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Malindi Kingdom

Today the once thriving Malindi Kingdom sits in outskirts of civilisation, covered by a blanket of silence. Mombasa shares with Malindi the honor of being mentioned in "Paradise Lost". Malindi, the capital and chief fort of the district, by 1900 was a straggling town of from 4,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, built on a coral beach, and backed by numerous and productive plantations. Its one object of interest was a pillar erected there by Vasco de Gama, on the occasion of his visit to the place in 1498, and there are the remains of an old Portuguese church, which has now been inclosed in ground set apart as a cemetery for Europeans.

Ancient Greek accounts record visits by Greek merchants and sailors to the Kenyan coast during the 4th century AD. Roman coins from that period have been found in the country, though the means of their arrival is unknown. Arab, Persian, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese traders followed. Large Arab settlements were soon established, especially in Mombasa and Malindi. The intermingling of Arabs and indigenous inhabitants formed the Swahili culture and language. During the early period of recorded history, slaves and ivory were the main items of trade.

The ancient Malindi Kingdom is believed to be where there was first contact between the Swahili and the Chinese. In China from 9th century, there are some ancient text recorded ancient Malindi. A large quantity of ancient relics put the existence of the early Malindi Kingdom at around the 9th and 10th centuries. It is believed that the famous Chinese trader Zheng He was a frequent visitor to the ancient Malindi Kingdom acting as an envoy from China.

The current Malindi town was moved away from the ancient Malindi Kingdom. Kenyan scholars believe the ancient Kingdom was actually situated around Mambrui. The area is now a Muslim cemetery in Mambrui. Mambrui’s golden age was the 15th Century. It was built by Arab slave traders. Mambrui gained archaeological interest after a discovery of iron slags, iron smelter, jade green shard of porcelain and Chinese coin of an early 15th Century, the era of the Yongle Emperor during the Ming Dynasty.

Al-Idrisï is the first among the authors writing in Arabic to furnish the names of several coastal settlements of the land of the Zand] and Sofala. Going from north to south, they were Malindi, Manbasa (Mombasa) where the king of the Zandj resided, and al-Banäs (or al-Bayäs) the last place of the Zandj, touching already the Sofala country. It has been reported that between 800 and 1300 about nineteen settlements were situated north of the Tana, but that there were others such as Mombasa, Malindi, Zanzibar, Pemba, Kilwa and Kanbalü in the south. These towns nurtured the development of Kiswahili while subsequent migration from the core area spread the language.

All along the coast the people were active in fishing but some places are mentioned where this was the main occupation, as for example in Malindi, where the inhabitants exported their catch. As a rule, when Arabic sources mention fishing, they refer to the entire coast without any geographical details. But al-Idrîsï writes of the basic occupations of the inhabitants of several towns and speaks of fishing in a section on Malindi. The main evidence for iron-mining is offered by al-Idrïsï who pointed out that the main centers of iron production were Malindi and Mombasa in the north and Djantâma and Dandäma in the south. Iron became one of the major export commodities of these places, forming the main source of revenue.

Using the summer monsoon winds, Muslim ships sailed from Mombasa or Malindi to Asia every year. These ships played an important part in developing navigation techniques, which improved considerably from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century.

A Chinese fleet of ships, which were enormous for their time, under the command of Cheng Ho, a Muslim from Yunnan, made seven great voyages across the Indian Ocean from 1405 to 1433; these ships called at the African coast twice, once between 1417 and 1419 and once between 1431 and 1433.69 During the first voyage, the fleet sailed as far as Malindi, bringing home a delegation which had been sent to present a giraffe to the imperial court at Peking in 1415.

Supplies of gold and possibly other goods from the hinterland to the coast had already diminished by the mid-sixteenth century, and there is nothing to indicate that they increased subsequently. The reduction in the supplies of gold to Sofala had a bad effect on the position of such towns as Kilwa, Mombasa and Malindi, which - prior to the arrival of the Portuguese - had been active in supplying gold and other goods to traders from India and Arabia. This decline may have been caused by the dislocation of Muslim trade on the East African coast, but it also seems likely that some political disturbances took place along the trade routes linking the ports with the hinterland.

Malindi, Mombasa's arch-rival, was also prosperous by 1500. Its trade was based largely on the export of ivory and, secondarily, on the sale of such goods as gold from Sofala, beeswax, ambergris and gum copal. Unlike most other settlements, Malindi, even in the sixteenth century, had large plantations of millet and rice worked by slaves. The earliest Portuguese visitors were impressed by the great variety and quality of its fruits, vegetables and meats and by its attractive lay-out. The fact that Portuguese ships would have been assured of a regular supply of water and provisions may have been behind the establishment of cordial relations with the town.

