Thanks to his abilities, loyalty, honesty, integrity and brilliance, Ma He became the best friend and the personal bodyguard of the young prince.
It was during this time and period that Ma He’s intelligence, wisdom and leadership abilities became visible. After all the campaigns and battles he led and fought on the side of Prince Zhu Di during four years, Ma He became the most powerful military commander in China.
When Prince Zhu Di became the new Emperor of the Ming Dynasty, he decided to reward all the officers and officials who had supported him. Ma He was one of them.
Becoming Zheng He
In 1404, the new Emperor awarded him as “the supreme command of the Imperial Household Agency”. Zhu Di decided also to change the name of Ma and gave him his new title: Zheng. It was Zhu Di’s way to thank him for everything he did and as a symbol of the imperial honor. From that moment Ma He became ‘Zheng He’.
The political discussions he had with Zhu Di, the military experiences he undertook, his connections with the people of knowledge, trading with merchants and all the abilities he developed in his childhood will only open new doors and horizons to him: exploring the world.
The emperor chose him as the ideal commander for the great voyages westward. After he became the most powerful commander in China, he became China’s greatest maritime explorer. Admiral Zheng He, became his new title. Zhu Di held Zheng He responsible for all the maritime affairs.
Zheng He prepared everything very carefully before he accomplished his mission as an explorer. He made some detailed studies about existing naval charts, astro navigation, eastern and western calendars, astronomy, geography, marine sciences, piloting, shipbuilding and repair.
From 1405 until 1433, Zheng He led 7 great maritime expeditions. He crossed the great oceans and seas several times. From the South China Sea to the east coast of Africa, passing through the Indian Ocean, the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea.
He visited more than 30 Asian and African countries and learned a lot about their cultures and beliefs. It is possible that during one of his expeditions he completed his pilgrimage to Makkah. Zheng He was not the only Muslim on those expeditions. Advisors and translators who traveled with him, like Ma Huan were just like him, Chinese Muslims.
The first fleet Zheng He commanded included 27.870 men on 317 ships, including sailors, clerks, interpreters, soldiers, artisans, doctors and meteorologists. He was on his way to Vietnam, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Java and Sumatra.
The ships that Zengh He commanded were up to 137.2 m long and 186 across, capable of carrying more than thousand passengers as well as a massive amount of cargo with products like porcelain, gold and silverware, cotton, copper and silk goods.
Those ships were many times the size of Columbus’s ships that passed across the Atlantic and several times larger than any other wooden ship ever recorded in history.
The most spectacular and important voyage of Zheng He was his 4th one with his 30,000 men, which was to Arabia (through Hormuz, Aden and the Red Sea). When he arrived in Arabia, 19 countries sent ambassadors to board Zheng He’s ships with gifts for Emperor Zhu Di.
After his trip to Arabia, he travelled to the east coast of Africa and possibly reached Mozambique.
After the death of Emperor Zhu Di in 1424, the new Emperor (Hongxi), ceased immediately all the maritime expeditions. China became a self-isolated country during the coming 100 years.
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