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Coin Find Points to Early Chinese Trade With Africa
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
September 13, 2010

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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At least one coin found in an archaeological context suggests the Vikings may have arrived in North America long before the voyage of Columbus. Now Chinese coins of the Yongle Period of the Ming Dynasty may likewise support oral history that a fleet from China may have arrived in western Africa about 600 years ago.

The legendary sunken ships of the Zheng He fleet may not be legendary. The epicenter of this appears to be the village of Mambrui in Malindi, Kenya. There archaeologists have recently uncovered an undisclosed number of Yongle Tongbao Chinese cast cash coins of the Ming Dynasty as well as additional Chinese relics. Details were not immediately available, but Long Quan Kiln porcelain only made available to the Chinese imperial family were reported among the finds reported in the Aug. 25 issue of Qianjiang Evening News newspaper as well as by The People’s Daily Online.

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The Qianjiang Evening News article states: “According to historical records, during Zheng He’s voyage to the Western seas, he carried large amounts of Yongle Tongbao coins with him. The discovery has a significant meaning and is convincing evidence of China’s trade with Africa hundreds of years ago.”

The discovery is part of the China-Kenyan Lamu Islands Archaeological Project, that commenced in July, jointly conducted by the National Museum of China, the School of Archaeology and Museology of Beijing University, and the Kenya National Museum.

Beijing University archaeological professor Qin Dashu is in charge of the project. According to the newspaper article, “Qin said that he has studied the place where the porcelain used in the imperial palace was made and the characteristics of the porcelain found in the early Ming Dynasty. Now they have found this kind of porcelain in Kenya, he believes that it may be related to Zheng. Because he was an official delegate, Zheng may have brought some imperial porcelain there as rewards or presents.”

The main purpose of the China-Kenyan Lamu Islands Archaeological Project is to investigate local Kenyan villagers’ claims that they are descendants of ancient Chinese people and to salvage the ships in Zheng He’s fleet, which sank about 600 years ago. Qin arrived in Kenya in July as the head of the above-ground archaeological team. Within a month, Qin reported finding numerous Chinese relics, including the Yongle Tongbao coins. Zheng reportedly brought a large amount of these coins on his visit.

The Qianjiang Evening News article states: “The discovery has a significant meaning and is convincing evidence of China’s trade with Africa hundreds of years ago. As for the credibility of some local villagers claiming to be Chinese descendants, Qin said that there are over 20 families claiming to be Chinese descendants, and since African history is preserved by word of mouth, there is certainly some credibility in those villagers’ words.”

Cash coins inscribed with Yongle Tongbao are cast copper composition issues of the Yongle Period dating from the reign of Zhu Di, known as Emperor Chengzu of Ming (ruled 1402 to 1424).

Zheng He (1371 to 1435) was a eunuch who is recorded in Chinese official records as having made seven major expeditions between 1405 and 1430. He is reported to have visited Somalia in Africa and likely France, Holland and Portugal in Europe. Retired British submarine commander Gavin Menzies insists in his book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, that Zheng He also reached the Caribbean; however, professional archaeologists have not embraced this claim. In his 2002 paper on Zheng He, historian Siu-Leung Lee wrote, “In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants of Zheng He’s crew.”

The search is now centering on the beach near Malindi where the armada is believed to have been in 1418. It is at this beach where it is claimed through Kenyan oral history that part of the Chinese armada shipwrecked, that the survivors killed a python plaguing a local village, then were allowed to stay and marry local women. The coins, porcelain and other finds would likely have been brought to trade for native goods.

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