Monday, January 17, 2011

Chinese Excavate 15th-Century Ship off Kenya

Several months ago, I noted a museum exhibit about Zheng He, the Chinese diplomat and mariner who led a number of expeditions throughout the Indian Ocean in the 15th century. (Wikipedia article here.) At the time, I wasn't aware that Chinese archaeologists were in the process of excavating a wreck that has been identified as one of his ships in the Lamu Islands, off the coast of Kenya. Interestingly, genetic analysis has shown the presence of Chinese ancestors in some of the local populace. Article here.
A set of models comparing the sizes of the treasure ships of Zheng He and Columbus's Santa Maria in the foreground. The Chinese ship's huge scale seems underpowered, even though each mast seems to carry about the same sail area as Columbus's flagship did in total. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons. Click to enlarge.)
Zheng He's expeditions were enormous, starting with the ships themselves. The treasure ships, the largest of the fleets, were over 400 feet LOA and 170 feet beam, and had a nine-masted rig. These appear to have been the largest wooden ships ever built by a long shot, and they put the lie to the tale that the most masts ever mounted on a ship was seven (on a Maine-built schooner). His fleets contained a small number of treasure ships and literally hundreds of smaller vessels carrying tens of thousands of sailors and warriors, water, horses, and all manner of supplies.


  1. It will be fascinating to see what they dig up. However, it is unlikely that the treasure ship was the tremendous size of the legend. The Maine schooners practically fell apart under their own weight.

  2. I would think that the size was possible if the ships were built on the Chinese method of a type of boat being made up of a series of boxes or sections divided by solid bulkheads. Vulnerable to hogging and sagging of course but it is possible that natural flexibility would counter this in mderate seas at least.