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Sultan's Lost Treasure

Statue of Zheng He Zheng He (1371-1433), the great Ming navigator.
Ancient Chinese Explorers
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Exploits of the eunuch admiral
Zheng He commemorated his adventures on a stone pillar discovered in Fujian province in the 1930s. His mission, according to the pillar, was to flaunt the might of Chinese power and collect tribute from the "barbarians from beyond the seas." On his first trip, leading more than 60 massive galleons, Zheng He visited what would later become Vietnam and reached the port of Calicut, India. On his return, he battled pirates and established massive warehouses in the Straits of Malacca for sorting all the goods accumulated on this and subsequent voyages.

While voyaging to India, the ships encountered a ferocious hurricane. Zheng He prayed to the Taoist Goddess known as the Celestial Spouse. In response, a "divine light" shone at the tips of the mast, and the storm subsided. This heavenly sign—perhaps the static electrical phenomenon known as St. Elmo's fire—led Zheng He to believe that his missions were under special divine protection.

The emperor launched Zheng He's fourth and most ambitious voyage in January 1414. Its destination was Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, where artisans strung together exquisite pearls and merchants dealt in precious stones and metals. While Zheng He lingered in the city to amass treasure for the emperor, another branch of the fleet sailed to the kingdom of Bengal in present-day Bangladesh.

Here the travelers saw a giraffe that the east African potentate of Malindi had presented to the Bengal ruler. The Chinese persuaded their hosts to part with the giraffe as a gift to the emperor and to procure another like it from Africa. When the giraffe arrived at the court in Nanjing in 1415, the emperor's philosophers identified it, despite its pair of horns, as the fabled chi'i-lin or unicorn, an animal associated with an age of exceptional peace and prosperity. As the fleet's merchants laid treasures from Arabia and India at the feet of the emperor, this omen must surely have seemed fitting.

Compass To navigate throughout the Indian Ocean, Zheng He would have made use of the magnetic compass, invented in China during the Song dynasty.

The initial diplomatic contact with Malindi now encouraged Zheng He to plan a direct trading voyage to eastern Africa. Landing at Somalia on the coast, he found himself offered such exotic items as "dragon saliva, incense, and golden amber." But even these substances paled before the extraordinary beasts that were loaded on board his ships. Lions, leopards, "camel-birds" (ostriches), "celestial horses" (zebras), and a "celestial stag" (oryx), were shipped back to the imperial court. Here officials showered congratulations on Zheng He and bowed low in awe before the divine creatures that accompanied him.

End of an era
Toward the end of his seventh voyage in 1433, the 62-year-old Zheng He died and was said to have been buried at sea. Although he had extended the wealth and power of China over a vast realm and is even today revered as a god in remote parts of Indonesia, the tide was already turning against foreign ventures.

The conservative Confucian faction now had the upper hand. In its worldview, it was improper to go abroad while one's parents were still alive. 'Barbarian' nations were seen as offering little of value to add to the prosperity already present in the Middle Kingdom.

The renovation of the massive Grand Canal in 1411 offered a quicker and safer route for transporting grain than along the coast, so the demand for oceangoing vessels plummeted.

In addition, the threat of a new Mongol invasion drew military investment away from the expensive maintenance of the treasure fleets. By 1503 the navy had shrunk to one tenth of its size in the early Ming. The final blow came in 1525 with the order to destroy all the larger classes of ships. China was now set on its centuries-long course of xenophobic isolation.

Junks at sea Impressive as they are, Chinese junks today are but pale shadows of medieval Chinese ships.
Historians can only speculate on how differently world history might have turned out had the Ming emperors pursued a vigorous colonial policy. As it is, porcelain shards washed up on the beaches of east Africa and old men's folktales of shipwreck are among the few tangible relics of China's epic voyages of adventure.

Evan Hadingham is NOVA's Senior Science Editor.

Further Reading
When China Ruled the Seas. By Louise Levathes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Archaeology and the Social History of Ships. By Richard A. Gould. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

"The Rise and Fall of 15th Century Seapower." By Michael L. Bosworth. See

"1492: The Prequel." By Nicholas D. Kristof. The New York Times, June 6, 1999.

"Chinese Maritime History and Nautical Archaeology: Where Have All the Ships Gone?" By Hans Van Tilburg. See

Photos: (1) Pierre Corrade; (2-4) Courtesy of Instructional Resources Corporation,

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