Zheng He is frequently referred to as the Chinese Columbus and today he has become the personification of maritime endeavour for China. I am personally not fond of this comparison between Zheng He and Columbus, no way Zheng He was much cooler they shouldn’t even be compared. They are not on the same level in terms of their maritime adventures. Really to me calling Zheng He the Chinese Columbus actually dims his shine.
Three-quarters of a century before Columbus crossed the Atlantic, Zheng He had begun his journey with the kind of resources at his disposal that make Columbus look like an amateur. While Columbus had only 3 ships for his voyage, Zheng He had 62 galleons. We can’t also forget that Chinese ships from those days were usually equipped with multiple decks, they were so huge that they could not sail on low waters necessitating the need to change ships when travelling to places with shallow waters.
With that size in mind you can only imagine just how many people were travelling with Zheng He. His crew included translators and interpreters and quite a few of them were Muslim due to the fact that they knew they would be travelling to lands with sizeable Muslim populations thus, mullahs and other Chinese Muslims such as Ma Huan were part of Zheng He’s crew.
At that time, wealthy coastal East African towns had increased their importation of Chinese wares such as porcelain as the usual supply of pottery from the Middle East was unsettled by the 13th century Mongol invasion of the Middle East. By the 14th century porcelain from China was used in almost every important coastal settlement and were slowly edging Islamic goods out of the market.
Zheng He’s 4th expedition was not destined to sail to the African coast in 1414. Originally it was headed for the Gulf. The interest in Africa was a matter of pure chance and was due to some of Zheng He’s crew discovering a giraffe in Bengal.
While taking a break in India, one of Zheng He’s junior eunuchs took a unit to Bengal where he was surprised and fascinated by a giraffe that was recently brought to the Bengali kingdom by envoys from Malindi. There was a lot of excitement because the giraffe was taken for a unicorn by the ancient Chinese. Zheng He’s crew was able to persuade the Bengali king to part with his animal and it was shipped off to the Chinese emperor as a present from Bengal. They also managed to persuade the Malindi envoys to go back home for a second giraffe which they would ferry to a suitable rendezvous point somewhere on the Gulf or the coast of India before the giraffe would be brought to one of the ships of Zheng He’s fleet dedicated only to animals. Thus by October 1415, a giraffe arrived in Peking with Malindi ambassadors beside it.
|Qing dynasty copy by Chen Zhang of a Ming dynasty silk scroll painting by Shen Du titled "Tribute giraffe from Bengal"|
As during 1416, Zheng He had returned from his latest round of voyages and was China, he was instructed to escort these men from Mogadishu and Brava back to their home and to bestow rewards on their rulers. This would be the first formal visit backed by the Chinese government to Africa and this happened 450 years before the first Chinese envoys reached Europe.
From information limited to written Chinese records, for most of the time, Zheng He and his crew were in the northern end of the East African coast. They visited Mogadishu, Brava and even a settlement called Zhubu which is thought to have lain near the Juba River near the Kenyan border. They entered into relations with ‘Sumalier’ (different Somali nomads from the hinterland). However, this may not account for the full extent of Zheng He’s activity in East Africa.
There are several suggestions that some ships may have gone southwards. A nautical chart generally agreed to have been used by navigators from Zheng He’s crew in either the 6th or 7th voyage shows a long strip of the African coastline scattered with place names. While some of these names are ambiguous others are transcribed from local languages while others can be identified easily. Some of the places mentioned include Mombasa, the Mafia Island off southern Tanzania and the Quitangonha Island off northern Tanzania.
In 1459, a Venetian by the name of Fra Mauro prepared a map for the Portuguese court. This map contained a footnote based on information supplied by an unidentified traveller about a ship from the Indies which in 1420 sailed 2000 miles to the west and south-west of capes Sofala, in Mozambique and Diab in Madagascar before terrible weather drove it back causing the crew to land in Madagascar.
It is entirely possible that a squadron of Zheng He’s crew tempted by the chance of exploration edged past the southern tip of Africa and moved into the south Atlantic. After all, it has also been suggested that Zheng He’s fleet reached the Americas!
Written records of the voyages give us a glimpse of how life was in 15th century East African towns. Fei Xin a man who had been drafted into military service unwillingly and had travelled with Zheng He’s fleet but not as far as East Africa. Fei Xin spoke with other Chinese shipmates who did travel that far and in his memoir described the Somali coast as they saw it. There were houses of “heaped up stones” with “kitchens’, lavatories and reception rooms all on the upper floors”. The place had barren fields and few crops but very deep wells, the community made its living catching fish. While the men of Brava wore short jackets and a hanging cloth around their waists, the women wore gold earrings.
While small settlements are described as pure and simple, other metropolitan, prosperous and more socially complex cities like Mogadishu were hostile with unruly customs.
It has been suggested that to the Chinese, the fact that the African coastal states were welcoming and accommodating was equivalent to them paying the Ming emperor homage that they owed him as sovereign of the world. An interesting question would be; how did the Africans view the Chinese who arrived on their shores. A single Chinese squadron had about 10 or 12 Treasure Ships which were packed with thousands of heavily armed and exotic-looking (to the Africans) men.
The language barrier was quite complicated as a double translation was required, first from Chinese to Arabic then to Swahili or Somali depending on which part of the East African coasts they were on. Still communication did take place and we know how hospitable the Africans were.
There seems to always be this need to compare Zheng He and his fleet to the Europeans who arrived on African shores about 70 years after them. Of course there is the usual reiteration that the Chinese were peaceful, non-aggressive travellers not interested in colonising as opposed to Europeans regardless of the fact that the Chinese travellers travelled in thousands and were heavily armed. Zheng He’s voyage on behalf of the Chinese empire is still called upon today in modern Sino-African relations to show that the Chinese government has no intention of “neo-colonising” the African continent.
It has been argued that all the Chinese sought then was an expression of symbolic acquiescence to the Chinese view of the world in which China was the most important empire in the world and the Chinese emperor was the ultimate sovereign which other countries had to bow down to. Apparently the Chinese were accepted by the Africans because they “treated a weak and strange people with courtesy and restraint”. Obviously I do not agree with this! I wonder why it has become accepted that for any country to have come in contact with Africa in the past, colonialism or colonial intent must have been involved in one way or the other. Needless to say I do not agree with this steady comparison of European and Chinese actions in 15th century Africa. No, I do not accept European worldview as a default so I honestly do not care.
The craziest thing I’ve heard is that “the impoverished Europeans of the early Renaissance preyed on Africa because they approached it on something like equal terms” while apparently “the Chinese would never have concerned themselves with African beliefs because the Africans, like all non-Chinese were barbarians and extensive contact with barbarians was neither desirable or necessary”. I still do not understand this kind of reasoning. The conclusion seemed to be that Zheng He and his captains were looking down on the Africans from a very elevated position that they would never have thought of disrupting the flow of African life by imposing cultures on them. I do not know whether to be offended or not.
What I read
Snow Philip (1988), The Star Raft: China’s Encounter with Africa