Sunday, August 01, 2010

Wreck from Ming Treasure Fleet Sought Off Kenya Coast

A Model of a 15th century Ming Dynasty Treasure Ship
dwarfs models of Columbus' Santa Maria and the later
clipper ship Cutty Sark built with the same scale. 
Photographed at the Ventura County (CA) Maritime Museum
by Mary Harrsch.

In a joint project of the National Museum of Kenya and Peking University, a team of 11 Chinese archaeologists will begin a £2m joint project to explore the Kenyan communities of  Lamu and Malindi for evidence of commerce with China dating back to the early 15th century.  Chinese marine archaeologists will also search for a rumored ancient ship wreck offshore.

"The sunken ship is believed to have been part of a mighty armada commanded by Ming dynasty admiral Zheng He, who reached Malindi in 1418. According to Kenyan lore, reportedly backed by recent DNA testing, a handful of survivors swum ashore. After killing a python that had been plaguing a village, they were allowed to stay and marry local women, creating a community of African-Chinese whose descendants still live in the area." - More:

Like many people (including many Chinese), I had never heard of this adventurous 7-foot-tall Chinese admiral before I read a fascinating article about his explorations in National Geographic in 2005 when the Chinese were celebrating the 600th anniversary of his voyages.  More and more evidence of the extent of his explorations continues to come to light and there is even speculation he reached the western shores of North America and/or South America, most notably in extremely controversial books published by retired British submarine commander, Gavin Menzies entitled 1421: The Year China Discovered the World and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance.

Chinese scientists have conducted DNA tests on Swahili inhabitants of Siyu village in Africa that indicated the people there had traces of Chinese ancestry thereby documenting the African connection.  Whether evidence that Zheng He ventured as far east as he did west remains to be seen.  It will be exciting, though, if they can find one of the actual ships that was part of Zheng He's fleet.

A couple of months ago I visited the Ventura County Maritime Museum down in Ventura, California and there I saw a scale model of a Ming treasure ship like those in Zheng He's fleet.  Beside the model were models built in the same scale of Christopher Columbus' ship the Santa Maria and the later clipper ship, "Cutty Sark" and they were tiny compared to the massive Chinese vessel.

When I read the National Geographic article, I was intrigued by the man himself as well.  Zheng He was born into a Muslim family in Kunyang in Yunnan province in 1371 C.E.  His father was descended from a Persian administrator of the Mongol Empire who was appointed governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan Dynasty.

In 1381 C.E. the Ming army attacked Kunyang and eleven year-old Zheng He, then called Ma He, was captured, castrated and sent to the Imperial Court.  His father was executed.  Yet, despite the murder of his father and his own mutilation, Zheng He, who still grew to towering height of 7 feet-tall, became a trusted adviser of the Yongle Emperor (r. 1403-1424) after Zheng He helped to overthrow the Jianwen Emperor.

National Geographic produced an excellent video about Zheng He and his voyages that I found on YouTube.  It is divided into ten parts.  As each video nears the end of its 9+minutes a link appears in the lower right hand corner to click to access the next part:

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433  Zheng He (Discovery)   The Great Voyages of Zheng He  1421: The Year China Discovered America (P.S.)