The series “Origins” opens the new season with several articles from our guest author Harry Bourne.
India, Africa, the Sea & Antiquity: China
Author: Harry Bourne
What is about to be described in this section is to demonstrate what is written about various groups hypothesised to have reached parts of Africa in antiquity and will mainly follow Oliver Cromwell’s much-quoted comment on the occasion of his portrait being painted. This was that the portrait had to include his warts plus all his other imperfections or never be done.
This wartsn’all approach means the noting of the good and bad about the cited groups. This will largely concentrate on the period between circa (= ca.) 500 BCE and ca. 500 CE. By BCE is meant Before Common Era (= BC) and CE indicates Common Era (= AD).
Indian seafarers are mainly excluded from this section and willbe discussed in Part 2 and onwards. Mention of such as “online in 2015” indicates access in that year.
Probably the most thorough research into theorised voyages across the enormous Pacific Ocean are by the authors summarised in the two volumes edited by John Sorenson and Martin Raish (1). Several of them firmly opine ancient Chinese knew the Americas as the White Coast, Fusan/Fusang, Mulanpi, etc, and are the ancestors of the Olmecs. The Olmecs are a culture of what variously are called the Native Americans, American Indians, Amerinds, etc, and many of who have the so-called Chinese eye-fold.
The Chinese (Fu)san resembles at least one of the umpteen names applied to the Africans severally called San, Khwe, Aka/Akka among numerous others. It seems they seemingly once occupied most of Africa but are now mainly confined to its least desirable corners (esp. the southwest). Their small stature, yellowish skins, epicanthis, etc, made the San/Khwe ideal candidates for speculation about antecedents. The first Dutch in southern Europe happily filled the gaps according to Tia Mysoa (2) when attributing these antecedents to the crew of a wrecked Chinese ship and this will be seen to have other parallels.
It will be obvious it is the variously tagged epicanthic, Mongolian, Chinese or Mandelan fold of the eye takes most attention in the attribution to Chinese sources when it occurs in Africa. Tests by Chinese scientists on the DNA hair of the population of the Lamu-group island of Pate and a local women was identified as a “China girl” and there is a one-time naval supremacy of China to which to this is then attached. Porcelain of Chinese manufacture has several Kenyan find-spots and the Chinese placename of Shanghai and that of Shanga (Pate, Kenya) have also been compared.
A recent popular about the Chinese in Pre-Colonial Africa is the book simply titled 1421 by Gavin Menzies (3). He described the Treasure ships that the Ming Shi-li (= Ming Records) says were enormous and were led across the Indian Ocean Region (= IOR) by the Chinese admiral Zheng-he/Cheng-ho. Menzies (ib.) further tells us about the Chinese ships having passed Cape Agulhas and on to points west. The significance about Cape Agulhas is that it is the southernmost point of continental Africa not Cape Town as so often said. To its east is the IOR and to its west is the Atlantic. According to Menzies, the Chinese were led by Zheng-he past Cape Agulhas, much of Atlantic-west Africa up to the Gulf of Guinea. Zheng-he is also said to have sailed past Gulf-facing Africa to as far north in west Africa as the Cape Verde Islands. Here they left an inscription marking this great feat at Janela.
The South China Sea has been the scene of some spectacular wrecks of Chinese ships according to Arab chronicles cited by James Hornell (4). The Chinese legend of Hsu-Fu tells of 3000 Chinese supposedly migrating across the Pacific Ocean. If their ships are exampled by the replica also named as Hsu-Fu, it fell apart several hundred miles short of its intended American destination according to Tim Severin (5).
The Tek Sing was another wooden Chinese ship. It was en route to Indonesia and foundered on an Indonesian island. The loss of life was so great that the Tek Sing has acquired the clearly unwanted label of the eastern Titanic according to a Wikipedia (6) contribution. This is despite the expected Chinese knowledge over the centuries of the routes to and from the South China Sea.
On the other hand, that the Chinese fleet led by Zheng-he did get to and crossed the Indian Ocean Region (= IOR) is beyond question. However, the size of his ships has been questioned very seriously by Zheng-Ming (7) and Stephen Davis (8) in China and outside of China respectively. Even a massive timber found in a Chinese frequently claimed as proving the giant size of the Chinese ships turns out to belong to a river-craft not a seacraft. Probably the most authentic giant wooden ships are the Orlando class of battleships constructed for the British Royal Navy that another Wikipedia entry. Their very length made them so unstable and needing steel supports that they proved useless and were soon scrapped. It will be shown this is not the only example of ancient ships of giant size to which this applies.
Geoff Wade (9) closely examined the supposedly peaceful and benign nature of Zheng-he’s expeditions and concluded it was anything but on both counts. The epicanthic fold is known all over Africa and owes nothing to shipwrecked Chinese. The more so given that the San represent probably the oldest known strand of mankind. As to the “China girl” from the Kenyan island of Pate, Geoffrey York (10) reports that her brother apparently from the same set of parents and all being black Africans is totally baffled as to her synodontism claimed by Chinese scientists.
This will indicate the “China girl” that York (ib.) says was said by Chinese sources as marking a one-time Chinese maritime supremacy does nothing of the kind as to proving this was ever the case. This resembles something on another small island a little to the north of Pate to be mentioned in the next section. The porcelain plus other small finds of Chinese origin occurring in Kenya are likely to indicate general trade with east Africa.
The Shangai/ Shanga equation actually proves to have no more substance to it than that of the comparison of Shiraz (Persia/Iran) and the Shirazi (= Swahili) of east Africa. The more so given that Felix Chami (11) has effectively removed this line of argument. York (ib.) further shows that despite the claimed Chinese wreck and despite diligent searches by the Chinese, so far actual wrecks are unproven. There is thus little support for the Chinese claims. Moreover, if Zheng-he’s ships got past Cape Agulhas and sailed along the west African coast, it is surely legitimate to wonder why such a feat was marked in the Janela (Cape Verde Islands) inscription in an obscure Indian language.
Follow up: Part 1.2: Indonesia. Stay tuned.