It is hard to estimate the size of these settlements in terms of area and population, although, some data are available with which to estimate figures for a few towns. Malindi, for example, is said to have covered a smaller area than it does today and the walled town could not have extended more than 600 metres north-south along the sea front and 240 metres inland. The walled town is dated to 1498, with a population of approximately 3500 based on the occupation of some 1000 stone houses. This obviously does not include the plantation labourers or the poor who probably lived in mud-and-thatch huts.

The political fragmentation of the coast was much compensated for by religious and cultural homegeneity well-established since 1500. Ethnically the population was mixed - African, Arab and so-called Shîrâzî blood, intermingled in various degrees to form a new cultural group known later as the Swahili (people of the coast). Swahili is a generic term the coastal people did not apply to themselves until recently. In the 1500s, they merely formed urban groups whose élite and ruling families, for prestigious purposes, often claimed dubious, Arabian or Shîrâzî origins even if they were ethnically mixed.

The Muslim World between the tenth and fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, enjoyed a more advanced knowledge of science and philosophy, a more sophisticated technology and better building techniques, and a higher standard of civilisation generally than any other part of the world. T h e Swahili coast was now, so to speak, plugged into this source of boundless intellectual creativity.

Swahili culture represented a fusion, in an urban "melting pot" context, of the values and customs of many people, both from the African continent and from other lands bordering the Indian Ocean. The material prosperity of some coastal towns in 1500 was very impressive. The rulers lived in palaces and the élite in stone dwellings, many of which were multi-storied and built around central courtyards. The rich houses were embellished with those elaborately carved wooden doors which were such a striking feature of the old Swahili culture.

The townsmen's high standard of living is reflected in the importation and use of such luxury items as damasks, silks, satins, copper objects, Chinese porcelain, Middle Eastern glass vessels and glass beads. Men from Kilwa, Malindi and Mombasa were seen as far east as Malacca selling East African goods such as gold, ivory, copal and ambergris, and bringing back the cottons, silks and satins which found their way into the various coastal towns through the commercial traffic that linked them.

In January 1498, Vasco da Gama's fleet reached the southernmost fringes of the Swahili coast. The Shaykh of Malindi greeted them warmly, either because of a shrewd and far-sighted design to acquire a powerful ally against Mombasa or by an equally shrewd sense of real-politik or self-preservation. In any event, both sides remained faithful to the alliance they set up until after Malindi's shaykh had acquired Mombasa with Portuguese assistance at the close of the sixteenth century. On da Gama's return journey from India, the Shaykh of Malindi sent one of his subjects on board one of the Portuguese vessels as ambassador to Portugal.

Once da Gama reached Malindi below the Horn of East Africa in April 1498, the next challenge was how to venture out onto the Islamic waters, heretofore uncharted by the Europeans and onto broad expanse of the Indian Ocean without a seasoned navigator. Arab sailors were already masters of the Indian Ocean. Fortunately, he found in Malindi the most illustrious Muslim navigator of the time, Ahmad ibn Majid, who had sailed the Indian ocean from shore to shore.

Da Gama found Ahmad ibn Majid willing to help, as he had done for numerous Arab and African merchants, and offered his nautical knowledge to the Portuguese sailor. Even in far off Europe, they had read Ahmed ibn Majid’s The Advantages of Knowing the Sciences of the Sea, an internationally celebrated sailors’ handbook; now the author was aboard da Gama’s flagship. He plotted for de Gama the route between Malindi (now Kenya) and Malabar (India), and on May 20, 1498, Vasco da Gama’s fleet reached the Malabar Coast, a feat that would have been impossible without the help of Ahmad ibn Majid.

A comparison of the size and dimensions of his fleet can only cause embarrassment for the Portuguese and the Europeans. The largest of Cheng Ho’s ship was 500 feet long and 180 feet wide, compared to da Gama’s longest about 85 feet. And da Gama’s four ships and 170 men paled in comparison with several ships and 28,000 men of Cheng’s 1431-33’ voyage.

The impact of the predatory economy on the countries of the Nile and the Indian Ocean was disastrous. The East African ports had been known for their trading activities since the eleventh century. Although not as important either in size or influence as the Western Sudanese and North African towns, they nevertheless formed the framework of a substantial urban commercial civilization in touch with Arabia, Persia, India, China and the Mediterranean. The Portuguese invasion set off the progressive ruin of this urban commercial complex. By 1502 the destructive Portuguese occupation had begun and in the same year, Kilwa and Zanzibar were placed under tribute by Portugal. In 1505 Francesco d'Almeida sacked Kilwa and Mombasa, and then built Fort Santiago at Kilwa. He prohibited all trade between these towns, and the merchants left for Malindi.

