Voyage of a Chinese treasure ship
The legendary tale of Sinbad comes to life at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum
By Michael Sullivan 05/30/2013
It started eight years ago when Howard Smith, Ojai resident and member of the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, had a conversation over lunch with Mark Bacin, then-executive director of the Maritime Museum in Oxnard. Smith, who had majored in Chinese in college many moons ago, told Bacin that the museum lacked Asian pieces, noting that it only had one Korean turtle boat. Bacin agreed with Smith and told him that he could curate the next exhibit on the Ming Dynasty’s Chinese Treasure Fleet later that year, commemorating the 600-year anniversary of the fleet’s maiden voyage. So began the journey to build one of the only, if not the only, scale-model replica in the United States of an ancient early-15th-century Chinese treasure ship and an unforeseen connection to a life-size model currently under construction in China.
For the exhibit in December 2005, Smith created an elaborate ambience at the museum, likened to the look and feel of the Forbidden City of Shanghai. But the main treasure of the exhibit was the model scale replica of the Chinese treasure ship, the work a group of six museum members, including attorney and retired engineer Richard Walton and famous Mad magazine artist and Ojai resident Sergio Aragones, who designed the dragons that adorn the hull. (The replica remains on display at the museum, which is located on the west side of the Channel Islands Harbor.) It took the group nearly six months to complete the model, mostly done in the garage of Bill Conroy, current member, replica builder and former executive director of the museum. While the details concerning the fabrication of the replica ship are rather standard in nature, the story behind the Chinese Treasure Fleet inspires intrigue and curiosity. According to Smith, who speaks with expertise on the subject, the Chinese Treasure Fleet and its admiral, Zheng He (pronounced Jzung huh), revolutionized trading in the East, escalated China to the richest country in the world and allegedly provides the factual story behind Sinbad, legend of the seven seas.
A Chinese treasure ship (450 feet, c. 1405) model built to scale, stands in stark contrast to the scale model of Christopher Columbus’ Santa Maria (lower left; 72 feet, c. 1492) and the Cutty Sark, a British tall ship (212 feet, c. 1869), at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum.
Picture it: China, 1405. Zheng He, admiral of a fleet of hundreds of ships as big as today’s cargo ships, begins on the first of seven voyages, which in all would bring unprecedented wealth to China. His massive ships and their arrivals in India, Africa and the Middle East were chronicled by port workers. The Chinese treasure ships and fleets would dominate the seas for the next three decades. It has even been said that the fleet made it to North America, decades before Christopher Columbus’ voyage. The Chinese treasure ships were the largest ships of the seas and remain the largest wooden ships ever constructed. For comparison, Columbus’ ships of 1492 were an average of 60-70 feet long. The average Chinese treasure ship was 400-450 feet long, and hundreds of these ships comprised the fleet.
“The fleet was incredible,” Smith said. It would carry “30,000 sailors, scientists, researchers, scholars. They were voyages of exploration, discovery and trade. The size of these fleets was not equaled until the end of the 19th century, WWI.”
Unfortunately, the death of Ming Emperor Zhu Di in 1433 led to the demise of the Chinese treasure fleets. As a new Mandarin emperor coming into power, he decided that in order to undermine his enemies, he would ground the fleet and cut off trade with other countries. Once the fleet was grounded, the ships and all records of the fleet and their voyages were destroyed. This stunted China’s growth and prosperity until the late 20th century and into the 2000s, when the country was finally able to pick up from where it had left off in the early 15th century. The only records that the fleet even existed were documents filed and kept by port workers over the centuries. Still today, there are no drawings of an actual Chinese treasure ship, just the details logged at the ports.
While the Chinese treasure ship model replica stands next to a life-size sculpture of Zheng He at the Channel Islands Maritime Museum, several museum members decided to embark on the adventure of luring a life-size, half-scale model of a Chinese treasure ship, which is currently under construction in Nanjing, China. The members are currently in talks with officials in China and hoping that the museum’s model-size replica will give the leaders of the China project reason to come and visit either the Channel Islands harbor or the Port of Hueneme, depending on the size of the boat and the depth of the water.
“CIMM [Channel Islands Maritime Museum] is a unique museum in having the admiral and his ship on display, believed to be the only such exhibit in the U.S.,” said Ron Sam, a museum member. “This fact alone may help us get listed on their list of ports-of-call when the 225-foot replica Zheng He ship sets sail in late 2014 from its home port of Nanjing, China.”
The Channel Islands Maritime Museum recently celebrated the opening of its second floor, displaying an array of model-size historic ship and boat replicas, plus art pieces. The museum reopened at its new location at 3900 Bluefin Circle in the Channel Islands Harbor, west side, in Oxnard. It also announced the winners of the artworks “Nautica 2013” exhibit, featuring local artists. The exhibit will be on display until July 1.