Tag Archives: Kilwa

From Kilwa to Australia, almost certainly not direct

By way of a medievalist break from all the strike woe, some time ago now I stubbed a note to talk about a rather surprising coin find. Since this means dealing with this blog’s most controversial subject ever, medieval knowledge of Australasia, I tread with care, but I also discover that not only have several others trod there before me, but one of them was Dr Beachcombing, once proudly included on the blogroll here, so it’s probably going to be OK. These are (some of) the controversial objects.

Copper-alloy fals of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan struck at Kilwa Kiwisani 1294-1308

Copper-alloy fals of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan struck at Kilwa Kiwisani 1294-1308, found on Wessel Island, Australia, 1944. Image released to the press by the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney on August 22, 2013, here reproduced from AFP, “How 900-year-old African coins found in Australia may finally solve the mystery of who arrived Down Under first” in Daily Mail, Science & Technology Section, 22nd August 2013, online here, but visible on the Powerhouse Museum’s site with better captioning here

Copper-alloy fals of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan struck at Kilwa 1294-1308

Another fals of Sulaiman ibn al-Hasan from the Wessel Island find, reproduced this time from Ian McIntosh, “Life and Death on the Wessel Islands: The Case of Australia’s Mysterious African Coin Cache” in Australian Folklore no. 27 (Riga 2012), pp. 9–26, online here, at p. 14

These were found in 1944, in the Wessel Islands, which lie off Australia’s Arnhem Land, in its north-east, about 400 km south of Indonesian Papua (which becomes important). They were not then examined until 1979, and it’s possible, just possible, that another has been found on another island about 100 km away since then.1 But when they were examined, they caused a minor stir because they were struck in a place I’ve written about here before, the Sultanate of Kilwa in modern-day Tanzania, somewhere between 1150 and 1330.2 Now, Kilwan copper coins are by no means rare and they’re not really valuable, but context is everything: they are common in and around Kilwa, obviously, and are otherwise found in Zimbabwe now and then, and Oman once or twice (itself a thing to explain, but Kilwan gold coin, which seems to have been the international coinage of the Sultanate, is only found in Arabia so that some of the small stuff should have gone there too is actually one of the least weird hypotheses about these coins).3 Otherwise, they didn’t travel, and that they turn up so very far out of that orbit takes some explaining.

The Wessel Islands are the long thin offshore strand at top right of this map, at least as it loads for me

Now, the person who pointed me at the story in 2018 is very interested in global contacts in the Middle Ages and was, I think, rather hoping that someone who knew the coins might tell a story from them that would serve that. Alas for that person, I cannot, and the person who has mainly investigated the find, an anthropologist by the name of Ian S. McIntosh, has not wanted to either. This didn’t stop journalists trying to drum up excitement about possible medieval contact with Australia, of course, and even McIntosh is interested in, “a more accurate portrayal of Australian history that is currently allowed in textbooks,” suggesting that he would not mind a radical new finding.4 Nonetheless, he is not (or was not in 2012 and 2013, when for some reason his work hit the news) wedded to any particular theory; in fact he has five hypotheses for how the coins might have got there and of them, the idea of medieval contact between Kilwa and Australia is the least likely.5

Ruins of Kilwa Kiwisani, Tanzania

Ruins of Kilwa Kiwisani, reproduced from Teo Kermeliotis, “Ancient African coins that could change history of Australia” in CNN, Inside Africa Section, 27th June 2013, online here

Now it is worth saying that it is not impossible, albeit there is no evidence, given that there was a ninth-century dhow wrecked off Sumatra and an established Islamic presence in Indonesia by 1400, that at some medieval point a Kilwa trading ship did wind up way way off course and make contact with what is, after all, a really big land mass (even if the Wessel Islands are a very small offshore part of it).6 But that is almost certainly not the story these coins tell, for two reasons. Firstly, there is a much better window after 1505, when the Portuguese sacked Kilwa, and 1514-15 when they set up in Timor in Indonesia, thus opening up a definite route between Kilwa and Indonesia that was in use by Islamic traders until the nineteenth century.7 Secondly, and much more importantly, the coins were found with a number of Dutch duits struck from 1690 to 1784.

