The command of the Imperial Ming Armada, the largest navy in medieval history, was given to Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch.
Zheng He (1371 – 1433), one of the greatest admirals and diplomats in world history, who rose from captivity to command, is considered one of the first conquerors of the oceans. With a magnificent fleet of hundreds of ships and thousands of men under his command, he organized successful expeditions to the Pacific and Indian Oceans long before Europeans set out on sea voyages of their own. His expeditions played an exceptional role in spreading the dominion of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), one of the most powerful ruling families in Chinese history, to all of East and Southeast Asia, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and East Africa, increasing its political, economic, and cultural influence, in the development of ocean routes and the establishment of intercontinental trade and diplomatic relations. The Ming Armada made seven voyages to the “Western Ocean” (Indian Ocean), before the Spanish, Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese navies.
China’s superior shipbuilding technology, strong map-making skills and magnetic compass played an important role in those large-scale expeditions. Zheng He’s excellent management skills, strategic thinking, military knowledge and diplomatic acumen also greatly contributed to establishing international cultural, political and economic ties and strategic alliances with the countries he visited, and had a significant impact on shaping the region’s geopolitical and geoeconomic landscape.
The Imperial Chinese Palace historically was one of the main battlegrounds for various ideological groups. Political forces, supported by each dynasty in power in accordance with their own interests, suppressed the forces that had previously dominated the palace. This political struggle traditionally took place between Confucians, Taoists, Legalists, Neo-Confucians, and Buddhists, and formed the core of the philosophical views, bureaucratic system, and public policy of the party that could gain the upper hand. Eunuchs were another major political force with growing influence and authority in the palace. Brought up in the palace from a young age, court eunuchs were considered the most reliable slaves of the ruling family, and due to their closeness to the emperor, as well as members of the ruling family, they were able to rise to very important positions. And, being the leading political forces in the struggle for the Dragon Throne (Chinese emperors were considered demigods, and the dragon was the emblem of divine imperial power, hence the name for the throne), they were able to influence the fate of China’s imperial dynasties for centuries. The number of eunuchs in the Forbidden City (the palace complex in Beijing where the emperor and his family lived) was around 70,000 in the last years of the Ming Dynasty, and only 3,000 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), when the Manchus came to power in China. Zheng He was one of the eunuchs who gained the emperor’s trust and high offices in the palace during the reign of the Ming Dynasty due to his knowledge and skills.
Zheng He’s life story is as painful as it is interesting. His real name was Ma He (the noun “Ma” is used by the Chinese Muslims as a substitute for the name “Muhammad”), and the name Zheng was conferred to him for his service by the Yongle Emperor. He was born in 1371 to a rich Muslim family in Yunnan province in southwest China. When he was 10, Yunnan province, the last remnant of the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368) was captured by the Ming army. Zheng He’s father was killed in the battle for Yunnan between the Mongols and the Chinese, and the boy himself was captured by the Ming army. Then he was castrated (a tradition that has existed in China for 4,000 years) and placed in service of Prince of Yan, the fourth son of the Ming emperor. Zheng He won the trust of the future Yongle Emperor and established close friendship with him, soon gaining a great reputation for his bravery and selflessness in the battles against the Mongols on the northern front. Not only did he master the intricacies of martial arts, but he also studied in Beiping (Beijing) and was able to expand his knowledge in politics, philosophy and literature. The Prince of Yan became the emperor of all China in 1402, seizing power with the military and political support of Zheng He and his comrades-in-arms in the struggle between the princes for the Ming throne.
Like any ambitious ruler of the time, the Yongle Emperor (1402 – 1424) sought to expand the might of the Ming Empire and realized that this mission required dominance not only on land but also at sea. Even the ancient Chinese empires before the Ming Dynasty had shipbuilding industry with the potential and expertise to build large military and commercial ships. Although China’s first navy was established during the ancient Han Empire (206 BCE – 220 CE), the first permanent navy was established only in 1132 by the Song Dynasty (960 – 1279). Song travelers and merchants gained military and economic dominance in the East and South China Seas. Kublai Khan (1260 – 1294), the head of the Mongol Yuan dynasty who ruled China after Song and before Ming, also launched unsuccessful attacks on Japan, Vietnam, and Indonesia with his enormous navy.
