Today in 1405, Chinese admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho) set sail on his first voyage, the beginning of a series of journeys that would greatly expand his nation's knowledge of the outside world. While many details of these explorations have been lost to time, one thing is almost certain: Zheng He's fleets traveled further and came into contact with more people of foreign birth than any other marine explorer up to that time.
Zheng He was born Ma Sanbao in an area of southwest China that was still under Mongol control, the last part of the nation that was not under the governorship of the Ming Dynasty. The Ma family was Muslim; Sanbao's father and grandfather had made the long, dangerous trip to Mecca and filled the young boy's mind with tales of their adventures in foreign lands. Sanbao's dreams of travel may have remained unfufilled had it not been for the events of 1381, when a Ming army arrived to put down the Mongol government in southwest China. Sanbao, 10 or 11 years old at the time, was captured by the army, castrated, and placed at the Imperial court as a servant. His service to Emperor Yongle during the quashing of a rebellion earned Sanbao a name change to Zheng He and a place as a student at the Imperial Central College. During these years, he became a close confidant of the court.
Beginning in 1405, Emperor Yongle ordered seven naval missions into what the Chinese called the "Western Sea", the southwest Pacific and Indian Ocean basin. They took place over the course of 28 years, from 1405 to 1433. The purpose of these expeditions was to, in essence, "show the flag"; that is, show the people living along the shores of the Western Sea that the Emperor was present even at a distance. They were also intended to force some amount of control over the trade routes which used the sea. Zheng He, now an admiral, was placed in charge of each expedition. The first voyage was comprised of a gigantic fleet containing 317 ships and more than 28,000 crew members. Some of the ships were called "treasure ships", wooden monsters that dwarfed European vessels of the time. Some were said to have as many as nine masts.
Historians would later claim that the largest treasure ships were over 400 feet long and 170 feet wide, but these dimensions are unlikely with the technology of the day. The largest wooden warships ever built, for the Royal Navy in 1858, were 335 feet long and were braced with iron strapping. Even so, a single Atlantic crossing damaged one of the class so badly that she was soon scrapped. With this in mind, a 400-foot long wooden vessel traversing the Indian, and possibly Atlantic, oceans seems unlikely. Regardless, the treasure ships were undoubtedly the largest vessels of their day.
On the first three voyages, the fleet visited India and southeast Asia. The fourth saw the ships venture as far as the Persian Gulf and Arabia. The fifth traveled down the east coast of Africa and returned to China with unusual animals such as zebras and giraffes. In exchange, local rulers were given gifts of silk, porcelain and other goods of Chinese manufacture. According to written records from some of the areas the fleet visited, Zheng He and his crews were careful to be respectful of local customs, especially those of a religious nature.
As a general rule, any potential adversaries were quickly silenced by the site of the largest fleet that part of the world had ever seen. However, this was not always the case. While Zheng He preferred to use diplomacy in his travels, he was not above using the awesome force he commanded. The fleet faced down and destroyed pirates that had long patrolled the waters of Southeast Asia, creating a menace to shipping. More than once, a show of force was necessary when the fleet was threatened in Arabia and Africa.
In 1424, Emperor Yongle died. His successor was less interested in exploration and his advisors were horrified by the cost of the voyages. However, one more expedition was allowed in 1430. The records of this last journey, as well as the sixth voyage, were later destroyed, so we know very little other than the most vague indications of where the fleet sailed. It is believed that Zheng died on the last expedition, aged 62 years. His tomb is empty, indicating that he was buried at sea.
Several books have been published in recent years asserting that the massive Chinese treasure ships may have traveled as far as North and South America. While this is not a logistical impossibility, none of the evidence presented for the argument comes from China, but from archaeological remains found in the Americas. If Zheng He did travel to the New World during his voyages, no written record of the journey remains. The giant treasure ships were mothballed in 1435 and never put to sea again. The crews went their separate ways and many of the charts and maps they used were either lost or intentionally destroyed by other Ming Dynasty emperors who wanted nothing to do with the world outside of China. Had this not been the case and had the emperors of that era continued to push for exploration and expansion, the world would be a very different place today.