How a gift of giraffes initiated diplomatic relations between African states and China

The intriguing “giraffe diplomacy” all started with a voyage by China’s biggest ship to Kenya in the 15th century. This led to friendly ties when the ship’s commander, Zheng He, presented porcelain and his country’s goodwill to the Kenyan rulers during one of his seven voyages to the western sea. In return, the Malindi people presented him with two giraffes.

Zheng was revered as one of the greatest navigators under China’s Ming dynasty and was required to return to his country with a collection of the wonders of the world. Once presented to the Emporer in fulfillment of Chinese customs, the giraffes became one of the most prized possessions of interest in the imperial court. The friendly gesture by the people of Malindi formed the basis of what later became known as the giraffe dynasty in China, and compelled the Malindi king to later join Zheng’s ship to China, where he spent the rest of his life. It also marked 600 years of bilateral relations between China and Kenya.

To replicate the Kenyan gesture, other countries seeking trade relations with China exchanged giraffes with the dynasty for porcelain, tea, and silk. In his book “The Star Raft,” historian Philip Snow described Zheng as the Chinese version of Christopher Columbus, who was an asset in China’s agenda to reassert itself as the Middle Kingdom of the World. China and its traders for many centuries had been subjected to raw deals while using the Indian Ocean for its trading activities by Ghengis Khan and Mongol rulers in 1200.

It was not until 1368 that the Chinese subdued the Mongol rulers and established the Ming Dynasty. During this period, the Chinese were skeptical about the safety of their traders and practiced isolation. However, the reign of Yong’Le sparked their ambition to demonstrate the magnificence of his rule and dynasty to the world. He inspired Zheng’s voyages across the world, and having the biggest ship on the Indian Ocean was part of his strategy to send a global message that China had assumed its rightful seat in the League of Nations.

In 1414, his fleet presented unbelievable souvenirs and creatures that had never been seen before the dynasty, but what enthralled the Chinese locales the most were the giraffes from the African city of Malindi. The Chinese assumed the giraffes were unicorns, which according to Confucian tradition, meant the creatures were blessed with immense wisdom and benevolence. The giraffes tickled the curiosity of the Chinese emissaries in Africa and laid the foundation for trading activities between many East African states and China. Since then, the two continents have been distant trading partners till date.

Stephen Nartey

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