Eager to rule the waves again, the Yongle Emperor appointed 35-year-old Zheng Hen to command a fleet equipped with the most advanced weapons and technology of the time. Thus, Zheng He became one of the few eunuchs in world history to rise to the highest rank of admiral.
In the Ming dynasty era, no country in the world could compete with China’s technological superiority in shipbuilding and navigation.
The giant Ming fleet of 317 ships with about 28,000 crewmen set sail for its first voyage in 1405, taking the route used in the times of the Song Dynasty, traveling to Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia, going out into the Indian Ocean and reaching the largest international port city Calcutta (India). After staying in the city for several months for trade purposes, the fleet left the port with a resupply of the necessary products. On the return voyage, Zheng He defeated the pirates who isolated the Malay Peninsula from the island of Sumatra and controlled the Malaccan Strait, a major geostrategic point between the Pacific and Indian Oceans, in the battle at Palembang (1407), not only ensuring the safety of the sea routes, but also gaining the support and respect of the local population.
The purpose of these expeditions was to demonstrate China’s power, to ensure the safety of sea routes, to remove obstacles to the development of trade routes, and to obtain the resources and products that the Ming Empire needed. Pirates posed a great threat to merchant ships and routes at the time, in particular, Japanese pirates (wokou) attacked and looted port cities in China and Korea. Smuggling was also widespread in the region. Thus, the Ming fleet also acted as the law enforcement of the region. Moreover, a large number of Chinese migrants moved from China’s coastal provinces to Southeast Asia to establish their colonies.
Note that 62 out of those 317 ships were intended for the rules of the countries the fleet traveled to. They were filled with gifts to demonstrate the wealth of the Ming Emperor (tea, silk, porcelain, jewelry, manuscripts and calligraphy, gemstones, etc.).
Apart from the soldiers (infantry and cavalry) and sailors, the ships usually also carried officials representing the Empire’s interests, merchants, astrologists, interpreters, missionaries, chroniclers, accountants, doctors, carpenters, cooks, cartographers (map-makers) and botanists (to study the fauna and flora of the foreign countries). Because of this, the Ming fleet was dubbed the “floating city”. If any of the crewmen suffered financial or physical damage during voyage, a compensation was to be paid to the injured party or to their family. As peaceful as the Ming Armada may have seemed, the number of warships in the fleet exceeded that of the greatest navy in history, the “Invincible Armada” of the Spanish Empire (the famous fleet defeated by the English fleet in the English Channel in 1588). In fact, the total number of the ships (130) in the Spanish Armada that went into battle was 2.5 times smaller than that number of the ships (317) in the first expedition of the Ming fleet.
During the third expedition (1409), Zheng He confronted Alagonakkara, the ruler of the Kotte Kingdom on the island of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), took him and his family captive and brought him back with him to the capital of the Chinese Empire Nanjing (Nanking). Alagonakkara was set free after pledging a vassal’s allegiance to the emperor and promising to pay the contribution.
Zheng He’s fourth sea voyage (1412) was his largest expedition. The fleet traveled first to Hormuz and the Persian Gulf, from where it headed for the ports on the coasts of Arabia, Egypt, Somalia and Kenya. Going southward, the fleet ended its voyage in the Mozambique Channel, the longest channel in the world, situated between Mozambique in Africa and the island of Madagascar. On the way back, Zheng He lent political and military assistance to the legitimate sultan of the Samudera Pasai Sultanate on the north coast of Sumatra, who had been overthrown by a revolt, and the sultanate became a protectorate of the Ming Empire.
