As I make my way through the old Silk Route, the first and foremost place I decided to visit was Malacca. About 3 hours drive from Singapore, it was an important port along the old Maritime Silk Route until the time the British started to build Singapore as their strategic naval base.
My interest was to know more about Zheng He – the mariner who was known to precede Columbus and inspired Rowan Gavin Paton Menzies to write his book: 1421 – When China Discovered The World. Legend has it that the adventures of Sindbad could most likely be Zheng He’s maritime explorations.
Born in 1371 in Yunnan, as a child Zheng He was named Ma He. His ancestors were Persian Muslims. Both Ma He’s father and his grandfather even made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca.
Ming soldiers are believed to have castrated young Zheng He and killed his father when he was just 10. Zheng He was handed over to be a servant in the household of the emperor’s fourth son, Zhu Di, then 11 years old. In 1402, Zhu Di proclaimed himself Emperor Yongle (Perpetual Happiness). So handsome was Zheng He that Emperor Yongle fell in love with the eunuch and elevated him to the highest order in the palace. He changed Ma’s name to Zheng.
Yongle was determined to control trading in the Indian Ocean. One of his first acts was to commission the construction of 3,500 ships, with Zheng He supervising the construction and then commanding the fleet.
Zheng He’s nine-masted flagship measured about 400 feet Long. In comparison, Christopher Columbus’s Santa Maria measured just 85 feet.
In all, Zheng He undertook 5 voyages before Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424. He made all the way to Hormuz from where He returned with giraffes, zebras, and other items unfamiliar to the Chinese.
He was buried at sea off Malabar Coast near Calicut in India.
The voyages of Zheng He are a favorite topic of world historians today. They show that Chinese ships could have ruled the Indian Ocean for many more years and possibly been able to sail to the Americas. Why didn’t they? What if they had? How different would the world be today?