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by Stan Roberts - Cedar Park, Texas - USA

The Early Voyagers of the Iron Age

The East

In July of the year 1405 AD, during the Ming Dynasty,  a vast fleet of 62 ships lay at anchor in Liujia harbour near Suzhou, China.  The fleet was manned by more than 27,800 men including specialists  such as interpreters, soldiers, artisans, medical men and meteorologists.  The fleet included a group of gigantic junks, some recorded at  more than 400 feet long and 150 feet in beam. Each ship had a crew of 200 and carried hundreds of passengers.  Chinese junks at this time had multiple watertight compartments and efficient full batten lugsails.  The fleet had dozens of supply ships, water tankers,  cavalry transports and patrol boats.

Admiral of the fleet was Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim eunuch who was fluent in Arabic and Chinese. Arab immigrants and merchants had been welcome in China since the Han dynasty (206 - 220 BC), valued for  their mathematical, astronomical, and navigational skills .  Every ship in the fleet had a Persian speaker on board, since that was the language of commerce of the period.  Their mission was to establish political relations with foreign countries and to expand trading opportunities.   On board the ships were 40 different categories of merchandise including, silk, porcelain wares, gold and silver objects, cotton goods, mercury, umbrellas and iron implements.

Illustration of the great Chinese fleet of 1405
Model of  the flagship of Zheng He based on an excavation in 1957 from Longjiang shipyard, Nanjing, Jiangsu.

The fleet sailed across the South China Sea to Java, Sri Lanka and India, returning to the home port in 1407 AD laden with spices, ivory, medicines, rare wood and pearls.  Over a 28 year period, between 1405 and 1433 AD,  Zheng He made seven long overseas voyages with large fleets.  In all, he visited 30 different countries, including Yemen, Iran, the city of Mecca and ports in East Africa.  The expeditions of Zheng He have been called an "unprecedented feat in the history of sea voyaging".  The voyages were almost a hundred years earlier than those of Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan.

Map of the voyages. 

While the scale of Zheng He's fleet was unprecedented, it followed long established trade routes that had been in use for hundreds of years by previous Chinese dynasties and Middle Eastern merchants.  Existing maps such as the Java sea chart created by Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizimi (820 AD) show the tip of Cape York Peninsula, Australia as well as the shape of the Carpentaria Gulf.  The map charted by Abu Al-Farisi Ishtahari  (934 AD) clearly shows the trade routes from south China to Borneo, Timor and the northern Australian coastline, and demonstrates established commercial sea routes.

Princess TaiPing, a 54 ft. replica of one of the great fleet patrol boats (the smallest fleet vessels). Carpenters used Ming period axes and chisels to shape the junk’s materials, largely fir and acacia. Square shipbuilding nails, like those used a thousand years ago, hold the Princess TaiPing together.  The nearly 50-foot main mast was hewn from a Fuchou cedar that took months to locate and three days—and 10 men—to lug out of the forest. The eight person crew made a passage from Japan to the west coast in 69 days.

11 meter long tiller from a Zheng He fleet junk

The huge Chinese junks, at the recorded sizes, would have been the largest wooden vessels ever constructed in the world.  Were they this large?  In 1962, the rudderpost of a ship was excavated in the ruins of one of the Ming Dynasty boatyards in Nanjing. This timber was 36 feet long. Reverse engineering using proportions typical of a traditional junk indicates a hull length of around 500 feet.

Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta (who visited China in 1347), both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1000 passengers in their translated accounts. "These vessels are built in the towns of Zaytun and Sin-Kalan. They have four decks and contain rooms, cabins, and saloons for merchants; a cabin has chambers and a lavatory, and can be locked by its occupants." (Ibn Battuta).   Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness to ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen 5 masted junks weighing about 2000 tons.   In comparison, the largest European wooden vessel, the Great Eastern, designed in 1837, was 322 feet in length and only 50 feet in beam. 

Unfortunately,  archeological traces of this "golden age" of Chinese seafaring are rare, so far.  One intensively studied wreck, found at Quanzhou in 1973, dates from the earlier Song period; this substantial double-masted ship probably sank sometime in the 1270's. Its V-shaped hull is framed around a pine keel over 100 feet long and covered with a double layer of intricately fitted cedar planking,  indicating an oceangoing design.  Inside, 13 separate compartments held the residue of an exotic cargo of spices, shells, and fragrant woods, much of it originating in east Africa.

