by Islam El Shazly
When asked who were the first world-class Navigators are, Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama are first names that come to mind for almost anyone who read a bit of history. But there’s one that predates both of them, with a fleet that put both their fleets combined to shame. His fleet was proof that at times bigger is better and stronger.
Over 300 large treasure ships, troop ships, horse ships, water and store ships, and smaller escort or attack vessels. 28,000 crewmen and soldiers.
These are the voyages of Sanbao (Three Jewels) to the Western Ocean.
Ma He (Hajji Muhammad Shams), as he was originally known, was born in 1371 to an ethnic Hui (Chinese Muslims) family in Yunnan Province, Southwest China. In 1381 his father was killed following the defeat of the Northern Yuan, a Ming army was dispatched to Yunnan to put down the Mongol rebel Basalawarmi. Barely eleven years old, he was ritually castrated and sent to the Imperial court, where he was called ‘San Bao’ meaning ‘Three Jewels.’ He eventually became a trusted adviser of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424), assisting him in deposing his predecessor, the Jianwen Emperor. In return for meritorious service, the eunuch received the name Zheng He from the Yongle Emperor.
Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming government sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions. They were designed to establish a Chinese presence, impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin.
In July 1405, the first of seven expeditions set sail, over 50 years before Columbus’ voyage to the New World. The fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships. These were massive ships with 9 masts and manned by 500 men. Some of the ships were over 300 feet long and 150 feet wide, the largest being 440 feet long and 186 feet across, capable of carrying 1,000 men. The crew included sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods.
Zheng He’s fleets visited Arabia, Brunei, East Africa, India, Malay Archipelago and Thailand (at the time called Siam), dispensing and receiving goods along the way.
The importance of Zheng He and his expeditions, is that they were voyages of discovery not a lust for “gold” that was never sated. By accounts of his contemporaries and chroniclers, he generally sought to attain his goals through diplomacy, however, it was also reported that he walked like a tiger and did not shy away from violence when needed, like suppressing the pirates who had long plagued Chinese and southeast Asian waters. His fleet carried gifts from the Chinese emperor to the rulers of the lands he visited, and carried back officials and envoys to China as guests of the imperial court. And unlike the conquistadors his fleet didn’t decimate the population of the cities they visited; instead they built granaries, warehouses and stockades. Zheng He also built several Muslim communities in Indonesia, the Malay Peninsula, and the Philipines.
At their ports of call, they actively preached Islam, established Chinese Muslim communities, and built mosques.
Indonesian religious leader and Islamic scholar Hamka (1908–1981) wrote in 1961: “The development of Islam in Indonesia and Malaya is intimately related to a Chinese Muslim, Admiral Zheng He.” Source.
Zheng He performed Hajj, and in 1430 he embarked on his seventh and last voyage, he revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.
His voyages would set off for the unknown. These seven great expeditions brought a vast web of trading links from Taiwan to the Persian Gulf under Zheng He’s imperial control. This took place half a century before the first Europeans, rounding the tip of Africa in frail Portuguese caravels, ‘discovered’ the Indian Ocean. Source.
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Map Source : http://fonzibrain.files.wordpress.com/2009/10/voyages-of-zheng-he-map-06-04.jpg