Age of Discovery
Zheng He commanded several treasure fleets – Chinese ships that explored and traded across Asia and Africa. His expeditions greatly expanded China’s trade.
Zheng He, also known by the names Ma He and Ma Sanbao, was born around 1371 in Yunnan province in China. He was the second-oldest son of a devout Chinese Muslim family; the family name “Ma” was derived from the Chinese rendition of the name Muhammed. Zheng He’s family claimed to have been related to an officer that served in the army of Genghis Khan.
In 1381, Zheng He was captured and forced to serve as a eunuch in the emperor’s court. By 1390, he had distinguished himself as an accomplished soldier, skilled in war and diplomacy. Because of his skills, the emperor conferred a new name for Ma He – Zheng He.
In 1403, the new emperor, Zhu Di, ordered the construction of the Treasure Fleet – a fleet of trading ships, warships and support vessels that would travel across the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. This was a big change for the Chinese empire; before 1403, China’s isolationist policies had forbidden foreign travel and trade. Zheng He took seven voyages as commander of the Treasure Fleet:
First voyage (1405-1407) – Zheng He was made commander of the Treasure Fleet and set sail for Calicut to purchase spices such as cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric and pepper. The fleet traveled to Champa (southern Vietnam), Siam (Thailand), Malacca, and Java, through the Indian Ocean, and on to Calicut. On the return trip to China, the fleet stopped at Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Second voyage (1408-1409) – The fleet traveled again to Calicut, Kochi and Siam (Thailand).
Third voyage (1409-1411) – Zheng He and the fleet sailed from China toward the Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, passing Champa (southern Vietnam) and Sumatra. In Champa, they traded with the native populations for ebony, lakawood, and aloewood in exchange for Chinese porcelain and silk.
Fourth voyage (1413-1415) – The emperor ordered the largest Treasure Fleet expedition yet assembled. It included 63 vessels and 28,560 men. The fleet traveled to India, Sumatra and then to Hormuz where they obtained sapphires, rubies, topaz, coral beads, amber, woolens, and beautiful carpets. On the return voyage, Zheng He brought envoys from nineteen countries as tribute to the emperor.
Fifth Voyage (1417-1419) – The emperor ordered Zheng He to return the envoys back to their home countries. During this voyage, the fleet stopped in Champa, Java, Sumatra, Malacca, the Maldive Islands, Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Cochin, and Calicut. From there, the fleet ventured through Hormuz to Aden on the southern coast of Arabia near the entrance of the Red Sea. In Aden, Zheng He bartered gold, silver, porcelains, sandalwood and pepper for rare gems, pearls, coral amber and a giraffe. The giraffe was given as a tribute to the emperor. The fleet also traveled the eastern coast of Africa, returning envoys to Mogadishu, Brawa, and Malindi.
Sixth Voyage (1421) – Zheng He and the fleet returned the remaining envoys to their home countries. This was Zheng He’s shortest voyage. In 1424, the emperor died and his successor suspended all expeditions.
Seventh Voyage (1431-1433) – Zheng He’s last mission was to “explore the distant lands beyond the seas,” and beyond the realm of the emperor. The fleet traveled to Champa, Java, Sumatra, Malacca on the Malay Peninsula, finally arriving in Calicut. When the fleet split into two groups, Zheng He stayed in Calicut due to failing health. Zheng He died in 1433. Historians are split on whether he died in Calicut or on the return voyage to China, where he would have been buried at sea.
Zheng He commanded of one of the largest fleets to explore various regions of the world. As requested by his emperor, he established Chinese trading relationships with regions of Southeast Asia, India, Arabia and Africa.