Add comment October 21st, 2008 Headsman
On an uncertain date this month in 1407, a Sumatran pirate was put to death in Nanking (or Nanjing) to the glory of the Yongle Emperor.
The day’s subject is not the corpse, but Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho or Ma Sanbao), the Muslim Chinese eunuch-mariner whose early 15th century expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond* pointed the way to a sea-striding colonial future that his country turned its back upon.
Five thousand pirates are said to have gone to Davy Jones’ locker in Zheng’s victory; his captured enemy got a ride back to the Chinese capital to be made an example of.
But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.
He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time.
Though the pat story of Chinese isolationism might be a tad overstated, hindsight from New World locales with Spanish or English or French names rather than Chinese ones still can’t help but see the aborted age of discovery as a turning point.
An enormous, wealthy, centralized state on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, with the baddest seafaring flotilla around. If you had to pick the world’s probable leading colonial power of the coming centuries, you’d probably have put your money on China in October 1407.
Chen Zuyi sure would have.
Also on this date
- 1865: An unnamed Obeah man
- 1803: Thomas Russell, the man from God knows where
- 1869: Charles Carpentier
- 1865: Mexican Republican officers, under the Black Decree