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Cheng Ho

The Famous Chinese Eunuch Admiral-Explorer of the 15th Century

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Decades before Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in search of a water route to Asia, the Chinese were exploring the Indian Ocean and Western Pacific with seven voyages of the "Treasure Fleet" that solidified Chinese control over much of Asia in the 15th century.

The Treasure Fleets were commanded by a powerful eunuch admiral named Cheng Ho. Cheng Ho was born around 1371 in China's southwestern Yunan Province (just north of Laos) with the name Ma Ho. Ma Ho's father was a Muslim hajji (who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and the family name of Ma was used by Muslims in representation of the word Mohammed.

When Ma Ho was ten years old (around 1381), he was captured along with other children when the Chinese army invaded Yunan to take control over the region. At the age of 13 he was castrated, as were other young prisoners, and he was placed as a servant in the household of the Chinese Emperor's fourth son (out of twenty-six total sons), Prince Zhu Di.

Ma Ho proved himself to be an exceptional servant to Prince Zhu Di. He became skilled in the arts of war and diplomacy and served as an officer of the prince. Zhu Di renamed Ma Ho as Cheng Ho because the eunuch's horse was killed in battle outside of a place called Zhenglunba. (Cheng Ho is also Zheng He in the newer Pinyin transliteration of Chinese but he's still most commonly called Cheng Ho). Cheng Ho was also known as San Bao which means "three jewels."

Cheng Ho, who was said to have been seven feet tall, was given greater power when Zhu Di became emperor in 1402. One year later, Zhu Di appointed Cheng Ho admiral and ordered him to oversee the construction of a Treasure Fleet to explore the seas surrounding China. Admiral Cheng Ho was the first eunuch appointed to such a high military position in China.

 

First Voyage (1405-1407)

The first Treasure Fleet consisted of 62 ships; four were huge wood boats, some of the largest ever built in history. They were approximately 400 feet (122 meters) long and 160 feet (50 meters) wide. The four were the flagships of the fleet of 62 ships assembled at Nanjing along the Yangtze (Chang) River. Included in the fleet were 339-foot (103-meter) long horse ships that carried nothing but horses, water ships that carried fresh water for the crew, troop transports, supply ships, and war ships for offensive and defensive needs. The ships were filled with thousands of tons of Chinese goods to trade with others during the voyage. In the fall of 1405 the fleet was ready to embark with 27,800 men.

The fleet utilized the compass, invented in China in the 11th century, for navigation. Graduated sticks of incense were burned to measure time. One day was equal to 10 "watches" of 2.4 hours each. Chinese navigators determine latitude through monitoring the North Star (Polaris) in the Northern Hemisphere or the Southern Cross in the Southern Hemisphere. The ships of the Treasure Fleet communicated with one another through the use of flags, lanterns, bells, carrier pigeons, gongs, and banners.

The destination of the first voyage of the Treasure Fleet was Calicut, known as a major trading center on the southwestern coast of India. India was initially "discovered" by Chinese overland explorer Hsuan-Tsang in the seventh century. The fleet stopped in Vietnam, Java, and Malacca, and then headed west across the Indian Ocean to Sri Lanka and Calicut and Cochin (cities on the southwest coast of India). They remained in India to barter and trade from late 1406 to the spring of 1407 when they utilized the monsoon shift to sail toward home. On the return voyage, the Treasure Fleet was forced to battle pirates near Sumatra for several months. Eventually Cheng Ho's men managed to capture the pirate leader and take him to the Chinese capital Nanjing, arriving in 1407.

 

Second Voyage (1407-1409)

A second voyage of the Treasure Fleet departed on a return trip to India in 1407 but Cheng Ho did not command this voyage. He remained in China to oversee the repair of a temple at the birthplace of a favorite goddess. The Chinese envoys on board helped to ensure the power of a king of Calicut. The fleet returned in 1409.

 

Third Voyage (1409-1411)

The fleet's third voyage (Cheng Ho's second) from 1409 to 1411 consisted of 48 ships and 30,000 men. It followed closely the route of the first voyage but the Treasure Fleet established entrepots (warehouses) and stockades along their route to facilitate trade and storage of goods. On the second voyage the King of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) was aggressive; Cheng Ho defeated the king's forces and captured the king to take him to Nanjing.

 

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