Copper duit of the Dutch East India Company struck at Gelderland in 1690

Copper duit of the Dutch East India Company struck at Gelderland in 1690, found in the Wessel Islands in 1944 and now Sydney, Powerhouse Museum, N21359-1, image from “Ancient Coins in ArnhemLand” in Past Masters, online here

So at this point we can start to spin hypotheses. First, the coins were actually deposited all together. In that case they’d pretty much have to have been gathered together by an eighteenth-century Dutch trader, probably buying sea cucumber which was apparently a big export of the area then. Why he’d have paid in these is less clear; perhaps they might have been given as talismans to the Yolngu people of the islands.8 However, this does also involve explaining why such a Dutchman should have had, but then got rid of, some 600-year-old fulūs from Kilwa, as well as why his own small change went back a century. Apparently Dutch trade networks encompassed the Swahili coast and the Wessel Islands (which do after all lie off a bit of Australia with a Netherlands place-name), so it’s not impossible, but we might at least want to consider alternatives, especially since the coins, while hardly fresh, don’t really look like they’d been circulating for six centuries. The hypothesis that the coins were gathered separately, however, involves them being collected in the Islands. The advantage of this is that they don’t all have to have arrived there at the same time; the disadvantage is that it means someone thought they were worth keeping and then someone else did and then someone else did, combining Kilwa coins with Dutch ones at some point, but eventually nonetheless someone thought that rather than keep them any more they should all be buried. Also, we then have several separate acquisition moments to hypothesize, including possibly Muslim traders from Makassar as well as later Dutchmen, and Occam’s Razor would therefore favour the later deposition. And after that, the hypotheses only get more complex. The one of these that the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, where these coins now reside, appears to be that the coins are all individual losses and found together ‘over a period of time’; this doesn’t appear to be how any of the other reports of their discovery have it and I don’t know whether they have information the web doesn’t, but if it’s so I’d still rather think of it as a single hoard found in parts, just because there is so much more to explain if it wasn’t.9

Jensen Bay on Djinjan Island, Australia

Jensen Bay on Djinjan Island, Australia, a possible find-site for the hoard, image from “Ancient Coins in ArnhemLand” again

Now, Professor McIntosh himself has some ingenious possible explanations of the deposition of this hoard, which rest on really good local knowledge of the islands and the Yolngu’s own stories. I’m not qualified to judge them, and they’re on the open web, so I’d invite you to go and have a look yourself; at least one of the possibilities involves shipwreck, plague, taboo and, again, sea cucumbers, which is a pretty rare combination I’d say.10 But the message I’d take from it as medievalist is that there is no explanation of the Kilwa coins in that hoard that doesn’t involve something pretty unlikely having happened. A Dutchman with a pocketful of medieval fulūs is unlikely; a multi-generation coin collection in the Wessel Islands seems unlikely to me as well, though I don’t know the area or people at all so could be very wrong; a succession of drop-offs of very very few low-value coins with no precious metal content, which were not then either melted down or pierced for use as ornaments, also seems like a lot of unlikelihoods; and you might therefore argue that a Kilwa ship fetching up in the Wessel Islands in some disastrous fashion isn’t any more unlikely. But to that I would say, firstly, that that still involves explaining why they wound up buried along with the Dutch coins, and moves the necessary six centuries of circulation and conservation into the Wessel Islands, a bit of a bigger ask. Secondly, the medieval deposition theory has the weakness that there is literally no other evidence to support it, whereas all the other hypotheses, however stretched, can be attached to things which we do know to have happened. And this is why I couldn’t give my colleague the story they may have wanted. But whatever the story of these coins actually was, which Professor McIntosh may yet discover I suppose, it must have been a pretty wild one! And with that thought I leave it to you.


1. Kylie Stevenson, “‘It could change everything’: coin found off northern Australia may be from pre-1400 Africa” in The Guardian 11th May 2019, online here; it is quite important to mention that at the end of some heavy lab work, the coin remained unidentified!

2. These dates come from “Collection of coins, photograph and documentation” in Powerhouse Collection, online here, whose precise identifications of the coins suggest that they have got more information than the 2013 publications on which this post mainly relies.

3. For the numismatics of Kilwa you still have to see G. S. P. Freeman-Grenville, “Numismatic Evidence for Chronology at Kilwa” in Numismatic Chronicle 7th Series Vol. 18 (London 1978), pp. 191–196, but cf. now 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.

