Admiral Zheng He (1371-1420)
This painting depicts the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He. In the early 1400s, Zheng He led the largest ships in the world on seven voyages of exploration to the lands around the Indian Ocean, demonstrating Chinese excellence at shipbuilding and navigation. Employed by Emperior Yongle he was commissioned to construct 3,500 ships and then command the fleet. Some of these ships were the largest marine craft the world had ever known. Zheng He’s nine-masted flagship measured about 400 feet long; for comparison, Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria measured just 85 feet. On the first voyage, from 1405 to 1407, 62 nine-masted “treasure ships” led the way, followed by almost 200 other ships of various sizes, carrying personnel, horses, grain, and 28,000 armed troops. Historians were skeptical of accounts describing the size of these ships until, in 1962, workers on the Yangtze riverfront found a buried wooden timber 36 feet long (originally a steering post) beside a massive rudder. It was the right size to have been able to steer a ship of 540 to 600 feet in length, and the right age — dated at 600 years old — to be from one of Zheng He’s ships. Zheng He’s initial trip took him from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India, and back. The emperor’s purpose for this expedition seems to have been to obtain recognition and gifts from other rulers. The voyagers did not intend to conquer or colonize, but they were prepared to use military force against those who refused to respect them. Near the end of the voyage Zheng He’s ships encountered pirates in the Sumatran port of Palembang. The pirate leader pretended to submit, with the intention of escaping. However, Zheng He started a battle, easily defeating the pirates — his forces killing more than 5,000 people and taking the leader back to China to be beheaded. Five more voyages followed before Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424; they included excursions to Hormuz — the Arab port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf — and the coast of eastern Africa, from which He returned with giraffes, zebras, and other items unfamiliar to the Chinese. On his seventh and final voyage, from 1431 to 1433, Zheng He apparently died at sea and was likely buried off the coast of India, although some of his descendants believe that he made it back to China and died soon after his return.