The Extraordinary Voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho

Nora C. Buckley explains how, during the fifteenth century, Chinese seafarers were active in Indian and African trade.

The fifteenth century marked an important turning point in maritime history: Columbus reached America in 1492, and some six years later Vasco da Gama, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, arrived at Calicut on the Malabar coast of India. What is not well known in the West, however, is that earlier in the century, in the reign of the Ming Emperor Yung Lo, China contributed spectacularly to maritime history when the admiral Cheng Ho, later to be known as the Three-Jewel Eunuch, commanded the first extensive organized maritime expeditions known to that date. Indeed, the Western nations for at least sixty years were not to equal or surpass this nautical achievement.

Cheng Ho was of Arab-Mongol origin and his knowledge of Arabic and Arab customs served him well, for Islam was the state religion in many of the countries he visited. His birth name had been Ma Ho; and his father and grandfather both had the honorary title ‘Haji’, indicating that they were Muslims who had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. The Ma family lived in one of the last western outposts of Mongol rule in Yunnan.

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