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Historic Adventurers: Zheng He and China’s World Exploration

Grant Allen/Adventure Tribune
Zheng He, a Chinese ocean explorer, traveled on seven adventures to Indonesia, India, Arabia, and Africa in some of the most epic travels of all time.


Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim born at the end of Mongol rule, was captured by a conquering Chinese dynasty in 1381 at the age of 10. He was forced into the Chinese military, where he demonstrated aptitude and intellect, making him a naval leader. His leadership position allowed him to command a series of exploration missions throughout the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

When Zheng He departed for his sea missions, he traveled with approximately 28,000 sailors on 62 ships. Each ship stretched to nearly 400 feet in length, which dwarfed contemporary European ships (Christopher Columbus’ largest ship, the Santa Maria, was a mere 41 feet long). These Chinese exploration vessels likely contained multiple levels; some levels had farms in which organic food was produced, while others contained livestock ranches.

In 1405, he departed the Chinese coast on his first mission and traveled to southern Vietnam, Thailand, Malacca, and the island of Java (where plenty of our modern-day coffee comes from). He pushed west, visiting Calicut on the coast of India and the island of Sri Lanka, before his return to China in 1407.

One year later, Zheng He departed China with another fleet. He returned to Calicut between other stops along India’s southern coast. He returned to Sri Lanka as well, but he was faced with a dubious plot from the Sri Lankan king to destroy the Chinese fleet. Zheng He’s navy captured the Sri Lankan king and brought him back to China as a prisoner.

Almost immediately, Zheng He’s third voyage began, which to him across southern India and into the Persian Gulf, where he visited Hormuz. Two years later, in 1411, Zheng He and his fleet returned to China, but not before stopping at the island of Sumatra.

Two years later (1413), Zheng He departed again, this time on his fourth voyage. He sailed almost directly to India, and from there he returned to Hormuz. A branch of his fleet travel south, visiting the coast of Arabia, modern-day Oman and Yemen.

During this voyage, Zheng He’s fleet also visited Mecca. The opportunity to visit Mecca would have been important to Zheng He, as the pilgrimage to Mecca is a key pillar in his religion of Islam. His father likely reached Mecca by land many years before, but it was an entirely different adventure to reach Mecca by sea during this era.

After the mission to Mecca, Zheng He’s fleet traveled to Egypt, and then moved south along Africa’s east coast, where it ventured to modern-day Somalia, Kenya, and the Mozambique Channel. During this era, the east coast of Africa was a collection of extremely wealthy and prosperous trading cities that fueled Africa’s blossoming resource-based economy.

In 1417, Zheng He began his fifth voyage, which brought him back to the east coast of Africa and the Persian Gulf. This mission was likely aimed at solidifying tribute to the Chinese emperor from more than 30 rulers in these regions.

In 1421, Zheng He embarked on his sixth mission with the goal of bringing Chinese foreign diplomats back home to China. He traveled to Africa, Arabia, India, and Southeast Asia. While on this expedition, the emperor in China died. His successor shifted his foreign policy and made naval exploration a low priority. When Zheng He returned to China, he was relieved of duty and was forced to dissolve his massive fleet.

Somehow, Zheng He was allowed one final mission in 1431. This adventure brought him back to familiar places: Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, and Africa’s east coast. In 1433, Zheng He died in Calicut, the familiar adventure base in India, at the age of 52.

Since emperors after Zheng He’s death placed little priority on exploration and refocused China’s energy inward, many records of Zheng He’s adventures were hidden or destroyed. The modern adventure for historians has been recollecting these documents, and scouring Zheng He’s travel stops to finds more records of his adventures there. In his book and documentary, 1421, Gavin Menzies proposed that Zheng He’s fleets may have even reached North America, South America, and Australia, though substantial evidence to solidify these claims have yet to surface.

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Tom Malone is the Editor-In-Chief of The Adventure Tribune and author of adventure novels, like Across Americana. He is based in Denver, Colorado, where he adventures through the Rocky Mountains while not traveling abroad.
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