Lords of the sea :the mighty chinese Ming

For over 1100 years the overland Silk Road, running 4600 miles from eastern China to the shores of the Mediterranean, was the core of the world economy.When Marco Polo trod this road around 1270 A.D -from Venice to Xanadu- the entire route was under Mongol control. Young Marco travelled under the protection of Mongol soldiers all the way.

Xiang silk embroidery Xiang silk embroidery 
Image courtesy Taiwan Palace museum

However, by 1291 A.D. the central part of Genghis Khan’s vast empire had collapsed. The fabled Mongol Yuan emperor Kublai Khan could no longer guarantee the safety of Marco Polo beyond the boundaries of China. When Marco wanted to return home, he had to do so by the sea route and thereby hangs a tale …

carving in jade

Carving in jade
Image credit : Hugh Mascarenhas at the Asian Civilisations museum, Singapore.

The last Mongol emperor was packed off from China in 1368 A.D. The Chinese had indigenous monarchs once again – the Ming. But there was a problem: How to raise the money to rule the state, support the grandiose public works & finance the army which was active on all fronts? This, when the wealth of the old overland silk route had all but dried up. The answer, it seemed, lay in the Chinese ship-building skills and in the superior goods that China was still offering the world. The Ming plunged into maritime trade in a big way.The massive shipyards at Nanking were turning out treasure ships eight times larger than Columbus’s carrack the Santa Maria, 100 years later. Each trading fleet had up to 200 ships, some of them carrying up to 2500 tons of cargo each. A fleet was sometimes manned by as many as 28,000 men. 4 decker ,9 masted Ming trading ship 500ft. long.                4 decker , 9 masted Ming treasure ship, 500 feet long
Image credit :  Hugh Mascarenhas at S.E.A. aquarium , Singapore.
the hold of a treasure ship returning from Africa & India

 Hold of a treasure ship returning from Africa and India
Image credit : Hugh Mascarenhas at S.E.A. aquarium , Singapore.

At the S.E.A Aquarium in Singapore, is exhibited a scale model of one such treasure ship, with another exhibit showing its vast holds and the cargo it was capable of carrying. The upper decks were adorned with state-rooms for royalty and the envoys of vassal countries. Marco Polo probably travelled home in one of these ships, as he was escorting a Mongol princess and her retinue to Persia.

      Ming porcelain.JPGMing  dynasty porcelain
Image credit : Asian civilisations museum ,Singapore

The main trade route was Nanjing – Guangzhou  (Canton) – Qui Nhon (Vietnam) – Temasek   (Singapore) – Malacca ( Malaysia ) – Galle (Sri Lanka)– Calicut (South India) – Aden (Yemen) – Malindii (Kenya). Auxilliary voyages were made to Thailand,Myanmar,Bengal,Jeddah&Mozambique. The goods brought back from these countries included ; ebony and exotic woods from Vietnam – hornbill casques, coral and pearls from Singapore & Malacca  – rubies and jade from Myanmar   – topaz, amethyst , sapphires and garnets from  Sri Lanka – pepper , cardamom , turmeric , ginger , ornamental beads and cotton textiles from India – pearls , incense and amber from Yemen – exotic animals and birds from Malindi and Mozambique.

imports from SriLanka --topaz,, amythest , pearls & garnetsImports from Sri Lanka
Image credit : Hugh Mascarenhas taken at the S.E.A aquarium.


chinese exports - porcelain jar & vase                                                                                                                                                                        Ming porcelain exports
Image credit : Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

17th century chinese stoneware 17th century chinese stoneware
Image credit : Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore

The Ming were truly the lords of the sea. In 1433 the Chinese grand admiral Zheng He died. Court politics took over. By the year 1500, the great ocean going nine-masted ships were extinct. In 1525, china destroyed its remaining ocean going ships and turned inwards. The Maritime silk route was dead. Almost immediately, from the other side of the world, a new maritime trade route to these exotic lands emerged. That will be the subject of my next blog. Stay posted.


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My name is Hugh Mascarenhas. I am a graduate mechanical engineer and a post-graduate in business management. Having worked in Industry for nearly 40 years, I retired in 2010 as chief operating officer of a group of companies and now live in Nasik, India. During the course of my work,​ and thereafter, I visited many countries, worldwide. While engaged in work related activities, I collected information on various aspects of each country I visited. My interests include history , archeology , travel , wildlife , philosophy , & geneology. You will find strands of these woven into the various blogs of my website www.wideworldexplorer.com. I would appreciate your comments on the blog posts or write to me directly at hjmascarenhas@gmail.com

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