Monday, 1 November 2010

Evidence of connection

Tenthmedieval this morning has a rather wonderful piece on some of the less thinking coverage of the discovery of a rather corroded Chinese coin in East Africa.

I think it's fair to say that the areas that are now Somalia, Kenya and so on have always been connected as long as people have sailed ships - there's evidence of Hellenistic and Roman contacts to say the least. And these trade networks persist across political and religious changes because they are useful. So it's not surprising that the Chinese followed existing trade routes and reached east Africa, just in the same way that Chinese merchants followed the sea cucumber trade and probably ended up in Arnhem land - certainly rock art paintings show their Makassan trading partners from what is now Sulawesi did.

And if we were to find a record of a kangaroo in China it might be surprising, but not inexplicable.

I increasingly find the connections between cultures fascinating. And why certain trade routes developed they way they did, often due to geography - ocean currents, mountain ranges, availability of resources etc.

There is a tendency in western society to think that we discovered them and that they occupied separate little compartments.

They didn't. The Assyrians traded with India via Dubai and Bahrain. The Greeks went to Afghanistan on the back of Alexander's conquest of Persia and carved some rather nice portraits of the Buddha in very Greek looking robes. Chinese traders and merchants expanded over large parts of south east Asia. And of course people met and traded. It's why the Staffordshire hoard contains jewels originating from India. Not that an AngloSaxon warrior went to India (although one might) More likely it was traded via Byzantium and Dubai (or via Somalia and Egypt).

Renaissance Europe 'discovered' South East Asia and Africa due to trying to cut out the middlemen in the spice trade, and in the course of doing that came across a range of societies previously unknown to them. These societies were of course not unknown to each other.

And this is different from the situation in the Americas where the Amerindian civilisations developed independently, or Australia, which while known to Indonesian fishermen, was viewed as being hostile and valueless. If one of these fishermen had known there were opals out there in the desert, history might have been different


Anonymous said...

Thankyou for the shout-out! As to this:

Not that an AngloSaxon warrior went to India (although one might)...

you may not know (though sorry if you do) that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records King Alfred the Great sending alms to the Christians in India, which would presumably have been the community of St Thomas of Kerala that still survives today. I've argued that it's more likely to be a miscopying of Iudea (Judæa) than Indea, but against that, the reading occurs in the oldest Chronicle manuscript and it's only the others (*all* the others) that 'correct' it to Judæa, so who knows, really? Presumably, however, if alms were sent there, an Anglo-Saxon or two went with to deliver them. The Chronicle names one Sighelm as leader of the mission and dates it to 883.

Now, if this were the current wave of Chinese scholarship on Kenya, we would be looking for great-headed brooches and Saxon ships in Kerala and arguing that there is a Saxon component in the local DNA...

dgm said...

No I didn't know about Sighelm, my inspiration was more Harald Hardrada and his journeying.

However, Kerala was well known to the Romans with a reasonable amount Roman pottery having been found, and was where pepper came from the spice trade, so it's not impossible, either going via Byzantium and the Gulf, or more likely via Egypt and Somalia

Equally, I guess India could have been used as shorthand for somewhere exotic and far away and that the endpont was not Kerala but some of the other Christian communities scattered throughout the near east ...

dgm said...

I really should read the sources first - while there are other St Thomas's it probably was Kerala that was meant.

It this context it would be interesting to know if Judd's reference to Sighelm coming buck with pearls and spices was based on a contemporary source rather than later enhancement - the spices of course help confirm the endpoint as Kerala

Anonymous said...

I suppose that's true! The spice trade came through the Red Sea too, but I would have to agree they're a more natural catch further on.

I see you've picked up on this in a new post so I'll take myself there.