From 1405 to 1433, the Ming rulers of China sent ‘treasure fleets’ to Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, and as far as Mozambique. And then in 1434 the Portuguese reached Western Sahara, after which they went farther south every year until 1488 when they rounded the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Agulhas and reached the southeast coast of Africa, which opened the door to colonization, the European slave trade, and the rise of the West to its 500-year dominance. Is that dominance tipping back to China and East Asia?
The Ming dynasty, the last Chinese dynasty of native origin, had overthrown the Yuan dynasty, descended from the Great Khans Chingiz [Genghis] and Kublai, in 1368. But Yuan princes continued to control such outlying areas as the southwest province of Yunnan. In 1381 the Ming Chinese government conquered Yunnan, and among other things captured a young 10-year-old boy from a Muslim family named Ma He. They promptly castrated Ma He so that he could serve at court. He was given to the Prince of Yan, Zhu Di, who lived at Beiping [the name of Beijing whenever it is not the capital]. He proved talented and was given the new name Zheng He [pronounced Jung Huh]. He showed special promise at sea.
The Prince of Yan became the Yongle Emperor of China [1402-1424], and he pursued an ambitious policy. In the northeast he was able to exact a fur tribute from as far as the isle of Sakhalin, [what precisely is the difference between an island and an isle? And did you know the two words are not related?] now a Russian island north of Japan. Southward and westward, he sponsored the famous Treasure Fleets, of which Zheng He was the commander. Between 1405 and 1421 six such expeditions were launched. The ships were of uncertain size, but they were far larger than anything available to the Europeans; plus they had cannons and rockets. They visited southern India, overthrew the government of Sri Lanka, made contact with the Muslims around the Strait of Hormuz, and visited East Africa as far south as northern Mozambique, taking back to China such prizes as a giraffe.
In 1421 the Yongle Emperor became increasingly concerned about attacks from Mongolia in the north, so he moved his capital to Beiping, which then became Beijing [northern capital]; Nanjing [southern capital] was retained as an auxiliary capital. He issued an order to discontinue the Treasure Fleets, fearing that they were a distraction from the real threat, which came from the north. But in 1430 the succeeding Xuande Emperor gave the authorization for one more voyage. This one went back to a lot of the same places. By July 1433, the expedition was back in China, and no more were launched. The Ming Empire soon adopted a policy of forbidding navigation and exploration outright.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Portuguese, out to contain Islam and piracy, captured the Moroccan coastal city of Ceuta in 1415. The young prince Infante Dom Henrique was inspired by this to try to get and train people to sail down the West African coast to see if there was anything beyond the Muslim world and the desert; and, if lucky, find the bottom of Africa and get around the Muslim world altogether!
A new ship design, the caravel, was adopted, which could sail much closer to the wind direction than the versions that were in use in the Mediterranean. Caravels were able to reach Madeira and the Azores, which still belong to Portugal today [Castile managed to get control of the Canary Islands].
On the mainland African coast, there was the superstitious belief that the sea was unsailable, boiling, full of dragons, or some other deadly threat, south of Cape Boujdour in what is now Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara. In 1434 a navigator named Gil Eanes [pronounced Zhil Ayonnish] successfully broke the Boujdour barrier and returned safely. Expeditions continued to try to go farther every year. And in 1444 they passed Cap Vert, where Dakar is now. They were surprised to discover that the land there was no longer desert.
However, the unfortunate consequence of this was that Portugal now got involved in the already-existing African slave trade, bringing a few slaves back to Lisbon.
Note that for years Africa had been selling its people to the Muslim world, both north and east. But Muslims were indifferent to color, and the Barbary States of northwest Africa would eventually raid-for-slaves as far north as Cornwall, Ireland, and Iceland. If there is one thing to pin uniquely on the West, it is when the West somehow got the idea that black Africans were more suitable for slavery than other peoples. This came late; the word ‘slave’ comes from Slav, which people were marketed frequently in the early Middle Ages, often by my ancestors.
But has the scale started to tip back? It has, mostly in my own lifetime. Japan was the country that decided objectively to ‘Westernize’ while keeping the roots of its own culture back in 1867. And it made a success of this, being able to mount a successful military challenge to the Russian Empire in 1904-05 and a serious one to Britain and the United States in 1941-45.
Japan switched to more peaceful pursuits and by the 1970s it was dominating the field of music, radio, TV and camera equipment, video games, and making a serious challenge in automobiles. The next challenge to Japan came from the ‘Tigers’ – South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. South Korea worked its way up to being an automobile, radio, and TV equipment manufacturing country after having been one of the most pitiful countries in the world in the 1950s.
Last of all, Deng Xiao Ping, in 1979, declared, “Making money is glorious” and changed the course of the Chinese nation to Fascist while still nominally calling itself Communist [I have seen a Chinese ‘good luck temple’ and it made our ‘Prosperity Theology Christians’ look like St. Francis of Assisi in comparison!]. After Soviet communism dissolved in 1989-91, China assumed the role of the world’s second greatest nation. Today it is a serious rival to the United States commercially and even militarily.
So, I think [and the Chinese would like to believe] that the scale may be now tipping back!