Silk Road in the News #8: A Maritime Silk Road Stop in Australia?

Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE
Coins from Kilwa, ca. 900 ACE

African coins, some possibly minted as early as 900 ACE, have been found buried on the Wessel Islands of Northern Australia, and have thrown accepted notions of when non-Aboriginal peoples first visited the continent into question. The oldest of the coins were minted in Kilwa, an island off the coast of Tanzania that was once a luxurious stopover for merchants and travelers on the Maritime Silk Road.

For over 600 years, Kilwa was the most prominent port, trading post, and resort on the east African coast. It had a glittering mosque, decorated with coral and Chinese porcelain, and a palace with an octagonal swimming pool. It controlled the trade in gold, ivory and slaves out of Zimbabwe, up into Arabia, into Persia and across to India.

Originally discovered in 1944 by an Australian soldier, Maurice Isenberg, the coins were treated as personal curiosities for decades until Isenberg sent them for appraisal in 1979. At that time, Isenberg found that 5 of the coins were over 1,000 years of age and from Africa, while the others were minted by the Dutch East India Company.

The coins came to the attention of an Australian graduate student, Ian Mcintosh, before Isenberg died in 1991. In July of this year, Mcintosh, who is now a Professor from the Indiana University-Purdue University, will be leading a team of international researchers to the Wessel Islands to try to discover how the coins came to the island. They will be using a map, hand-drawn by Isenberg, to locate the site of the original discovery and to determine whether other artifacts could be buried nearby.

Great Mosque at Kilwa
Great Mosque at Kilwa

The Kilwan coins could have come to Australia as part of a horde from much later than 900 ACE, or they could be evidence that non-Aboriginal peoples stopped on the Wessel Islands when trading goods from Africa for those from the Indo-Pacific along the Maritime Silk Road over 1,000 years ago.

It is unlikely that African merchants brought the coins to Australia, unless as sailors on other vessels, because African ships weren’t equipped to go further to sea than Arabia and India. They could travel up to Arabia on small boats sewn together by coconut fibers. But once they got to Arabia and India, large vessels from these nations could travel all the way to Tang China and down into the Spice Islands.

Additionally, the famed Chinese-Muslim mariner, Zheng-He made many, celebrated trips from mainland China to Africa and back during his life time in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. He was also not the first Asian to trade for Africa’s rich bounty of animals, spices, ivory and gold.

Other finds from the Indo-Pacific, including the wreck of an Arab-style dhow off the Indonesian island of Belitung are evidence for an early, rich trade between China, the Levant and the Arabian Peninsula. One of the bowls found aboard that wreck had a manufacturing date of July 16th, 826 ACE – earlier even than the Kilwan coins.

I will be watching the progress of Mcintosh’s work closely and report significant findings here. So, stay tuned.

(Words by Laura Kelley; Photo of the Great Mosque at Kilwa from Wikimedia; Photo of the Kilwan coins from original news reports of the story.)

The Real Sinbad the Sailor

A post about the real Sibad the Sailor – A Persian named Soleiman Siraf

The Voyages of Sinbad tell of giant, magical creatures: whales the size of islands, snakes so large that they could swallow elephants, and rukh (roc) birds so large that they could carry a caravan of men on their backs. Tales of these creatures repeated across cultures and through the ages have made most readers assume that they were simply pigments of a colorful imagination – works of fiction. But what if these creatures were real? What if the fictionalized accounts were based on the observations of early travelers that were tainted by mysticism and embellished over time by the repetition of stories in an oral tradition? Remember, maps in the medieval world portrayed demons and the edge of the world was thought to be a very real place.

Soleiman Siraf – Production Still from Film

In part at least, the Voyages of Sinbad are based on the voyages of Soleiman Siraf – the first western Asian man to navigate the seas from his home in Siraf, Persia, to Western India, around the Malabar coast and across the Bay of Bengal to Burma, Thailand and eventually to Southern China through the Straits of Mallaca. He sailed around 775 and his voyages were recorded almost 70 years later by Abu Zaid al Hassan in his Siraf & Soleiman the Merchant in 851 ACE.

