Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

As with any type of specialised knowledge, I guess, one of the problems with getting information out to the people at large is that the people at large don’t necessarily have the context that allows them to judge whether something is important, or just hot air. More importantly, often neither do the people who write about it for them. This is of course not news here or elsewhere, but every now and then you gotta vent anyway. Two pieces that went past on News for Medievalists, the messenger it’s OK to shoot, in particular struck me as pieces where it might have been good if a historian of the relevant area and period had been consulted somewhere along the line.

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

Fifteenth-century Chinese cash found in Kenya

The first of these was a piece about a Chinese coin found in East Africa. I don’t mean to diminish the significance of this at all, though the political context into which this, and all the other stuff you may have seen about Chinese naval contact with Africa in the fifteenth century in recent years, is bothersome. Basically, the Chinese government is currently pouring a lot of money into East Africa and, not surprisingly, one of the results of this is a new line of historical and archæological investigation arguing for the importance of China’s early influence on East Africa, an early influence that the Ming state nevertheless more or less threw away in 1433. The main figure of this wave of flag-showing was a Muslim eunuch admiral, Zheng He, who more or less came in peace, and he is becoming a powerful symbol of enlightened maritime friendship and patronage for Beijing, which is probably not unconnected with Chinese archæologists recently finding his tomb, empty, although a subsequent announcement admitted that in fact the identification was probably wrong, which to judge by other such stories will mainly allow the ‘experts’ to find the tomb again at some convenient later point. In the reportage of all this they will, of course, rely on exactly the journalistic shortcomings that set this piece off.1 (There is a really good article in Time about the politico-industrial context of all these amazing discoveries here.)

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

Chinese illustration of a giraffe brought back by one of Zheng He's voyages

So yes, OK, calm down, what about this coin? Well, whatever the Chinese government and its unwitting spokespeople want to make of it, there is no problem with a Chinese presence in fifteenth-century Africa. No, I’m fine with that. The bit that got me was the final paragraphs of the BBC piece that News for Medievalists were robbing, where they talk about how this knocks Vasco de Gama off the map in the “connecting Africa to the world” stakes; China were there earlier. Witness:

“We’re discovering that the Chinese had a very different approach from the Europeans to East Africa,” said Herman Kiriama, the lead archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya.

“Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals. It shows that Kenya was already a dynamic trading power with strong links to the outside world long before the Portuguese arrived,” he said.

You get it? It’s about China beating the West, both in time and in morals. And the obvious thing that’s missing from this is the Middle East, dammit, because this whole area was under a Muslim sultanate at this point and had been for years. It was already connected to a vastly wider world stretching from Afghanistan to Morocco via Baghdad, and I suspect that it is that last name that is one of the problems, because currently it’s probably not politically wise for Kenyan spokespersons to put out pieces saying, “Yah, well of course we used to be real good buddies with Baghdad till you Western guys came along and changed all that.” I could wish that some of the coverage was cunning enough to pick that up, but at the very least they should mention the religion of the Sultan of Malindi and the immense networks that being an Islamic state at that time in history gave a polity access to. They could also mention that the first point East from Africa is not actually China, but India, which had ‘discovered’ this area and its trading potential long before, but India is not currently investing in Kenya as much and I guess that’s why that’s not news. Of course, one might question whether Africa really needed to be discovered at all to be important, or whether this is just past and present colonialism talking, but if discovered and connected to a wider world it had to be, it seems pretty clear those politically-pesky Arabs should be claiming the honour. The other point, though, is more subtle, and this maybe they can be excused for not picking this up. Did you ever hear of a place called Kilwa?

