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Chinese sailor finds America before Columbus!
Who was Zheng He?
Zheng He was born in the poor, mountainous Chinese province of Yunnan in 1371, just as Genghis Khan's Mongols were being overthrown by a new, home-grown dynasty, the Ming under Emperor Zhu. Zheng He's parents named him “Ma Ho” in honor of Mohammed, the founder of Islam. His father and grandfather were both Muslims and had each visited Mecca for the Muslim pilgrimage. Their tales of the long journey thrilled Ma Ho and he longed make a glorious journey himself one day. As his family were Muslim and had fought on the side of the Mongols, when the Ming armies came looking for rebels, they killed Ma Ho's dad and hey captured the 10-year-old boy and, as was the custom with young male prisoners, castrated him.
As his intelligence was observed in the jail, he was taken to Beijing to serve as a servant to Prince Zhu Di, Emperor Zhu's fourth son. The prince and Ma Ho became best friends and the prince changed Ma Ho's name to Zheng He, and made him Grand Imperial Eunuch.
When Prince Zhu Di's father died, there was some dispute over who would be the new emperor, but with Zheng He at his side, Zhu Di eventually became the emperor in 1402 and changed his name to Yong'le. He was ruthless and ambitious but was one of the best Ming emperors, building the Forbidden City when the capital was moved to Beijing and restored the Great Wall. Emperor Yong'le wanted to expand Chinese influence to other lands and establish trade, so he appointed the close on 7 foot tall Zheng He as Admiral of his fleets. Emperor Yong'le was a little bit of a megalomaniac as were many emperors of that time and had a grand vision then already, that China would become a world leader and the foremost trading nation in the world at that time. China already had the technology, they had invented the sextant, the compass and gunpowder. In Zheng He, Emperor Yong'le felt that he had the right man to send out to help build China into the greatest trading power of all time. He rightly believed that it would have to be through a fleet of ships and not overland.
Zheng He was commanded to built a treasure fleet to go out and explore the regions beyond China. The shipyard in Nanjing was chosen as the place where the treasure ships would be built. According to some of the few remaining Ming records, the flagships of the fleet were 400 feet long and 160 feet wide. The treasure ships had watertight bulkhead compartments of a kind the West would have to wait hundreds of years for. They even had their own on-board vegetable patches, so sailors never got scurvy. Columbus's Santa Maria, was only 75 feet long and 25 feet wide!
In 1405, only three years after receiving his instructions, Zheng He's treasure fleet set sail, with each flagship supported by countless smaller vessels going off in a different direction. All in all there were over 300 ships in the whole fleet and 27800 men. Amazing that all this shipbuilding took place in a 3 year period! On the ships, were trading items like silk and pottery, as well as concubines which were to be given to other leaders they met as gifts.
What is the evidence?
The Nanjing Shipyards where these ships were built still exists and has been turned into a special park with a museum. It was only when some ancient Ming documents were found that China suddenly realised that they had once been a formidable sea power and had ruled the waves. For centuries all evidence of their naval expertise and explorations had been buried in the mud at the old shipyard. The museum shows some of the items that have been excavated to date, nails, ship building tools, masts and a huge tiller that will easily take 20 men to manage. A huge anchor, biggest I've ever seen was also found. Plans of the treasure ships and other small ships in the fleet have also been found. A map made in the 1700's, but based on a map from 1418 has also been found and shows that China knew about Africa, Europe, Australia and the Americas.
In his bestselling book 1421, former British naval officer Gavin Menzies claimed Zheng He's ships ended up reaching America and circumnavigating the world. He claims to have found ruins of Zheng He's ships in the Caribbean. However, the strongest evidence that Zhenge's fleet reached the East Coast of America, is the 600 year old bronze Ming Dynasty medallion found buried in Cherokee land. And, the Cherokee call their white clay pottery a very similar to name to what the Chinese call theirs almost identical in fact.
And then of course, many Native Americans do have slightly Asian features. maybe some concubines were dropped off there. It is believed as more old documents come to light, the proof of Zheng He reaching America will be undisputed.