Siraf sought to open a route to China for western trade so that Persia was not simply the recipient of goods from the east and subject to the inflationary markup of the many merchants the goods had to pass through. Great Chinese ships carrying goods to Indonesia, India and beyond to Arabia and the Persian Gulf were already seen at the larger, deeper ports capable of hosting large ships. These ships carried, silks, pearls and other precious stones, porcelain, nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon indicating that Chinese merchants made many stops along their way to the western seas. But until Siraf, no western trader had ever navigated his way back to China to trade directly with the Chinese and the other countries along the way. In sailing and travelling all the way to China and back, Siraf was opening the doors to two-way trade on the Maritime Silk Road.

Sinbad by Paul Klee

Sailing almost 500 years before Marco Polo and his family departed Italy for China, Siraf’s voyages have gained little attention in the west outside of academic circles – until now. An Iranian film by director Mohammad Bozorgnia that just opened at the Kish film festival celebrates the life and travels of Siraf and his companions. The film is told through the eyes of a fictionalized young man who participates in the voyage and records its details in a Watson to Holmes sort of relationship. Since the film is racking up awards in Iran, I hope that it will released internationally, at least on DVD – I would love to see it.

Building on the extensive knowledge of Arab and Persian geographers of the time – who had already described Southern Europe and Asia, Northwest and eastern Africa to Madagascar, and the Malabar coast – Siraf first navigated across the northern Arabian Sea to around the Gulf of Cambay (Khambhat) and then down to Kollam. Given the importance of trade to the merchants of the Tang Dynasty, the presence of Chinese traders in Kollam was fairly common, but sizeable permanent settlements of Chinese on India’s western coast didn’t begin until the Yuan Dynasty several hundred years later – and indication of how trade grew with the opening of a two-way maritime route.

Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks

As to the stories themselves, the origins of the Voyages of Sinbad are more or less contemporaneous with the publication of the account of Soleiman Siraf’s travels in the middle of the 9th Century ACE. Early Arabic manuscripts of One Thousand and One Nights do not include the Sinbad stories as part of Scheherazade’s tales. Rather, the Sinbad stories, which are legitimate regional folktales were added in the 18th Century by French traveller and translator Antoine Galland. Still, the stories have captured the imagination of people for centuries.

Whether as early accounts of a fantastic and dangerous world that can provide riches for those who dare depart familiar shores, or in the painting of Sinbad as a romantic a swashbuckling adventurer, or as stories for children to fuel their imaginations, the tales continue to be told. From Galland to Douglas Fairbanks Jr. to Dreamworks, Voyages of Sinbad have endured for more than 1000 years. And, in part, at least, they were inspired by a very real Persian man – Soleiman Siraf – who changed the face of maritime trade on the early Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photos of The Maritime Silk Road Production Still, Sinbad by Paul Klee and Sinbad from Douglas Fairbanks to Dreamworks from Google images.)

The Silk Road in the News #2: A Silk Road Shipwreck

Levantine Daggerhandle from Chinese Ship

The contents of a Chinese shipwreck estimated to be more than 1000 years old will be coming to auction soon according to a spokesman from the Government of Indonesia. The contents of the ancient ship has been salvaged and curated over the last few years will soon be available for public sale. The bulk of the material salvaged was fine Chinese white or green ware, but the hull also contained Egyptian artifacts and Lebanese glass. The wooden ship sank in the Java Sea and provides importance evidence of the Silk Road maritime trade from over a millennium ago.

Although precious, sunken Chinese ships laden with goods from around the globe are common enough to warrant their own museum as witnessed by the opening of the Guangdong Maritime Silk Road Museum, in Yangjiang City, China. (Words by Laura Kelley).

The Silk Road Roots of the Age of Exploration

I’ve written a lot about the participation of Asian nations in Silk Road trade, but what I haven’t considered enough is the effect of the Silk Road on Europe. The Silk Road and its spice trade played important parts in shaping early modern Europe, and it was no less than the price of pepper, cinnamon and cloves in the mid-fifteenth century that forced the Portuguese and the Spanish to the seas to find a route to Asia – kicking off the European Age of Exploration. A route to Asia that didn’t involve the Mediterranean or the Black Sea, that is.

