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How Did Kilwa Coins Get to Australia?
By Richard Giedroyc, World Coin News
October 16, 2013

This article was originally printed in World Coin News.
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Can Aboriginal art and wooden fragments from shipwrecks somehow tie into numismatics?

This is what Ian McIntosh, an Australian serving as a professor of anthropology at Indiana University-Purdue University hopes to learn.

McIntosh is looking into multiple theories on how coins dating from the medieval African sultanate of Kilwa in what is today Tanzania were discovered on the remote Wessels Islands chain off the coast of Northern Territory, Australia. The coins are copper and date from about 1100.

McIntosh was quoted in the August 26 Arab News as saying, “A big part of the next stage will be documenting, dating and interpreting [the art], together with indigenous peoples.”

According to McIntosh, the rock art found on the islands includes an image of what appears to be a European type sailing vessel. Physical evidence of shipwrecks includes a 6-foot section of wood. The many theories regarding how the coins found their way to Australia include a possible shipwreck scenario. It is known European sailors traveled the treacherous coast of the Wessels Islands during the 1600s. The British claimed Australia in 1770 when Capt. James Cook landed in Botany Bay in what is now Sydney.

McIntosh said, “Over the past couple of years we’ve developed a whole series of hypotheses to explain how those coins might have got from East Africa to northern Australia. The whole point of this initial site survey was to try and get enough evidence to push us in particular directions.”

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The journal Australian Folklore recently published an article by McIntosh in which he wrote “the argument for the involvement of Kilwa traders and also the Portuguese is quite compelling.”

McIntosh notes in the article that by the 1500s and likely earlier there was a well established sea route from Kilwa to Oman to India to Malaysia to Indonesia. Indonesia is not far nautically from Australia. Although the shipwreck theory suggests the coins washed up on an Australian beach McIntosh acknowledged “we’re still toying with a whole bunch of ideas here.”

Plans call for scientists to work with indigenous people to determine if the Aboriginal art matches any known ship types. There are stories of people, “different people — black and white from somewhere else, not Aboriginal” that also need to be considered.

Kilwa was a major commercial trading port on the East African coast that controlled much of the Indian Ocean trade during the 1300s. Kilwa traded gold, ivory, and iron for Arab pottery, Indian textiles, and for perfumes, porcelain, and spices from the Far East including from China. Coinage commenced at Kilwa during the 1100s.

Portuguese traders sacked Kilwa during the 1500s as Portugal rose to dominate the African and Indian trade routes. Kilwa never recovered. Today the ruins of Kilwa are protected by UNESCO.

The five copper Kilwa coins were found in 1944 in context with four Dutch East India Company coins, at least one of which dates from the late 17th century. An Australian soldier, Maurie Isenberg, manned a radar station on the Wessel Islands during World War II. Isenberg discovered all nine coins in the sand while fishing. He stored the coins in a tin until 1979, when he submitted them to a museum for identification. Isenberg supplied the museum with a map of where the coins had been encountered. It wasn’t until recently that the discovery caught the attention of archaeologists.

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