Produced by Matt Beat. Music by Jermaine Hysten. All images and video either by Matt Beat, found in the public domain, or used under fair use guidelines.
Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).
87 years before Christopher Columbus sailed for Spain to the “New World,” a Muslim dude from China set sail for a new world. Columbus had 3 ships. This dude had 317, and some of his ships were twice as big as Columbus’ ships. Columbus had a crew of 87. This dude had 30,000. Columbus traveled 4,000 miles (6400 km). This dude traveled 7,000 (11,000 km). And this dude didn’t steal resources from foreign lands or take over these foreign lands like Columbus did. Instead, he gave pretty gifts and brought folks home to introduce them to his family. His name was Zheng He, and here is the story of his voyages.
At the beginning of the 1400s, China was the top dog in the world. This was when it was known as the Great Ming Empire, named after the ruling Ming dynasty. The third emperor of the Ming Dynasty, Zhu Di aka the Yongle Emperor, wanted the world to know how strong China was. He had an aggressive foreign policy, leading military campaigns against the Mongolian tribes to the north and west. Di also brought back the traditional tribute system, which said countries on China’s borders all had to recognize China as their boss and basically kiss his feet. These countries would give gifts to China, and in return China offered its protection and access to goods.
Di sent his favorite generals to meet with the Manchurian people to the north, the Koreans and Japanese to the east, and Vietnamese to the south. To the southwest and west, however, he had a different idea in mind. He decided to send out a gigantic naval expedition, and he chose his buddy Zheng He to lead it. Di and He went way back, since they were kids. After He’s father died resisting the Great Ming Empire, He was captured and promptly castrated and forced to be a servant. But as a servant is when he became friends with Di. Eventually, He became one of Di’s most trusted generals. So hey, it DOES pay to have friends in high places.
In 1405, China had the best naval technology and the largest ships in the world. They had the best ships, man. It was during this time that Di sent Zheng He off on his first expedition. Their mission was not only to go forth and show everyone how awesome they were and collect tribute, but also to explore new lands, ideas and products. Zheng He commanded 317 of the world’s most advanced ships and around 28,000 men. On board, sailors, builders and maintenance workers, soldiers, diplomats, doctors, and even astronomers and religious leaders. Oh, also on board, the finest Chinese goods, as well as a bunch of gold and silver. Yep, they were all about that bling. The expedition went to modern day central Vietnam, Thailand, the island of Java, along the Straits of Malacca, and ended up on the southwest coast of India in Calicut. And yes, everywhere they went, the people they visited were very impressed. Some of the people joined He to return to China with the expedition. On their return to China in 1407, Zheng He even found the time to stop an attempted pirate uprising in Sumatra, bringing the pirate who led the whole thing back to Nanjing for punishment.
But the same year He got back, he sent a second expedition, directing 68 ships back to Calicut to go to a big party celebrating the inauguration of a new king. In October 1409, He began his third expedition, this time joining them in person. Oh, and with 30,000 troops. You’ll find out why shortly. He went to a lot of the same places he went the first time, but also to Sumatra. On his way back, he also got into a bit of a tussle with King Alagonakkara of Ceylon, which is today known as Sri Lanka. Well, despite being outnumbered, He defeated Alagonakkara’s soldiers and even captured HIM, taking HIM back to Nanjing as prisoner.