to legends, a team of Chinese sailors survived a shipwreck in the Indian Ocean waters and settled in Lamu Island.
Historians contend the sailors were part of a fleet sent by the legendary Chinese navigator Zheng He.
Mwamaka and her family are among the ones who are living testimony of the earliest contacts between Kenya and China.
It was in 2002 that a team of distinguished Kenyan and Chinese researchers carried a DNA analysis on Mwamaka’s 63-year-old mother and discovered that she has Chinese genetics.
Soon afterwards, the Chinese government offered Mwamaka a scholarship to study Chinese traditional medicine in China.
Kenyan and Chinese archaeologists have been tracing evidence of ancient contacts in the Kenyan coast. They hope to find the the shipwreck to help unearth all artifacts symbolizing ancient cultural and trade ties.
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In 1999, New York Times journalist Nicholas D. Kristof reported a surprising encounter on a tiny African island called Pate, just off the coast of Kenya. Here, in a village of stone huts set amongst dense mangrove trees, Kristof met a number of elderly men who told him that they were descendants of Chinese sailors, shipwrecked on Pate many centuries ago. Their ancestors had traded with the local Africans, who had given them giraffes to take back to China; then their boat was driven onto the nearby reef. Kristof noted many clues that seemed to confirm the islanders’ tale, including their vaguely Asian appearance and the presence of antique porcelain heirlooms in their homes.
Kenyans of Chinese descent
China and Africa have a history of trade relations, sometimes through third parties, dating back as far as 202 BC and AD 220. The first mention of Africa in Chinese sources was in the Yu-yang-tsa-tsu by Tuan Ch’eng-shih(died 863), a compendium of general knowledge where he wrote about the land of Po-pa-li (referring to Somalia).
Archaeological excavations at Mogadishu, Somalia and Kilwa, Tanzania have recovered many coins from China. The majority of the Chinese coins date to the Song Dynasty, although the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty are also represented, according to Richard Pankhurst. In 1226 Chao Jukua, commissioner of foreign trade at Quanzhou in the Fujian province of China, completed his Chu-fan-chih (Description of Barbarous Peoples) which discusses Zanzibar (Ts’ong-pa) and Somalia (Pi-P’a-Lo).
In the 14th century, Moroccan traveler and scholar Ibn Battuta made a long journey to Africa and Asia. He reached China in April 1345 after a stay in India before serving as an envoy of Sultan Muhammad Tughlaq of the Indian Tughlaq dynasty to China. He wrote:
China is the safest, best regulated of countries for a traveler. A man may go by himself on a nine-month journey, carrying with him a large sum of money, without any fear. Silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars. Its porcelains are the finest of all makes of pottery and its hens are bigger than geese in our country.
The Ming Dynasty voyages of Chinese admiral Zheng He and his fleet, which rounded the coast of Somalia and followed the coast down to the Mozambique Channel. The goal of those expeditions was to spread Chinese culture and signal Chinese strength. Zheng brought gifts and granted titles from the Ming emperor to the local rulers, with the aim of establishing a large number of tributary states. In October 1415, Chinese explorer and admiral Zheng He reached the eastern coast of Africa and sent the first of two giraffes as gifts to the Chinese Yongle Emperor.
A giraffe from an African King
-Ancient Chinese Explorers Documentary Still
Map indicating trading routes used around the 1st century CE centered on the Silk Road.
Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages; however, these were believed to have been brought over by Zheng He during his 15th century ocean voyages. On Lamu Island off the Kenyan coast, local oral tradition maintains that 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, possibly part of Zheng’s fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. Given permission to settle by local tribes after having killed a dangerous python, they converted to Islam and married local women. Now, they are believed to have just six descendants left there; in 2002, DNA tests conducted on one of the women confirmed that she was of Chinese descent. Her daughter, Mwamaka Sharifu, later received a PRC government scholarship to study traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) in China.
National Geographic also published an article by Frank Viviano in July 2005, he visited Pate Island during the time he stayed on Lamu, ceramic fragments had been found around Lamu which the administrative officer of the local Swahili history museum claimed were of Chinese origin, specifically from Zheng He‘s voyage to east Africa. The eyes of the Pate people resembled Chinese and Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were speculated to be of Chinese origin. Their ancestors were said to be from indigenous women who intermarried with Chinese Ming sailors when they were shipwrecked. Two places on Pate were called “Old Shanga”, and “New Shanga”, which the Chinese sailors had named. A local guide who claimed descent from the Chinese showed Frank a graveyard made out of coral on the island, indicating that they were the graves of the Chinese sailors, which the author described as “virtually identical”, to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”.
According to Melanie Yap and Daniel Leong Man in their book “Colour, Confusions and Concessions: the History of Chinese in South Africa”, Chu Ssu-pen, a Chinese mapmaker, in 1320 had southern Africa drawn on one of his maps. Ceramics found in Zimbabwe and South Africa dated back to Song dynasty China. Some tribes to Cape Town’s north claimed descent from Chinese sailors during the 13th century, their physical appearance is similar to Chinese with paler skin and a Mandarin sounding tonal language. Their name for themselves is “abandoned people”, Awatwa in their language.
In this edition of our 60 Years of Sino-African Friendship series, we look at Li Anshan, an expert on African issues. In his academic research on African history, he always highlighted the important role that China has played.
Chinese whose love for African art enhanced Sino-African cultural exchanges
In our series 60 Years of Sino-African Friendship we present to you today the portrait of Liu Hongwu, director of the African Research Institute of Zhejiang Normal University. His passion for African art led him to become an important figure in the cultural and educational exchanges between China and Africa. He is also one of the founders of the Museum of African Arts.