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Chinese and Kenyan archaeologists dig for evidence of historic relations.
Zheng He’s arrival in Malindi in 1418 would predate the first European explorers by decades. In Malindi a stone cross still stands erected by the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama who arrived in 1499.
To prove the stories true, the Museum of China is sending an additional team of specially trained underwater archaeologists to look for one of Zheng He’s sunken ships, which capsized close to the island of Lamu, according to oral traditions.
They will have their work cut out for them. The ocean topography here tends to follow the pattern of a shallow, crystal-clear lagoon, a coral reef and then a steep drop down a rock shelf into deep ocean. If the wreck lies in waters deeper than 80 meters it will be impossible to excavate.
While discovering Zheng He’s junk would be a tremendous prize it is not the only proof needed of a long trade relationship between Africa and China.
“In Mambrui we are already finding porcelain dating back to the late 14th and early 15th centuries. We hope to link that porcelain from ancient Malindi to particular kilns in China,” said Herman Kiriama, head of the department of coastal archaeology at the National Museums of Kenya and leader of the Kenyan team.
That matters, said Kiriama, because it might reveal something of the relationship between the Chinese emperor and the East African sultan.
Assessing the quality of the pottery found in Mambrui and tracing the fragments to the emperor’s kilns would show the porcelain was imbued with a greater value than simple trade goods. That would suggest a relationship based on parity and mutual respect rather than base economics or straight exploitation, said Kiriama:“It will show us how the emperor valued the sultan, that he had a very special regard for this person.”