"Recent excavation of a 60-tonner built in Canton during the Ch'in dynasty show that junk construction has not changed for at least a thousand years.  A junk has no traditional frames, they are basically monocoque construction and very strong.  The Chinese built the shell of the ship first, installing solid bulkheads as the edge-fastened planking was built up.  Semicircular wales of timber spiked along the sides gave support along with full bulkheads, which formed independent watertight compartments.  The fastenings of a junk's edge-planking were critical since adhesives were not used. The Chinese drilled diagonal holes through the edge of each plank into the plank beneath, then drove in long nails to prohibit lateral movement. Plank separation was prevented by iron dogs - very large staples - joining adjacent planks.

Chinese shipbuilders used chunam for caulking, a mix of ground lime and tung oil, with chopped hemp or old fishnets added to achieve the right viscosity.  Setting hard within 48 hours, this 2,500 year-old recipe is said to be better than all but a few of the latest caulking compounds.

Offshore junks have pronounced rocker, while river junks are flat bottomed. To form the rocker shape, the joined bottom planks are winched down hard against a sloping bed of sandbags and timbers. The side-planking and bulkheads that are added later maintain the curve.
The sides have marked tumblehome, curving smoothly into transom ends at approximately half the beam. The transoms  have a significant angle outwards and at the waterline, round smoothly into the bottom.

By choosing the simplicity, stability and capacity of a single hull whose length was roughly three-times its beam, draft half the beam, the Chinese set a standard for shipbuilding unmatched in the West until the late 16th century. You can say many things about the junk - and many people do. But 4,600 years of continuous service must be the benchmark for "traditional" watercraft." William Thomas (1)

At the time of the great fleets, Chinese ships were using the compass, along with a navigation manual called Haidao Zhenjing, and Guoyang Qianxing Shu, a star orientation/navigation system at night.  During the daytime colored flags were used to communicate between ships and at night, lanterns. In heavy fog and rain, gongs, trumpets and conch-shell horns were used.   Chinese mariners were the first recorded to use a marine compass for navigation.

A Ming Dynasty 24 point compass

The first three of the seven voyages of the multi-national fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He and his four captains left Quonzhou China to visit India and Ceylon and return to China. The 1413-15 voyage returned to Quonzhou by way of Hormuz and Bengal, while the 1417-19 trip took the huge fleet all the way to the east coast of Africa before returning home.

There is a growing body of evidence, based on artifacts rather than historic record, that the Chinese fleet voyage of 1421 circumnavigated the globe.  On March 3, 1421 Admiral Zheng and his four captains sailed to India and then split up the fleet .  Captain Yang Qin remained in the Indian Ocean with astronomers to make a successful attempt at determining longitude.  The other three groups continued to the African east coast and rounded the Cape of Good Hope and on to the Cape Verde islands in the Atlantic.  While the final route of this fleet is mostly unknown, it is known that Admiral Zheng returned from this voyage with less than 1,000 of the 9,000 men he sailed with and the loss of at least nineteen ships.

The artifacts which constitute the evidence consist of debris fields of Chinese shipwrecks in the Caribbean, metal artifacts in North Carolina, wood carvings from the Gulf of Mexico, bronze artifacts from California, Ming dynasty maps of the world (see below), and coins found on the west coast of Vancouver Island, all of Chinese origin and from the period of the 1400's. Pedro Menedez de Aviles, the first Castilian viceroy of Florida, found wrecks of Chinese junks off the coast of Florida.  There is also a carving of a pumpkin and an illustration of an armadillo in a Chinese book from 1430, both only found in the Americas at that period.

The logistics required for the organization and operation of these huge fleets was unmatched in Europe for hundreds of years.  During this period the Chinese possessed unrivaled naval capabilities  and countless other superior inventions.  Had the Chinese emperors continued to send out their fleets and develop their overseas contacts, there is no reason to think that they would not have established China as a world power prior to the European colonial period.  They had the opportunity and ability to surpass the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and British in exploration, trade, colonization and use of sea power. Fortunately for Europe, less than a century later all overseas trade was banned by the Chinese emperor, who also made it a capital offense to set sail in a multi-masted ship from China.

World map of the Ming Dynasty period showing North and South America, Bering Strait, Alaska, Central America, Australia, and the Antarctic south of Cape Horn.  Other Chinese maps show the Straits of Magellan


(1)  William Thomas - Dragonquest

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