Discovering the Ming

 By Simonetta Sandri

Close to Eni’s exploration activities, in Kenya, there is a tropical island where life is lived in a peaceful way but this is also a place characterized by a mysterious and fascinating history. An enchanting spot where dunes alternate with endless beaches, small villages hidden between coconut and mango plantations, and the sailboats dive through the waters of the sea. And where history calls, from far away… 

Since 2012 Eni has operated, through its subsidiary Eni Kenya B.V., Eni has operated three blocks in the country’s deep offshore, in an area bordering the Somali waters at depths ranging from 2,800 m to 4,000 m. Even if Eni is in the country with exploratory activities at a very early stage, the attention on the territory is high. Because partnerships are strong only if they start well from the beginning. Pate (Paté) Island is located in the Indian Ocean close to the northern coast of Kenya, just south of the Somali border. It is the largest island in the Lamu Archipelago, which lie between the towns of Lamu and Kiunga in the former Coast Province. The island is almost completely surrounded by a vaste variety of mangroves.

Pate Island is located in the Indian Ocean close to the northern coast of Kenya

Pate is a peaceful tropical island where the dhow cut through the transparent waters of the sea. This magic place has a very rich historical culture; it seems colonizers from the Ming Dynasty made landfall on its shore after got lost at sea. These Chinese explorers remained on Pate and influenced a large part of the local communities’ way of living and hence a fort was built to protect Siyu in the case hostile explorers would have arrived here. Siyu Swahili town is situated on the North coast of Pate island. As no major excavations have been done in Siyu, its age is not known, but it might date from the 13th century.

Dhow is the generic name of a number of traditional sailing vessels with one or more masts with lateen sails used in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean region

Oral tradition indicates that the fort we can find here was built, in the 19th century, by one of Siyu’s leaders, Bwana Mataka, whose full name was Mohammed Ishaq bin Mbarak bin Mohamed bin Oman Famau, to safeguard Siyu residents from Omani Arabs domination. In fact, Siyu’s main claim to historical fame is that it through several battles withstood the Sultans of Zanzibar. In 1843, the Sheikh of Siyu, Bwana Machaka wa Shee, and the new Sheikh of Pate, repudiated the sovereignty of Seyyid Said, Sultan of Oman and Zanzibar. In response, Seyyid Said assembled an army from Muscat, Baluchistan and Lamu. When Siyu finally succumbed to Zanzibar’s dominance, under Sultan Majid in 1863, it was one of the last towns on the whole Swahili Coast to do so.

But, in 1999, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported a surprising encounter on the island of Pate. He found a village of stone huts. He talked to an elderly man living in the village who said that he was a descendant of Chinese explorers who were shipwrecked there centuries before. The Chinese had supposedly traded with the locals, however, the Chinese never reached their final destination and has aground on a nearby reef. Such evidence included the Asian features of the people in the village, plus Asian-looking porcelain artifacts gave Kristof evidence that the man’s story was true.

In 1999, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times found a village of stone huts. He talked to an elderly man living in the village who said that he was a descendant of Chinese explorers

National Geographic then published an article by Frank Viviano, in July 2005. He had visited Pate island during his time in Lamu. Ceramic fragments had been found around Lamu, which the administrative officer of the local Swahili History Museum claimed were of Chinese origin; specifically they probably from the trip of the navigator, admiral and diplomat Zheng He to the Swahili Coast. The eyes of the Pate people resembled the Chinese ones. Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were probably be of Chinese origin. Their ancestors were said to be from indigenous women who intermarried with Chinese Ming sailors when they were shipwrecked. Two places on Pate were called “Old Shanga” and “New Shanga”, named by the Chinese sailors. A local guide who claimed to have a the Chinese lineage showed Frank a graveyard made out of coral on the island, indicating that they were the graves of the Chinese sailors, which the author described as “virtually identical” to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”. This kind of tombs used to dominate the hillsides above Chinese ports from which Treasure Fleet sailors might have been hailed. From China to Kenya. Amazing.

SEE MORE: The dream of Hajran by Simonetta Sandri

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Simonetta Sandri