Thursday, October 11, 2012

Three Jewels and the Discovery of South Africa

There is much debate about who first “discovered” America, and like most of these debates the issue is largely about definition.  Growing up in South Africa, I spent much time learning about Bartolomeu Dias rounding the Cape of Good Hope in 1488, Vasco de Gama pioneering the sea route to India ten years later, and finally the Dutch East India company settlements at the Cape under the governorship of Jan van Riebeeck in 1652.  These were the people who "discovered" and "developed" the Cape; the conventional wisdom of the time was that there was not much in the way of local population, and that the black Africans migrated to the area much later.  This convenient fiction supported the right of white people to grab and hold the Cape.

"He walked like a tiger."
One of the voyages of Zheng He
I’m ashamed to say that it was only recently that I discovered that almost certainly the first non-Africans to discover the Cape of Good Hope were the Chinese.  It’s an interesting story – one familiar to every Chinese school student – but not familiar to many people in this part of the world.

It begins in 1371 with the birth of Ma He to a Muslim Chinese family in Yunnan.  His life did not start well.  In 1381, his father was killed during the Ming conquest of Yunnan, Ma He was captured, castrated, and sent to the court as a servant of one of the emperor’s sons – the Prince of Yan.  There he was given the name Three Jewels – rather droll in view of the removal of the two he started with.  But his fortunes were in the ascendant.  He helped the prince become the new emperor and was richly rewarded, not least with a new name - Zheng He - in honor of his bravery in battle.  Supposedly seven feet tall, it was said "he walked like a tiger”.

Drawing of a Treasure ship

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming emperors financed seven enormous naval expeditions with Zheng He as admiral.  The fleet was amazing – up to 200 ships each with 500 men.  The ships were of various sizes, the largest being the Treasure ships used by the admiral and his deputies.  These were reputedly nine-masted monsters, about 400 by 170 feet (the size of a football field), with four decks and room for 500 passengers in addition to the crew, and masses of cargo.  Even allowing for some exaggeration, these must have been the biggest sailing ships ever built. Columbus’ fleet, by comparison, would have easily fitted inside one of the Treasure ships.  Then there were water ships (carrying fresh water for the fleet), horse ships, cargo ships…

Most of the time the admiral took his ships on established routes, accepting tribute, trading and generally showing that messing with the emperor was a poor idea.  He was not averse to force, but this was not a mission to plunder and pillage.  The stability of the emperor and his government was the message.  

The fleet at sail
One of the spoils from Africa
There were voyages of discovery too.  It is likely that the fleet reached northern Australia, given some artifacts found there and the stories in the oral tradition of the Aboriginal people of the area.  The ships certainly came well down the coast of Africa, and recent research suggests that they also rounded the Cape of Good Hope – fifty years before Dias.  But they went no further.  Presumably getting to the West for the Chinese was much less of an attraction than getting to the East was to the Europeans!

Zheng He died in 1433 returning from the seventh great voyage.  The year before he had erected a commemorative pillar in Fujian, that proclaimed:

We have traversed more than 100,000 li (30,000 miles) of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare…

Poor old Bartolomeu Dias!

Michael - Thursday


  1. What an interesting post. Thanks.

  2. Beautiful piece, Michael. And a particularly poignant one what this being the Columbus Day holiday week in the US.

  3. Thanks. I must admit that the Columbus Day weekend wasn't in my mind. Serendipity!

  4. Wonderful, Michael. And beautifully illustrated. That there were such Chinese explorers just before the European Age of Exploration tilts my world. And evidently, it needed tilting.