Zheng He was a Muslim eunuch who served as a close confidant of the Yongle Emperor of China during the Ming Dynasty. He went on voyages to Southeast Asia, Sumatra, Java, Ceylon, India, Persia, Persian Gulf, Arabia, the red sea Egypt, and the Mozambique Channel. The number of his voyages vary depending on method of division, but he travelled at least seven times to The Western Ocean with his fleet. The fleet comprised 30,000 men and seventy ships at its height. He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from more than thirty kingdoms including King Alagonakkara of Ceylon, who came to China to apologize to the Emperor. Life magazine ranked Zheng He the 14th most important person of the last millennium.
In 1405, Zheng was chosen to lead the biggest naval expedition in history up to that time. Over the next 28 years (1405-1433), he commanded seven fleets that visited 37 countries, through Southeast Asia to faraway Africa and Arabia. In those years, China had by far the biggest ships of the time. In 1420 the Ming navy dwarfed the combined navies of Europe. A great fleet of big ships, with nine masts and manned by 500 men, each set sail in July 1405, half a century before Columbus’s voyage to America. There were great treasure ships over 300-feet long and 150-feet wide, the biggest being 440-feet long and 186-across, capable of carrying 1,000 passengers. Most of the ships were built at the Dragon Bay shipyard near Nanjing, the remains of which can still be seen today.
Zheng He’s first fleet included 27,870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists. On board were large quantities of cargo including silk goods, porcelain, gold and silverware, copper utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. The fleet sailed along China’s coast to Champa close to Vietnam and, after crossing the South China Sea, visited Java, Sumatra and reached Sri Lanka by passing through the Strait of Malacca. On the way back it sailed along the west coast of India and returned home in 1407. Envoys from Calicut in India and several countries in Asia and the Middle East also boarded the ships to pay visits to China. Zheng He’s second and third voyages taken shortly after, followed roughly the same route.
In the fall of 1413, Zheng He set out with 30,000 men to Arabia on his fourth and most ambitious voyage. From Hormuz he coasted around the Arabian boot to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea. The arrival of the fleet caused a sensation in the region, and 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He’s ships with gifts for Emperor Yong Le. In 1417, after two years in Nanjing and touring other cities, the foreign envoys were escorted home by Zheng He. On this trip, he sailed down the east coast of Africa, stopping at Mogadishu, Matindi, Mombassa and Zanzibar and may have reached Mozambique. The sixth voyage in 1421 also went to the African coast. Emperor Yong Le died in 1424 shortly after Zheng He’s return. Yet, in 1430 the admiral was sent on a final seventh voyage. Now 60 years old, Zheng He revisited the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea and Africa and died on his way back in 1433 in India.