A Portuguese 'Captain-major of the Sea of Malindi' was appointed with a few small ships at his disposal to patrol the East African coast, in the absence of effective occupation. It was also his job to issue carataze (passes) to vessels and run the Portuguese trading factory at Malindi. The establishment of this factory is proof enough of Portuguese interest in the African trade on the coast and inland. It imported goods such as cotton and beads from India which it exchanged for local goods such as gum-copal, ambergris, ivory and coir.

Attempts by the coastal inhabitants to secure the intervention of the Turks from the Arab Peninsula against the Portuguese miscarried. The expansion from the seventeenth century of the Imämate of Oman to the East African coasts and islands brought about some changes in the late 1600s, confining Portuguese power to Mozambique alone.

In Malawi a spectacular rise of armed bands occurred as a byproduct of the creation of the Maravi and Lunda states about 1600. The cannibalistic Zimba, who came from this area, first raided northern Mozambique and the hinterland of Kilwa. They are said - but are they the same band? - to have ravaged the coastal lands north to Malindi and further. It was not until they reached Malindi on the northern coast of Kenya that they were defeated by an alliance between the Swahili inhabitants of the town and the Segeju, a hinterland ethnic group with which the Sultan of Malindi was on friendly terms.

The further development of Yao commercial enterprise was facilitated by the creation of a stable market for ivory at Kilwa between 1635 and 1698. This was a period when having conquered the East African coast as far north as Malindi, the Portuguese entered a phase of peaceful commercial interaction with the various coastal cities.

The rulers of Mombasa and Kilifi are said to have been related. Soon after the Zimba onslaught, Kilifi seems to have fought Malindi for the seat of Mombasa. She did so possibly on the basis of her dynastic relations or through mere ambition. Whatever the case, relations between Kilifi and Malindi on the eve of the latter's take-over of Mombasa were hostile, with Malindi complaining of Kilifi's encroachments and raids. The battles between the two gave Malindi an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone: to end Kilifi's provocations and also her claims to Mombasa. After this defeat Kilifi seems to have suffered an irreversible decline.

Mombasa was sufficiently weakened for her erstwhile enemy, Malindi, to take the town with the help of the Segeju. Thus ended the reign of the Mombasa ShTrâzï dynasty that had put up continued resistance to Portuguese overlördship. It was replaced by the dynasty of her arch-rival, Malindi whose ruler, Sultan Ahmad, was thus rewarded for his consistent loyalty to the Portuguese. But the long-term effect of the transfer to Mombasa of the Portuguese Captain and his garrison, together with Malindi's royal house, was the gradual decline of Malindi itself from which it was not to recover until the second half of the nineteenth century.

The Kenyan and Chinese team working on the archaeological project in Mambrui, if successful, will unravel the date of East African Coast trade with the East. Since China and Kenya enjoy a time-honored history of contacts, and for promoting China and Africa exchanges, exploring the history, and investigating Chinese porcelain unearthed in Kenya, Chinese government has carried out the cooperative archeological project on Kenya’s coastal area with the joint effort of Kenya. The excavations on mainland, as well as the investigation on the Chinese porcelain unearthed in the coastal areas of Kenya were undertaken by Beijing University. The first excavation and investigation were conducted in 2010, which made promising achievement. A joint archeological team was established by Beijing University and the National Museum of Kenya together, from July to September of 2012, the second excavation in mainland and porcelain research were carried out by the leader of the team, Prof. Qin Dashu from Beijing University and the vice leader Jambo Haro from Archeological Department of the National Museum of Kenya.

Based on the work of 2010, the team continued to conduct a large-scale excavation at Mambrui site near Malindi city, and also chose three other locations in Malindi Old Town to excavate. Besides, on the basis of archeological survey, a small area testing dig was carried out in Mjanheri site. Thus, with the Khatibu Mosque site excavated in 2010, there are four locations in and around Malindi in total excavated in 2012.

Base on Mambrui site’s scale, its time of prosperity, existing tomb’s scale and relevant records, it suggested that this place is one of Zheng He’s landing spot in early Ming Dynasty, providing materials for us to explore Zheng He’s voyage and his contact with East Africa. Based on the excavation, this place is one of the most important ancient sites along the middle parts of Kenya’s coastal areas, with large scale and long lasting duration, from 12 and 13 century to 19 century, here remaining an important settlement.

The scholars used to believe that the present Malindi City is the ancient capital city site of Malindi Kingdom’s later period. Since there are quite a few and explicit documents about this place, Malindi can also be one of Zheng He’s landing spot, as the documents suggested that it should be the “Malin” or “Malindi” in Yuan and Ming Dynasties’ records of China. Besides, it’s the very first landing spot for European colonists in Africa after they rounded the Cape of Good Hope as well.

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Page last modified: 26-08-2018 04:49:24 ZULU