Prince Henry of Portugul is know as ‘Henry the Navigator’, but why? Why not Zheng He? Zheng who? Exactly! He is listed as the 14th most important person in the last 1,000 years by Life magazine. Zheng He was a Chinese mariner and explorer. He made the voyages collectively known as “Zheng He to the Western Ocean’. Known more for being a eunuch (castrated male) then his spectacular voyages.
Prince Henry never really left land, while Zheng He commanded fleets consisting of hundreds of ships. Emperors in the Ming Dynasty during 1405 – 1433 created a fleet to make seven expeditions into the Indian Ocean. Each expedition would last nearly two years. Zheng He was selected to command these voyages. He was born into a Muslim family sometime in 1371 (no one is sure of this exact date of birth or death) in the province of Yunan. When the first Ming Emperor Zhu Yuanzhnag conquered his province in 1381 he enslaved Ma He to be a harem guard. At 20 Ma He he began serving the prince Zhu Di and was shortly promoted to junior officer in a civil war. To superintendent of the office of enunchs and gained the surname Zheng.
In 1405 – 1407 commanded his first voyage of 28,000 men and 317 ships. Columbus only had 120 men and 3 ships when he traveled to North America. On his expeditions he visited India, the Persian Gulf, Mecca and Africa. He gave gifts to the rulers of the lands he visited. He recorded the culture of the places he visited and kept a record of the in his diary.
All in all, Zheng He visited 37 countries and brought back a Griaffee and a Zebra, both of which few had ever seen. In 1435 Chinese oversea expenditions halted suddenly. Zheng He died on the seventh voyage and was buried at sea. By 1500 it was a capital offense to build a boat with more than one mast and in 1525 all ships were destroyed. This great navy was destroyed and we are not sure why.
Prince Henry of Portugul was to become a legend in Eurpoean history. He was born in 1394 of King John I and Queen Philippa of Portugul. He would be the third son of the couple. Without Henry’s expeditions during the first half of the fifteenth century other explorers like Bartholomeu Dias would not have been able to round the Cape of Good Hope in 1487 and Columbus would not have sought a sea path to the Indies in 1492
It is important to note that Henry never personally navigated any ships. However, he did send out ships with great zeal. He would outfit the ships himself or outsource to private captains and ask for five percent of any earnings. In the beginning Henry spent far more than he earned from these expeditions. The expeditions would hug the coast line of Africa. Many of the crews were afraid to go too far south because it was said that the sea boiled in the heat of the equator and the sun could pour down liquid fire.
The Portuguese caravels were light, fast, maneuverable ships that could be sailed inshore. In 1460, the year of Henry’s death, Pedro de Sintra reached Sierra Leone. In 1411 slaves where brought back to Portugal and more sailors were willing to participate in the expeditions. Henry built the first slave trading post in 1448 on the Arguin Island. Securing slaves was not Henry’s original intent, but this practice did not bother him.
While Zheng He had had no religious reasons for sailing Henry wanted to spread the faith. Zheng He left a tablet in Ceylon in 1409 that had inscriptions in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. In it he offered thanks to Buddha, Allah and Vishnu. Henry would have baulked at such an idea. While Henry sailed to rid the world of the Muslim Moors and spread the Christian faith, Zheng He sailed for knowledge of customs, rare goods, and political and nautical information.
Henry continued to reap financial gains for explorations and was granted the fees from fishermen and 5 percent of everything brought back from south of Cape Bojador. However, he most likely died poor, because he continued to re-invest all his earnings back into exploration. His efforts were supported because of the potential finances gained from slave trade and exploration. Portuguese pirates would even raid and pillage under the guise of exploration. And of course the Catholic Church supported him because he was helping spread the good word.
Both explorers found economic domination acceptable as it was done for the mother country. Both sought power for the rulers and both had sailing vessels capable of long voyages. For Zheng He his travels marked an end of sea travel for his people for Henry a beginning. The Chinese had magnetic compasses and technically superior ships to the European ones. They also had a balanced rudder (one that can be raised and lowered) and watertight storage compartments. This begs the question, what would the World be like if they had not stopped with Zheng He? Zheng He could not go and do what he wanted. His ruler limited his exploration and his growth. A servants glass-ceiling. Farming was China’s big thing not sea exploration. China was happy being isolated and independent. On the other hand, Portugal was into domination. Henry was not limited and had the resources to explore.