4. See Ian McIntosh, “Life and Death on the Wessel Islands: The Case of Australia’s Mysterious African Coin Cache” in Australian Folklore no. 27 (Riga 2012), pp. 9–26, which is my main source for this post. The quote is however from Teo Kermeliotis, “Ancient African coins that could change history of Australia” in CNN, Inside Africa Section, 27th June 2013, online here. McIntosh also has another relevant article, “The Ancient African Coins of Arnhem Land” in Australasian Science May 2014 (Melbourne 2014), pp. 19-21, online here, but I only found this as I was compiling these notes so haven’t incorporated it. It is available with a wealth of other relevant documentation from “Ancient Coins in ArnhemLand” in Past Masters, online here.

5. “Five separate hypotheses” in Kermeliotis, “Ancient African Coins”, just before an expedition to find out more; “a whole series of hypotheses” in AFP, “How 900-year-old African coins found in Australia may finally solve the mystery of who arrived Down Under first” in Daily Mail, Science & Technology Section, 22nd August 2013, online here, after the expedition, which I think must have been that documented in “Ancient Coins in ArnhemLand”. McIntosh, “Life and Death”, isn’t quite so methodical in its arrangement as to number its overlapping hypotheses.

6. Though as McIntosh points out, ibid. p. 10, they are kind of a “catching mitt” for anything being carried through that stretch of sea. For the dhow see Michael Flecker, “A ninth-century AD Arab or Indian shipwreck in Indonesia: first evidence for direct trade with China” in World Archaeology Vol. 33 (Abingdon 2001), pp. 335–354, and for late medieval Indonesia Barbara Watson Andaya and Leonard Y. Andaya, A History of Early Modern Southeast Asia, 1400-1830 (Cambridge 2015), pp. 82-129.

7. McIntosh, “Life and Death”, pp. 13-14.

8. Ibid., pp. 15-16, citing the diaries of one Matthew Flinders; the relevant extract is online here thanks to “Ancient Coins in ArnhemLand” again.

9. “Collection of coins”.

10. McIntosh, “Life and Death”, pp. 21-23.

Seminars CXLVII-CXLIX: Chroniclers, Kilwa and Vikings In Normandy

With the usual apologies for backlog taken as read, today’s first post under the new new dispensation should get me slightly more caught up with seminar reports; people keep saying how even the old ones are interesting, and it comforts me to have them done, so, here you go.

Opening of John of Worcester's Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

Opening of John of Worcester’s Chronicon ex Chronicis, from I think Cambridge Corpus Christi College MS 157

First of these was a local speaker, Emily Winkler, a doctoral student working on the image of kingship in Anglo-Norman chronicles. Consequently, her paper, which she gave at the Medieval History Seminar on 22nd October 2012, was entitled “Kings and Conquest in Anglo-Norman Historiography”, and dealt with how two chroniclers in particular, William of Malmesbury and John of Worcester, both with a strong sense of English identity but working under a régime defined very strongly as Norman, worked towards trying to explain the Danish and Norman conquests of England in a way that left the English some creditable place in the new orders of things. She did this by focussing particularly on Kings Æthelred II, ‘the Unready’, and Harold II, that is, the ones who lost their kingdoms: in both cases, as she argued and as her substantial handout shows, William goes for undermining the skill and character of the English king, thus saving the people themselves from responsibility for God’s subsequent decision against them, whereas John was too proud of the English and their history to accept such a Providential outcome and emphasises ill luck or impossible odds instead, while making the kings heroic and noble, even Æthelred (for which he has to fabricate a reasonable amount). This provoked a lively discussion which centred most of all on the contrast of these texts with the far more negative contemporary portrayals of the English people’s culpability and treachery in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. There are reasons why that source is that way, of course, but the contrast is still noticeable and Emily suggested that one major factor in the difference is that the Anglo-Norman chroniclers, whether they liked it or not, had grown up amid a kingship that was famedly powerful and effective even when opposed by its people, and that consequently they just had less conceptual space for the rôle of a people to affect the fate of its kings at all…

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE

Fals of Sultan Sulaiman ibn Hasan of Kilwa struck at Kilwa Kisiwani c. 1331 CE—maybe

The next week, an old sidetrack of this blog was revived when Dr Stephanie Wynne-Jones came to talk to the Medieval Archaeology Seminar on 29th October 2012 about her work on the East African sultanate of Kilwa. My extremely limited knowledge of Kilwa is nothing to do with my medieval study, though I do think most medievalists should at least have heard of the place, but the result of fixing the catalogue entries of some of the relevant coins back at the Fitzwilliam Museum, which was also when I first met Dr Wynne-Jones. She has subsequently published a study of Kilwa coinages that raises a lot of interesting problems, but here she was dealing with the other material she’s got from digs there, under the title, “A Material Culture: exploring urbanism and trade in medieval Swahili world”.1 I won’t try and summarise this beyond saying that the amount of standing ruins (largely built of imported coral) at Kilwa Kisiwani gives Stephanie a good basis for working out how houses looked when they were in use, and what she was talking about here was the way in which shifts in available or desired goods could be seen in house decoration and the material culture of the city-dwellers. There were lots of questions here and some day I must type up my notes on them, but today is not that day. It was, however, very informative and interesting, and nice for me to get some sense of what the bigger picture was in which the coins I’d dealt with belonged.

