Words by Jatin Dua | 25 Sep 2021

Histories of navigation and the ways through which projects of movement across liquid domains have been productive in shaping regions and geographies are important to negotiating contemporary attempts of port-making in the western Indian Ocean littoral. For instance, in a fifteenth-century poem celebrating the craft of the pilot, the Arab navigator Ibn Majid mentions five routes to traverse the Red Sea. The first two are coastal routes sailing between reefs and the coast. The third route is down the middle, with no land visible, and the final two navigate from island to island, snaking their way down the sea. For Ibn Majid, the first two are “mere child’s play; the routes taken by the rubban [representative of the shipowner] of the coast” and “not the path of the true muallim” (navigator).

According to Ibn Majid, a real muallim sailed up and down the middle of the sea and only moved towards the coast when in the correct position, steering straight into the harbour. From the demands of the rubban to jutting reefs and ever-present wind gusts, navigation for Ibn Majid and contemporaries was not merely movement through space but entailed a form of mastery, negotiation, and entanglement—a way of dwelling in inhospitable space. Navigation was also central to creating a trans-regional world of trade and mobility that brought together a string of port cities across the Indian Ocean littoral, from Mogadishu to Malacca.

As early as the first century AD, tales from ports in the “land of Punt” appeared on papyrus in ancient Greece. Compiled into the Periplus Maris Erythraei, these parchments describe a rich commercial world shaped by wind patterns where the lure of lubban or frankincense drew traders from across the ocean to ports like Berbera and Mogadishu. Following the Periplus, the east African coast and Somalia appear in the early Islamic works of the ninth century including al-Hamawi’s Kitab Mu’jam al-Buldan, a geographical dictionary that noted the importance of Mogadishu as the central trade emporia on the east African coast.

By the first half of the tenth century, a ring of coastal towns emerged creating a world of trade along whose pathways travelled a dazzling array of material objects, free and un-free people, and the world Islamic religion. Vasco da Gama’s entry into this world in 1498, facilitated by a mysterious local navigator, claimed by maritime communities from Calicut to Malindi, marked a shift from a regional economy to a global one. Prior to Portuguese arrival, few European goods were in demand. The Portuguese brought silver from the Americas, thus connecting the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean world.

Practices of armed escort, narratives of notorious pirate monarchs and coastal raiding communities bear testament to the intertwined and slippery relationship over the longue-durée between trade and raid

A now, largely-discredited, view also emphasized European incursions as marking the end of peaceable trade and ushering a melding of cannon and commerce in these formerly placid waters. However, as historians like Patricia Risso, Sebastian Prange and Lakshmi Subramanian note, piracy and other forms of predation have been equally central to this liquid domain. Practices of armed escort, narratives of notorious pirate monarchs and coastal raiding communities bear testament to the intertwined and slippery relationship between trade and raid.

Much has been made of recent Chinese investment and infrastructural engagement in this region. These debates have usually sought to place the movement of Chinese capital and labour into frameworks of neo-imperialism or indexing possibilities for more equitable south-south solidarity. Thinking through navigation is not a denial of the possibilities of exploitation or solidarity across continents, but instead, recognition of the weight of history as both process and project in shaping the world of port-cities, past and present, in the western Indian Ocean.

In August 2014, China’s largest state-owned infrastructure enterprise, the China Communications Construction Company (CCCC), signed a $478.9 million deal to construct three berths at the Kenyan Indian Ocean port of Lamu. This construction project is part of a wider Lamu Port South Sudan Ethiopia Transport (LAPSSET) corridor and at completion will include a 32-berth port along with railroad and oil infrastructure connecting inland east and central Africa to the wider Indian Ocean. Originally conceived in 1972, the idea for a container port in Lamu—one of the earliest coastal settlements on the coast of east Africa—was beset by delays and controversies from the outset, and was eventually shelved in the late 1970s.

In the early 2000s, as the Kenyan government turned to the Indian Ocean as part of a wider eastward shift, the Lamu port project was revived amidst interest from the Chinese government looking to establish a port-of-call on the east African coast. In the midst of negotiations to construct the port, the Chinese government also sought to create a longer narrative of Chinese presence on the east African coast. Anchored in DNA testing and underwater archaeological expeditions, Lamu was established in this narrative as the locale of one of Zheng He’s shipwrecks from the early fifteenth century.

A Hui Muslim, Zheng He’s voyages across the Indian Ocean have been central in establishing a vision of pre-modern China as a global power with sovereignty over the sea. As Chinese state focus and capital moved across the Indian Ocean, interest in Zheng He and his oceanic wanderings has been revived as historical precedent for China’s contemporary westward expansion through the New Silk Road and other infrastructural initiatives. Zheng He’s navigations were central to “securitizing” Chinese investment by locating contemporary Chinese efforts to create a mlango wachina (Chinese doorway) into east and central Africa within a familiar language of genealogy and oceanic exchange. In the Lamu archipelago, the Shange and Famao clans on Pate Island, just north of the proposed port, claim descent from Chinese sailors who survived a shipwreck off the coast of Pate.

