Chinese Voyages in the Indian Ocean

The Chinese Voyages of the Ming Dynasty

A comparison of Arab and Chinese narratives of their respective explorations and commercial use of the Indian Ocean system in the 15th century suggests how the system was evolving and the relative amount of state support or lack of it.  For the Chinese mercantile voyages of the period of Zheng He (1371-1433), the great admiral and explorer of Ming China, it seems there was direct or subsidized state support for the enormous cost of his large fleets (Klinje, 2014) (Huan, 1970).  

Map of the Fourth Voyage:  Source:  Brittanica
Thus at Calcutta and other east Indian ports, the chronicles of Ma Huan records that the fleets of Zheng He were assayed in great detail for their valuable silk cargoes with exact negotiations over individual pieces (Huan, 1970, p. 140).  In response to this expansive Chinese commercial and maritime presence there was an accompanying level of local bureaucratic customs and registration.
In contrast, the famous late 15th century navigational manuals of Ibn Majid, the Arab navigator from the Arab Gulf, show little indication of any state development or support that would fit with the definitions of mercantilism.  The practices of the Western Indian Ocean and Arabian Seas may have varied greatly according to individual ports and the power of a local sultan or ruler. This may explain the persistence of the localized forms of navigation and more decentralized ownership of boats and fleets found in the Arabian Seas that were variously ruined or sustained during the pre-oil economy up into the 20th century. The merchant ships and smaller fleets of the Arabian Seas had little bureaucracy to answer to, as did the successors of Zheng He in the middle of the 15th century when the Ming Dynasty called its merchant fleets back.  Nevertheless we find in both the Chinese and Arab chronicles evidence that standard weights and measures in steelyards were used at ports in Yemen and in Calcutta (Huan, 1970, p. 142).  

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For Chinese sources go this Chinese language page.

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