The Greatest Explorer ...
You Never Heard Of

By Frank Viviano
Published: August/September 2013

Illustration of Zheng He, a 15th-century Chinese admiral
Illustration: Hongnian Zhang /National Geographic Creative

In a past feature story we celebrated the voyages of Capt. James Cook, calling him the greatest seafarer of all time. Well, BoatUS member Geoff Keato disagreed, writing to introduce us to China's legendary Zheng He, "who did it all 300 years before Cook, and 50 years before Columbus found the Bahamas." Geoff was right! The accomplishments of this 15th century explorer are dazzling. Here's the remarkable story.

When I first heard the admiral's name spoken, it was by a corrupt police inspector in 1982. He was a local potentate in Sumatra, the Indonesian island that cuts like a scimitar through the eastern Indian Ocean, separating it from the Strait of Malacca. The city of Padang, where the inspector presided, hugs a stagnant estuary on the Indian Ocean side of the island. I'd stopped by the police station looking for a map; there was no apparent logic to Padang's sweltering streets, and I was tired of aimlessly walking in search of a hotel. The inspector was warmly disposed toward anybody who might bring money his way.

He pointed to a three-story concrete building up the road. "All foreigner stay there. Air-conditioned," he said. When he learned I was a journalist, a cloud flitted across his face, but he took the plunge: "Now I show you something." A cloth bundle was carried in by an underling and placed on the desk. The inspector unwrapped it, gently tugging the folds of cloth away until a small cup emerged. A peacock strutted on its thin, almost transparent ceramic shell, in a light azure-blue glaze. "Ming Dynasty," the inspector said. "Shipwreck in Malacca Strait. Maybe one of Cheng Ho ships. He make big battle near Sumatra."

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