Following the visit to Kenya by the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, much has been written about the Chinese-Indian trade rivalry in Kenya. India, it is being said, was the first to enter Kenya and now being dethroned by China.

The Indians came to Kenya as workers during the construction of the so-called Uganda Railway line by the colonial British government, according to these analysists. Many of them stayed on, making India a major trading partner of independent Kenya. Now that position is being threatened by the Chinese who also have come to construct another railway line.

While the British railway line has become old – it’s a century old now and on it, it takes a whole of 12 hours to reach Mombasa city – some 480 kilometers away, the Chinese railway line in modern and will do the same journey in couple of hours – 4 hours in fact.

China is also the funder of the $14 billion rail network  expected connect Mombasa and Kampala in Uganda, Juba in South Sudan and Kigali in Rwanda.

Indian trade with Kenya is just $3.2 billion in 2015-16, while China’s has risen to $4.8 billion over the same period.

Chinese traders

What analysists do not say is that neither of these countries is new to trade with Kenya. And going by history, none of them is a threat to the other. Kenyan trade with the Chinese dates many years. Zheng He, a eunuch administrator and diplomat during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) in Imperial China, arrived in Mombasa in 1405, decades before Vasco da Gama of Portugal.

According to Jan Julius Lodewijk Duyvendak, the late eminent Dutch sinologist, and author of China’s Discovery of Africa, the Yongle Emperor commissioned these expeditions because he was motivated by “the real need of overseas products felt particularly at the Court, and the desire to increase his own prestige, and to reestablish the overseas renown of the Chinese Empire.”

According to surviving documents in China’s imperial archives, Zheng He paid a visit to the Sultan of Malindi – the most powerful coastal ruler of the time, in present-day Kenya (this encounter probably took place at Mambrui, a small village just north of Malindi on Kenya’s north coast, since it mentioned that the town was by a river mouth). Aboard one of Zheng He’s ships was a giraffe, a gift to the Chinese Emperor from the ruler of Malindi. The ship sank en route to China.

Known as  “Kisiwa Cha Mvita”, which means “Island of War” due to the many wars by foreigners because of its strategic position, Mombasa traded in items such as glass, brass, copper, iron and rhino horn.

Indian traders

Indian Kenyan trade relations possibly date en much earlier –  before the first century CE.  Periplus Maris Erythraei (Periplus of the Erythraean Sea),—which dates to mid-first century—refers to trade relations between the Kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia) and Ancient India around the first millennium. This possibly included many of the island states of Kenya.

Helped by the monsoon winds, merchants traded cotton, glass beads, clothe and other goods in exchange for gold and soft-carved ivory. Iron from the interior of Kenya was said to have been a favorite because of high quality.