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Tag Archives | Zheng He

The Zheng He Coin

China’s role in Africa — the infrastructure projects in East Africa, investments in Sudan’s oil industry, mining contracts with various nations — is getting lot of attention these days.  Now China is being accused of colonization and all the evils associated with Western powers.

The Chinese presence in Africa is not new; it is at least six centuries old. Zhu Di, the third Ming emperor sent a fleet of ships under the command of Zheng He in 1405 CE.There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships which held lacquers, porcelain, and silks carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under Zheng He’s leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast.

Now, besides doctors, diplomats and businessmen, China has also sent archaeologists to Africa and they have found a brass coin with a square hole near Malindi in Kenya (see video). This coin was minted between 1403 and 1424 and could have reached Africa through Zheng He’s fleet.

First, ancient texts told of Zheng He’s visit to the Sultan of Malindi – the most powerful coastal ruler of the time. But they also mentioned that Malindi was by a river mouth; something that the present town of Malindi doesn’t have, but that Mambrui does.

The old cemetery in Mambrui also has a famous circular tomb-stone embedded with 400-year-old Chinese porcelain bowls hinting at the region’s long-standing relationship with the East.

In the broad L-shaped trench that the team dug on the edge of the cemetery, they began finding what they were looking for.

First, they uncovered the remains of an iron smelter and iron slag.

Then, Mohamed Mchuria, a coastal archaeologist from the National Museums of Kenya, unearthed a stunning fragment of porcelain that Prof Qin believes came from a famous kiln called Long Quan that made porcelain exclusively for the royal family in the early Ming Dynasty.[Could a rusty coin re-write Chinese-African history]

Also read: Chinese Power in Indian Ocean 

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Trading Hubs of the Old World – Part 2

(The Arabian Sea Network)

(Read Part 1)

In 1881, the Theosophist Henry Steel Olcott, said, “We Europeans..have a right to more than suspect that India 8,000 years ago sent out a colony of emigrants[6].” New evidence suggests that Olcott was right about the time, but wrong about Indians emigrating in the Old World.

During the third millennium BCE that trade relations between India and Mesopotamia prospered: Burial sites in Mesopotamia had shell-made lamps and cups produced from a conch shell found only in India; Early Dynastic Mesopotamians were consumers of the Harappan carnelian bead. Also the Gujaratis were exporting hardwood  and there are even unverified reports of spices from the Malabar coast reaching Mesopotamia. But now there is a debate over if a colony of Indians lived in Mesopotamia — in a Meluhhan village — at that time[7].

The interesting news is that these trade relations happened much earlier than was previously believed. The important question is: did Harappans have knowledge of the monsoon winds to travel to Mesopotamia?

Soon trade with Mesopotamia declined because Oman developed as a trading hub; the Harappans did not have to travel as far as Mesopotamia for trading. Oman imported both luxury goods and basic commodities: wood, carnelian, combs, shell, metal objects, seals, weights and possibly large volume storage jars. What was considered luxury – copper, cereals — became common goods with coastal communities playing a major part.

The bitumen coated reed boats of the third millennium BCE were replaced by the plank-built wooden boats by the second millennium BCE. Instead of a few major players, there were many minor players creating a distributed network.

While there is evidence for sea-faring Harappans traveling to the Persian Gulf, there is no archaeological evidence of Mesopotamians reaching India during that period. Since no large ports, warehouses have been found in Harappa, it is assumed that the trade involved small-scale ports belonging to local communities; the Lothal dock and warehouse is of late Harappan period.

The other interesting development is the trade with East Africa. The Arabians and their neighbors in Levant and Mesopotamia used wheat and one species – the bread wheat – came from the Indus and the other – emmer wheat – from Africa. The pearl millet which was domesticated in Mali and Mauritania around 2500 BCE was found in Gujarat  by 2000 – 1700 BCE. African crops like sorghum and Ragi started appearing in South India after this period, possibly via Gujarat. There was a Western transmission of crops too: moong dal (third mil BCE), urad dal (2500 BCE), pigeon pea (1400 BCE), sesame (2500 BCE), and cotton (5000 BCE) made their way to both Africa and Arabia.


