Admiral Zheng He (aka Cheng Ho, c. 1371-1433 CE) was a Chinese Muslim eunuch explorer who was sent by the Ming dynasty emperor Yongle (r. 1403-1424 CE) on seven diplomatic missions to increase trade and secure tribute from foreign powers. Between 1405 and 1433 CE Zheng He commanded huge fleets loaded with trade goods and high-value gifts to such far-flung places as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf and Mogadishu in East Africa.
Following established sea routes but often finding himself the first ever Chinaman to land at many of his destinations, Zheng He is widely regarded as the greatest ever Chinese explorer. His travels may not have brought much success in terms of new trade or lasting tribute to the imperial court but the knowledge, ideas, and exotic goods he brought back home – from jewels to giraffes – created an interest in foreign countries and a realisation of their wealth which contributed to China’s increased role in world trade in later centuries. Even if his wake was not immediately followed, Zheng He had shown the way.
The first three voyages of Zheng He (1404, 1408 and 1409 CE) followed more established trade routes. He went via Southeast Asia, sailing down the coast of Vietnam, stopping at Sumatra and Java and then on through the Malay Archipelago and through the Straits of Malacca, crossing the eastern Indian Ocean to reach India and Sri Lanka. Zheng He’s fourth voyage in 1413 CE saw him sail to India again, once more pushing on around the southern tip of the subcontinent and visiting again Cochin and Calicut on the west coast. This time he also found time to stop off at the Maldive Islands, before crossing the Arabian Sea and reaching Hormuz on the Persian Gulf. Sailing down the coast of Arabia, he then went on to Aden and up the Red Sea to Jeddah, from where a party travelled to Mecca. A report states that 19 foreign rulers sent tributes and diplomatic missions to the emperor as a consequence of this fourth voyage.
Voyages five, six, and seven (1417, 1421, and 1431 CE) reached even further afield, landing at Mogadishu, Malindi, and Mombassa, all on the coast of East Africa. Zheng He is the first attested Chinese to visit the Swahili coast. The ruler of Mogadishu was responsive and did send an embassy to Yongle, and even distant Zanzibar was reached by Zheng He’s fleet.
Zheng He, like many great explorers before and since, died in the middle of an expedition, his seventh voyage. The great admiral died in Calicut in 1433 CE, and his body was returned to China for burial in Nanjing.
Cartwright, M. (2019, February 07). The Seven Voyages of Zheng He. Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/article/1334/