Early Visitors to our Coast; Zheng He (Chinese Mariner, Explorer, Diplomat).

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Zheng He (1371 – mid 1430s) was a Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat and fleet Admiral. He arrived in Malindi around 1418, commanding an expedition that was part of the Yongle Emperor’s ‘treasure voyages’. The ‘treasure voyages’ grand project by the Emperor resulted in 7 ocean voyages to the islands in and around the South China Sea and beyond the Indian Ocean. Zheng He’s fleet followed well-mapped routes of trade between China and the Arab world in use since at least 202 BC – 220 AD.

The fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures (gold, silver, porcelain, silk) meant to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. Zheng He’s ships carried hundreds of sailors on 4 decks and were almost twice as long as any wooden ship ever recorded at the time. His flagship was 400ft long, with 9 masts, carrying 1,000 men. By then, he led the world’s largest fleet of 300 ships and 30,000 men under his command.

In return for the ‘treasure’, Zheng He received novelties like ivory and exotic animals to take back to the Emperor. During his 4th voyage, he met up in Bengal with envoys of the Sultan of Malindi who gifted a giraffe to take to the Emperor. The voyage that took him to Malindi was the 5th voyage. There is a depiction of him burning incense on 31st May 1417 before the 5th voyage seeking divine protection from Tianfei, the patron goddess of seafarers. Zheng He’s influence was immense. He negotiated trade pacts, fought pirates and was even said to have installed ‘puppet kings’ in some parts of the world to serve China’s diplomatic interests. Zheng He died and was buried at sea, the crew is said to have taken a strand of his hair and shoes for burial in Nanjin. His 7 voyages are likened to the tales of ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ (he too had 7 ocean voyages) by some historians. Though, the Sinbad tale has Middle-Eastern origins.

In 2010, a $3M project by the Chinese government sent archaeologists in search of a sunken ship on our waters believed to be part of Zheng He’s fleet. Evidence of early Chinese links to Kenya have been found in porcelain and ancestry (a lady from Lamu, Mwamaka Sharifu, is an example).

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