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

Map of the density of Scandinavian place-names in the duchy of Normandy

The last paper to be covered in this batch was by another inhabitant of the Dreaming Spires, Dr Lesley Abrams, who spoke to the Medieval History Seminar on 5th November 2012 under the simple title, “Early Normandy”. This was mainly an excursus of the problems of knowing anything very much about that principality: the narrative sources are brief to the extreme, telling developingly-less believable stories about the treaty between King Charles the Simple and Rollo the Ganger that established the duchy but not giving us a text of it or recounting its provisions, and the archæology is basically missing. This is not just because it hasn’t been looked for, though that is a factor, but also because, unlike areas like East Anglia or Kiev, the Norse presence in Normandy doesn’t seem to have retained its material culture habits but rapidly to have adopted local ones. We do however have a certain amount of name-change to work with, both of settlements and of people, so it’s not that they were all terribly ashamed of their origins or anything. This is part of a larger complex of situations in which, as we learn it better, we see that the Viking impact was different in every area they went to, and this Lesley has studied in a recent article.2 Making Normandy fit into this picture much before the year 1000 is difficult, however, especially as one may suspect that interest in the duchy’s history and that of its dukes was then a new thing being milked for legitimacy (which would not be without parallels at other parts of the post-Carolingian periphery of course). What we can see, however, suggests low levels of settlement by traders and farmers, and that the Norse were by no means the only ones moving in: Breton and Gaelic influences are also evident on the place-name maps when people look for them. These kinds of subtleties are hard to detect given the evidence, but the subsequent ducal historiography was sufficiently successful that not many people have yet tried! Anyway, I am sufficiently far behind that this paper is now published, so if I have piqued your interest, please see the references below, and next I shall return to more Iberian pastures (though Vikings will continue to be involved). Stay tuned!


1. For the coins, see Jeffrey B. Fleisher & S. Wynne-Jones, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 170 (London 2010), pp. 494-506, and now (what I haven’t), S. Wynne-Jones & J. Fleisher, “Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications” in Cambridge Archaeological Journal Vol. 22 (Cambridge 2012), pp. 19-36; I see from Stephanie’s publication pages at York that not only has she written an absolute shed-load of other things about these and related issues, but what looks like the book of it is on its way out as S. Wynne-Jones, A Material Culture: consumption and practice on the pre-colonial coast of East Africa (Oxford forthcoming), so that should excite anyone whom this post has excited about Kilwa still further!

2. That being L. Abrams, “Diaspora and Identity in the Viking Age” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 20 (Oxford 2012), pp. 17-38, DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0254.2011.00333.x; now see also the rather relevant L. Abrams, “Early Normandy” in Anglo-Norman Studies Vol. 35 (Woodbridge 2013), pp. 45-64!

What the Internet has brought the armchair archaeologist, with particular reference to Samarra

(Written partly offline on a train between Hanbury and Worcester, 18/04/2011)

If there are any of my students reading, could you look away for a moment? Thankyou. You see I have to confess something: teaching the range I was teaching last term involved prescribing more than a little reading that I myself had actually never read. There’s just never been time to cover everything that might be useful on these subjects I don’t primarily work on.1 I started making this time, however, and I’m making inroads on my overloaded to-read shelves, much of which I got hold of specifically to use in teaching in fact. Every one of these that can go onto the office shelves with me secure I have some idea what’s in it, I feel a bit less of a fraud, though there’s a long way to go on that front.

