Admiral Zheng He (1371-1433)
The eunuch mariner who explored the Indian Ocean for the Chinese Emperor
Zheng He was a Muslim from Yunnan Province in southern China. As a youth, he was captured by forces of the Imperial Army, made a eunuch, and sent to the Imperial court. He rose to become a trusted adviser to the Yongle Emperor. In 1405, the Emperor appointed him to lead a naval expedition to establish a Chinese presence and to impose Imperial control over trade in the Indian Ocean basin. The so-called “Treasure Fleet” consisted of more than 200 warships and cargo vessels, with more than 20,000 crewmembers. Admiral Zheng eventually led seven voyages, each lasting almost three years. The Treasure Fleet visited eventually Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Siam, Ceylon, Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Mogadishu, Aden, and Muscat, among other locations. Along the way, Admiral Zheng suppressed pirates and opened trade routes throughout the Indian Ocean basin (generally peacefully, but by force when necessary). The treasure ships (the largest in the fleet) were up to 400 feet in length and over 150 feet wide; they carried up to nine masts. By comparison, the Santa Maria sailed by Christopher Columbus in 1492 was about 55 feet in length. After the Yongle Emperor died in 1424, Admiral Zheng made one more voyage with the Treasure Fleet. He died during this seventh voyage while the Fleet was off Hormuz. He was buried at sea. Admiral Zheng opened up Southeast Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa to foreign trade years before the arrival of the Portuguese and other European mariners “discovered” the region. Ironically, Imperial China turned its back on foreign trade following Admiral Zheng’s death.