Chinese discoverers dwarfed European travels

By Tony Weaver

Think of the great voyages of discovery, and whose names spring to mind? Vasco da Gama, Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus? Ask the Speaker of Parliament, Frene Ginwala, and one name comes to her lips - the Chinese explorer, Zheng He.

Zheng He - you may well ask - who was he?

The answer is was one of the greatest explorers of all time.

Born in 1371 in Kunyang in Yunna Province, he was taken prisoner as a 10-year-old during the Ming Dynasty's conquest of the Mongols, castrated, and made a servant of the man who was to become Emperor Yong Le.

Zheng grew up in a Muslim household.

Both his father and grandfather had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, and his early childhood was rich in stories of travel through wild and often barbarous lands.

He soon became a trusted confidant of the emperor, and he was appointed "Admiral of the Western Seas".

In 1405, at the age of 34, Zheng set out at the head of one of the greatest fleets ever to sail the seas, a fleet that rivalled the Spanish Armada and Japan's Pacific fleet in World War 2. Accounts differ as to how large the ships were, and how many ships there were in the fleet.

Time Magazine's Tim McGirk writes that "more than 300 vessels with some 30 000 men sailed in the first imperial expedition of 1405".

"Zheng He's own ship was a technological marvel: by some accounts it was more than 130m long, almost 60m wide and sailed under the power of nine masts.

"Nobody had ever built a wooden sailing ship that big before, nor have they since."

To put that into perspective, the ship would have been 30m longer and 10m wider than the rugby field at Newlands.

In another, unsigned, account, the fleet is described as having 62 "large" ships, each one nearly "600 feet" - 184 metres - long, and "hundreds of smaller vessels".

Yet another unsigned account which I found on the internet records said that the admiral's great fleet consisted of a variety of ships, including treasure ships that were by far the largest ocean-going vessels up to that time.

"They measured 125 metres in length and 50 metres in width, and had a draught of eight metres. Their maximum displacement was 14 800 tons, and they could carry 7 000 tons of cargo. On their nine masts, a total of 12 sails could be set."

There were "more than 200" ships in this fleet, this account records.

Whichever account is the most accurate, the fleet under sail must have been a sight to inspire awe. One Chinese historian is recorded as saying: "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are spread, they are like great clouds in the sky."

Seven times, this massive fleet set sail. On board they would carry huge tubs of earth in which to grow fresh vegetables and fruit, which indicates that the Chinese knew that vitamin C could cure scurvy long before their European counterparts came to the same conclusion.

On some of the voyages Buddhist monks and Muslim religious leaders sailed, as diplomats to Buddhist and Muslim lands.

On board Zheng's flagship were over 1 000 men. Some of the ships in his fleet were designated as farm ships where livestock was carried to feed the sailors. Smaller boats shuttled back and forth between the fleet and the mainland, ferrying in supplies of fresh water.

Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng travelled to modern day Vietnam, Java, Sumatra, India, Singapore, Malacca, Sri Lanka, Yemen, Somalia and Kenya.

Accounts differ as to whether or not he made the pilgrimage to Mecca, as had his father and grandfather, but it is the Kenyan connection that fascinates Frene Ginwala.

In October 1415, Zheng presented to the Ming emperor a giraffe which was a gift from the "King of Malinda", the ruler of the kingdom of what is present-day Malindi, south of the border with Somalia.

The Chinese declared that the giraffe was a "Ch'I-lin", a special creature that appeared only to those with the "purest of spirit".

There is speculation that Zheng confused the Somali word for giraffe, girin, with the Chinese Ch'I-lin.

Ginwala said: "While in exile I lived in Tanzania for a while, and I read that they had found Persian and Chinese pottery at the port town of Bagamoyo. Then I read about a giraffe which had been presented to the Chinese emperor, and the giraffe, twiga in Swahili, is a very strong symbol for Tanzanians, so I started doing some research, and that led me to the story of Admiral Zheng He.

"I used to fantasise, how did this giraffe get there? I had this mental image of a little giraffe being put in the ship, with a hole in the roof made bigger and bigger as the giraffe grew.

"It was only later that I discovered the sheer scale of those ships, the massive size they were."

Until then, she had always defined the ships of the early explorers in terms of the ships of the European explorers, which were tiny little cockleshells compared to the great behemoths of Zheng.

And that, says Ginwala, is an example of cultural mapping, an example of how South Africans, for instance, "talk past each other" while using the same words, and why we need to find new perspectives on, and of, Africa.

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