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Cover of Richard Hodges's and David Whitehouse's Mohammed, Charlemagne & the Origins of Europe

Okay: students, you can look again now. Have you ever read Richard Hodges‘s and David Whitehouse‘s Mohammed, Charlemagne and the Origins of Europe? You absolutely should, it’s only short, it has the classic early Hodges flavour of attack where everyone else is wrong and we will all be led to the truth by the shining golden light of ARCHAEOLOGY, where Hodges was its prophet,2 but it also has a startlingly broad focus endowed it by the fact that Whitehouse had dug not just in Italy (where in the seventies they seem to have more or less turned Archeologia Medievale into a news-sheet for Brits to tell the Italians what bit of the local past they’d put spades into now), but also in more farflung locales like Africa and, most unusually, Iran before the fall of the Shah, after which, as we have remarked here before, it has been a little difficult to do much digging that doesn’t come up landmines.3 This means that the book is almost bound to tell even the most learned Westerner something they didn’t know about points east—it mentions Kilwa, for example, although in the period they are concerned with the big entrepôt on the East African coast actually was in Kenya, at Manda—and for me it was about Samarra.

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

The Birka da'Iriyya, a sunken basin in the palace complex of Caliph al-Mu'tasim, Samarra, Iraq, in use 836-c.895

I vaguely knew that Samarra was in old Persia somewhere, but that was about it. I had not gathered that it was the capital of the ‘Abbasid Caliphate between 836 and 882, in fact I’d never been aware that the ‘Abbasids left Baghdad, and I certainly hadn’t taken on board its scale. Hodges and Whitehouse say:

The works of al-Mansur at Baghdad were dwarfed by those of al-Mutasim and his successors at Samarra for in forty-six years they created a city which sprawled along the Tigris for 35 kilometres: from Woolwich, as it were, to Kew…. Al-Mutasim built a palace larger than Versailles in 836-42; al-Mutawakkil replaced it with another, almost as large, in about 849-59; al-Mutamid built a third in 878-82.

The emphasis is the authors’, but you know, fair enough.4 Now, that was 1983 and the scholarship has moved on at least a piece. In 1983 Hodges and Whitehouse could say, with amazement, “Astonishingly, no detailed description of the site has ever been published”, although they cite in the same note what appears to be a six-volume German site report so I’m not sure how much detail they wanted.5 But, and this is anything is the point, now we have the Internet, it’s so much easier to check this sort of thing. Even a clumsy Google might suffice, but a more targeted search of the Regesta Imperii OPAC brings up a few bits that that doesn’t.6 Where Google does come into its own though is in photography. We can’t get into this area on the ground in safety any more, but the eyes in the sky can report, and they do. Have a look at this for scale and desolation:

Okay, so here's a building. Now zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out. Then zoom out...

Ozymandias just ain’t in it.


1. It’s astonishing how much patching of this you can get away with simply by going to seminars where the relevant people tell you what’s in their work instead, of course. This is the big secret reason for my high level of conference attendance.

2. If you haven’t met this strain of his work, you will find it writ large in R. Hodges, The Anglo-Saxon Achievement: archaeology and the beginnings of English society (London 1989). These days he is a bit less combative, though of course who knows what his Dark Age Economics: a new audit (London forthcoming) will be like. If, like me, you are waiting for that with bated breath (though once I own it, who knows when I’ll actually read it…) you may be excited to know that there is an article-length summary entitled “Dark Age Economics revisited” in a volume of his papers I only lately found out about, Goodbye to the Vikings: (London 2009), pp. 63-71, and that volume must join his Towns and Trade in the Age of Charlemagne (London 2000) on my to-read list. You see, this list never actually gets shorter, it just feels more up-to-date.

3. The part of the book I’m writing from here is R. Hodges, D. Whitehouse, Mohammed: Charlemagne & The Origins of Europe: archaeology and the Pirenne thesis (London 1983), pp. 123-157.

4. Ibid., pp. 151 & 157.

5. Ibid., p. 151 n. 29, citing Ernst Herzfeld, Ausgrabungen von Samarra VI: Geschichte der Stadt Samarra (Berlin 1948).

6. The most obviously useful thing that’s come out since Hodges and Whitehouse wrote is Chase Robinson (ed.), A Medieval Islamic City Reconsidered: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Samarra, Oxford Studies in Islamic Art 14 (Oxford 2001), but there is also now Alastair Northedge, The Historical Topography of Samarra, Samarra Studies 1 (London 2005) and a shortish introduction by Osman S. A. Ismail, “The Founding of a New Capital: Samarra'” in Clifford Edmund Bosworth (ed.), The Turks in the early Islamic world (Aldershot 2007), pp. 291-304. The latter two aren’t even on any reading lists I’ve set so I can confess I haven’t actually read these; the first, I shall have to stay circumspect about for a while longer…

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?