By 2000 BCE, the the Harappan maritime activity shifted to Gujarat. Around that time the trade between Africa and India intensified. While crops moved from Africa to India, genetic studies have shown that the zebu cattle went from India via Arabia to Africa.  These Bos Indicus, who reached Africa, met some Bos taurines and before you knew, sparks were flying, setting the African Savannah on fire. There is also evidence of the migration of zebus from Indus to Near East via Iran in the late third millennium BCE. Some of this zebu movement involved travel by boats along the Arabian coast and points to a trade on a much larger scale. Thus the transportation of a giraffe in 1405 by Zheng He’s fleet from Africa to China does not look that far fetched.

The Omanis developed wooden boat technology and deep-sea fishing around the time the African crops reached India. If they had knowledge of monsoons, the Omanis could reach India directly, else they had to travel around the Makran coast and reach India via Iran. It is also possible that the Omanis got their wooden craft technology from Indians; after all they imported wood from India.

(Ramses II)

An interesting development happens in 1200 BCE. Among the dried fruits kept in the nostrils of the mummy of Ramses II was pepper and there was only one place in the world where pepper was produced. While this points to the first contact between the Malabar coast and Egypt and the origins of the spice trade, what is not known is how the pepper reached Egypt.

The Harappan trade meanwhile shifted from Oman to Bahrain — Mesopotamian textual sources start mentioning more of Dilmun than Magan — and so Dilumn became the transit point for goods to Mesopotamia from India, but this change in the transit point did not affect the goods. Many millennia later when When Ibn Battuta visited Calicut, the chief merchant was an Ibrahim from Bahrain with the title shah bandar (the port master or chief of harbor)[5].

This is the point we see the rise of an early capitalism with private Mesopotamian citizens funding seafaring merchants who operated in a complex exchange system. Business was risky, but Dilmun communities thrived on the profit.

Then slowly we see the merchants in Dilmun adopting Harappan administrative standards. Thus goods were sealed with the Harappan style stamp seals and not the cylindrical Mesopotamian ones. The Indus weight system was also used and it was known as the standard of Dilmun. Meanwhile certain seals found also in Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, which were inspired by the Sumerian seals

By Iron age, there was a technological break through with the mastery over monsoons. The Arabians were already using monsoon winds to reach India. At the same time the Egyptians too started doing the same — with boats with sharp bows and triangular sails — skipping the middlemen in Arabia due to which South Indian ports gain prominence over Gujarati ones.


Since our minds are locked in to the “Aryan migration/trickle down” 1500 BCE time frame, we rarely look into the interactions before that period. A recent paper in Nature, on the origins of Indian population, showed that the rise of Ancestral North Indians and South Indians was connected to human. Between these two events, Indians had extensive trade contacts with the Old World and hence the door was not closed after the ANI and ASI established themselves. There was movement of people, animals and plants, both into India and out of India for many generations. It is worth investigating what impact this interaction had in the cultural transformation of the subcontinent.

A painful lesson India and Africa learned is that trade usually ends up in colonization. But looking at the trade network of this period, there is no such evidence, even in a place like Bahrain which was central to the global trade. Trade, free of colonization, would take place even during the medieval period till the Portuguese showed up in Calicut in 1498 looking for “Christians and spices.”


  1. Himanshu Prabha Ray, The Archaeology of Seafaring in Ancient South Asia (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
  2. Nicole Boivin and Dorian Fuller, Shell Middens, Ships and Seeds: Exploring Coastal Subsistence, Maritime Trade and the Dispersal of Domesticates in and Around the Ancient Arabian Peninsula, Journal of World Prehistory 22, no. 2 (June 1, 2009): 180, 113.
  3. Jack Turner, Spice: The History of a Temptation (Vintage, 2005).
  4. Jacques Connan, “A comparative geochemical study of bituminous boat remains from H3, As-Sabiyah (Kuwait), and RJ-2, Ra’s al-Jinz (Oman),”Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy 16, no. 1 (2005): 21-66.
  5. Mehrda Shokoohy, Muslim Architecture of South India: The Sultanate of Ma’bar and the Traditions of Maritime Settlers on the Malabar and Coromandel Coasts, 1st ed. (RoutledgeCurzon, 2003).
  6. Edwin Bryant, The Quest for the Origins of Vedic Culture: The Indo-Aryan Migration Debate (Oxford University Press, USA, 2004).
  7. C. C. Lamberg-Karlovsky,Archaeological Thought in America (Cambridge University Press, 1991).


