Picture in your mind a sea-going armada of more than 300 ships - some as large as 500 feet long by 150 feet wide - manned by 27,000 sailors and soldiers and the capability of carrying out a voyage of transoceanic scope without the need to refuel. Imagine a fleet of accompanying support vessels, laden with a year’s supply of food and water, and every tool, skilled craftsman and replacement part needed to be totally self reliant. Add to that image the presence of scientific navigational and maneuvering technology unheard of in any preceding age, and a sea-going fleet commander so powerful as to carry sailing orders of absolutely unlimited authority. Now visualize year-long expeditions of such a fleet undertaken not just once, but seven times over a period of as many years.
If you’re thinking 20th century and nuclear power, you’re way off. The Admiral’s name was Zheng He, his ships were powered by wind alone and the year was around 1403 AD, nine decades before Christopher Columbus sailed from Spain in his three tiny caravels which would have fit neatly on the forward deck of Zheng’s flag ship.
What evidence we have suggests that these ancient sea craft were indeed made of wood, in a basic design we still see in today’s square-nosed “junks”. The largest of them carried huge forests of sails mounted on as many as nine tall masts. At the center of the unbelievable structural integrity of these ancient vessels lay what was probably the world’s first use of water-tight bulkheads separating multiple compartments.
If you guessed that Admiral Zheng sailed for China, you would be correct at last. If you wondered why with this level of sophistication and marine technology that country failed to become the world’s greatest colonizer, you would have many of our finest historians for company; it is a puzzle worth examining, even today.
Ushering in what might be called the “golden years” of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Prince of Yan undertook to make China a dominant power in the world of trade, constructing the Grand Canal, making Beiijing the center of power and launching a “Treasure Fleet” laden with trade goods which would open new doors of enterprise with major ports of the Indian Ocean from Sumatra and Ceylon, India and Arabia to the coast of Africa. Much of the emperor’s support came from a highly-esteemed group of court eunuchs whose loyalty and wide-spread influence he rewarded during his reign. Chief among these was his close associate, Zheng He whose enterprising ideas made him the perfect instrument for the Ming resurgence in the age of exploration.
At least one highly respected Professor of History in listing the 24 most important events of modern history heads his list with Zheng’s voyages of 1433, perhaps not so much for what was accomplished by the unprecedented Chinese undertaking, as by the impact it might have had, and the burning question: why was it Columbus who first made contact with the Americas and not the Chinese?
Certainly Zheng He and his fleet possessed the proven capacity to plant a very different “flag” on our shores?
The answer lies in the word “politics”, for in 1449 a new regime dedicated to reversing China’s “shameful” plunge into mercantilism came to power and the treasure fleet was utterly destroyed in favor of withdrawing behind the “safety” of the Great Wall upon whose completion time and treasure would now be focused.
If Admiral Zheng He had been permitted to sail the seas unfettered 600 years ago, we might be speaking Mandarin today.