There was a time when China was a maritime power. The eunuch admiral Zheng He led expeditionary voyages between 1405 and 1433 to Southeast Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Western Asia, and East Africa. It was a legendary fleet, with the “treasure ships” which were nine-masted, with four decks and about 400 feet in length.

In 1414, on his fourth voyage, he stopped off in Bengal and met envoys from Malindi in east Africa at the kings court. They had with them two giraffes as tribute, and they gave one of them to Zheng he, who carried it back to the Emperor Yongle as a gift and an omen. The Emperor had struggled with questions of legitimacy ever since the death of his elder brother in a mysterious fire. The courtiers believed that the giraffe, akin to the qilin, a revered mythical creature, would bring luck.

However, Yongle in good Confucian fashion was indifferent to the gift; he believed in good governance over omens and divine signs. So the giraffe, after a journey of about 9000 km found itself, among other imperial baubles, neglected, with only his African handler for companionship.

Giraffes had always exercised a hold on elite imaginations. Julius Caesar, returning in triumph to Rome in 46 BC, brought back a giraffe as a sign of wonder and of his puissance. The Romans called it the camelopard, given that it had the characteristics of both the camel and the leopard. He had the animal thrown to the lions and torn to shreds before a roaring crowd, to show his power to the populace.

In 1486, al-Ashraf Qaitbay, the Burji Sultan of Egypt, had a giraffe sent to Lorenzo Medici as a sign of his fealty. In 1820, the Indian Ocean trader, Nasir ud-din Nawab of Surat presented a giraffe to the Raja of Jaipur and a faithful record of its image was made and titled jarāv. In India, it came to be called jiraf after the original word from Arabic zaraf, meaning strider or fast walker.

Gifts of giraffes continued into the 19th century, with King Muhammad Ali of Egypt launching a diplomacy blitz in the 1820s gifting a giraffe each to Franz II, Emperor of Austria, King George IV of England, and Charles X of France. Zarafa, the giraffe arrived in Paris to a rapturous crowd of 100000 and spent the rest of its life in the Jardin des Plantes.

Given these insouciant giftings, it is easy to forget that the giraffe is a fragile creature; its long neck and spindly legs rendering it particularly prone to injury and death. It has a very high blood pressure (220/180) occasioned by the height to which the blood has to be pumped. While transporting great care has to be taken that its head and neck are always supported and that its head does not dip below the level of its stomach for long.

That the giraffes survived these oceanic voyages is a miracle. Their handlers were crucial to this enterprise. How to tell their stories; the stories of these strange and beautiful creatures subject to the callous and passing interest of kings and traders? How to make the giraffe speak? And to tell the stories of trade, adventure and objects on the ocean from Africa through west Asia and India through to China.

The Insurrections Ensemble was founded in 2011 by a group of academics and musicians in South Africa and India: Professor Ari Sitas (University of Cape Town), Professor Sumangala Damodaran (Ambedkar University, Delhi), Neo Muyanga and Sazi Dlamini (University of Kwzulu Natal) from South Africa who are academics and musicians. The idea was to create a conversation between South African and Indian musicians and generate a music that reflected the circulation of rhythms and melodies across the oceans.

Their first two collaborations – bringing together the mbira, bows, flute, sarod, sarangi, drums and guitar as well as voice and poetry – worked with individual songs that resonated with African and Indian sounds. The fourth collaboration was a musical take on The Tempest – in its versions by Shakespeare and Aime Cesaire – with lyrics in Malayalam, Hindi and Zulu. It ended with the lines “Bring on the storm / We ride waves like these”.

The forthcoming production in October, Giraffe Humming (it is not true that giraffes don’t have a voice; they hum at a frequency inaudible to the human ear), brings together musicians, poets, and singers yet again to tell the story of the giraffe that sailed – from Malindi to Peking – in the 15th century.

For this production, I wrote three poems in the voice of the giraffe, at the three junctures that the animals feet touched land. Twice temporarily, and once for the rest of its life. These poems are incorporated into the libretto and are sung also in translation in Malayalam. The giraffes come to life as puppets, swinging and swaying to the cadences of word and music.

That they are puppets is a metaphor for the idea of the sovereign human, and the nature of the intimate violence that humans wreak on the world. As the waters rise in the age of the Anthropocene, giraffes or human, we will all be at sea.

Water boarded (Malindi to Malabar)

Muzzled. Ironic, since I am mute
Lurching. The world heaves under my feet.
Head held high. Not pride, but need to survive
Death waits if my head sinks below my gut.
Blood. Pumping, my heart thumping
Blood. My arteries roil like the ocean around me.
Froth and foam, susurrating, out of view
Sounds of winds past, lashing the acacias
Standing like umbrellas on the veldt
I used to eat them, leaves and thorns
Rough tongue turning shelter into shit,
Now, life contained in a dank, dark pit.

Coasting (Malabar to China)

From darkness unto light; wooden deck to sandy beach
Sand clogging my toes, legs still a-tremble
He still held my rope, the welts on my neck
Aflame with the salt in the air
On board again, I could see now
Through a circle of light. Green fronds, brown men.
Pepper in my nose, sweet smell of cardamom
Not the smells of home; already forgotten
It slips away, memories of clear light and sky
Water my home now. Lurching, my being.
No longer elegant silhouette against evening sun
Only memories, of a long, loping run.

The Emperors Garden (Dadu, Peking)

Inedible, incredible: white, pink, and green
Trilling, tweeting, drilling in my brain
Short, squat trees, no horizon in sight
Despair around me; things with feathers
He looked at me from a window above
Was it longing, was it disgust?
Was I dragon, spirit to him, or just,
Another thing, object, a useless gift.
I was like a tower of silence
Amidst the babble of men, the shrieking of birds.
The only memory of my once-land
My black companion, rope in hand.