This post has taken me some time to get to. I like to have a comfort level, based on research and familiarity, with a subject before I write about it. If I’m honest, I’m still not quite comfortable with the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He who more than one Western historian has compared to Horatio Lord Nelson.
Zheng He was born Ma He in Yunnan province around the year 1370. His grandfather three times removed was from Persia and the family continued practice Islam. Having come to China with the Mongol chiefs, Grandpa became an administrator under their regime. He was appointed Governor of Yunnan under the Yuan Dynasty. This made Zheng He’s family a well respected group in their province but, by the time of Zheng He’s birth, attitudes were starting to change. A Muslim Mongol named Basalawarmi rebelled against the rising Ming Dynasty and it may be that Zheng He’s father got caught up in the rebellion.
Though I could find no sources that specifically refer to the senior He taking up arms against the Ming Emperor, most agree that he “was killed” when Zheng was 10 or 11 years old. At that time the Basalawarmi rebellion was quelled, Zheng was taken by the Ming troops to the Imperial Court, made a eunuch and renamed San Bao. If that doesn’t smack of revenge against an upstart family I don’t know what does. But I stress that this is purely my own speculation.
San Bao must have taken to courtly politics like a fish to water. Over the course of the next forty years he steadily rose in rank through shrewd interactions with successive Ming Emperors. In 1403 he assisted in a successful plot that deposed Emperor Jianwen and put Yongle on the throne. At this point, the name Zheng He rather than San Bao begins appearing in court records, leading some historians to believe that He’s family name was restored to him by the new Emperor in gratitude for his service. In 1424 Emperor Jongxi named him Defender of Nanjing and three years later he completed the construction of a sprawling Buddhist temple in that city in honor of Emperor Xuande. In 1430, Zheng He was chosen as Admiral of the Ming government’s well-established and gigantic “treasure fleet”. He would travel the world in the Emperor’s service until his death at sea in 1433.
The Ming Emperor’s began sending naval expeditions to the Indian Ocean’s coasts in 1405. The idea was not only to establish a colonial presence but to open up trade routes and subdue piracy, which was rampant in the area and still is to this day. Some historians believe the missions were also instituted for rounding up slaves and for establishing a system of tribute from the chieftains and kings along the coasts. By 1430 the process was well established, and even infamous, but Zheng He managed to bring something new to the venture.
According to various accounts the treasure fleet was massive with hundreds of ships, thousands of men and animals and room for cargo to spare. Accounts by Medieval eye witnesses Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (who saw the ships Admiral He commanded) tell of nine and twelve masted ships as long as football fields that could hold upwards of 500 people in private cabins complete with windows, balconies and bathrooms. These Princess Cruise liners of Medieval China are a large point of debate. Since there is no physical evidence of ships that size from the period, no one can say with certainty just how large the ships were. The difficulty of building wooden ships to the specifications mentioned above cannot be stressed enough. Then, too, there is the fact that both memoirists were prone to exaggeration, not out of malice or yellow journalism but simply because they were truly in awe of the culture they were writing about.
Whatever the size and configuration of his flotilla, it is clear the Zheng He took it further afield than any Admiral before him. He certainly touched at Java, Malacca, Sumatra, Calicut, the Arabian Peninsula and Ceylon with other stops on the eastern coast of Africa possible. Some sources assert that he and his men ventured inland as far as modern day Iraq and Iran with even fewer writers maintaining the Zheng He’s treasure fleet rounded the Cape of Good Hope and pressed into the Atlantic. Just how far He and his ships went in the years he commanded the fleet is up for debate. What is not in question is He’s martial skill. His documented stops fell under Chinese rule before he left and he always deposited colonists and administrators in his wake to make sure that things stayed that way.
In the summer of 1433, as his ships approached the Strait of Hormuz, Zheng He fell ill. He died aboard ship and most scholars agree that he was buried at sea. Despite this a tomb was erected for the great Admiral in the city of Nanjing. A museum has been built next to it, and He’s personal possessions are on display. July 11th is Maritime Day in China and is dedicated to the memory of Zheng He’s seafaring success.
Some scholars now claim that Zheng He commanded all seven of the great voyages of the Ming treasure fleets. This would mean that the Admiral was on the water almost continuously from 1405 until his death. Whether or not this conflicts with the records of He’s service to various Ming Emperors is another debate all together.
What interests me most about the story of Admiral Zheng He has to do with his background and standing. First, there is very little documentation of seafaring experience prior to He taking up his command at the behest of the Emperor. Unlike so many life-long sailors, He comes across as more of a soldier. Second, his position at court as a eunuch would have conflicted with the position of command required for an Admiral. It seems to me that something has been left out of Zheng He’s story, and that is tantalizing indeed.
It also seems to me that Zheng He is perhaps incorrectly compared to Nelson. A closer look puts him squarely in the realm of another soldier-turned-seaman whose land based conquests far outstripped his seafaring capabilities: Henry Morgan. But then I’m rather partial to buccaneers and, given Zheng He’s attempts to destroy piracy maybe that’s a bad comparison.