The Voyages of Cheng Ho
Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a water route to Asia, the
Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages
of the "Treasure Fleet" that solidified Chinese control over much of
Asia in the 15th century.
Treasure Fleets were commanded by a powerful eunuch admiral named Cheng Ho.
Cheng Ho was born around 1371 in China's
southwestern Yunan Province (just north of Laos) with the name Ma Ho. Ma Ho's
father was a Muslim hajji (who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and the family
name of Ma was used by Muslims in representation of the word Mohammed.
Ma Ho was ten years old (around 1381), he was captured along with other children
when the Chinese army invaded Yunan to take control over the region. At the age
of 13 he was castrated, as were other young prisoners, and he was placed as a
servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son (out of twenty-six
total sons), Prince Zhu Di.
Ho proved himself to be an exceptional servant to Prince Zhu Di. He became
skilled in the arts of war and diplomacy and served as an officer of the prince.
Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch's horse was killed in battle
outside of a place called Zhenglunba. (Cheng Ho is also Zheng He in the newer
Pinyin transliteration of Chinese but he's still most commonly called Cheng Ho).
Cheng Ho was also known as San Bao which means "three jewels."
Ho, who was said to have been seven feet tall, was given greater power when Zhu
Di became emperor in 1402. One year later, Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho admiral and
ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas
surrounding China. Admiral Cheng Ho was the first eunuch appointed to such a
high military position in China.
First Voyage (1405-1407)
first Treasure Fleet consisted of 62 ships; four were huge wood boats, some of
the largest ever built in history. They were approximately 400 feet (122 meters)
long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide. The four were the flagships of the fleet of
62 ships assembled at Nanjing along the Yangtze (Chang) River. Included in the
fleet were 339-foot (103-meter) long horse ships that carried nothing but
horses, water ships that carried fresh water for the crew, troop transports,
supply ships, and war ships for offensive and defensive needs. The ships were
filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with others during the
voyage. In the fall of 1405 the fleet was ready to embark with 27,800 men.
fleet utilized the compass,
invented in China in the 11th century, for navigation. Graduated sticks of
incense were burned to measure time. One day was equal to 10 "watches"
of 2.4 hours each. Chinese navigators determine latitude
through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere or the
Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere. The ships of the Treasure Fleet
communicated with one another through the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier
pigeons, gongs, and banners.
destination of the first voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a
major trading center on the southwestern coast of India.
India was initially "discovered" by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan-Tsang
in the seventh century. The fleet stopped in Vietnam,
Java, and Malacca, and then headed west across the Indian Ocean to Sri
Lanka and Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India). They
remained in India to barter and trade from late 1406 to the spring of 1407 when
they utilized the monsoon shift to sail toward home. On the return voyage, the
Treasure Fleet was forced to battle pirates near Sumatra for several months.
Eventually Cheng Ho's men managed to capture the pirate leader and take him to
the Chinese capital Nanjing, arriving in 1407.
Second Voyage (1407-1409)
second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407
but Cheng Ho did not command this voyage. He remained in China to oversee the
repair of a temple at the birthplace of a favorite goddess. The Chinese envoys
on board helped to ensure the power of a king of Calicut. The fleet returned in
Third Voyage (1409-1411)
fleet's third voyage (Cheng Ho's second) from 1409 to 1411 consisted of 48 ships
and 30,000 men. It followed closely the route of the first voyage but the
Treasure Fleet established entrepots (warehouses) and stockades along their
route to facilitate trade and storage of goods. On the second voyage the King of
Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was aggressive; Cheng Ho defeated the king's forces and
captured the king to take him to Nanjing.
Fourth Voyage (1413-1415)
late 1412, Cheng Ho was ordered by Zhu Di to make a fourth expedition. It wasn't
until late 1413 or early 1414 that Cheng Ho embarked on his expedition with 63
ships and 28,560 men. The goal of this trip was to reach the Persian Gulf at
Hormuz, known to be a city of amazing wealth and goods, including pearls and
precious stones much coveted by the Chinese emperor. In the summer of 1415, the
Treasure Fleet returned with a bounty of trade goods from the Persian Gulf.
Detachments of this expedition sailed south along the eastern coast of Africa
almost as far south as Mozambique. During each of Cheng Ho's voyages, he brought
back diplomats from other countries or encouraged ambassadors to go to the
capital Nanjing on their own.
Fifth Voyage (1417-1419)
fifth voyage was ordered in 1416 to return the ambassadors who had arrived from
other countries. The Treasure Fleet departed in 1417 and visited the Persian
Gulf and the east coast of Africa, returning envoys along the way. They returned
Sixth Voyage (1421-22)
sixth voyage was launched in the spring of 1421 and visited Southeast Asia,
India, the Persian Gulf, and Africa. By this time, Africa was considered China's
"El Dorado," a source of riches. Cheng Ho returned in late 1421 but
the remainder of the fleet didn't arrive in China until 1422.
Zhu Di died in 1424 and his son Zhu Gaozhi became emperor. He canceled the
voyages of the Treasure Fleets and ordered ship builders and sailors to stop
their work and return home. Cheng Ho was appointed military commander of Nanjing.
Seventh Voyage (1431-1433)
leadership of Zhu Gaozhi did not last long - he died in 1426 at the age of 26.
His son and Zhu Di's grandson Zhu Zhanji took Zhu Gaozhi's place. Zhu Zhanji was
much more like his grandfather than his father was and in 1430 he resumed the
Treasure Fleet voyages by ordering Cheng Ho to resume his duties as admiral and
make a seventh voyage in an attempt to restore peaceful relations with the
kingdoms of Malacca and Siam. It took a year to gear up for the voyage which
departed as a large expedition with 100 ships and 27,500 men.
the return trip in 1433 Cheng Ho is believed to have died; others state that he
died in 1435 after the return to China. Nonetheless, the era of exploration for
China was soon over as the following emperors prohibited trade and even the
construction of ocean-going vessels.
likely that a detachment of one of Cheng Ho's fleets sailed to northern Australia
during one of the seven voyages based upon the Chinese artifacts found as well
as the oral history of the Aborigine.
the seven voyages of Cheng Ho and the Treasure Fleets, Europeans began to make
headway toward China. In 1488 Bartolomeu Dias rounded Africa's Cape of Good
Hope, in 1498 Vasco da Gama reached China's favorite trading city of Calicut,
and in 1521 Ferdinand
Magellan finally reached Asia by sailing west. China's superiority in the
Indian Ocean was unrivaled until the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived
and established their colonies along the rim of the Indian Ocean.