Empire of Trade

SIX hundred years ago, in 1405, the Chinese imperial fleet set out on its first voyage to explore and trade with the world. The logistics of the enterprise remain unparalleled in maritime history - 27,000 men aboard 317 ships. The most impressive vessels were the treasure ships, built of hardwood, 130 metres long and 50 metres wide; by the side of them, Columbus’s 28-metre long Santa Maria, in which he reached the Americas, would have looked like a dinghy, and he had only three ships and 270 men. The ships had hulls with multiple watertight compartments for buoyancy, nine masts, and 12 gigantic sails made of bamboo slats rather than woven cloth; the slats could be angled like venetian blinds, which enabled the ships to sail in winds unusable by western craft. They carried trade and tribute goods and supplies; aboard was a massive complement of bureaucrats, merchants, interpreters, astrologers, priests, cooks, doctors, marines - soldiers trained to operate at or from sea. The fleet had been assembled on the orders of the Yongle Emperor Zhu Di, who had recently usurped the dragon throne. He wanted to legitimise his claim, and re-establish the prestige and influence associated with China in the Tang dynasty, which had been lost during the period when the Mongols invaded and ruled most of China. The political motive for the maritime expedition was to enlist states in an imperial tribute system that increased the domestic prestige of the emperor, since China considered itself the centre of the world with its emperor the ruler of tian xia (all under heaven).