General, navigator and explorer, b. 1371 (Yunnan, China), d. 1433 (at sea).
The son of a poor Muslim family, Cheng Ho was captured during the Yunnan campaign of the Chinese emperor and sent to the imperial household to serve as an eunuch.
His parents had made the pilgrimage to Mecca and made sure that their son learned the Arabic language and became familiar with Islamic custom. This knowledge earned him a growing reputation at the court, and he was placed in charge of a large fleet to explore the west.
In his first voyage of 1405 - 1407 he set sail with a fleet of over 300 ships and more than 28,000 men, among them many "learned men" from all science disciplines whose role was to explore what other nations had to offer. 62 of his ships were over 100 m long and carried a huge cargo for the exchange of gifts with other empires: silk, porcelain, gold, silverware, copper, various utensils, iron implements and cotton goods. His largest vessel had a total length of 130 m, a width of 60 m, carried nine masts and was crewed by 500 men.
Cheng Ho's seven voyages over the period 1405 - 1423 saw his ships visit the coasts of Malaysia, Sri Lanka, India, the Persian Gulf and the entire African east coast. A visit to Mozambique is recorded. European maps produced before the voyages of European explorers suggest that on his last voyage he rounded South Africa and commanded several fleets that surveyed the coasts of nearly all continents. A memorial stone erected by Cheng Ho on the Yangtze River estuary says:
When Cheng Ho returned to China in 1423 the emperor's rule had crumbled under revolts and natural calamities, and his successor was not inclined to continue maritime exploration.
* There is debate over the correct reading of this figugre on the memorial. Alternative interpretations give three hundred or thirty as the correct translation.
Illustration: painting in the Zheng He Institute, believed to be in the public domain (Wikipedia)
A model of one of Cheng Ho's treasure ships
Photo: Hong Kong Science Museum, believed to be in the public domain