Archaeologists excavating early Ming dynasty tombs in China sometimes find small gold ingots. They are generally stamped with Chinese characters that describe the precious metal as having been come from the “Western Ocean”. This was the Ming name for the Indian Ocean, and they date from a time when China engaged in oceanic exploration, sending out large fleets to explore the world around her. Like so much of early Chinese activity, they were doing this before the great voyages of exploration carried out by European powers.
China did have a maritime tradition before the first Ming voyage set sail. She had an active coastal trade, and some sea-borne commerce with the spice islands of Indonesia. Her Mongol rulers (the dynasty before the Ming) built huge fleets to carry their army across the narrow sea in the two unsuccessful attempts they made to invade Japan in 1274 and 1281. But the expeditions of the early Ming dynasty would be much more ambitious.
There were seven Ming voyages, carried out between 1405 and 1433, all under the command of Admiral Zheng He. The admiral was a palace eunuch and confidante of the Emperor, who spoke fluent Arabic. He had been captured as a child from a Muslim family, and subsequently castrated. The voyages themselves were designed to be impressive projections of Chinese power - what we might describe today as ‘shock and awe.’ They were very large expeditions indeed. Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492 with three small ships. Zheng He’s first fleet in 1405 had 317 ships and twenty eight thousand men. Onboard were merchants and diplomats to negotiate with the powers they encountered, together with examples of the principle benefits of Chinese civilisation, in the form of lavish gifts of silk, jade and porcelain. There were also a considerable number of soldiers who travelled with the fleet, to act as a mailed fist within the silk glove of Chinese friendship, should they be needed.
The seven voyages travelled deep into South Asia, visiting Sri Lanka, India, the Arabian Peninsula, the Persian Gulf and eventually the east coast of Africa. Wherever they came, if all went well, they concluded trade agreements, collected ambassadors to bring back to China, and made the local rulers acknowledge the Chinese Emperor. On occasion, if the ruler proved reluctant to do so, the expedition’s large body of soldiers disembarked, which usually produced a swift change of heart. Occasionally a sharper lesson had to be administered. King Vira Alakeshwara of Sri Lanka was foolish enough to resist Admiral Zheng He. His state was invaded, his capital captured, and he himself was taken back to China in chains to personally kowtow before the Emperor.
The expeditions returned to China with a much enhanced knowledge of the outside world, as well as the various ambassadors, lucrative trade agreements, and cultural items collected along the way. Most celebrated amongst these was a live, full-sized giraffe brought from Africa, which was particularly welcomed by the Emperor. This was because of its resemblance to a mythical Chinese beast that was said to only appear during the most propitious reigns.
The voyages were very much the pet project of the Yongle Emperor, and with his death they lost their chief sponsor. After this brief flowering of interest in the outside world, subsequent Ming emperors became inward looking, building their Great Wall, and retreating behind it. With hindsight this seems to have been a lost opportunity for China. The disappearance of the Ming fleets left a nautical power vacuum in the seas of Southern Asia, into which the newly emerging naval powers of Europe would soon expand. The last Ming fleet returned home in 1433. Fifty years later, the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias became the first European to round the Cape of Good Hope and sail into the Indian Ocean. It would be his fellow Europeans, and not that Chinese, that would dominate these waters for the next four hundred years.