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

Copper fals probably of Sultan Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan of Kilwa, c. 1315X50, Fitzwilliam Museum, CM.IS.1440-R

No? Kilwa Kisiwani, Venice of East Africa? The Treasure Island of Kilwa? Still nothing? Well, you’re not alone if so, I’d never heard of it either until a few years ago I found myself trying to fix the fact that in a certain database almost all of its coins there present were mistakenly marked as being half-rupees, but it was pretty big. For about three centuries, and peaking in the fourteenth, this island fastness had the run of the east African coast and therefore the ability to channel its trade, which made it extremely rich. It was also, of course, given the day and age, an Islamic state, and a very well-known one: Ibn Battuta stayed there, its rulers communicated with others and its coins (at least, the gold ones, which are weirdly never found locally) travelled great distances through the Islamic territories.2 Zheng He, however, landed at Malindi, and Kilwa’s over-reaching importance in the area hasn’t made it it into any press coverage I’ve seen. Obviously Zheng He’s choice of berth is one reason, although we can probably assume he also went to Kilwa Kisiwani since he is supposed to have travelled up and down the whole coast. I suspect, however, that the big factor in this obtrusive state’s strange absence from the Kenyan-Chinese picture is that its territories are now in Tanzania, and thus it’s nothing to do with the real reason this stuff is getting reported. Tchah.

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

Ruins of the Great Mosque at Kilwa Kisiwani

There’s more I could write (off). For example, another News for Medievalists’ post robbing a Los Angeles Times article by Nancy Goldstone headlined “Miss the Middle Ages? Try Afghanistan” really needs the Matt Gabriele treatment but I could begin with, “well, one reason that isn’t quite going to work is that Afghanistan is currently crawling with soldiers sent from halfway across the world and every time one of them is killed halfway-around-the-world gets to hear about it almost instantly, by much the same high-speed communications means by which the attack was probably coordinated. These eras are not the same. Also, you used the f-word.” I mean, if what you want to say is that Afghanistan is in the grip of a bunch of territorial warlords whom the government barely controls but hopes to entice by deploying patronage, then yes, that might work, as long as your medieval analogue was, for example, late Salian Germany, but picking France and England at the end of the Hundred Years War as your benchmarks rather knocks the whole thing to pieces. You see, Hamid Karzai, about whose government the article technically is,3 is not, in fact, an occupying power so equating him with England trying to hold France won’t really float. Neither, in fact, will likening the USA in Afghanistan to Plantagenet England, because of Henry V actually trying to rule France directly due to a genealogical claim on it, not just wanting someone friendly in charge there to prevent people in France raiding his coastline or whatever. And of course if one of the players here were founding their riches on their ability to market a massively-important cash crop globally, as are the Afghan warlords with the opium poppy, it was England, with its wool, not France. In other words, for this analogy to work, the USA would need to have displaced Karzai and annexed Afghanistan as a 52nd state largely to protect its own drugs revenue, which almost certainly isn’t the case and certainly isn’t the point Ms Goldstone wants to make. We can leave aside the medievalism-as-contempt-for-the-other motif for others to pick up, I think, and just skewer the inaccuracy.

Oh, you journalists with a little medieval knowledge. Why can’t you all be more like this guy? (Hat tip to Richard Scott Nokes at the Unlocked Wordhoard for this one.)


1. This is, by the way, approximately half as much as some people have tried to claim for Zheng He, a retired British naval captain called Gavin Menzies having published two books claiming that the Chinese fleet also discovered America and visited all the major ports of Europe. I’m glad to have found a story where a Chinese academic is quoted not only taking this down but also stressing the importance of Islamic seafarers in connecting up the zones through which Zheng He and other Chinese voyagers travelled.

2. On the numismatics I have to thank Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones, one of the UK’s two archæologists working on Swahili stuff she tells me, who has a paper about where Kilwa’s coins turn up and publishing some new ones coming out in next year’s Numismatic Chronicle.

3. Obviously, it’s really about how clever Nancy Goldstone is, but I can hardly criticise someone for gratuitously showing off knowledge on the Internet, now can I?

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15 responses to “Annoying coverage of medieval news, East Africa edition

  1. I have a confession: I’ve never heard of Kilwa.

    But I remember reading that article and the claims of a direct trade route between Kenya and China on the basis of a coin and a few pots and immediately thinking that it sure didn’t look as if there was anything to discount goods – and one coin – from changing hands several times before reaching Africa.

