Sunday, 23 March 2008

Chinas' Heroic Navigator Zheng He

Just returned from a month in China and for some reason was unable to access this blog whilst there.

One of my reasons for going was to visit the Zheng He museums in Nanjing, where this incredible navigator spent much of his time dealing with the emperor of the day(Nanjing was the capital back then) and where the shipyard was located in which 200 ships were built by 35,000 craftsmen/shipbuilders over two years.

These were no ordinary ships in that they ranged in length from 60 metres to more than 100 metres! They were constructed entirely from timber and used the principle of bamboo compartments so that each vessel was made up of several watertight compartments so they wouldn't sink - very clever idea and light years ahead of European shipbuilding at that time.

Zheng He was a huge man standing well over 2 metres in height(he was in all probability a eunuch) and was a voyager, navigator, explorer, diplomat and ambassador all rolled into one.

He made seven epic voyages from 1405 as far south as Indonesia, to Malaysia, Burma, Ceylon, India and as far west as the east coast of Africa. His main purpose was to open up trade routes as opposed to conquering and making war. Each voyage consisted of twenty or so vessels, the largest at sixty metres being the flagship and of course the one he travelled in. There were separate ships for water, rice, horses, troops and gardens for vegetables, and even one on each trip carrying emissiaries and concubines to entertain foreign luminaries.

It is even suggested that he may have touched the northern coast of Australia and the west coast of America. He certainly made his last voyage ninety odd years before Columbus reached Americas' east coast and one hundred and two years before Magellan rounded Cape Horn and sailed into the Pacific.

Unfortunately, the Emperor decided it was costing too much money and did not want to open China up to the world - he turned in on himself, his country into isolation and ordered a halt to the voyages and the destruction of all the ships. So, a great historical odyssey was lost to the world. Zheng He died shortly afterward.

Fortunately, some charts had been preserved and some outline plans of the ships, from which a full sized replica of a sixty metre version has been constructed in conjunction with the Swedish Gotheborg3 Tall Ship Society. She is lying in the grounds of the ancient shipyard in Nanjing and can be visited for 50 yuan(about $7.00). It is fascinating to follow his voyages along a massive wall on which they are carved in stone in a continuous line. There is also a large bronze statue, a compass and a massive four tonne grapnel style anchor made out of iron dotted around the yard.

One can only marvel, imagining all the activity and noise there must have been whilst building all of his ships and what the world would be shaped like today if the Ming emperor had continued and expanded the work of Zheng He.

Some other sites you can look at are:

Zheng He's voyages of discovery - UCLA International Institute

Of course if you become fascinated by this giant of history there are many other sites to follow up.

You can read more of Zheng He's exploits in my ebook 'Voyage of the Little Ship 'Tere Moana' by visiting my website

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