Beginning with the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Muslim traders controlled both of the major sea ports that brought Silk Road goods into Europe – Cairo and Constantinople and were soon to wrench Kaffa away from the Genoese twenty-two years later. With the control of all three ports, the traders and their financiers started charging higher and higher overhead fees for the passage of goods, which drove up the cost of goods to European consumers. There may have been a bit more than profiteering going on as well, because the higher import fees were being levied on the Christians who had unsuccessfully defended the remains of Byzantium against the Ottomans – a sort of Silk Road tribute to the victors if you will.

So in the mid-to-late fifteenth century the Portuguese and the Spanish begin funding massively expensive ocean expeditions to try to avoid the Muslim taxes on spices and Silk Road goods. In 1492 Columbus winds up in the West Indies and in 1498 the Portuguese – sailing in the correct direction – landed in Kerala, India. Within a decade, Vasco de Gama, Almeida, Albuquerque and other Portuguese pioneers had negotiated treaties with local rulers and set up trading posts to buy and sell black pepper, cinnamon and other spices at four sites in Southern India. With ports at Malindi, Mombasa and Mozambique in Africa they ran a vast spice empire that moved Asian spices from India, Southeast Asia and the Indo-Pacific directly around Africa to Lisbon for further distribution into Europe.

Three Types of Peppercorns

The seafaring Dutch were at first the principal partners of the Portuguese in transporting spices and other trade goods from Lisbon to the rest of Europe. Although Charles V was born in Ghent, as Holy Roman Emperor, he increased pressure on the growing Protestant population in the Netherlands – in part a Spanish possession. This caused unrest in the region and helped lead to the Dutch Revolt. Eventually, the Dutch were excluded from their part in this trade, and took to the seas on their own – forming the Dutch East India Company. Within a few decades, this company came to dominate the seafaring spice route, and until its demise in the late 1700s moved two and a half million tons of Asian trade goods into Europe and sent almost one million Europeans to work in Asia.

In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Europeans loved their spices and paid dearly for them. A pound of cinnamon cost 24 pence and a pound of ginger half that; black pepper was about 18 pence per pound. With the average wage of a master carpenter being about 8 pence per day, one would have had to work 3 days for a pound of cinnamon and a little more than 2 for pepper. With 96 teaspoons in a pound, these purchases would probably last for 2-3 months in an average sized family, but still one can see how expensive spices were at this time. Anyone who could afford them, even if it was a stretch for their household income, considered spices a necessity. This was not only because food tastes better with added flavoring, but also to show to others in the community that they were well-off enough to afford spices (conspicuous consumption) and to harness the medicinal benefits offered by spices that I’ve written about in other posts.

The culinary creations enjoyed by the people of late Medieval and early modern Europe with Silk Road spices were well worth it. I am lucky to be married to a man who loves to dabble in historical cookery and am treated to these dishes on a regular basis. Recently he cooked a lamb stew from 17th Century Europe that had culinary relatives in Persia, Uzbekistan and even Mongolia. More accurately stated perhaps, the Persian dish gave rise to the European, Uzbek and Mongolian dishes. He started with a wonderful stock from Hugh Platt’s Delightes for Ladies from 1602 that combined currants, dates and almonds with onions, white wine, mace, black pepper, parsley, mint, bay and rosemary on a chicken and lamb base. The Levantine fruits, parsley, mint and mace make this a sweet treat to build a stew on. The completed stew goes on to add more onions, chestnuts, nutmeg and cloves for a rich, deep, filling stew.

So changes in traditional Silk Road maritime routes in the Mediterranean and Black Seas in the fifteenth century sent the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and eventually the rest of Europe to sea. The Dutch Revolt was the first in a series of struggles for succession that shaped early modern Europe, and the dissolution of the remnants of Byzantium sent the Greeks into Europe and opened intellectual doors that had long been shut – paving the way for many of the innovation and rediscoveries of the Renaissance. A victory for the Ottomans was the first in a long line of changes in the global spice trade that eventually led to the end of the Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)