Sailing the Ocean Blue
July 11, 1405: Zheng He receives an imperial edict. Zheng was a court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during the Ming Dynasty. He made seven voyages with Chinese treasure ships – large wooden ships which were said to have been between 400 and 600 feet long, more than twice the size of concurrent European ships. For comparison – Columbus’s largest ship in 1492, the Santa Maria, was 62 feet long. If accounts of Zheng’s ships are accurate, they had nine masts and four decks. They were able to hold more than 500 passengers as well as substantial cargo. Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta both described Chinese ships which carried between 500 and 1000 people. Zheng’s entire fleet was made up of 300 ships with 62 of them being the enormous treasure ships.
The Yongle Emperor of Ming China had a great period of expansion. It was his orders which had the fleet built, beginning in 1403. Zheng was put in charge of the construction process of the Xiafan Guanjun or the foreign expeditionary armada. There were trading ships, warships, and support vessels along with the treasure ships. The ships were built near Nanjing on the Qinhuai River where it meets the Yangtze River. Preliminary orders came through in spring 1405 for Zheng to take command of the 27,000 troops in the Western Ocean. On this day, official orders came along with gifts to be presented to the voyagers, each according to his rank. Sacrifices and prayers were offered to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors. The fleet had been amassing since the previous fall and they finally set sail.
The first trip was a success as they visited Champa, Java, Malacca, Aru, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Qiulon, and Calicut. Then they sailed into the Indian Ocean and visited the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Their trip was endangered by pirates who also plied the waters but with the large fleet at his command, Zheng was able to defeat the most feared pirate of the time, Chen Zuyi. He was brought back to port when the ships finally returned on October 2, 1407 and Chen was executed on that same day. Also returned were several important envoys who had joined the trip and they were presented at court. Zheng made six more trips throughout the region, visiting as far as eastern Africa. The last trip ended on July 22, 1433.
The details of Zheng’s life are sketchy and it is thought he died during this last voyage or shortly afterwards. There is a competing theory that he lived until 1435. A tomb containing his clothes and headgear was found but there was no body. It was assumed he was buried at sea. He had adopted a son. He was born in 1371 and was 31 when he began his sailing adventures. His second voyage began shortly after the first ended and he was again at sea for two years. His third voyage once again began shortly after his return and lasted two years but he then had two years on land before once again sailing from 1413 to 1415. His fifth voyage was from 1417 to 1419 and the sixth was from 1421 to 1422. He then was home for several years before taking to the sea on last time in 1430.
We have traversed more than 100,000 li of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare. – Zheng He
Explorers have to be ready to die lost. – Russell Hoban
All explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest. – Arthur C. Clarke
It’s an up and down thing, the human goals, because the human is always an explorer, an adventurist. – Cesar Millan
Also on this day: Terracotta Army – In 1975, the Terracotta Army was discovered.
Skylab – In 1979, Skylab disintegrated.
Pistols at Dawn – In 1804, the Hamilton-Burr duel took place.
Culture – In 1893, Mikimoto Kokochi created a cultured pearl.
Poor Planning – In 1897, a hot air balloon took off in search of the North Pole.
* “Admiral Zhenghe” by jonjanego – http://www.flickr.com/photos/jonjanego/2777527481/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Admiral_Zhenghe.jpg#/media/File:Admiral_Zhenghe.jpg