Fresh attempts to unravel mystery of lost Chinese ship, 600 years later

An effigy of a diver at Fort Jesus Museum in Mombasa. The divers used to collect items from the Indian Ocean to keep in the museum. [Omondi Onyango, Standard]
There was a sharp intake of breath when the ‘mysteriousbeast’ was ultimately unveiled. What the emperor and his court were witnessing was the climax of a six-month voyage which had started in Malindi and ended in Beijing, China.

It was not easy to please the monarch but the sailors were as excited as they were worried as they shepherded the moment that was captured and immortalised by a painter who had been called by his majesty to record history as it was being made at a time when there were no cameras.

It had not been easy to fit the giraffe, whose average height is 16.5 feet or slightly taller than three adults standing on each other’s heads and weighing an intimidating 1.3 tonnes, into the ship and keep it calm in turbulent waters.

The toast of the moment was therefore ace commander, admiral Zheng He, who had told some of his army of about 27,000 soldiers, sailors, clerks, interpreters, artisans, doctors and meteorologists on this voyage that the strange cargo had to be delivered, alive and kicking, to the palace.

This was nothing to Zheng, who had since childhood gone through hell to earn the trust and confidence of Emperor Yongle of the Ming Dynasty, who had earlier raided the latter’s province and held him captive.

To be acceptable to serve his emperor as a eunuch, he had to be castrated when he was only 10 years old, although he always hungered to travel the world, after having been weaned by his grandparents how they had as Muslims travelled to Mecca and their adventures in the strange land out of China.

After distinguishing himself in battle, Zheng won the confidence of the emperor who, according to Facts and, was given a 72-room mansion in the kingdom’s capital of Najing before he was sponsored  for voyages. In Zheng, the emperor sought to awe the world with the majesty of his kingdom. So when he ordered the building of ships he did not expect dhows which would easily succumb to the monsoon winds.

According to the Science Museums of China, Zheng and his assistant, Wang Jinghong, led 62 treasure ships in a fleet of over 300 vessels, among them battle shipswhere more than 27,000 people worked.

“They started from Liujia port, Suzhou, near Shanghai, and returned after more than two years. When arriving in each place, Zheng He exchanged porcelain, silk, copper and iron wares, gold and silver for local products,” Liu Jun Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, says of the first voyage undertaken in 1405.

In total he led seven voyages between 1405 and 1433, which have been described as the largest maritime expeditions for the next five centuries until World War I in 1914. In his travels Zheng visited more than 30 countries and covered about 300,000km.

The architecture of the ship has continued to confound historians who at first thought that its length of 400 feet (121.9 meters) and width of 186 feet (56.7 meters) were exaggerated until an excavator in 1962 in Yangtze River in Nanjing discovered a post that was long enough to connect to a rudder of 452 square feet and could easily steer Zheng’s ship.

This validated estimations that the smallest of Zheng’s combat measured 180 by 68 feet while the largest was a multi-storied ship, 400 feet long, 170 feet across at the beam, with nine masts, a 50,000 square foot main deck and a displacement of 3,000 tonnes. This makes the ships bigger than those of the most famous explorer, Christopher Columbus.

Zheng came to the East Coast of Africa twice; first between 1421-22 and went as far as Zanzibar. It was during the first trip that some theories claim that he secured the giraffe. He returned nine years later (1431-1433) commanding 37,000 men in 316 ships. Here he traded with Swahili kingdoms of Malindi and Pate islands.


During his trips, the towering Zheng gave out gifts from the Chinese emperor, including gold, porcelain and silk and took returned with him ivory, myrrh, zebras and camels.

The giraffe he took to his emperor still generates controversy, six centuries later, just as it caused a stir when it was delivered. Some accounts claim it was a gift from the Sultan of Malindi, but others contend Zheng was given the animal by ruler of Bengal ”who himself had received it as a gift from the Sultan—and that it inspired him to visit Kenya a few years later”, according to The Guardian.

When the creature, which must have been over 16 feet tall was paraded in the king’s court, Emperor Yongle too was impressed. Finally he could silence his critics as the presence of the animal captured the imaginations of the Confucian scholars who had written about the mythical creature.

As one of the courtiers exclaimed, this showed that “His Majesty’s virtue equaled that of heaven and its merciful blessings had spread far and wide so that its harmonious vapours emanated a qilin, as an endless bliss to the state for a myriad, myriad years.”

Here the giraffe communed with other strange beasts repatriated from Africa, including elephants, camels, and African animals such as zebras and gazelles. Since until then no one in China had ever seen an animal such as a giraffe, the emperor commissioned an artist to paint the creature.

Scholars at first thought it was a cross breed between a camel and a leopard, although how such cross breeding between different species could have taken place is inexplicable. However, some were just content to marvel at the giraffe and equate it to the mythical Chinese Qilin, whose appearance in an emperor’s court was supposed to be a mark of good tidings.

However, Esmond Bradely Martin in his book, Malindi, Past and Present, says even after being subjected to a six-month journey, the venerated giraffe had to be repatriated to Kenya as it could not cope with the climatic conditions in China.

Despite the contrasting theories about the giraffe’s origin, what is not in doubt is that when Zheng visited Malindi, one of his ships sank and its recovery was accelerated in July 2010 when a team of 11 Chinesearchaeologists landed in Malindi and Lamu to unravelthe mystery.

Prior to the excavator’s arrival, the theory of the shipwreck was given credence after DNA tests conducted on some residents of Lamu concluded that they had traces of Chinese ancestry.

One family in Siyu, which had a long oral history alluding to Chinese ancestry, was astounded after it proved true and 19-year-old Mwamka Shirafu was offered a scholarship to study medicine in China.

Starting tomorrow, a team of Chinese experts are expected in Kenya, 600 years after the shipdisappeared, to continue with the search of the wreck.

The team from Peking University in Beijing will be scouring the waters of Malindi. The team of 15 archeologists    will be supported by Kenyan experts to trace the ship, which is believed to have capsized in Lamu.

“They will be in Kenya for a week and will concentrate their efforts in Lamu where they hope to retrieve the lostship. Their mission is to conduct underwater and terrestrial archeology,” explained Amran Hussein, director of Museums in charge of the Coast region.

We are undertaking a survey to help us improve our content for you. This will only take 1 minute of your time, please give us your feedback by clicking HERE. All responses will be confidential.

ArcheologistsLost shipChinese shipChina