San José State University
Department of Economics
& Tornado Alley
The Chinese Overseas Expeditions
During the Early 15th Century
Between 1405 and 1433 the Chinese Empire seven times sent great fleets into the Indian Ocean as far as Africa. The largest of the ships in these fleets were nine-masted junks extending 400 feet in length (see illustration). These large ships filled with trade goods were accompanied by numerous supply ships and patrol boats. The crews and troops on these armadas numbered close to 30 thousand. Then, due to internal problems, China destroyed its fleet and settled into isolation.
The explanation for this strange action lies in the internal politics of the Empire. The Mandarin bureaucrats generally ran the Empire, but within the Imperial Court the court eunuchs had control. The admiral of the Treasure Fleets was Zheng He (jung huh). Zheng He was a Moslem Chinese who was captured by the army in southwestern China as a boy. His captors castrated him and sold him as a servant for harems. He ended up in the Imperial Court. The eunuchs of the Imperial Court functioned as a separate bureaucracy and the Mandarins were fearful of their power. When the Treasure Fleet expeditions to the Indian Ocean turned out to be successes the Mandarins were so afraid that the power of the eunuchs would be enhanced to the point where they would rival the Mandarins in power that they set to stop the Treasure Fleet expeditions. When the old emperor died the Mandarins convinced the young new emperor that the Treasure Fleet threaten to contaminate the Empire and must be destroyed.
Less than a century after the destruction of Treasure Fleets the Portuguese appeared in the Indian Ocean in their relative small caravels. Soon the Portuguese gained control over the Indian Ocean and traveled on to China, where they acquired Macau, and on to Japan. How much different would world history have been if the Chinese Treasure Fleets had continued around Africa and one day appeared in the harbors of Western Europe.
Source: Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433, 1994
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