  1. Most of this article is based of Reference [2].
  2. From Wikipedia: “In 1974, Egyptologists visiting his tomb noticed that the mummy’s condition was rapidly deteriorating. They decided to fly Ramesses II’s mummy to Paris for examination. Ramesses II was issued an Egyptian passport that listed his occupation
    as “King (deceased)”. The mummy was received at Le Bourget airport,
    just outside Paris, with the full military honours befitting a king”

Images: (via Wikipedia)

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The Ming Dynasty ship sinks

One documentary I watched while writing Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2) was based on Gavin Menzies’ best selling book  1421: The Year China Discovered America. The thesis of the book was that Zheng He’s fleet had reached America in 1421. But in the documentary, they put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

To prove that Zheng He’s fleet could have reached America, a replica of the Ming Dynasty ship was built and it set sail to America from Xiamen. The ship made of wood held together with nails docked in San Francisco in October 2008 after a 69 day journey.

But tragedy struck while returning back to Taiwan.

After surviving several storms during its 10-month voyage, the junk broke in two and sank after it was rammed by a freighter just off Taiwan’s coast.

All 11 crew members were rescued after being found adrift on the wreckage.

“We have worked so hard for so many years, but we failed at the last minute, I’m really ashamed,” said Taiwanese captain Liu Ningsheng after being rescued by the coast guard. [BBC NEWS | Asia-Pacific | Ming Dynasty replica junk sinks]

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Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (2/2)

Zheng He’s map (via Wikipedia)

Read Part 1

Turning Inward

After the death of Zhu Di, China turned against naval expeditions for which there are many reasons.

The simplest is that the Confucians prevailed. The imperial bureaucracy sought to contain the expansionary ambitions of its sailors and the increasing power of its merchant class: Confucian ideology venerates authority and agrarian ways, not innovation and trade. “Barbarian” nations were thought to offer little of value to China. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral]

Confucius thought that foreign travel interfered with family obligations. In Analects he said “While his parents are alive, the son may not go abroad to a distance. If he does go abroad, he must have a fixed place to which he goes.” Since this was the moral code for the upper class, government service and farming were considered noble professions

Other factors contributed: the renovation of the north-south Grand Canal, for one, facilitated grain transportand other internal commerce in gentle inland waters, obviating the need for an ocean route. And the tax burden of maintaining a big fleet was severe. But the decision to scuttle the great ships was in large part political. With the death of Yongle, the Emperor who sent Zheng He on his voyages, the conservatives began their ascendancy. China suspended naval expeditions. By century’s end, construction of any ship with more than two masts was deemed a capital offense. [The Asian Voyage: In the Wake of the Admiral

Then things took a turn for the worse. The ships were let to rot in the port and the logs books and maps were destroyed. A major attempt at erasing history was done. Then as they say, life finds a way.

Unlike Agathocles, whose memory survived only through coins, Zheg He’s traces were scattered around for it to be erased quickly. In some countries he was worshipped as a god. The chronicles of Zheng He’s translators Ma Huan (Overall Survey of the Western Shores) and Fei Hsin (Overall Survey of the Star Fleet) survived. So did a few imperial decrees and some maps. Zheng He died in the seventh voyage and was probably buried at sea; his tomb contains his clothes.

Though Zheng He’s voyages were meant to be a peaceful projection of power, they often interfered in local politics and projected force. A Chinese pirate Chen Zuyi who was active in the Sumatra was captured in a battle in the Straits of Malaca and taken to Nanjing and executed. Michael Yamashita mentions that the Chinese put a new king – Manavikarma – on the throne of Calicut. The Sri Lankan king Alakeswara refused to be a tributary to the Chinese; he was captured and taken in chains to Zheng He’s boss.

If the Chinese were a naval power during the ascent of the European powers, the Arabian Sea and Indian Ocean would have seen a different geo-political equilibrium.

