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MEDIEVAL SOMALILAND: A CHINESE PERSPECTIVE

Historical works tend to emphasize the medieval trade relationship between the east coast of Africa and Arabia, or to a lesser extent India, ignoring the region’s similar relationship with China, whose ceramics have been unearthed at numerous sites.

Possibly this is because it has long been thought that these Chinese exports were shipped to Africa indirectly, via India and Arabia. But this theory falters when you recognize that the earliest medieval description of the Somali region, and arguably the most detailed, was penned by the Chinese writer Tuan Ch’eng-sbib as early as the mid-9th century.

The port visited by Tuan Ch’eng-sbib’s Chinese informants, named as Boboli (or Popoli), almost certainly lay somewhere along the coast of Somaliland, and may well be synonymous with Berbera.  Tuan provided a detailed description of the land’s inhabitants, including customs still practiced to this day by certain East African pastoralist societies:

They do not eat any of the five grains but eat only meat. They often stick a needle into the veins of cattle and draw blood which they drink raw, mixed with milk. They wear no clothes, but use goatskins to cover the parts below their waists … The  country  produces  only  ivory  and  ambergris  …  All,  whether  young  or old, draw blood and swear an oath before they will trade their products. From olden times on they were not subject to any foreign country. In fighting they use elephant tusks and ribs or buffalo horns as lances, and wear cuirasses (shields), and bows and arrows. The Arabs make frequent raids upon them.

Tuan also asserts that a trade in female slaves operated out of Boboli, writing that,  ‘their  women  are  clean  and  of  proper  behaviour;  the  inhabitants themselves kidnap them, and if they sell them to foreign merchants, they fetch several times their price’.

Another  intriguing  Chinese  description  of  medieval  Somaliland  is included in Chou Ju-kua’s two-volume Chu-fan-chi (literally, ‘Description of the Barbarous Peoples’), which dates to around AD1225 and reproduces some information from a book written by the geographer Chou Ch’u-fei in 1178:

The country … has four towns, and the rest are settled in villages that each try to gain supremacy over the others by violence … The country produces many camels and sheep, and camel meat and milk and baked cakes are their regular food.  The country produces dragon’s saliva [ambergris], elephant tusks and rhinoceros horns. Some tusks weigh more than 100 catty [about 60kg] and some rhinoceros horns more than 10 catty [about 6kg]. There is also much putchuk [a ginger-like root], liquid storax gum, myrrh, and extremely thick tortoise-shell which people from other countries all come to buy.

The Chu-fan-chi mentions that “the people serve heaven not the Budha”, which might be read as an obtuse way of saying they are Islamic and are ‘fond of hunting … with poisoned arrows’.  It also describes some of the wildlife in the region: the giraffe (‘in size like an ox … yellow in color… it’s head high up and turned upwards’), the ostrich (which it calls a ‘camel-crane’ and claims can ‘fly, but not to any height’), and what is presumably a zebra (‘a mule with red, black, and white stripes wound like girdles around the body’).

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