Extending Culture
Seven Voyages

Briton charts Zheng He's course across globe

In 1992, when Gavin Menzies, a retired British Royal Navy officer, looked at a chart dated 1424, he was amazed.

The chart, made by a Venetian cartographer called Zuane Pizzigano 68 years before Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) sailed to the Caribbean islands, showed several islands in the area which were today's Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe.

Columbus was known to be the discoverer of the islands. So, "who were these master mariners who had discovered and charted these new lands and oceans without leaving any trace of having done so, other than these enigmatic maps?" Menzies asked.

He concluded, after considerable research, that the great mariners were from China. They were part of a great fleet led by Zheng He (1371-1435).

These days, Zheng He has become the talk of the town across China as exhibitions open, books roll off the presses and forums convene to mark the 600th anniversary of his first voyage into the then unchartered Indian ocean, the first by such a major fleet in human history.

Zheng He, a court eunuch of then Emperor Zhu Di (1360-1424), was able to sail the seas with the support and sponsorship of the emperor. The goals of Zheng He's trip were to parade the glory of the Ming Dynasty, find the emperor's enemy, his lost nephew, who was said to have fled overseas, and explore overseas trade, although the latter was a minor priority.

Zheng He's first trip, between 1405 and 1407, had sailed in 62 treasure ships a name given by historians with 27,800 sailors, soldiers, merchants, cooks and even prostitutes.

According to ancient Chinese records, Zheng He's flagship was a staggering 150 yards or so long and 61 yards wide.

The scale of his fleet and the size of his ships was much bigger than those of Vasco da Gama (1469-1525), Columbus and Ferdiand Magellan (1480-1521).

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