There is strong evidence to show Zheng He reached Africa. In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants of Zheng He’s crew. Many Samoans have Chinese surnames and Asian features, so there's evidence the treasure fleet went there as well. Zheng He took an Imam on board, so it is believed that Islam in Indonesia was brought by Zheng He's treasure fleet.
First Voyage (1405-1407)
Second Voyage (1407-1409)
Third Voyage (1409-1411)
Fourth Voyage (1413-1415)
Fifth Voyage (1417-1419)
Sixth Voyage (1421-1422)
Seventh Voyage (1431-1433)
Zheng He's voyages had a very large impact on the Ming Dynasty and the countries Zheng He visited. These seven voyages opened trade and diplomatic ties for the Ming Dynasty with many other countries. Frightened by Zheng He's fleet, many countries paid tribute to the Ming Dynasty hoping to buy peace with the Asian superpower. Can you imagine what you'd have thought, if you had spotted a whole fleet of ships surrounding a huge treasure ship with red silk sails and flags flying in the breeze, as it anchored in your bay. From these visits, the Ming Dynasty acquired much power and wealth. Crews also brought back many tales of exotic lands and cultures, enriching the Chinese culture, already full of tales and myths. The Chinese took crates of porcelain dishes, vases and cups, as well as chinese silk, gold and silver to trade. Zheng He traded these items mainly for dyes, herbs, spices, gems, pearls, ivory, rhinoceros horns and exotic animals. The giraffe they brought back was aparticular favourite as the emperor thought it was a unicorn.
Why were the treasure fleets destroyed?
Life changed for Zheng He when Emperor Yong’le suddenly died in 1424. Zhu Gaozhi became the next emperor of China. Emperor Yong'le had met with a lot of resistance at the expense of keeping the treasure fleet going, and pressure was put on the new emperor. Emperor Gaozhi wanted nothing to do with navel exploring and scrapped all ideas of a seventh Treasure Fleet. For six long years, Zheng He, who had fought off pirates, waged war with those who didn’t want peace, established trade routes, weathered hurricanes and other violent storms, was stuck on land with not much to do. Luckily, Emperor Zhu Gaozhi’s reign was short and the next Emperor, Zhu Zhanji, had similar views of Yong’le. In 1430, Emperor Zhanji commanded Zheng He to lead another Treasure Fleet on it's seventh voyage. This was to be Zheng He's last voyage as he is reputed to have died near Calicut and buried at sea according to Muslim tradition. Usually, an eunuch's testicles were kept in a jar and buried with them so that they could be whole in the afterlife. Unfortunately for Zheng He, despite all his brave deeds and accomplishments, he died half a man without his testicles being buried with him.
Now, the Ming Dynasty was on a roll here. They had countries constantly sending in tribute, had many trade relations to make profits from, and it was the superpower of the world at that point. Zheng He's treasure ships used technology that would not be used in Europe for hundreds of years, and were economically much better off than the Europeans. TThey had sophisticated weaponry and were almost invincible. The Ming Dynasty was an unrivaled naval power and was feared and respected throughout the areas the treasure fleet visited . The Chinese could have conquered the world… but they suddenly stopped.
This is what intrigues me the most about this story. Why did they just stop and go into a sort of hibernation? Did the treasure fleets bring back some kind of plague or disease? Soon after Zheng He's death, the Ming Dynasty officials burned most of his charts and writings. By 1500, the Emperor ordered the destruction of all oceangoing ships and made it a capital offense to build a boat with more than two masts. In fact, building a boat of more than three masts was punishable by immediate death. What happened to make the chinese react in this way? What was brought back by the ships that frightened the Ming Dynasty officials that they destroyed everything about the ships?
Some say that after Zheng He passed away at sea, the Ming Dynasty officials took control and decided that the dynasty was above the other countries out there and that the outside world had nothing to offer them. The burning of Zheng He's work was an extreme act to show that China didn't need the rest of the world, like burning the bridge behind you, the point of no return. I'm not sure if I can accept that as the reason. It just seems too extreme. To be a world power, rake in a fortune and then turn your back on it all for nearly 600 years.
"We have…beheld in the ocean, huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarians regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course rapid like that of a star, traversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.” Zheng He, Admiral of the Western Seas, translated from one of his surviving writings.