Monday, 1 July 2013

African contacts in Sri Lanka

I've previously written about how African Kilwa coins could have ended up in norther Australia courtesy of a Somali sailor signed up with the Dutch East India company.

I've recently just come back from Sri Lanka, and was quietly amazed at the extent of Dutch colonial remains and forts on the island. While we tend to think of the Dutch East Indies as present day Indonesia, in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century a lot of the Sri Lanka spice trade was under Dutch control. When I saw the extent of the VoC presence in Sri Lanka I began to wonder if the presumed boat might have come from Sri Lanka rather than  from further west

At the same time Somalis and other east Africans had been sailing to Sri Lanka for the spice trade since Ptolemaic times or earlier, which might have provided an alternative rout for Somali sailors to sign up with VoC.

However I also saw something that made me wonder if perhaps two separate shipwrecks separated by several hundred years might have been more likely and the sources of the VoC coins and the Kilwa coins.

When we climbed Sigiriya, a quite remarkable 200m high rock in the middle of Sri Lanka with substantial arachaeological remains on top of it,  we hired a guide at the suggestion of our driver. The guide turned out to be fairly useless and intent on telling us about how many concubines the king had and how the monks didn't like pictures of naked ladies, rather than the history of the place.
However as well as showing us the the standard frescoes, he did show us a damaged fresco showing a woman of clearly African appearance.

(picture by Lucy Calder -

The interesting thing about the picture is that it implies substantial contact between Africa and Sri Lanka for a long time and well before early modern European contact.

When I originally wrote about the Kilwa coins in Australia I posited that it was a single find, in part because I was not aware of the extent of Somali links with Sri Lanka. These links suggest a second possiblity that it was separate shipwreck - perhaps of an east African trading boat blown off course. This is not as unlikely as it sounds - back in April 2013 a boat full of undocumented migrants from Sri Lanka sailed into Geraldton  400km north of Perth.

The thing about Sri Lanka is that there is nowhere directly south of the island except for Antarctica, so a ship setting out for what is now Indonesia which sailed a little too southwards rather than westwards would tend to end up somewhere on the Australian coast. The same is equally true for a boat setting out from Somalia aiming for Galle - head a little too far south, miss the island, and you end up in Australia ...

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