Sometime in 1413, sailors from Malindi arrived at the court of King of Bengal, India, with a host of tributes. Among them was a giraffe.
At that same time, an accomplished Chinese admiral heading an expansive armada also arrived and sent emissaries to the Bengal court. The Chinese sailors witnessed the gifts the powerful Sultan of Malindi had sent, and became fascinated by it. Noticing their intrigue, the wily King of Bengal re-gifted the Chinese with the animal the Malindians had brought, and with it started a legend. Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho), the Chinese admiral, made the Malindians promise to visit the court of the Ming Dynasty, and if it wasn’t too much of a hassle, to bring at least one other giraffe.
Eager to connect with the rest of the known world, the Sultan of Malindi sent his envoys to China almost as soon as they arrived from Bengal. With them was a giraffe for Emperor Yong Le, the Ming Dynasty Emperor at the time. He had risen to power after a suspicious fire had killed his elder brother Jianwen, the legitimate emperor. As the fourth son, Yong Le struggled with legitimacy and desperately needed to cement his authority. To rewrite history and solidify his claim, he first wrote Jianwen out of history and the lineage, extending their father’s rule by four years.
The gift of a giraffe was therefore a godsend, almost literally as he would make it seem. In an elaborate public ceremony in 1414, the Malindi envoys presented the Emperor with his second giraffe. The animal was feted and even, to some level, revered. The reknown painter Sheng Du was commissioned to do a painting of the giraffe being led by a handler, and a poem was written and broadcast about the magnificent animal. For years, the giraffes from Malindi were displayed on the east side of the throne during imperial functions.
Zheng had also invited other emissaries from the city states of the Horn of Africa and the East African Coast. Many sent their envoys to the Chinese emperor, including the powerful kingdom of Mogadishu. They gave the Chinese numerous gifts of rhino horn, elephant ivory, tortoise shells, zebras, ostriches, and other presents. The Ming court sent them back with silk, gold, spices, porcelain, and other gifts. But that was after two years.
For those two years, the envoys from Malindi and other city states travelled around China and received royal treatment. Their ships were then packed with gifts for their kings and Sultans and they joined Zheng’s armada for an armed escort back home. Off the sea near Pate Island, it is said that one of the ships in Zheng’s fleet ran aground. Some of its survivors swam ashore and, to win over the people of Pate, killed a python that had terrorized the village. They settled and their descendants now live in Shanga Village on the island. In 2010, the Chinese government sent archaeologists to find the shipwreck [Link].
The Chinese interest in Malindi and giraffes seems to have started as early as the 8th Century, as recorded by an explorer called Tu-Huan. In early texts, Malindi was referred to as Pipalo, sometimes as Malin and in some texts as Malinti. A 1226 text, Gazetter of Foreigners, written by a customs inspector called Zhao Rugua recorded a description of an animal with a “leopards hide, a cows hoofs, a ten-foot-tall body, and a nine-foot neck.” The traveler who described it to Zhao called “zula”, or at least thats what the customs man heard-It was most likely zurafa, the Arabic name for the giraffe.
The giraffe was particularly fascinating for the Chinese because of its connection with Confucian tradition. In Chinese mythology at the time, there were four mythical animals-the qilin, the turtle, the phoenix, and the dragon. For the Chinese, the qilin represented the presence of a sage of wisdom and benevolence. It was described as something of a cross between a dragon and a horse. The male of this species had “two or three horns, a deers body, cloven hooves, the tail of an ox and (sometimes) the scales of a fish.” The giraffe ticked most of the boxes, including in being graceful and largely peaceful animals. To finally own something even remotely mythical was a definite win for any emperor, and the dream for most.
With two of this graceful and contextually mythical animals Yong Le ruled China for another short decade, a time of vast travel and immense economic and cultural interaction with the East African coast and other parts of the world. Although China was stronger than all of Europe combined at the time, Yong Le’s successors thought their internal problems more pressing than global ones. They banned private trade and cut funding for Zheng’s voyages.
It wasn’t the start or the end of Chinese interests in Eastern Africa’s animals. Hundreds of years before Yong Le became the emperor of China, Wang Mang, the founder of Xin Dynasty, received a tribute of a live rhinoceros from Abyssinia (During or before the Aksum period). Interest in the rhino horn had already decimated China’s rhino population and the rhino horn was now a precious item to be sought after across the world. It was said, as it still is today among some Asian communities, to be the elixir of long life.
One story is good,
till Another is told.