Monday, 20 May 2013

Aboriginal contacts with the outside world and Kilwa coins

It was once a commonly held view that the Aboriginal peoples of Australia had little or no contact with the outside world. We now know that not to be the case with the Yolngu having substantial trading contacts with the Macassan from Sulawesi.

Given these, it wouldn't be in the least surprising if some Dutch East India company coins turned up somewhere on the northern coats of Australia, either as a result of shipwreck or indirect contact via a trading vessel from what is now Indonesia.

There is news today of some coins doing exactly that. The interesting thing is that they appear to have been found alongside some coins from the Kilwa sultanate in East Africa.

This is in fact not new news, more rediscovered news. The coins have been known for some time and are in the PowerHouse Museum in Sydney.

The PowerHouse Museum acquisition record suggests that the Kilwa and the VoC coins represent two separate deposits, perhaps as a result of two shipwrecks separated by a couple of centuries.

Given however that the actual details of the find and their discovery are vague, there remains the possibility that they are a single deposit

This might seem surprising, but not very. Somalis have been crewing dhows across the Indian ocean for millenia. And Somali sailors are known to have  worked on British vessels in the nineteenth century, establishing migrant communities in Cardiff and Liverpool.

There's no reason why some Somali sailors did not sign on to work on a Dutch ship - and we might even be able to find records to that effect. The date of 1690 for the VoC coins gives us the earliest possible date for the coins ending up in Australia, but given that coins are fairly indestructable,  they could have ended up in Australia a hundred years later.

The same with the Kilwa coins - they could have been loose change, but given there age that seems unlikley, but they could have been used as counters in a game, or simply kept for sentimental value. The fact that the only other Kilwa coin to have been found outside of East Africa was found in Oman points to them being carried along the spice route.

We can spend all day waving our hands and speculating. We simply don't know. Like Roman style pottery in Bali, they'll probably remain one of these little tantalising enigmas of history.

But, if it is a shipwreck, and other evidence is found to date it more securely, we could probably trawl the VoC records to see if there is evidence of Somalis or other East Africans crewing ships ...


Unknown said...

Very nice summary and some good information as well. I'm on the team for this project and your Somali sailor theory is noted. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I like the Somali sailor theory, I must admit. The Kilwa coinage is peculiar: its copper component, as the article says, never travelled far at all, but there was also gold and silver, and the silver gets around a bit more whereas the gold is *only* found at a distance, in Saudi Arabia or Morocco for example, but never in Kilwa itself. I wouldn't therefore want to say that it's impossible for Kilwa copper coin to have travelled, but this would be the first known case. Given that, it seems more likely to me that we have here a similar case to the occasional finds of ancient Greek coins in the UK; so far it just seems more likely that they were brought home and dropped by later visitors to Greece and its erstwhile colonies than that there was a working ancient trade link. I'm not sure how much we'd have to have before the balance tipped in favour of the latter theory but I'm pretty sure that this Australian case isn't at that level!

I got interested in the Kilwa coinage while working at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, which has a bit of it, and that allows me to say two things: firstly, these ones are *really* nice by comparison to their usual state, and that's awkward because it suggests they were deposited when fairly new or else had been kept beautifully for centuries then lost. I wonder if they were conserved at some point, which might explain that. The second thing I can add is that there is a very recent article on the Kilwa coinage and its uses that may be of help to the team here, Jeffrey B. Fleischer & Stephanie Wynne-Jones, "Kilwa-type coins from Songo Mnara, Tanzania: New Finds and Chronological Implications", Numismatic Chronicle 170 (2010), pp. 494-506. Though it's about one find, it gives a round-up of earlier scholarship on the coinage too.