The Giraffe of Bengal

Presented as a gift to the Yongle Emperor of the Ming dynasty, a giraffe represented the intensive fifteenth century connections between China and South Asia. Likely an accession gift to Bengal’s sultan from east African envoys of Malindi, the giraffe was re-gifted, finding its way to the Ming court in 1414.[1]

‘Tribute giraffe with attendent’, Shen Du (1357-1434)
The gift was presented to the emperor as a qilin, a mythical creature which represents benevolence. Qilin are said to have the body of a deer, equine hooves, fish scales and a horn. Matching their strange form was a diet which consisted of “unhusked rice, beans and flour-cakes”.[2] How such creatures managed to cook flour-cakes escapes me. The emperor himself was not too fussed about the creature declaring:

“If my ministers devote themselves to their work day and night, and exhaust all efforts to govern the empire and bring benefit to it, the empire will be at peace. Even without a qilin, there is nothing that hinders us from governing well.” [3]

Nonetheless the Ming emperor reciprocated by providing velvet and silk, thus establishing cordial ties between the two polities.[4] The ties were soon interrupted by Bengal’s internal turmoil. Raja Ganesh, a Hindu chieftain, had overthrown the Turkic Ilyas Shahi dynasty who had ruled the Bengal delta for seven decades. Incensed by Ganesh’s enthronement of his twelve year old son Jadu as the new sultan, the Sufi mystic Nur Qutub ‘Alam invited the neighbouring Jaunpur Sultanate to intervene. Attempting to legitimise his rule, Jadu converted to Islam and took the name Jalal-Uddin. This dispelled Nur Qutub ‘Alam’s apprehensions, but did little to dissuade Jaunpur, who viewed the succession struggle as an opportunity to weaken their neighbour.

For six years official records remained quiet about any envoys sent between Bengal and the Ming court.[5] It was in 1420, after Jalal-Uddin had consolidated his regime, that Bengal officially requested China’s assistance against border excursions. In response, the Ming emperor sent a military expedition, resulting in Jaunpur’s withdrawal from Bengal’s affairs.


[1] Duyvendak, Jan Julius Lodewijk. “The True Dates of the Chinese Maritime Expeditions in the Early Fifteenth Century.” T’oung Pao 34, no. 1 (1938): 348-354

[2] Church, Sally K. “The Giraffe of Bengal: a medieval encounter in Ming China.” The Medieval History Journal 7, no. 1 (2004): 22

[3] Ibid., 25

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 26