China is a very ancient country whose history is marked with periods of isolation from the rest of the world and periods of global interaction. In 1368 the Chinese expelled the Mongol rulers and established the Ming dynasty. With this, China became strongly isolationistic and severe restrictions were placed on Chinese traders. This period of isolationism lasted less than 40 years and in 1402, Yong’le came to power. Under Yong’le, the Chinese began to reassert their presence on the western seas. In order to enhance the prestige of his rule, Yong’le began funding some of the world’s most spectacular sea voyages.
Zheng He, whose title was the Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures, was selected to lead China’s great sea exploration. Zheng He was a Muslim, and both his father and his father’s father had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The sea trading routes from China to India, to the Arabian Peninsula, and to the African coast were well-known and had been used by Arab, Chinese, and South Asian traders for many centuries.
Shown above is one of the statues of Zheng He.
The Chinese fleet which set out in 1414 was truly spectacular. The fleet included 62 massive trading galleons. The largest of these galleons was 400 feet long and 150 feet wide and could carry about 1,500 tons. More than 100 smaller vessels accompanied the galleons. More than 30,000 people went on the voyage.
The model shown above provides a size comparison between the Chinese trading galleon (that’s the big one) and the Spanish ships used by Columbus in 1492.
The ships in the Chinese fleet included: the nine-masted treasure ships; equine ships (eight-masted, 339 feet long) which carried horses and tribute goods; supply ships (seven-masted, 257 feet long); troop transport ships (six-masted, 220 feet long); warships (five-masted, 165 feet long); patrol boats (eight-oared, 120 feet long); and water tankers which carried a month’s supply of fresh water.
A map showing the journeys of the great Chinese fleet is shown above.
Zheng He led seven expeditions to what the Chinese called "the Western Ocean" (the Indian Ocean on today’s European maps). He brought back to China many trophies. One of his most intriguing trophies was a giraffe. Zheng He first encountered the giraffe in Bengal. The giraffe, 5,000 miles from home, had been the gift from the ruler of Malindi, one of several trading centers on the African coast. Zheng He’s diplomats persuaded the Bengal king to offer the animal as a gift to the Chinese emperor. They also persuaded the Malindi ambassadors to send home for another giraffe.
In China, the two giraffes were presented to the emperor Yong’le by envoys from the kingdom of Malindi. The giraffe with its long neck excited Chinese curiosity about Africa. Zheng He sent word to the kingdom of Mogadishu (then one of the most powerful trading states in the East) and to other African states, inviting them to send ambassadors to the Chinese emperor.
How far did Zheng He and the Chinese fleet travel along the African coast? A recent news story in the Global Post reported on an archaeological expedition on the African coast to find evidence of the 15th Chinese fleet:
Chinese and Kenyan archeologists are now searching the African coast for the fabled wreck of a Ming dynasty junk — an ancient Chinese sailing vessel — from the fleet of legendary 15th-century explorer Zheng He
Some reports in the Chinese and Kenyan media have implied that the wreck of a ship from Zheng He’s fleet has already been found — and by extension, irrefutable historical proof that Chinese explorers visited Kenya before the Europeans. Evidence that China had friendly trading relations with Africa before the colonialists arrived would add luster to the Asian giant’s rapidly expanding presence on the continent.
A 15th century Chinese map shows Madagascar and the southern tip of Africa in remarkable detail. This map was done two centuries before the Portuguese “discovered” the Cape of Good Hope. Archaeologists have found Chinese pottery and ceramics all along the east coast of Africa.
Emperor Yong’le died in 1424. His successor, the Hongxi Emperor who ruled for only a year, decided to stop the voyages. In 1426, Hongxi’s son Xuande Emperor allowed a final voyage of the fleet. Zhenge He died during this last voyage in 1433 and was buried at sea. Zheng himself wrote of his travels:
We have traversed more than 100,000 li (50,000 kilometers or 30,000 miles) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.
Shown above is one of Zheng He’s maps.
In 1433, China returned to an isolationist policy which accompanied a period of economic decline. In 1434, Gong Zhen, the diarist who had accompanied Zheng He, published The Annals of Foreign Nations in the Western Ocean (西洋番国志).
There has been some speculation by historians and others as to whether Zheng He’s ships travelled beyond the Cape of Good Hope and into the Atlantic. In 1459, a Venetian monk and cartographer described the travels of a huge “junk from India” (the term “India” at this time was used to refer to not only South Asia, but also East Asia) 2,000 miles into the Atlantic Ocean in 1420. Some twentieth century writers have speculated about Zheng He reaching the Americas.