“There were not many weapons of killing aboard the ships, instead, there were many weapons of virtue and they were presented to the Kings he visited”
Those are words quoted from Hamka, Indonesian religious leader, novelist, philosopher and political activist, who wrote in the Star Weekly Magazine commenting on the largest seafaring voyages ever conducted in history, that were led by Imperial China’s Admiral Cheng Ho, sometimes written as Zheng He (1371-1435) in the 15th century.
Since he commenced the expeditions in 1405 until he passed away in 1433, Admiral Cheng Ho conducted 7 (seven) consecutive international expeditions, visiting 37 countries in the course of 28 years. In these expeditions, the admiral called on countries from Asia, the Middle East, to Africa.
The voyages were ordered by Ming Emperor Yongle with the purpose not so much as voyages of explorations, since most of the routes were then already well known, – but in order to impress Asian and African principalities and kingdoms around the Indian Ocean of the might of China , so that in response they would pay tribute to China. At the death of Emperor Yongle, however, the voyages were halted by his successor, Emperor Hongle.
The exploration voyages of Christopher Columbus who is famous for discovering the American continent in 1492 pales in comparison with achievements made by the fleet of Admiral Cheng Ho. The voyages of Admiral Cheng Ho dated 87 years earlier than that of Columbus and also preceded the other renowned seafarer Vasco da Gama who sailed from Portugal to India in 1497. Cheng Ho’s fleet even preceded Ferdinand Magellan who is said to be the pioneer in circumnavigating the earth by 114 years. Another fascinating feature about Cheng Ho’s expeditions is the sheer size of his fleets. Combined with the mid and small ships, each of Cheng Ho’s fleet averaged 200 ships. This number is truly staggering considering that Columbus only sailed with 3 ships only and 188 crew members when he discovered America.
In his many expeditions, Cheng Ho visited numerous parts of the Indonesian Archipelago all the way to Sri Lanka, Quilon (New Zealand), Kocin, Kalikut, Ormuz, Jeddah, Magadisco, and Malindi.The fleets sailed from Campa to India and along the Persian Gulf, the Red Sea, to the coast of Kenya. Considering its sheer magnitude and duration, Cheng Ho’s expeditions far surpassed other sea explorers and adventurers.
Cheng Ho is regarded as the greatest seafarer in history, and in Indonesia he cannot be separated from the spread of Islam in the archipelago. Cheng Ho’s voyages also played an important role as a historical pillar that links China with Indonesia. There are numerous oral and written stories and legends about the great seafarer found all over the archipelago.
Among the 7 great voyages, the fleets of Cheng Ho visited the Indonesian Archipelago 5 times and greatly impacted on the culture and political systems of the towns he visited. Throughout his voyages, Admiral Cheng Ho visited the principalities and kingdoms of Samudra Pasaiand Lambri in Aceh, Palembang, Bangka, the Majapahit Kingdom in East Java , Tuban, Gresik, Surabaya, Semarang, Cirebon, and Demak in Central Java. Cheng Ho’s arrival in these areas is believed to have boosted their economies and commerce.
The Main Ship of the fleet, which was boarded by Cheng Ho himself was called “The Heirloom Ship” and is until today regarded as the largest ship in the 15th century. The ship measured 138 meters long and 56 meters wide, and was about 5 times larger than the ship of Columbus. According to historian, JV Mills, the ship had a total cargo capacity of 2,500 tons. Its design was majestic, storm proof, and came complete with the most advanced technology for its time including a magnetic compass. The ship is said to have been the inspiration for ship builders of Spain and Portugal.
The entire Cheng Ho fleet consisted of 62 grand ships accompanied by about 225 smaller ships called Junks. In his voyage, Cheng Ho brought along some 27,550 officers including astronomers, politicians, map makers, linguists, geography experts, healers, writers, and religious teachers. The fleet was effectively organized from the main ship (The Heirloom Ship), the Horse Ship (for cargo and horses), the war ships, logistic ships, command ships, and supporting ships.
Different from European sea faring expeditions which were mainly aimed at exploration and colonization, Cheng Ho’s massive fleet did not seek to conquer the lands they visited. Instead, the admiral applied peace diplomacy – now called soft diplomacy – through his nautical expeditions. Cheng Ho, who was a Muslim and follower of Confucian philosophy, was greatly admired for his global tolerance perspectives to people with different religions and traditions.
Cheng Ho’s fleet carried the mission based on the spirit of peace and friendship to different countries with different cultures and political systems. At the same time, Cheng Ho also succeeded in introducing Chinese culture besides establishing Chinese Naval forces during the reign of the Ming Dynasty. His expeditions were also intended to spread the religion of Islam and to encourage Chinese immigrants to bridge close relationship and assimilate with the indigenous people.
In his 5 expeditions to the Indonesian Archipelago, Cheng Ho successfully introduced Chinese technology and lifestyle to the populations. At each place he visited, the admiral also planted a strong feeling of brotherhood with the local people by building mosques and houses of prayer that show acculturation melting the culture of the Islamic religion, Chinese traditions with local traditions.
These houses of prayers that portray syncretism between Islam, local cultures, and Chinese beliefs can still be found in a number of coastal cities along the Indonesian Archipelago that Cheng Ho visited, especially on Sumatra and Java. People in Cirebon, in the West java Province even believe that it was Cheng Ho and his men who taught their ancestors how to grow rice, the mainstay of Indonesia. The motifs found in the batik fabric of Lasem, Central Java also show strong Chinese influence.
When he visited Samudra Pasai in Aceh, Admiral Cheng Ho presented a giant bell called “Cakradonya” as gift to the Sultan of Aceh. This Bell can still be seen today at the Museum of Banda Aceh in Banda Aceh, capital of Aceh Province.
In 1415, Cheng Ho’s fleet docked at Muara Jati in Cirebon. Along with the entourage, Cheng Ho also presented a number of souvenirs to the Sultan of Cirebon. A plate bearing the “Kursi” verses from the Holy Qur’an, a gift from the admiral, is still kept safe today at the Kasepuhan Palace in Cirebon.
When they sailed along the northern coast of Java, one of Cheng Ho’s crew Wang Jinghoung fell ill and decided to stay at the Simongan Beach, Semarang. Wang Jinghoung (later known as Kiai Jurumudi Dampo Awang) eventually decided to reside in the area and thus, pioneered the first Chinese settlement in Semarang. Wang also paid tribute to Cheng Ho and built a monumental statue called Mbah Ledakar Juragan Dampo Awang Sam Po Kong by the Sam Po Kong Temple.
In Turban. East Java Province, Cheng Ho taught the local people farming, stockbreeding, masonry, and fishery. He also did similarly when he arrived in Gresik. On his visit to Surabaya, Cheng Ho was given the honor to deliver a speech in front of thousands of audience. Cheng Ho also visited Mojokerto which at the time was the seat of the Majapahit Kingdom. At the Majapahit Palace, the King of Majapahit, Wikramawardhana conducted a meeting with Cheng Ho and his entourage.
Cheng Ho’s legendary expedition has not only carved an incredible history in the places he visited, but he also inspired numerous literary works both non-fiction and fiction. He was also instrumental in the discovery of various nautical navigation expedition technology and ship building technologies in Europe. Cheng Ho’s incredible voyages, moreover, produced a book called “Zheng He’s Navigation Map” which has changed the navigational map of the world since the 15th century. The book contains 24 navigational maps along with directions, distances, and ports of calls. Through his voyages, Cheng Ho in fact established the new sea trade route that connected China and the Eastern world with the West, which previously only relied solely on the “Silk Road” , the land route from Beijing to Bukhara.