    I just put it to shoddy journalism which I think we in the US are much better at than you folks are (I listen to BBC radio rather than NPR most of the time).

    It should probably bother me more but our major news services have degenerated into “infotainment” stations. Used to be you could listen to CNN and expect to hear news. Now you should expect to hear whatever they think will get them ratings. I think it’s made me numb.

    • Well, the story that NfM linked to was BBC, not any US source, and the most aware piece seems to be the Time one, so in this case the stereotype is inverted though ordinarily I might be inclined to agree with you. Of course I would, as a Britischer!

      The exchange of goods point is a very fair one, meanwhile, and could also apply to the Ming vessels that have been recovered from the coastline too. It’s only when paired up with the narrative evidence about Zheng He, of which, I have to say, I know precisely nothing, that the case for direct contact starts to mount up. But that certainly doesn’t mean that every Chinese find here must be connected with that voyage, or that we should continue to ignore the (Indian) elephant in the room…

  2. “Because they came with gifts from the emperor, it shows they saw us as equals.”

    That would indicate quite the opposite. The emperor-tributary/civilizing balance of power meant that China always had to give better gifts than its barbarian satellite states gave to it. Often it was in the form of natural resources/local curiosities from the local and money, books, metal goods and other symbols of civilization from the emperor.

    Some merchants used this traditional balance to their benefit.

    • Well, yes, I agree entirely! This kind of competitive gift exchange can also be traced in Europe at the time, and in the ‘Abbasid and Umayyad Caliphates. But obviously that’s not how modern Kenya wishes to view its current relationship with China and that’s what we’re really being told about here!

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  4. And now I find that we are also partly to blame Zheng He’s fleet for the transmission of the Black Death, though obviously given the near-century between the Black Death and his voyages the writers don’t mean the Black Death, but another and presumably lesser instance of plague.

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  6. I note, with some weariness, that the coin find, like the discovery of Zheng He’s tomb, is apparently another of these China-Kenya finds that you can have as many times over as you need. What can one blogger do against such well-founded ignorance?

  7. Hey, a reversal I didn’t expect to be able to add to this thread: some copper Kilwa coins, which have up till now only turned up in the erstwhile capital’s more-or-less immediate environs, were in fact found some distance away in 1944… in fact, in Australia, with a bunch of seventeenth-century Dutch East Indies coins. Explain that one! Well, actually, Doug Moncur of the blog formerly known as Thoughts of a Knowledge Geek has had a go, and it’s not implausible. suffice to say, it probably doesn’t parallel our old debate on medieval contact with New Zealand

    I should also note, while I’m here, the eventual emergence some time ago of the article of Stephanie Wynne-Jones’s that I mentioned when I wrote this post, whose full cite is:
    Jeffrey Fleisher and Stephanie Wynne-Jones, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 170 (London 2010), pp. 494-506.

  8. Another aspect of ‘annoying coverage’ that you seem to have unwittingly replicated here is the idea that the E. African coast was under a ‘Muslim sultanate’ in this period. It was actually a series of independant though connected city states with African rulers. Yes they were Muslims, but not under the control of ‘Arabs’ as you and the article you link to seem to assume.

    • My use of the word `Arabs’ is perhaps a bit less careful than it should be. I think it’s correct to say, having re-read, that I only invoke Arabs in connecting the African coast to a wider world, by which I meant the establishment of sea links to, well, Arabia, but perhaps that’s only clear if one reads very carefully. However, as to the Muslim Sultanate, I stand by my guns: Malindi then Kilwa, surely, if `this period’ is anywhere between say 1250 and 1500 CE. If not, what would you use to educate someone about the alternative view?

  9. Pingback: Seminars CXLVII-CXLIX: Chroniclers, Kilwa and Vikings In Normandy | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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