The first of seven daring maritime journeys for the Chinese Treasure Fleet got underway in 1405. From this first expedition to the fleet’s final trip in 1431, these voyages — led by explorer Zheng He — would expand the influence of the Chinese empire throughout the world from Indonesia to Africa.
The fleet was commissioned in 1403 by Emperor Chengzu, who appointed the eunuch Zheng He as its leader. Zheng He was an imposing captain at 1.8 metres (six foot) tall who, after being taken prisoner at the age of ten, had gained the favour of the emperor with distinguished military service. As a trusted advisor, he was given the responsibility of charting a new trade route that would make overland journeys obsolete. The second major goal was to consolidate China’s status as a formidable power in Arabia and eastern Africa.
Much as Zheng He’s height made him an imposing figure, the ships he commanded made even more of an impression. The largest vessels measured roughly 71 metres (233 feet) — though some argue they were even longer at 137 metres (450 feet) — and carried a crew of several hundred.
The fleet would sail first to what is now Vietnam, then to Java, Malacca, Sumatra, the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Calcutta, and back to China. The maiden journey was not without difficulties, as Zheng He was forced to turn the fleet around at Ceylon when he realised they were not welcome. On the voyage home he battled with the feared pirate Chen Zuyi at Palembang in
Indonesia. Zuyi would become part of the bountiful haul, and the ships also carried a number of foreign envoys from the lands they had visited.
The fleet set sail to return the envoys two years later. Upon getting back in 1409 he was dispatched directly to replicate the first two-year journey. They would have two years to rest before an even more demanding journey was planned for 1413.
For the fourth voyage the fleet would travel to the Arabian Peninsula and on to Africa. Stopping at Hormuz, Aden, Muscat, Mogadishu and Malindi, the fleet would bring home previously unheard-of treasures, including giraffes. The emperor commanded Zheng He to repeat the voyage twice more, with other stops pulled in along the way.
While the fleet was at sea, the emperor’s war with the Mongols took him on the campaign trail where he died. For all the good that the fleet had done, Zheng He’s journeys were very costly and it was decided by the new Hongxi Emperor that the voyages must stop. However, when his son came to power, one last epic expedition was organised.
By 1429 Zheng He was ailing in his old age. The seventh voyage in 1431 would take three years and dock in 17 ports; there is even reason to believe he beat later European ships to sailing around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. This journey would be Zheng He’s last, as the commander died on the return journey and was laid to rest at sea. Under his leadership, the Treasure Fleet had not only plotted new trade routes but firmly established China as a maritime force to be reckoned with.
Calcutta, India, was one of the biggest trading hubs in Asia at the time and was the final stop for Zheng He on the first voyage. This would have been a vital port, especially as they had just been forced to leave Ceylon. The dual mission purposes of profitable trade and establishing China as a force to be reckoned with would have really come to the fore here as Zheng He would have had something to prove. It is believed the treasure ships spent a good deal of time here before heading back to China laden with valuable goods and foreign ambassadors.
Zheng He’s later voyages took the fleet to several ports in east Africa, but it’s generally believed it was in Malindi, Kenya, that they took giraffes on board. These animals made a huge impression on the sailors and the emperor himself, as they bore a striking resemblance to the qilin — a creature from Chinese mythology. These creatures are good omens and indicated that the current ruler was benevolent. Confucius’s pregnant mother was visited by a qilin who produced a jade tablet telling her that her child would be great; later, his death was foretold when a charioteer struck and injured a qilin. By bringing giraffes back to China, Zheng He reaffirmed the popularity of the Yongle Emperor.
While the most profitable harbour might have been Calcutta, and while the most exotic tributes might have been found in eastern Africa, the port of Hormuz was still extremely important. The fleet crossed 2,250 kilometres (1,400 miles) of the Arabian Sea to reach it because Hormuz was the gateway to the Persian Gulf, and overland trading routes connected the city to Iraq, Iran and many other cities around Central Asia.
The Treasure Fleet was welcomed by the merchants and traders, and the sailors noted the remarkable wealth of those who came to barter there. One of the biggest points of trade in the Middle East, the great and powerful made no secret of their status to their rivals.
The Treasure Fleet first set sail from Nanjing on 11 July 1405 and would return two years later. At the time Nanjing was one of the largest cities on the planet and the Yongle Emperor was determined that the rest of the world should acknowledge China’s status.
O5 Qui Nhon
The first stop for the Treasure Fleet was Vijaya, the capital of Champa near what we now know as Qui Nhon in Vietnam. Champa was a centre of trade in the region, dealing with both Arab and Indo-Chinese ships as part of the spice route. It was a regular port-of-call for Zheng He.
Like Qui Nohn, Java was a key part of the trade route. Having previously focused on agriculture, the Majapahit Empire had turned its attention to trade, creating an incredibly prosperous harbour. Zheng He’s fleet arrived at a time of political turmoil but established itself as an important part of the power structure.
Although Zheng He had managed to avoid the pirate Chen Zuyi at Java, he was forced to confront him at Palembang on his first return journey. Chen Zuyi pretended to surrender, only to board the Chinese vessel. His plan failed, however, and the pirate was taken to China to be executed.
Diplomacy failed when Zheng He first visited Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1405 and was turned away by the hostile General Alakeshwara. On the third voyage, however, Zheng He was prepared and beat the general. With Alakeshwara humiliated, the fleet stopped at Ceylon on all subsequent journeys.
The ancient city of Aden in Yemen sits in the crater of a long-dormant volcano, and provided China with a much-needed military ally. The city was important because it was located on the trade route between Europe and India. In fact, it was so highly regarded by the Chinese that Emperor Chengzu sent two special envoys to accompany Zheng He on his first visit there.
10 CAPE OF GOOD HOPE
Although it has not been verified for certain, the Venetian cartographer Frau Mauro reported that Zheng He and the Treasure Fleet actually rounded the Cape of Good Hope on their final voyage in 1433. If this is true, then the Chinese accomplished this years before any European ship would.
Types of ship
LEADER ZHENG HE
Perhaps measuring as much as 137m (450ft) long and 55m (180ft) wide, the treasure ships were designed to carry a lot of cargo and impress any who laid their eyes on them. Strength Could transport a huge amount of freight and people Weakness Not very manoeuvrable
The machuan were approximately two-thirds the size of the larger treasure ships and were designed for carrying horses, repair equipment and additional tributes.
Strengths Could lead the fleet and conduct repairs
Weakness Unsuitable for battle
With smaller ships for rice and troops, the smallest were the nippy zhanchuan, which were designed for battle. These measured in at about 50m (165ft) long.
Strengths Highly manoeuvrable and could defend the fleet Weakness Small capacity
ZHENG HE EXPLORER
ZHU DI EMPEROR
CHEN ZUYI PIRATE
Born into a Persian family, Zheng He was captured in the Ming conquest aged ten. He was castrated and sent into the service of Prince Zhu Di, who would become the Yongle Emperor. Zheng He proved himself in the military and became one of Zhu Di’s closest advisors.
Born Zhu Di, his path to power was not easy, fighting rumours and attacks before he violently usurped power from the Jianwen Emperor. He reconstructed China and relocated the capital to Beijing, giving his reign the name ‘Yongle’, which means perpetual happiness.
Chen Zuyi was one of South-east Asia’s most feared pirates, roaming the Strait of Malacca from Penang. Even the Ming armada had fallen foul of his raids. Zheng He issued a challenge to Chen, hoping to draw him into an open fight; accepting it proved to be the pirate’s downfall.