On This Day
1405 – Ming admiral Zheng He sets sail to explore the world for the first time.
The Ming treasure voyages were the seven maritime expeditions undertaken by Ming China’s treasure fleet between 1405 and 1433. The Yongle Emperor started building the treasure fleet in 1403. The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. Admiral Zheng He was commissioned to command the treasure fleet for the expeditions. Six of the voyages occurred during the Yongle reign (r. 1402–24), while the seventh voyage occurred under the Xuande reign (r. 1425–1435). The first three voyages reached up to Calicut on India’s Malabar Coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.
The Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back many foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. During the course of the voyages, they destroyed Chen Zuyi’s pirate fleet at Palembang, captured the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom of King Alekeshvara, and defeated the forces of the Semudera pretender Sekandar in northern Sumatra. The Chinese maritime exploits brought many foreign countries into the nation’s tributary system and sphere of influence through both military and political supremacy, thus incorporating the states into the greater Chinese world order under Ming suzerainty. Moreover, the Chinese restructured and established control over an expansive maritime network in which the region became integrated and its countries became interconnected on an economic and political level.
The Ming treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. Within Ming China’s imperial state system, the civil officials were the primary political opponents of the eunuchs and the opposing faction against the expeditions. Around the end of the maritime voyages, the civil government gained the upper hand within the state bureaucracy, while the eunuchs gradually fell out of favor after the death of the Yongle Emperor and lost the authority to conduct these large-scale endeavors. The collapse of the expeditions was further brought about by the elite-driven economic interests against the central state control of commerce, as the maritime enterprise had been key to counterbalancing much of the localized private trade, which drew the enmity of authorities that benefited from that trade.
Over the course of the maritime voyages in the early 15th century, Ming China became the pre-eminent naval power by projecting its sea power further to the south and west. There is still much debate about issues such as the actual purpose of the voyages, the size of the ships, the magnitude of the fleet, the routes taken, the nautical charts employed, the countries visited, and the cargo carried.
Born On This Day
1760 – Peggy Shippen, American wife of Benedict Arnold and American Revolutionary War spy (d. 1804)
Margaret “Peggy” Shippen (July 11, 1760 – August 24, 1804) was the second wife of General Benedict Arnold. She gained notoriety for being the highest-paid spy in the American Revolution.
Shippen was born into a prominent Philadelphia family with Loyalist tendencies. She met Arnold during his tenure as military commander of the city following the British withdrawal in 1778. They were married in the Shippen townhouse on Fourth Street on April 8, 1779, and Arnold began conspiring with the British to change sides soon after. Peggy played a role in the conspiracy which was exposed after British Major John André was arrested in September 1780 carrying documents concerning the planned surrender of the critical Continental Army base at West Point.
Arnold escaped to New York City and Peggy followed. They traveled together to London at the end of 1781, where she established a home and Arnold rebuilt a trading business. In 1787, she joined him in Saint John, New Brunswick, where his difficulties with local businessmen forced them to return to London in December 1791. Arnold died in 1801, after which she had to settle his business affairs and pay off his debts. She died in 1804, having borne five children who survived infancy.
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