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View series: The Age of Discovery

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The maritime expeditions of Zheng He

This map is part of a series of 16 animated maps showing the history of The Age of Discovery.

In the early 15th century, China launched an exceptional venture: seven major maritime expeditions to explore the Indian Ocean.

The official archives, with plans of the ships and their logs, were destroyed several decades later, which explains why many aspects of this extraordinary adventure are unknown to us today.

Apparently 28,000 sailors were hired for the 300 and more ships that made up the first of these expeditions. Some tales talk of ‘treasure ships’ which measured 140 metres, but historians today consider that these claims are somewhat exaggerated.  

The Chinese fleets were under the command of Admiral Zheng He and sailed as far as Vietnam, Java, and Sumatra.

They travelled along the Strait of Malacca and reached the coast of Sri Lanka and India, continued on to Ormuz, Aden and probably sailed as far as Jeddah on the Red Sea.

The eastern coast of Africa was also visited, the 5th and 6th expeditions going as far as the Canal of Mozambique.

These voyages were originally intended to open up commercial and diplomatic opportunities and to send out prestigious embassies. They were suddenly interrupted for political reasons, and an imperial decree forbade all construction of ocean-going ships in China.

Zheng He (1371-1433)

A Muslim eunuch, he rose up through the ranks to become Imperial Grand Eunuch.  The Yongle Emperor appointed him Admiral of the Imperial Fleet.