Ancient African coins could change the history of Australia

Kilwa coins found in Australia

According to a report by CNN, some coins from an ancient sultanate off the cost of present-day southern Tanzania in east Africa could change the history of Australia.

With its glittering wealth, busy harbor and coral stone buildings, the island of Kilwa rose to become the premier commercial post of coastal East Africa around the 1300s, controlling much of the Indian Ocean trade with the continent's hinterland.

Kilwa florished from the 9th to the 19th century and reached its peak of prosperity in the 13th and 14th centuries. The great traveler, Ibn Battouta, who traveled to Kilwa in 1331-1332, described Kilwa as one of the most beautiful cities of the world.

During its heyday Kilwa hosted traders from as far away as China, who would exchange gold, ivory and iron from southern Africa's interior for Arabian pottery and Indian textiles as well as perfumes, porcelains and spices from the Far East.

The Kilwa sultanate came to an end in the early 1500s when it was destroyed by the Portuguese who raided and sacked the city in their attempt to dominate the trade routes between eastern Africa and India. Kilwa never recovered and the site is now a UNESCO protected historical site.

In 1944, Maurie Isenberg, an Australian soldier, whilst stationed at Wessel Islands to man a radar station discovered nine coins buried in the sand. Isenberg stored them in a tin until 1979, when he sent them to be identified.

Four of the coins were found to belong to the Dutch East India Company, but five were identified as originating from Kilwa, dating back to the 1100s when the sultanate started minting its own currency.

ancient African coins from Kilwa

According to Ian McIntosh, an  anthropologist from Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis, in the United States, only two kilwa coins have ever been found outside the Kilwa region: one in the ruins of great Zimbabwe and one on the Arabian peninsula in what is now Oman.

The first European widely known to have set foot on the Australian continent was Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon in 1606.

How did the five coins from distant, ancient Kilwa wind up in the isolated Wessel Islands? Was it the result of a shipwreck? Could it be that the Portuguese, who had looted Kilwa in 1505, reached the Australian shores with coins from East Africa in their possession? Or was it that Kilwan sailors, renowned as expert navigators all across the sea route between China and Africa, were hired by traders from the Far East to navigate their dhows, brought them there?

On July 15, McIntosh will lead an eight-member team of archeologists, historians and scientists to the area where Isenberg discovered the coins. The team will be equipped with a 70-year-old map on which Isenberg marked an X indicating the spot where he found the coins. 

McIntosh says, "if we find something then we'll prepare for a more detailed and focused exploration in specific areas....We are interested in a more accurate portrayal of Australian history than is currently allowed in textbooks."

See video of Kilwa ruins here

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