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Not Your Father’s World History Part 7:
“Four times the length of Columbus’s Santa Maria.”

3 November 2005

Admiral Zheng He
Admiral Zheng He
Photo Courtesy The Seoul Times

Curious Article No. 16:

One day in 1381 the Ming Dynasty army stormed into Kunyang, a town in Yunnan and one of the last strongholds of what had once been the Mongol Empire. Among their many spoils they snatched ten-year-old Ma Sanbao, castrated him, and delivered him to Nanjing as a servant for prince Zhu Di. Sanbao’s dynamic intellect made him a court favorite and when Zhu Di became Emperor he took the name Yongle and renamed his servant Zheng He (“Three Jewels”).

As admiral, Zheng led seven voyages between 1405 and 1430 to establish diplomatic relations between China and the “barbarous” nations to the west, promote trade, and, incidentally, track down Yongle’s predecessor Jianwen who rumors claimed was still alive. Zheng's fleet at its peak consisted of approximately 300 junks carrying 28,000 crew members. The largest of these ships were reserved for Yongle to review the fleet and measured around 500 feet (150 meters) in length, displaced 3100 tons, and had nine masts. Zheng's flagships had six masts and were still over four times the length of Columbus’s Santa Maria. The sight of this flotilla emerging unbidden over the horizon must have been stupefying.

Zheng He logged over 300,000 nautical miles, covering the whole of southeast Asia down to Timor; India and Sri Lanka; Africa’s east coast; all of the Arabian peninsula (being Moslem, he visited Mecca); and Persia. Lavish gifts changed hands, and at times he brought back live giraffes, zebras, and oryxes. Jianwen was a no-show, but Zheng did kill some 5000 Japanese pirates. It’s likely he at least sighted Australia at its Cape York Peninsula, 190 years before Willem Janszoon, and there are those who think he may have rounded Africa and entered western Europe. Former naval officer Gavin Menzies really goes for broke and asserts that Zheng He visited America, seventy years before Columbus. But most historians roll their eyes at Menzes’s arguments and point out that he scored a £500,000 advance from his publisher.

Slavery dates back to prehistory, mainly in the context of prisoners of war or caste oppression. But at about this time — the mid fifteenth century or so — the Portuguese in cahoots with African chieftains elevated the institution into a global industry that left a lasting demographic impact. The Koran, the Bible, and the Vedic scriptures were no comfort as all three took slavery very much for granted. The Bible even extended this to family members in Exodus 21:7: “And if a man sells his daughter to be a female slave, she shall not go out [in public] as the male slaves do.” At least its victims had distinguished company. The Greek poet Aesop, Roman playwright and musical composer Terance, Pope Callixtus I, author Miguel de Cervantes, and Henry the Black, believed to have been the first person to circumnavigate the globe, were all at one time slaves. In 1436 marauders snatched a twenty-year-old al-Ashraf Qaytbay from his home in the Caucasus, took him to Egypt, and sold him for recruitment as a Mameluke warrior. He went on to become one of Egypt’s greatest sultans... and to buy 46,000 slaves himself.

This vile human trafficking peaked at about the time of the American Revolution. Estimates vary widely, but the most conservative figure for the transatlantic phase is twelve million people between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. The largest share went to the Caribbean to work the sugar, coffee and cotton crops and to the hellish gold mines in Brazil. Customs and languages among the African abductees actually ranged far more widely than did those of the Europeans and so, aside from the legendary cruelties and hardships, they had to contend with substantial culture shock within their ranks.

Francois L'Ouverture
François L’Ouverture
Slavers hoped this jumbling would discourage rebellion but it happened a lot anyway, especially in the Caribbean. After an uprising in 1763 in Guiana a slave named Cuffy actually ruled the country for a year or so and is now a national hero. In 1791 over 100,000 fed up slaves in Haiti went on a rampage, killing most of their French masters and burning down the plantations. A middle-aged carriage driver among them named François L'Ouverture gathered everyone into a unified force and successfully negotiated a settlement for partial sovereignty with the French government. Cognizant of these and other incidents, slave owners throughout the hemisphere enjoyed little sleep.

Many blacks in the Americas today are quite interested in tracing their slave-era ancestry, though a lot of the DNA outfits that have sprung up lately promise a far greater precision than they can honestly deliver. The problem is that DNA markers show one’s anthropological background, as opposed to geopolitical (which is normally what we think of when we go back a century or two in our family records, as opposed to, say, thousands of years). Often the two don't match. That said, African Americans, on average, show about 20% Indo-European lineage. American Indian is another frequent component. Some self-identified blacks on this side of the world are astonished to learn they have no African lineage at all.

We like to think we've put slavery firmly behind us, but it still flourishes. The International Labor Organization estimates there are about 12 million slaves working in the world today, primarily in Africa, Latin America, and the poorer Asian countries. Two of the worst offenders are Sudan and Niger, while “near-slavery” (human trafficking, workers perpetually indebted to their employers, caste exploitation, etc.) is a big problem in the United Arab Emirates, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Indonesia.

European colonists reintroduced horses to the New World starting from the end of the fifteenth century. The Indians either rounded up strays or bartered for some of the animals directly, and in time devised their own independent expertise in horse husbandry. One can draw a rough parallel between them and the Egyptians, who some 3000 years earlier had first acquired their own horses in meaningful quantities from their Hyksos invaders. One thing that amazed the Europeans was that the Indians could single out individual animals in any quantity entirely by sight, without having to brand or mark them in any way.

Ming Dynasty
Emperor Jiajing
Modern history’s second deadliest earthquake trashed a hundred Chinese counties in the area of Shansi Province in February of 1556, killing around 830,000 and likely displacing millions. People in this region lived in caves carved from cliffs made of loess, a crumbly type of silt deposited by wind or glacial action. Their emperor at the time, Jiajing, was one of China’s cruelest and most derelict. When he wasn't busy slicing and dicing people who rubbed him the wrong way or assaulting young teenaged girls he spent his time with alchemists trying to formulate an immortality elixir, and so probably wasn't much help to the quake victims.

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Text © Peter Blinn 2006

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