Madaka ya nyamba ya zisahani
Sasa walaliye wana wa nyuni
(“Where once the porcelain stood in the wall niches
Now wild birds nestle their fledglings”)
– a Swahili poet, 1815
Long before 15th century Europeans decided everything was theirs, an intricate trading system flourished across the Indian Ocean. This trade culminated with seven voyages from China to Yemen and Somalia between 1405 and 1431 of a massive fleet led by Chinese Admiral Zheng He, better known as The Three Jewel Eunuch.
By “massive” I mean 62 ships, each weighing over 3,000 tons with 80,000 sq. ft. of deck space and 9 masts, along with 165 support ships of 5- 6- and 7- masts each. The combined crews totaled over 30,000 sailors and personnel. Vasco da Gama, in comparison, entered the Indian Ocean 60 years later with three 3-masted ships weighing about 300 tons each and about 130 sailors. Zeng He didn’t invade or plunder a single state, though. The Three Jewel Eunuch went forth to trade.
China had been purchasing East African ivory, iron, tea, and spices since at least 500AD. Eventually, M’ing Emperors dictated that only Chinese products could be exchanged for foreign goods due to the trade’s depletion of China’s gold supply. Porcelain quickly became an integral part of that policy. How different this porcelain must have been from later export stuff, enameled right next to Canton’s docks with whatever decorative whims Europeans fancied at the moment.
What did Europe have to offer for the silks, spices, ivory, teas, and porcelain of the Indian Ocean trade? In a word, nothing. A bedraggled da Gama limped empty-handed into Mogadishu’s harbor shortly after China abruptly scrapped it’s ocean-going fleet. The Portuguese plundered East Africa’s exotic goods to trade for East Asia’s even more exotic goods. Somalia and Yemen never recovered.
Europe then embarked on a centuries-long quest, filled with subterfuge, violence, and drama, for more porcelain. Somalis and Yemenis also valued porcelain. But throughout Yemen’s trade with China, Yemeni potters stuck to a ‘folk’ expression more common to rural earthenware across the globe. M’ing vases might have influenced some Yemeni water jar forms, but even that connection seems tenuous. Nobody tumbled over anyone’s toes to get more and more and more…
Why the different reactions? Europe’s outlook was colored by a previous thousand years of vicious invasions, in-fighting, and plague. During that same period, Somalia, Yemen and China built a network of mutually beneficial trade relations without obsessively amassing goods and ceaselessly pursuing profit. Some might call this a fool’s paradise. Others call it sophistication.
The Lost Cities of Africa. Basil Davidson. Little Brown Book Co./New York. 1970.
Yemeni Pottery. Sarah Posey. British Museum Press/London. 1994.
China-Trade Porcelain. John Goldsmith Phillips. Harvard University Press/Cambridge, MA. 1956.