by Karen Williams

Diplomat, soldier, admiral and eunuch. Possibly, also, the model for Sinbad the Sailor[1]. Chinese admiral Zheng He mapped the Indian Ocean from Japan to Kenya and conducted seven epic voyages across the “Western Seas” to cement centuries of Chinese dominance in trade and seafaring across the Indian Ocean. Surprisingly, it is only in recent years that Zheng’s explorations have received attention, and even now, he is relatively unknown in his own country.

When I first read about him around a decade ago, Zheng was a figure of curiosity and a scholarly legend: part of the disjointed tales of heroism and correction that I read to counter the decimation of local histories by colonialism. It is only recently, writing about my own history and the history of the Indian Ocean and its slavery, that I’ve been able to place Zheng in a bigger historical narrative. Now, Zheng is no longer a context-less corrective to the audacity of colonisation: he is, instead, a crucial part of the puzzle that has bound people at various parts of the Indian Ocean for centuries, through diplomacy and trade, intermarriage, the trade in enslaved people and more recently, the anti- and post-colonial worlds.

Admiral Zheng was a Muslim eunuch who rose to prominence in the Ming Court and set sail across a large part of the world, and whose paths others would follow. In later centuries, the trade and enslaving pre-eminence of the Portuguese, Dutch and other European countries in Asia would retrace many of his routes, revisiting his areas of contact. Their colonial history would form the basis of almost all future contact between peoples of the Indian Ocean; and yet his story would be lost.

Zheng’s voyages and mapping of his expeditions happened before Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had even started his explorations. This was about a century before the Dutch established their Indian Ocean trade routes and also a century before Christopher Columbus began his voyages to what would become the Americas.

Born in China’s southern Yunnan province in 1371, Zheng’s parents were from central Asia and had settled in the area generations before. His grandfather and father were known as hajji, indicating that they had completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, and researchers say that his forebears were either Mongol or Persian. (His name at birth was Ma He, indicative of his Hui Muslim origins, as “Ma” is the Chinese equivalent of Muhammed.)

Politically, China was changing rapidly at the end of the 1300s and the new homegrown Ming dynasty eventually launched a bid to overthrow the occupying Mongols and drive them out. Zheng was captured by Ming troops during a raid when he was ten years old and he was castrated, as was the custom.

His rise as a eunuch was rapid through the Ming court, which he joined as a soldier and an adviser to the prince, serving in Beijing. Throughout China’s history, eunuchs have wielded considerable political power in imperial courts. Zheng distinguished himself in the battle for the capital Nanjing, and when the prince took power, his eunuch adviser became one of his closest aides.

As part of the consolidation of power and growth of the Ming Dynasty, Zheng was tasked with exploring the Western Seas, essentially the Indian Ocean region. By all accounts, not only was the scale of his seven voyages impressive, but the size of the Chinese ships dwarfed anything that had been seen before – and it would take centuries before they would be matched. National Geographic writes, “All the ships of Columbus and da Gama combined could have been stored on a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He”.[2]
Even more staggering are the details of his armada. One historian has noted that the size of his fleet would not be matched until after World War Two. A BBC report states that Zheng’s first voyage in 1405 had a fleet larger than the combined fleets of all of Europe.[3]

Not only were the ships larger than any before them – they were better-equipped, including being outfitted with magnetised compasses and watertight bulkhead compartments. It would be hundreds of years before European ships would carry similar technology. Reports also noted that the fleet had its own vegetable patches onboard.

Author Paul Lunde has noted: “The figures given for the size of Zheng He’s first fleet seem incredible, but there is no doubting them. There were 317 ships of different sizes, 62 of them “treasure ships” loaded with silks, porcelains and other precious things as gifts for rulers and to trade for the exotic products of the Indian Ocean. The ships were staffed by a total of 27,870 men, including soldiers, merchants, civilians and clerks —equivalent to the population of a large town.

