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Kenya islands show footprint of Chinese expeditionary voyages

NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Evidence of the Chinese expeditionary voyages to the East African coast in the 15th century keeps emerging, supported by some residents in coastal Kenya claiming to have Chinese roots and ancient Chinese artifacts unearthed in the region.

From 1405 to 1433, Chinese diplomat and navigator Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of colossal trading ships to Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East and East Africa.

Chinese navigator Zheng He | Coastweek   According to legends, two ships of the fleet were wrecked in the Indian Ocean and those who survived swam to the East African coast where locals embraced them.

Some 20 of them settled in Kenya’s Lamu Island where they later converted into Islam and married local women.

Six centuries later, residents believed to be the descendants of the Chinese sailors are visible in Lamu and other islands in the Kenyan coast.

Mwamaka Sharif, a 29-year-old girl, says her family is among the living testimony of the earliest contacts between Kenya and China.

In 2002, a team of Kenyan and Chinese researchers carried out a DNA test on Mwamaka’s mother living in Siyu Island near Lamu Island and discovered she has Chinese ancestry.

In 2005, Mwamaka was sponsored by the Chinese Embassy in Kenya to visit China and soon afterwards the Chinese government offered her a scholarship to study Chinese traditional medicine in Nanjing University.

Now she is studying for a Ph.D. degree in China.

QUANZHOU China -- Admiral Zheng He statue in the Quanzhou Maritime Museum. WIKIPEDIA PHOTO - JONJAEGO


Her hometown Siyu Island has for years seen massive relics unearthed that show the early trade and communication brought about by Zheng He’s voyages.

Athman Hussein, the director in charge of museums, sites and monuments in the coastal region at the National Museums of Kenya, said archeologists have discovered relics like porcelain and coins that were symbols of the Ming dynasty.

Since 2010, Kenyan and Chinese archeologists have been tracing more evidence of the great expedition through excavating a site where the two ancient Chinese ships are said to have sunk after hitting rocks, Hussein told Xinhua.

"During the first phase of this joint research project, we discovered porcelain, iron ore and coins used in the Ming dynasty.

"They are evidence of Sino-Kenya ties that have survived six centuries," he said.

He revealed that the second phase of the archeological project will involve excavating the entire shipwreck site for more discovery.

"After the second phase is over, we intend to establish a public gallery where artifacts discovered in the shipwreck will be displayed," Hussein said, adding that the discovery of Chinese shipwreck will boost cultural tourism in Kenya.

Today, the long-standing ties between people of the two continents have been renewed by more and more Chinese coming to Africa for trade, investment and sightseeing.

Still in Lamu, a Chinese company is carrying out the construction work on the Lamu port—which could be a best memorial for Zheng He’s circumnavigation.


Early Chinese mariners had a variety of contacts with Kenya

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.

On Pate Island, Frank Viviano described in a July 2005 National Geographic article how 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.

  photo exhibition to commemorate ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He | Coastweek

NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- Visitors look around on an photo exhibition to commemorate ancient Chinese navigator Zheng He (1371-1433) in Nairobi. As a trade and political emissary of the Chinese emperor, Zheng He and his 27,000-men in some 200 ships traveled more than 50,000 kilometers and visited more than 30 countries in Asia and Africa, over a period of 28 years from 1405 to 1433. XINHUA PHOTO - YANG LEI


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".




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