A Treasure Ship Captain
Early in the 15th century, a huge fleet of ships set sail from Nanjing. It was the first of a series of voyages that would, for a brief period, establish China as the leading power of the age. The voyage was led by Zheng He, the most important Chinese adventurer of all time and one of the greatest sailors the world has ever known. In fact, some people think he was the original model for the legendary Sinbad the Sailor.
In 1371, Zheng He was born in what is now Yunnan Province to Muslim parents, who named him Ma Sanpao. When he was 11 years old, invading Ming armies captured Ma and took him to Nanjing. There he was castrated and made to serve as a eunuch in the imperial household.
Ma befriended a prince there who later became the Yong Le Emperor, one of the Ming Dynasty's most distinguished. Brave, strong, intelligent and totally loyal, Ma won the trust of the prince who, after ascending the throne, gave him a new name and made him Grand Imperial Eunuch.
Yong Le was an ambitious emperor who believed that China's greatness would be increased with an "open-door" policy regarding international trade and diplomacy. In 1405, he ordered Chinese ships to sail to the Indian Ocean, and put Zheng He in charge of the voyage. Zheng went on to lead seven expeditions in 28 years, visiting more than 40 countries.
Zheng's fleet had more than 300 ships and 30,000 sailors. The largest vessels, 133-meter-long "treasure ships", had up to nine masts and could carry a thousand people. Along with a Han and Muslim crew, Zheng opened up trade routes in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia.
The voyages helped expand foreign interest in Chinese goods such as silk and porcelain. In addition, Zheng He brought exotic foreign items back to China, including the first giraffe ever seen there. At the same time, the fleet's obvious strength meant that the Emperor of China commanded respect and inspired fear all over Asia.
While Zheng He's main aim was to show the superiority of Ming China, he often got involved in the local politics of places he visited. In Ceylon, for instance, he helped restore the legitimate ruler to the throne. On the island of Sumatra, now part of Indonesia, he defeated the army of a dangerous pirate and took him to China for execution.
Though Zheng He died in 1433 and was probably buried at sea, a grave and small monument to him still exist in Jiangsu Province. Three years after Zheng He's death, a new emperor banned the construction of oceangoing ships, and China's brief era of naval expansion was over. Chinese policy turned inward, leaving the seas clear for the rising nations of Europe.
Opinions vary on why this happened. Whatever the reason, conservative forces gained the upper hand, and China's potential for world domination was not realized. Records of Zheng He's incredible voyages were burned. Not until the early 20th century did another fleet of comparable size take to the seas.