The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013

A Legend Lingers

As the Singapore antiquarian had said when I showed him my cup, it was hard to know what to believe. There was only the evidence of that gargantuan rudder to keep me going until 2003, when I stumbled onto an academic paper delivered a decade earlier. The paper, which I found on a Singapore website, had been delivered by Fred Wakeman, Jr., a celebrated University of California scholar, at the 1992 convention of the American Historical Association in Washington, D.C. Zheng He was its main subject.

Wakeman's observations offered an exacting chronicle of the Ming voyages. By his count, based on readings from every available source, 62 colossal, nine-masted baochuan — "treasure junks" — led the way to India on the first voyage in 1405. Each of them was 450 feet long and 180 feet across the beam. "A vessel that large would have displaced at least 3,000 tons, whereas none of Vasco da Gama's ships exceeded 300 tons," he pointed out. "Even in 1588, the largest English merchant ship did not exceed 400 tons."

They were accompanied by hundreds of eight-masted "horse ships" for the Ming cavalry, seven-masted grain carriers, six-masted troop transports, and sleek five-masted combat vessels. Aboard this huge floating city, Wakeman continued, were "17 imperial eunuch ambassadors and assistant ambassadors; 63 eunuch officials and chamberlains; 95 military directors; 207 brigade and company commanders; three senior ministry secretaries; two masters of ceremony from the Department of State ceremonials; five geomancers; 128 medical personnel; and 26,803 officers, soldiers, cooks, purveyors, clerks, and interpreters."

More important, on a strictly personal level, it was in Wakeman's paper that I learned of a tremendous clash in 1406 between Zheng's ships and Cantonese pirates in the Malacca Strait. The pirates were resoundingly defeated, with most of their booty-laden vessels sent to the bottom — just off Sumatra. The cup! The link between that battle and a looted shipwreck in 1982 was a matter of informed speculation. But after an 11-year search, it was enough for me.

Wakeman's paper brought me to Ma Huan, a self-described "simple woodcutter" who spoke Arabic and served as Zheng He's interpreter. Ma had kept an extensive diary during his years on the Ming fleet. It became my sea chart, the map I followed when I returned to China on a National Geographic assignment in 2004 and began retracing, with far more authority, Zheng He's voyages.

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