“Perhaps most astonishing are the dimensions given in later Chinese sources for the treasure ships: They were said to be some 140 meters (450′) long by 57 meters (185′) wide, carrying nine masts. This is twice the length of the first transatlantic steamer, which then lay four centuries in the future! Admitting the impossibility of these dimensions, it still seems certain that these were very big ships. Marco Polo voyaged to India in 1292 in a junk with a crew of 300, and Nicolòdei Conti mentions five-masted junks of perhaps 2000 tons.”[4]

Indonesian stamp commemorating the 600th Anniversary of Admiral Zheng He's Voyage
Indonesian stamp commemorating the 600th Anniversary of Admiral Zheng He’s Voyage

At the time China was the richest country in the world, and was in a similar position as it is today, with reportedly the world’s largest economy[5], while also engaging in global diplomatic and trade expansion. In the centuries preceding the Ming empire (when Zheng was sailing), China had been increasing its commercial and maritime activities.

Kenneth Nebenzahl writes, “For three centuries the Chinese had increased their sea power in support of maritime commerce. In the early Ming period, ship-building and navigational skills advanced rapidly. When the Yung-lo Emperor decided to expand trade and Chinese influence, he selected Zheng as commander-in-chief of a great fleet for the ‘Western Seas’”.[6]

Zheng’s first three voyages were concentrated in Asia, stopping at Sumatra, Java, Sri Lanka, Aceh, Vietnam, India and other ports in the region. Later, he would branch out to the further regions of the Indian Ocean, including visiting Hormuz, Aden, Mecca, Somalia and Kenya.

The Chinese were already master shipbuilders during the Song (Sung) Dynasty (960-1229), with watertight bulkheads which improved buoyancy and ships big enough to hold hundreds of crew.

Researchers at Columbia University have noted that during the Song Dynasty, the perfecting of the compass was vital to expeditions. “The way a magnetic needle would point north-south had been known for some time, but in Song times the needle was reduced in size and attached to a fixed stem (rather than floating in water). In some cases it was put in a small protective case with a glass top, making it suitable for sea travel. The first reports of a compass used in this way date to 1119.”[7]

The Song dynasty also did a vigorous sea trade from Japan to east Africa, including up to Somalia.

“Chinese ships were seen all throughout the Indian Ocean and began to displace Indian and Arab merchants in the South Seas,” the researchers at Columbia University write. “Shards of Song Chinese porcelain have been found as far away as eastern Africa.”

In fact, Song porcelain has been discovered as far south as South Africa, at excavations of the Mapungubwe kingdom.

Archeologist Kris Hirst describes how trade goods excavated at Mapungubwe in South Africa’s north included, “Chinese celadon ceramics dated to the Song (1127-1279 AD), Yuan (1279-1368 AD) or early Ming (1368-1644 AD) dynasties of China were recovered from the site”.

She writes that, “Reanalysis of beads and celadon pottery found at Mapungubwe and the related site of K2…suggests that some of them date to the early Ming Dynasty, suggesting that Mapungubwe cannot have been abandoned until the 14th or early 15th centuries AD, opening up the possibility that these reflect contact via the travels of the Chinese explorer Zheng He.”[8]

Ming porcelain has also been excavated at Great Zimbabwe, which was established after Mapungubwe. Researchers believe that the two kingdoms were among the gold and ivory suppliers to China (and the Silk Road trade route), and that the African kingdoms imported cotton, ceramics, glass beads and silk cloth from Asia and Europe. Historians point to trade between southern Africa and the Swahili east African coast, stretching from Sofala in Mozambique to Kenya and linked via traders to Europe and the Silk Road as the possible conduit to China. Mapungubwe’s excavations have also revealed goods from Persia (present-day Iran), India, Sri Lanka, Germany, the former Czechoslavakia, Egypt and Venice attesting to the scale of its international trade.

