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The Lost Labyrinth


Zheng He and the treasure fleets

In 1402, the second ruler of the Ming Dynasty was ousted by his uncle Zhu Di, who promptly declared himself Emperor of Eternal happiness. One of his first acts on ascending the Dragon Throne was to instruct a favoured eunuch, Zheng He, to build and then lead a series of huge armadas around the surrounding seas, suppressing any unrest in China’s overseas territories, as well as strengthening trading links and diplomatic ties with its neighbours. And maybe Zhu Di was also a little anxious that his nephew and predecessor had escaped, and wanted to track him down, or at least deny him time and space to regroup.

Whatever his thinking, he certainly didn’t stint. The first fleet alone is reputed to have comprised three hundred and seventeen ships carrying twenty-eight thousand people. Even allowing for the usual imperial exaggeration, it was an extraordinary undertaking. The demand for wood was so intense that whole regions of China were deforested. Most of the ships were junks, supply boats and troop transports, but each fleet included a number of huge treasure ships: floating embassies designed specifically to impress and intimidate. They were claimed to be over four hundred feet long and a hundred and eighty feet wide, with nine masts each, the tallest of which is said to have stood over three hundred feet high – though modern ship engineers dispute that such giants were technically achievable with the materials and techniques then to hand.

Most of Zheng He’s voyages stayed well within known territory, though the fourth voyage made it to Arabia and East Africa. But it’s the sixth voyage that’s proved the most intriguing and controversial. Zheng He didn’t actually make very far himself, but he sent various of his vice-admirals onwards with large contingents of their own. There was a great fire in Beijing shortly after they set out, however, which the Emperor interpreted as a divine admonishment against his treasure fleets, and so he put an end to the voyages and ordered the archives destroyed.

Which all means that no one today can be entirely sure how far they made it, or what strange new lands they might have visited upon their way.