Zheng He and his voyages

A word to the relation of ceramics and Zheng He.
Zheng He was a Chinese seafarer and admiral who between 1405 and 1433 travelled seven times with his great fleet to South Asia and the Middle East, and down the the East African coast, possibly reaching southern Africa.

Zheng's fleet consisted of more than 317 ships and approx. 28,000 people.
Undoubtedly he is well known through a series of documentaries and TV programs as the admiral of the largest trading fleet ever on earth. Many of the Chinese junks in the fleet dwarfed the largest sailing ships of the time.

According to some archaeological findings some ships may have been five times the size of the caravels used by the Portuguese explorers of the time.

However, currently there is still controversy about several issues. The best known of these is  probably the reported size of some  ships (especially the flagship), which some western shipbuilding specialists find difficult to accept. Another one concerns the extent of his voyages. Some voices mention the possibility that he reached the Atlantic Ocean.
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Trade ceramics and the voyages

What is more interesting here is the ceramics finds made in various locations on the east coast and near coastal areas of the African continent.

Many of these are attributed to Zheng's voyages. However, among these there are increasingly finds that seem to indicate the existence of a pre-Ming maritime trade down the whole eastern coast of the African continent. Maritime archaeology and excavations on land, and shards of Chinese ceramics washing up along the African coast are attributed to Chinese dynasties prior to the Ming dynasty, that is to the Song and Yuan dynasties.

What does this mean? Zheng's famous voyages happened between 1405 and 1433, during the reign of emperor Yongle, in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which are known to have exported porcelain. It is highly unlikely that these shards are related in any way to Zheng He's voyages or ships. Therefore, the conclusion must be that a much earlier maritime trade was already capable reaching these coasts.

Proof of earlier trade is still scarce and insufficient to explain for certain how this ancient trade occurred. Only future discoveries and research will resolve these questions.

Majapahit, a kingdom in today's Indonesia, as well as Indian ports were visited by Zheng's fleet several times. These ports were in those times already involved  in coastal trade.



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