The largest island in the Lamu archipelago, Pate was once the political, economic and religious locus on the east African coast. By the eighteenth century, Pate’s prominence was eclipsed in a series of conflicts with its more illustrious neighbour to the south, Lamu, and its lack of a natural deep-water harbour. Today, Pate is a lush jumble of ruins amidst ramshackle settlements. It has a distinctly frontier feeling. The crumbling remains of mosques, tax houses and other buildings testify to the former glory of Pate and the numerous comings and goings that characterized life on this island, and the Swahili coast as a whole. In one such ramshackle town is a small mud house that in recent years has become a site of pilgrimage and curiosity for Chinese diplomats, western journalists and solitary anthropologists.

Residents of Siyu used to call the inhabitants of this house the wachina based on a passing physical resemblance to the occasional Asian tourists who made their way to Lamu. In 2005, a team of Chinese geneticists arrived to verify these claims and through DNA samples taken from these families, discovered that six Siyu residents were of distant Chinese ancestry, including the residents of this house. These inhabitants of Pate soon became known as the “Lamu Chinese.” With great fanfare, the Chinese government invited the young woman who lived in that house, Mwamaka Sharifu Lali, to Nanjing to attend celebrations of the six-hundredth anniversary of Zheng He’s voyages. Sharifu was also given a scholarship to study in Beijing and continues to live in China. “We used to be ashamed about being called Chinese, but now I’m happy that we have a home across the sea,” Sharifu’s mother told me.

In addition to DNA testing, the Chinese government also funded underwater archaeological expeditions in order to recover material traces of Zheng He’s visits. This was not the first time that Zheng He’s journey had been linked to capital investments and the forging of other south-south engagements. Unlike Tanzania or socialist Somalia, Kenya remained firmly in the orbit of the United States throughout the Cold War. Kenya did however have significant interaction with China shortly after its independence in 1963. Diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, as opposed to Taiwan, were established soon after independence. The move was led by the left wing of the ruling Kenya African National Union (KANU) party, in particular by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, then KANU’s vice president.

Odinga’s vision of relations with China was one greatly influenced by a post-Bandung internationalism and anti-colonial solidarity. Bandung internationalism was nonetheless rooted in a territorial nationalist imaginary and emphasized the common experience of colonialism and a valorisation of the nation-state—shared experiences of colonialism, not shared histories. Zheng He’s voyages were seen as emblematic of this form of internationalism and numerous Chinese visitors to newly independent African countries would emphasize the decidedly non-colonial nature of his voyages. One such example occurred in 1964 when Chinese Premier Zhou En-Iai, addressing a packed audience in Mogadishu, highlighted that Zheng He did not occupy a single piece of land or seize any ill-gotten wealth.

Zheng He’s navigation was transformed in this moment as an example of anti-colonial nationalism. What was important was that Zheng He had no imperial ambitions and left without a trace: cannon and commerce were firmly separated in this rhetoric of engagement. This anti-colonial transnationalism failed to gain much footing in official circuits in the early era of Kenyan independence. Indeed, Chinese and Kenyan relationships were quite tense in the 1960s and 70s, although both countries paid lip service to this vision. In the 1980s, in the aftermath of structural adjustment and liberalization, the call of business and investment was central to building new relationships between China and Kenya, mostly in manufacturing and private investments.

In 2005, Zheng He’s sprit was revived when Kenya and China signed a memorandum of understanding for infrastructural investments. The memorandum, among other things, listed funding for archaeological digs along the coast and funding Kenyan underwater archaeologists to search for Zheng He’s wrecks. Unlike the Zheng He of the 1960s, who left without a trace, it was precisely the material and genealogical remains of this fifteenth-century voyage that now mattered. It was within this newer narrative of navigation that Sharifu and the Lamu Chinese were swept up: material remains of older histories that sought to anchor modern investments. Ming coins, shipwrecks and strands of DNA emerged as the infrastructure through which offshore oil drilling, port projects, and expanding rail lines from coast to hinterland were framed.

Navigation is bumpy. If Sharifu’s story fits seamlessly into Zheng He as historical proxy for the contemporary expansion of Chinese state-owned enterprise capital, other tales of navigation muddy these waters and also become framing devices to think about the ethics of infrastructure and investments. Unlike Sharifu, most Famao (Lamu Chinese) recollect a different tale about their origins. For the Famao their story begins with a shipwreck. Instead of a fifteenth-century imperial fleet, it begins with an eighteenth-century ship of Hajj pilgrims en route to the Hijaz, a region in Saudi Arabia bordering on the Red Sea.

In a vividly narrated poem, the Famao tell of winds that disorient and disrupt this pilgrimage. Lost, hungry and parched, all hope is apparently lost as the ship runs aground. Once the storm clears, the shipwrecked pilgrims find themselves miraculously at a beach next to Pate’s oldest mosque. Taking this as a sign from Allah, the Famao decide to stay in Pate and bring the correct interpretations of Islam to this village.

This story of shipwreck and salvation highlights a different modality of navigation than the official story of Zheng He’s descendants and hegemonic modes of understanding Chinese capital investments in sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of the “smooth” space of imperial contact and seamless long histories, this is a “striated” space of small boats afloat in a dangerous sea. This is a world that reveals, as Maurice Blanchot puts it, the “sovereignty of the accidental”. At the same time, there are signs and channels through which to navigate this tumultuous sea. The mosque onshore and the status of the seafarers as pilgrims emphasizes the pathways through which to travel, from sea to land, and the ways to become incorporated into the ebbs and flows of the east African coast.


Jatin Dua is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor