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.)

Africa on the Silk Road

Spices in an African Market

The Dark Continent, the Birthplace of Humanity . . . Africa. All of the lands south and west of the Kingdom of Egypt have for far too long been lumped into one cultural unit by westerners, when in reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Africa is not one mysterious, impenetrable land as the legacy of the nineteenth Century European explorers suggests, it is rather an immensely varied patchwork of peoples that can be change not only by region and country but by nature’s way of separating people – b y rivers and lakes and by mountain ranges and deserts. A river or other natural barrier may separate two groups of people who interact, but who rarely intermarry, because they perceive the people on the other side to be “different” from them.

Africa played an important part in Silk Road trade from antiquity through modern times when much of the Silk Road trade was supplanted by European corporate conglomerates like the Dutch and British East India Companies who created trade monopolies to move goods around the Old World instead. But in the heyday of the Silk Road, merchants travelled to Africa to trade for rare timbers, gold, ivory, exotic animals and spices. From ports along the Mediterranean and Red Seas to those as far south as Mogadishu and Kenya in the Indian Ocean, goods from all across the continent were gathered for the purposes of trade.

One of Africa’s contributions to world cuisine that is still widely used today is sesame seeds. Imagine East Asian food cooked in something other than its rich sesame oil, how about the quintessential American-loved Chinese dish, General Tso’s Chicken? How ‘bout the rich, thick tahini paste enjoyed from the Levant and Middle East through South and Central Asia and the Himalayas as a flavoring for foods (hummus, halva) and stir-fries, and all of the breads topped with sesame or poppy seeds? Then think about the use of black sesame seeds from South Asian through East Asian foods and desserts. None of these cuisines would have used sesame in these ways, if it hadn’t been for the trade of sesame seeds from Africa in antiquity.

Given the propensity of sesame plants to easily reseed themselves, the early African and Arab traders probably acquired seeds from native peoples who gathered wild seeds. The seeds reached Egypt, the Middle East and China by 4,000 – 5,000 years ago as evidenced from archaeological investigations, tomb paintings and scrolls. Given the eager adoption of the seeds by other cultures and the small supply, the cost per pound was probably quite high and merchants likely made fortunes off the trade.

Tamarind Pods

The earliest cultivation of sesame comes from India in the Harappan period of the Indus Valley by about 3500 years ago and from then on, India began to supplant Africa as a source of the seeds in global trade. By the time of the Romans, who used the seeds along with cumin to flavor bread, the Indian and Persian Empires were the main sources of the seeds.

Another ingredient still used widely today that originates in Africa is tamarind. Growing as seed pods on huge lace-leaf trees, the seeds are soaked and turned into tamarind pulp or water and used to flavor curries and chutneys in Southern and South Eastern Asia, as well as the more familiar Worcestershire and barbeque sauces in the West. Eastern Africans use Tamarind in their curries and sauces and also make a soup out of the fruits that is popular in Zimbabwe. Tamarind has been widely adopted in the New World as well as is usually blended with sugar for a sweet and sour treat wrapped in corn husk as a pulpy treat or also used as syrup to flavor sodas, sparkling waters and even ice cream.

Some spices of African origin that were traded along the Silk Road have become extinct. One such example can be found in wild silphion which was gathered in Northern Africa and traded along the Silk Road to create one of the foundations of the wealth of Carthage and Kyrene. Cooks valued the plant because of the resin they gathered from its roots and stalk that when dried became a powder that blended the flavors of onion and garlic. It was impossible for these ancient people to cultivate, however, and a combination of overharvesting, wars and habitat loss cause the plant to become extinct by the end of the first or second centuries of the Common Era. As supplies of the resin grew harder and harder to get, it was supplanted by asafetida from Central Asia.

Other spices traded along the Silk Road are used almost exclusively in African cuisines today – although their use was common until the middle of the first millennium in Europe and Asia. African pepper, Moor pepper or negro pepper is one such spice. Called kieng in the cuisines of Western Africa where it is still widely used, it has a sharp flavor that is bitter and flavorful at the same time – sort of like a combination of black pepper and nutmeg. It also adds a bit of heat to dishes for a pungent taste. Its use extends across central Africa and it is also found in Ethiopian cuisines. When smoked, as it often is in West Africa before use, this flavor deepens and becomes smoky and develops a black cardamom-like flavor. By the middle of the 16th Century, the use and trade of negro pepper in Europe, Western and Southern Asia had waned in favor of black pepper imports from India and chili peppers from the New World.

Traditional Chinese Ship

Grains of paradise, Melegueta pepper, or alligator pepper is another Silk Road Spice that has vanished from modern Asian and European food but is still used in Western and Northern Africa and is an important cash crop in some areas of Ethiopia. Native to Africa’s West Coast its use seems to have originated in or around modern Ghana and was shipped to Silk Road trade in Eastern Africa or to Mediterranean ports. Fashionable in the cuisines of early Renaissance Europe its use slowly waned until the 18th Century when it all but vanished from European markets and was supplanted by cardamom and other spices flowing out of Asia to the rest of the world.

The trade of spices from Africa to the rest of the world was generally accomplished by a complex network of merchants working the ports and cities of the Silk Road. Each man had a defined, relatively bounded territory that he traded in to allow for lots of traders to make a good living moving goods and ideas around the world along local or regional. But occasionally, great explorers accomplished the movement of goods across several continents and cultures.

Although not African, the Chinese Muslim explorer Zheng He deserves special mention as one of these great cultural diplomats and entrepreneurs.  In the early 15th Century he led seven major sea-faring expeditions from China across Indonesia and several Indian Ocean ports to Africa.  Surely, Chinese ships made regular visits to Silk Road ports from about the 12th Century on, but when Zheng came, he came leading huge armadas of ships that the world had never seen before and wouldn’t see again for several centuries. Zheng came in force, intending to display China’s greatness to the world and bring the best goods from the rest of the world back to China.  Zheng came eventually to Africa where he left laden with spices for cooking and medicine, wood and ivory and hordes of animals.  It may be hard for us who are now accustomed to the world coming on command to their desktops to imagine what a miracle it must have been for the citizens of Nanjing to see the parade of animals from Zheng’s cultural Ark.  But try we must to imagine the wonder brought by the parade of giraffes, zebra and ostriches marching down Chinese streets so long ago – because then we can begin to imagine the importance of the Silk Road in shaping the world.  (Words by Laura Kelley).