References: This article was motivated by the lecture on China by Prof. Matthew Herbst in MMW4 series. By then Maddy had posted his well researched article on Zheng He (Cheng Ho) in Calicut. Michael Yamashita got paid to travel along his path for a year resulting in the book Zheng He (Discovery) which has amazing photographs. I did not read Gavin Menzies’ book, but picked the PBS documentary 1421: The Year China Discovered America (PBS)? based on it. When China Ruled the Seas devotes few pages to what they did in Calicut. Maddy also has a comprehensive article covering the Chinese trade in Calicut.

Postscript: A British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, in a best selling book 1421: The Year China Discovered America argued that Zheng He’s fleet reached America in 1421. A PBS documentary by the same name put Gavin Menzies on camera and contradicted most of his assumptions. Mr. Menzies agreed with the producers that most of his evidence is flimsy, but he still stood by his theory.

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Chinese Power in Indian Ocean (1/2)

Chinese treasure ship (via Wikipedia)

In 1498, three ships — Sao Gabriel, Sao Rafael, and Sao Miguel — appeared in Calicut heralding a new era in geopolitics and world trade. Vasco da Gama would become immortal for finding a route from Europe to India, avoiding the Muslims who had a monopoly on overland trade. But for the residents of Calicut, this was not a major event. They were used to foreign traders and many foreigners lived in the Malabar coast. Even da Gama’s ships and crew of less than two hundred people was not a jaw dropper since they had seen huge Chinese ships with larger crew in Calicut port.

Much before Europeans became major players in the Indian Ocean, traders routinely sailed from the Malabar coast to the Swahili coast. During that time the Chinese built the biggest ships of the era and under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Jung Huh) made seven voyages reaching as far as the Swahili coast. With such technology, the Chinese could have dominated trade, instead of the Europeans, but they did not. It is interesting to see why.

Ming and Zheng He

This story begins on September 10, 1368 when Ukhaantu Khan of the Yuan dynasty fled to Inner Mongolia unable to face the rebels under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang. These rebels would establish the native Ming dynasty. The third Ming emperor Zhu Di, wanted to improve trade, enhance the empire’s prestige, and encourage a tribute system for which he ordered an armada to be built.

Zhu Di’s admiral for the mission was Zheng He, a six and half feet tall two hundred pound man. This 34 year old Muslim originally named Ma Ho, was captured as a child by the Ming army from the Mongol village of Yunan. Like the Egyptian Mamluks, these slaves had career paths, but only after castration and so Zheng He eventually became the Grand Eunuch.

Even before the Ming dynasty, huge Chinese ships were spotted in Kerala. In 1340, Ibn Battuta, who was in Calicut, saw 13 Chinese junks wintering in the port. Ibn Battuta who had traveled in various type of ships and dhows in his travels from Morocco to India never mentioned much construction details in his accounts, but the Chinese ships impressed him so much that he wrote about three types of ships — the large junks, middle sized zaws, and small kakams. Ibn Battuta also expressed happiness at the privacy offered in their cabins that he could take his slave girls and wives and no one on board would know about it.

In 1330, Jordan Catalani, a Dominican monk saw them in Quilon and wrote that they had over 100 cabins and 10 sails. They were triple keeled and held together not by nails or metal structures, but the thread of some plant. Ibn Battuta wrote that these ships carried thousand men of which four hundred were soldiers.

Zhu Di’s ships, under the command of Zheng He sailed in 1405. There were 317 ships of which 60 were the large junks. These treasure ships held lacquers, porcelain, and silks. They carried a total of 27,000 men which included soldiers, carpenters, physicians, astrologers, cartographers and interpreters. Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan or Francis Drake would never command such a fleet nor as many men.

Under his leadership, the fleet made seven voyages trading, transporting ambassadors and establishing Chinese colonies. Three of those were to India, one to the Persian Gulf and three to the Swahili Coast and in the process he visited the Champa kingdom, Cambodia, Sumatra, Nicobar Islands, Ceylon, Maldives. One item which Zheng He took back to China was a giraffe; how the giraffe was transported on a ship passing through a rough ocean is not documented well, but it certainly amused the king. So did zebras which were called celestial

They called Calicut, “a great country” and people as “honest and trustworthy”. They had good opinion of the Zamorin and observed that Calicut had a highly structured society, well trained army and a harsh system of justice. In Calicut they traded using the language of the fingers.

(Read Part 2)

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