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Great Adventures: Zheng He and his Treasure Fleet

Six centuries ago, a towering Chinese eunuch led a fleet of enormous ships to India, Arabia and beyond – Pat Kinsella follows Zheng He’s treasure-ship armada
NAVAL MIGHT China’s greatest seafarer, Zheng He, leads his colossal fleet of Ming-era ships
HONG NIAN ZHANG/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC CREATIVE X1, ALAMY X1

ZHENG HE AND HIS TREASURE FLEET

During the reign of China’s Yongle Emperor in 1403, an imperial order was issued to begin the construction of a fleet of super-ships – vessels vastly bigger than anything ever seen before. Officially called Xiafan Guanjun (‘The Foreign Expeditionary Armada’), the behemoth boats would become better known as the Ming Empire’s treasure ships.

317

The number of ships in Zheng He’s first fleet, which had a crew totalling almost 28,000

The honoured Admiral Zheng He (in white) is welcomed home after one of his missions

Capable of carrying as many as 1,000 men, some of these ships were purportedly 137 metres long, 55 metres wide, several stories high, and each boasted nine masts with 12 sails. They dwarfed contemporary European ships – by comparison, Christopher Columbus’s flagship, the Santa María, built 60 years later, measured just 18 metres from bow to stern.

Zhu Di, the Yongle Emperor who commissioned the fleet
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The May 2016 issue of History Revealed