“We have traversed more than 100,000 li (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…”
- Cheng Ho
Two weeks ago, we ambled through part of Kenya’s Rift Valley, but we were not the only outsiders to have done so over the centuries.
The Chinese traded and negotiated there as part of seven great voyages in the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific that expanded Chinese influence in the 15th century.
Mariner, Diplomat, and Admiral Cheng Ho
More than 300 years before Captain James Cook sailed around the world, more than 100 years before Sir Francis Drake sailed the Golden Hind along the Pacific coasts of North and South America, and more than 60 years before Vasco de Gama led his ships around the Cape of Good Hope to present day Kenya and India, a Chinese mariner named Cheng Ho led large fleets on seven expeditions that ranged from northern China’s coast to India, the Middle East, and the shores of East Africa.
When he was born around 1371, Cheng Ho was originally named Ma Ho or Ma Sanbao.
He was the son of a Muslim, and many Muslims then and there used Ma as a family name to reference Mohammad. He is also known as Zheng Heand Hajji Mahmud Shamsuddin.
When he was about 11 years old, the Chinese Army invaded his Yunan region. Along with other prisoners, he was castrated and forced to be a servant in the house of the Chinese Crown Prince Zhu Di.
Working His Way Up
Ma Ho worked hard, learned much, and was recognized for his abilities, eventually serving in the army as an officer for Prince Zhu Di who renamed him Cheng Ho.
About a year after Prince Zhu Di became the Emperor of China, he ordered Cheng Ho to build a fleet of ships and bestowed on him the highest military rank of any eunuch in China to that point: admiral.
He was tasked with expanding China’s influence by tradingand expanding influence with the Emperor’s treasure fleet.
Some of the largest wood ships ever built were included in the flotilla: 9-masted treasure ships an incredible 170 feet wide and 416 feet long as well as 339-feet-long ships to transport horses.
There were ships used only for transporting fresh water, troop transports, supply ships, and war ships.
27,800 men and thousands of tons of trade goods left port in the fall of 1405 in search of adventure and expansion of China’s power.
This first venture stopped in Vietnam, Java, Malacca, Sri Lanka, and India. On the return trip, the fleet battled pirates for several months near Sumatra, until capturing the pirate leader and taking him to the Chinese capital, Nanjing, in 1407.
More Voyages by the Treasure Fleet
Cheng Ho was busy fixing up a temple during the second fleet of 1407-1409 that returned to India.
1409-1411, Cheng Ho was back in charge with 48 ships and 30,000 men. He basically repeated his first trip but added the deed of capturing the king of Sri Lanka and taking him back to Nanjing.
Sometime around early 1414, Zhu Di ordered Cheng Ho once again to hit the water. This time, he went to the Persian Gulf to trade for pearls, gems, and other items as well as sending detachments south along the coast of East Africa.
The fifth voyage (1417-1419) was kind of a reverse of the others.
On each of his voyages, Cheng Ho had either brought back ambassadors from other countries or encouraged them to come. By 1416, whether it was because their negotiations were done or their welcome worn out, Cheng Ho was told to take them all back from where they came.
The sixth voyage in 1421-1422 saw Cheng Ho visiting Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and Africa. By that time, the Chinese saw Africa as the Spaniards saw Latin America, and they wanted to find their own "El Dorado."
Cheng Ho left in the spring and came back to China later that year, but the rest of the fleet returned in 1422.
A Funding Snag
Like just about any major project, there was a snag.
In 1424, Zhu Di died, and his son Zhu Gaozhi became emperor. Not having the same interest as his father, Zhu Gaozhi canceled the voyages of the Treasure Fleets, ordered ship builders and sailors to stop their work, and kept Cheng Ho closer by appointing him the military commander of Nanjing.
However, Zhu Gaozhi wasn’t around long enough for his policies to really stick. He died in 1426.
This led to the final, seventh voyage in an effort to reestablish peaceful relations with Malacca and Siam. After a year of preparation, 100 ships carried 27,500 men off to sea. Approximately 1435, Cheng Ho died on the return voyage of this expedition.
Following Cheng Ho’s death, Imperial sea excursions were banned, and China maintained an isolationist position even to the point of destroying many records of Cheng Ho’s voyages.
Interestingly, rather than helping China’s position, it can be argued that this lack of influence helped Portuguese sailor Vasco de Gama. In 1500, Vasco de Gama entered Indian waters and set the stage for European influence in the region.
A stone tablet created in 1432 by Cheng Ho includes the quote found at the start of this article.
More than a few adventurers would enjoy kicking out their campfire and leaving on a great voyage, setting their eyes on regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while their sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continuing their course as rapidly as a star.
In two weeks: Christmas in Post-Communist Poland
© Mark Dorr, All Rights Reserved
Photo reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Zhen_he.jpg
Photo reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He
Photo reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WuBeiZhi.jpg
Photo reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ming-marine-compass.jpg
Information reference: http://geography.about.com/od/historyofgeography/a/chengho.htm
Information reference: http://library.thinkquest.org/20176/chengho.htm
Information reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He