During a number of his voyages, Zheng battled pirates, and also returned with local rulers back to China. Some researchers have said that the leaders came to China to pay tribute, sometimes making the journey under duress. Records mention that about 37 countries and principalities sent representatives to pay tribute in China, during the period of the armada’s seven journeys

“On returning from the third expedition Zheng built a fortified post at Malacca, and on the fifth voyage he arrived back at Nanking with princes and family members from seventeen countries, in addition to ostriches, zebras, and giraffes. On his final expedition, with more than twenty-six-thousand soldiers, sailors, cooks, doctors, and carpenters, he returned to the Yangtze with ambassadors from ten countries around the Indian Ocean,” writes Kenneth Nebenzahl.[9]

The details of Zheng’s later voyages were recorded by three of his officers and some of the main information was left by his Chinese Muslim translator, Ma Huan, who spoke Arabic, and possibly also Persian.[10]

In the 1620s, the navigational charts and maps from Zheng’s voyages were published. Nebenzahl describes how, “Unfolded, the entire chart measures nearly seven meters. It depicts the sea route from Nanjing, down the Yangtze, across the China Sea and Indian Ocean to East Africa, passing the mouth of the Persian Gulf and Red Sea.”[11]

But in the later years, Zheng’s voyages became increasingly unpopular with court officials, who balked at the costs and wanted to consolidate their domestic power. By the time of Zheng’s sixth voyage, the Chinese army was also smarting from a defeat in Vietnam[12], and eventually China would turn increasingly inward.

“Zheng, the Chinese-Muslim-eunuch-admiral-diplomat, is one of history’s most interesting characters. His emperor died in 1424 and was succeeded by a conservative regime controlled by Confucian mandarins who focused on domestic policy and condemned expansionism. Had its politics been otherwise, China may have built a fortified network of trading posts and changed the progress of the nascent European age of exploration,” writes Nebenzahl.[13]

Although Zheng has a modest tomb outside Nanjing, he is believed to have died at sea, off the coast of India, on the return leg of his seventh voyage. It is hard to believe that even in his home country, he is still largely unknown. Zheng is more than a hero or legend: by standing in such contrast to all the centuries of enslavement that took place across the Indian Ocean, he emerges as the towering commander of his beloved Western Seas.

References:

Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond: 2,000 Years of Exploring the East – Kenneth Nebenzahl, Phaidon Press, 2005

The Song Dynasty in China

China’s Great Armarda

African Iron Age Polity in South Africa

China hails legacy of great adventurer

Zheng He, Ming China’s Great Admiral

The Admiral Zheng He


Sidebar: Zheng He’s voyages

1405-1407: Champa (present-day Vietnam), Java ,Palembang, (Indonesia, on Sumatra)

Malacca, Aru, (group of islands in Indonesia),Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Qulion (Kollam) , Kollam, Cochin, Calicut (now known as Kozhikode in Kerala) (317 ships)

1407-1409:Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut (249 ships)

1409-1411:Champa, Java, Malacca, Semudera, Ceylon, Quilon, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Kayal, Coimbatore, Puttanpur (48 ships)

1413-1415:Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Kayal, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Barawa (Somalia), Malindi, Aden, Muscat, Dhofar (Oman) (63 ships)

1417-1419:Ryukyu (islands just off Japan), Champa, Pahang (Malaysia), Java, Malacca, Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn (Yemen), Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu, Barawa, Malindi, Aden

1421-1422:Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin, Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar (Oman), Aden, Mogadishu, Brava

1430-1433:Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Semudera, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Hormuz, Aden, Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Bengal, Laccadive and Maldive Islands, Djofar, Lasa, Aden, Mecca, Mogadishu, Brava

(100 ships)

Source


[1] He was also called San Bao, meaning Three Jewels

[2] Voyages of Zheng He

[3]

[4] The Admiral Zheng He

[5] Estimates vary on whether China currently has the largest or second largest economy in the world.

[6] Nebenzahl, K. Mapping the Silk Road and Beyond, Phaidon Press, London 2011, p.42

[7] Technological Advances During the Song

[8] African Iron Age Polity in South Africa

[9] Nebenzahl, p42.

[10] Persian refers to the common language spoken in Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

[11] Ibid

[12] Lunde

[13] Nebenzahl, p.42

All work published on Media Diversified is the intellectual property of its writers. Please do not reproduce, republish or repost any content from this site without express written permission from Media Diversified. For further information, please see our reposting guidelines.


Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

If you enjoyed reading this article, help us continue to provide more! Media Diversified is 100% reader-funded – you can subscribe for as little as £5 per month here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s