Zheng He: Chinese Explorer in East Africa

The world seems to be concerned with China’s new inroads into Africa but it’s history of engagement with the continent goes back 600 years and predates Europe’s by several decades. In Lamu, Kenya DNA testing has revealed the intermixing of African and Chinese communities that date back to the Ming Dynasty. How did the Chinese end up on the Swahili coast in the 1400s and what were they were doing there?

In 1416, an envoy from Mogadishu visited China, and Zheng He of the Ming Dynasty escorted these men back. In 1418, he reached Malindi, off the Kenyan Coast where he traded porcelain and silk in exchange for ivory, myrrh, and animals. Among the precious cargo he took back to China was a giraffe, which was unlike any animal in China at the time, and caused a stir.

This trip to Africa was the precursor of others, one of which led to a shipwreck off the coast of Kenya. The survivors made their way to Lamu where they stayed and mixed with locals. This engagement between China and Africa led to the trade of rhino horn, ivory and porcelain.

By Zahra Baitie

(Photo: Ming Dynasty JSLP)

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