Almost all children around the world learn about Christopher Columbus, and how, as the popular poem starts, “In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”, and how Columbus reached the Americas in October of 1492.
They also learn that he sailed with three ships: the Nina (“Girl”), the Pinta (“Pint”), and the Santa Maria (“Holy Mary”).
All true. But what is not as well known is that over 75 years earlier a Chinese admiral made several amazing sea voyages. This admiral was seven feet tall. He was a Muslim (Muslims were, and still are, a minority in China). He was born in poverty and had worked as a servant. And he traveled over 31,000 miles and visited 37 countries (including countries in Africa) – with a crew, a fleet, and ships, all much larger than Columbus’s.
Cheng Ho was born in 1371 with the name Ma Ho. His great great grandfather was Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who was the first governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan Dynasty. His father and grandfather had both made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. Their travels influenced his upbringing, and he grew up familiar with Chinese, Arabic, and Persian.
When he was ten years old, his town was captured by the Chinese army, and he eventually became a servant to Prince Zhu Di, the fourth son (out of 26 sons) of the Emperor of the Ming Dynasty. He helped Zhu Di in various battles. After one such battle, Zhu Di renamed him Cheng Ho (also referred to as “Zheng He”), after a place where Cheng Ho’s horse was killed.
In 1402 Zhu Di became Emperor, and one year later Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho as admiral. He ordered him to build a “Treasure Fleet” for three purposes: to explore the seas, to make China known to the world as a friendly power, and to establish trade relations with other countries.
Between 1405 and 1433 he led seven voyages. 1622 ships were constructed in Nanjing along the Yangtze River. The first voyage had a 30,000 person crew, 62 large ships, and 255 smaller ships. Some of these smaller ships were dedicated to specific purposes such as carrying horses, carrying fresh water, and carrying items to trade such as porcelain dishes, vases and cups, Chinese silk, gold, and silver. Each of the 62 ships were 475 feet long and 193 feet wide, and each held a crew of 1000. By comparison, Columbus’s three ships held 90 men each, and the longest of them, the Santa Maria, was 85 feet long. Cheng Ho’s fleet was so large, that it would not be matched again in history until World War I.
Some key highlights from his voyages:
They used sticks of incense to measure time, and the ships communicated with each other through flags, lanterns, and bells.
Countries visited on the first voyage included India, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Java, and Malacca. On the way they battled and defeated pirates near Sumatra, and brought the captured pirate leader to China. Countries visited during future voyages included east Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Egypt. On one voyage, when in Sri Lanka, Cheng Ho helped restore the rightful king to the throne.
All countries visited welcomed Cheng Ho and traded with him, and almost 30 countries sent representatives back to China to pay respects to the emperor. He set up diplomatic relations with all the countries he visited.
From these voyages, they brought back many items which they had received via trade or as gifts. These items included dyes, herbs, spices, gems, pearls, ivory, rhinoceros horns and exotic animals. These animals included lions, leopards, ostriches, and zebras. The most exciting animal that he brought back was a giraffe from Somalia, which the Chinese thought was a type of unicorn.
In Sri Lanka, Cheng Ho left behind a stone tablet with inscriptions in three languages, Persian, Tamil, and Chinese, that praise Allah, Shiva, and Buddha. This tablet is presently in the National Museum of Colombo.
The above is well accepted history – however, recently there have been theories put forth that Cheng Ho sailed to other places in the world including Australia, Europe, and even America! The most well known proponent of this theory is British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander Gavin Menzies. These theories are not generally accepted by historians as being accurate.
Cheng Ho died in 1433 during his seventh voyage. Cheng Ho is buried in Bull’s Head Hill in Nanjing. His tomb is constructed according to Islamic customs.
Soon after his death, China completely changed focus from exploration to isolation. It was felt that these voyages were too costly, and that China needed to focus on fighting enemies on their borders, and on addressing famine and plague. Future emperors prohibited trade, closed all ports, and even stopped the building of ships for overseas sailing. They also destroyed all of Cheng Ho’s ships, and burned all records of his voyages.
- The ‘Christopher Columbus of China’ may have visited Kenya (chinadailymail.com)
- Chinese heroes and heroines – a few bad men? (chinadailymail.com)
- Infobites: Cheng Ho, the Ming Voyages and Malacca (thoughtvessel.wordpress.com)
- Zheng He (notestoponder.wordpress.com)
- Ying Yai Sheng-Lan Preface + List of early Ming terms concerning Values, Measurements and Territorial Demarcations (thoughtvessel.wordpress.com)
- Chinese History (bhurababa.wordpress.com)
- About the Ying-yai sheng-lan (pp. 42- (thoughtvessel.wordpress.com)