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The african voyages of zheng he (1405-33)

Publishing Date : 03 September, 2018

JEFF RAMSAY
BUILDERS OF BOTSWANA



With the Forum of Africa China Cooperation ongoing, one is reminded of the fact that during the 15th century, Chinese as well as European ships explored Africa. But, the nature and outcomes of their voyages were very different.

China’s early maritime presence in the region culminated in the expeditions of Admiral Zheng He. This week’s illustration contrasts one of Zheng He's massive treasure ships with the much smaller flagship of the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama, which he used in his 1497-99 voyage around the Cape of Good Hope.Zheng He's armada included over 300 ships, with a crews of some 28,000. The biggest treasure ships had 9 masts and were some 127 metres long. In the fleet were ships for carrying animals, including cavalry horses, tribute goods and additional supplies along with troops.


Zheng He’s voyages belonged to the early golden era of China’s Ming Dynasty, which also coincided with the rebuilding of the Great Wall and Grand Canal and the establishment of Beijing as a second, northern capital, in addition to the main imperial centre at Nanjing. The Admiral’s principal patron was the Emperor Yongle l. Although his voyages are commonly characterised as peaceful demonstrations of Ming imperial grandeur, his naval mission included the suppression of piracy along the trade routes to China.


He also collected token tribute for the Emperor which was balanced by the gifts he brought on behalf of the Emperor to local rulers. Perhaps Zheng He's greatest triumph was to present Yongle with giraffe, which were ultimately imported with other animals from Malindi in Kenya. To this day in Malinda there are families who claim Chinese origin. At Nanjing Court the giraffe were seen as Qilin or sacred pets of the deities, whose sudden appearance was seen as a harbinger of good fortune. Pictures of the living Qilin were thus sent across China as a symbol of Yongle's divine right to rule.

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