Dutch explorer Willem Janszoon is widely credited with being the first European to reach the Australian mainland in 1606. However, it is very possible that another group visited the continent years before the Europeans: the Kilwa people of Southeast Africa.
In 1944, the oldest foreign artifacts found in Australia were discovered in northern Australia on Marchinbar Island, the largest of the Wessel Islands. Australian Air Force member Morry Isenberg found medieval African copper coins on its beaches.
The coins predate Dutch coins from the seventeenth and eighteenth century and belonged to the Kilwa Sultanate (957-1513), which was based on the island of Kilwa in modern day Tanzania; the sultanate controlled much of Africa’s southeastern Swahili coast.
According to the legend outlined in the Kilwa Chronicle, the Kilwa Sultanate was founded in the tenth century by Ali ibn al-Hassan Shirazi. Shirazi was the son of the Persian Emir Al-Hassan of Shiraz and an Abyssinian (Ethiopian) enslaved woman. The reason for his departure from Persia is disputed, but it may have been that he was seen as an outsider due to his African heritage.
Shirazi purchased the island of Kilwa from the Bantu king Almuli around 950 AD. Kilwa was in a prime location, and it soon became a popular commercial trade and manufacturing center; the sultanate expanded south to Sofala, which was a hub for the gold and ivory trade as well as manufacturing.
In addition to trade in goods, the Kilwa Sultanate also thrived due to its participation in the Indian Ocean slave trade. Traders captured Bantu people (known as Zanj) from East Africa’s non-Muslim interior, and sold them throught East Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
The Kilwa Sultanate continued to expand throughout the southeast Africa coast, claiming dominion over states in modern day Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique. The Kilwa people were excellent sailors and navigators, and conducted extensive trade throughout the Indian Ocean areas of Persia, India, and Arabia.
The Portuguese, great sailors themselves, were shocked and envious of the Kilwa’s sailing prowess and tools–as well as their wealth. When Moroccan traveler Ibn Battuta visited the city of Kilwa, he called it one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
According to the World History Encyclopedia, “As wealth poured into Kilwa – via both exchange and duties on the movement of goods – the city was able to mint its own copper coins from the 11th or 12th century CE.” Other than Australia, the Kilwa coins have only been found in one other place outside of Africa, and this was a site where they traveled to conduct trade–Oman.
Given the Kilwa’s seafaring activities and the presence of their sultanate’s coins in Australia, it is not unforeseeable that they would have visited Australia to trade–possibly centuries prior to European arrival.