This time envoys and officials from dozens of countries joined the expedition with valuable gifts for the Yongle Emperor and demonstrate their loyalty to him in exchange for military support and trade privileges. Zheng He’s faith and profound familiarity with the Islamic values helped him establish relations with Arab and Muslim countries and gain allies for the empire. On the other hand, all obstacles to stability and trade in the region (piracy, smuggling, internal clashes in the fight for power, conflicts among local tribes, etc.) were eliminated, albeit by force.
The fifth and the sixth voyages that took place in 1417 and 1422 took the fleet along the already familiar routes to get the heads of state, diplomats, merchants and other specialists previously brought to China back to their respective homelands. During the sixth expedition, Zheng He gave the fleet the mission to explore the African coast and returned to China with a small group.
Coming back from the shores of Southeast Asian countries, India, Arabia, Persia, Egypt and East Africa, the Ming fleet would bring exotic gifts for the emperor: animals never before seen in the East (zebra, giraffe, lion, peacock, ostrich and so on) and ornaments made of ivory and rhino horns. These and similar gifts and goods brought from other civilizations increased the fleet’s financial gain, as well as its prestige and might.
For the first time in history, a vast territory from the Far East to the coast of East Africa came under the political and economic control of a single imperial power, and as a result, the historical “Sea Silk Road” that existed since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) developed, resulting in the creation of a single economic zone.
After the death of Emperor Yongle in 1424, his successor, the Hongxi Emperor (1424 – 1425), banned naval expeditions. Although all internal naval decisions were made by Zheng He alone, after Yongle’s death, under the political pressure and attacks of Confucian scholars (mostly Confucians who advocated stability and agrarian society, opposed the organization of risky and costly expeditions organized by eunuchs, their main political rivals in the palace), eunuchs’ positions in the palace were weakened and they were gradually edged out of the administrative decision-making. However, after the sudden death of the Hongxi Emperor, his successor, the Xuande Emperor (1426 – 1435), allowed Zheng He to set out on a new voyage, continuing the foreign policy of his grandfather Yongle.
Starting on his seventh and last voyage in 1431, Zheng He visited port cities of Asia and Africa again. According to a legend, Zheng He separated from the fleet with a small group and went to Mecca for Hajj. The great admiral died on his way back from his last voyage in 1433 and was buried at sea (the information about his death and burial is controversial). Although the exact location of his grave remains unknown, shrines were erected in his honor not only in China but also in a number of Southeast Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The day Zheng He set out on his first voyage in 1405, July 11, is celebrated annually as China’s National Maritime Day.
Unfortunately, due to the destruction of the official palace records concerning the fleet, the lack of accurate information about Zheng He and his expeditions caused various legends about him to appear and spread. These included the legends of the Ming Armada going round the Cape of Good Hope and out into the Atlantic Ocean and the discovery of the Americas half a century before Christopher Columbus, reaching the northern territories of Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica, preaching of Islam and the construction of mosques by Zheng He and Muslims from his inner circle in the lands they visited.
After the deaths of the Yongle Emperor and Admiral Zheng He, the navy went into a decline. The Chinese Empire was gradually embarking on a policy of isolation from the world. At the same time, the government was spending the fleet’s budget on costly projects such as strengthening the Northern Front, building a new capital, Beijing, and the restoration of the Great Wall of China. The relocation of the Ming capital from Nanjing in the delta of the Yangtze River (the longest river in Asia) to the landlocked city of Beijing and the restoration and re-commissioning of the Grand Canal (the world’s largest man-made canal connecting the Yellow River and the Yangtze River), also dealt a blow to China’s maritime traditions. Hundreds of ships, documents and maps of the voyages were burned and otherwise destroyed due to the indifference of the later emperors, concerns over the navy’s glory, and envy of Zheng He’s legendary personality.
China would come to painfully regret the loss of its sea power during the Opium Wars with the British Empire in the 19th century.
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