Qing dynasty coin may show ancient Chinese trade link with Australia

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 12:08am
UPDATED : Thursday, 14 August, 2014, 4:29am

In Australia these days, China seems to shadow the antipodean nation's future. China's appetite for natural resources has reshaped Australia's economy, and the threat of its expanding navy has led Australian officials to approve the deployment of US marines on Australian soil.

But a team of amateur Australian archaeologists has found a curious piece of evidence linking the Chinese to a much earlier age in Australia's history.

On a recent expedition to a remote island off the coast of the Northern Territory, the archaeologists, who call themselves the Past Masters, unearthed an 18th-century Qing dynasty coin. "It certainly shows the contact between northern Australia and the trade with the 'middle kingdom', with China," Mike Owen, a member of the expedition, told Australia's ABC TV this week.

Past Masters, based in Darwin, posted an image of the coin on its Facebook page. It features Manchurian script, which was the native language of China's imperial Qing dynasty.

The coin's presence is hardly proof that a Qing fleet would have landed on Australia's shores, of course. It's far more likely it ended up on the island off the continent as part of a linked chain of Asian trade that threaded China throughout Southeast Asia.

Traders from the island of Sulawesi, now part of modern Indonesia, have a long history of visiting northern Australia and harvesting sea cucumbers - a delicacy Australian experts believe would have also interested Chinese merchants.

Past Masters also points to indigenous oral histories that recount supposed dealings with Chinese visitors and the aboriginal practice of using Chinese coins as fishing weights.

In the 1940s, archaeologists working in the same island chain off the coast of the Northern Territory discovered nearly 1,000-year-old coins minted in East Africa, a fascinating snapshot of a world of Indian Ocean trade that existed before the arrival of the Europeans.

It was only after Britain's Captain James Cook made landfall in 1768 that European settlement of the continent began in earnest.

Another theory involving China has won attention in the past decade. 1421, a best-selling book by Gavin Menzies, a former British naval officer, suggests the 15th-century treasure fleets of the Ming dynasty, captained by the famed Muslim eunuch Zheng He, landed in Australia and even as far afield as the Americas.

Some historians dismiss Menzies' claims as flimsy pop history, built on dubious evidence and fraudulent maps.

Chinese have been involved in archaeological expeditions off the coast of East Africa to find further proof of their historic contacts with the region. Perhaps a similar effort in northern Australia may not be too far off.