Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise

The main island of Singapore offers lots to see, but one thing that is guaranteed to reward the investment is a cruise on the ship named after Admiral Cheng Ho.

Variously known as Admiral Cheng Ho or Zheng He, the remarkable voyages of the famous fleet commander are celebrated by this beautifully crafted vessel bearing his name and providing cruises around Singapore harbour.

I went on the dinner cruise. Even with Singapore harbour dulled by a misty rain so that the mountains and tops of the skyscrapers were soon totally obscured, it was a fascinating trip – and had I someone with whom to share it – a romantic one.

Singapore Harbour in storm

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I had been unsure what to expect, but when the Cheng Ho loomed in its gigantic majesty through the foggy mist, I was entranced.

Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise Ship in Singapore Harbour

The Cruise Ship Admiral Cheng Ho, with its brilliant primary colours and golden dragons and Chinese lanterns was like a fairy tale pagoda emerging from a misty Singapore Harbour.

It seemed strange then to see the ship hands in yellow rain slicks. Somehow I expected their attire to be as exotic as the ship they served.

Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise Ship Singapore in the rain

Cheng Ho’s accomplishments still reign supreme in navigational history and his massive fleets were recorded by both the Portugese Marco Polo and the great Berber traveller Ibn Battuta.

Ibn Battute was possibly the greatest traveller of all time. In his adventures he is reputed to have travelled more than 121,000 km (75,000 miles) - and given that this was over 450 years before the advent of steam travel, this was no small accomplishment.

Cheng Ho was born into an elite Islamic Chinese family but captured as a young boy of between 10 and 13 years old, castrated and brought to serve the court. Here, he soon became a formidable figure. He was physically tall and solidly built, and had the intelligence and wit to soon gain elevated positions of trust with the son of the then emperor.

Having assisted in the overthrow of a pretender to the throne, when his master was crowned Yongle Emperor in 1403, Cheng Ho was appointed a Eunuch Grand Director.

Having taken the throne, the new Emperor wanted to send envoys far and wide to proclaim his benevolence and the magnificence and wealth of his empire, and so commissioned a fleet of ships to travel throughout the seas.

The mission was entrusted to Cheng Ho.

The fleets were huge and travelled to India, Malacca, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, east Africa, Brunei, the Persian Gulf, Egypt, and Ceylon (now known as Sri Lanka), and some say around Cape Horn.

Apparently, there has been some research into his voyages to investigate whether he may have far pre-dated Columbus’s “discovery” of America, but to date there is no evidence to substantiate this.

The Chinese junk is one of the most sea-worthy of all wooden ship designs and the design has perpetuated throughout history.

Navigating with the 24 point Chinese compass…

Ming marine compass

…Cheng Ho explored and recorded many lands, bringing back diplomats from the countries he visited, plus exotic items including animals: lions, oryx, zebra and ostriches – but apparently the most wondrous of all was the giraffe sent by a Bengali ruler as a gift to the Emperor in 1414.

Yongle Giraffe

According to Wiki – and widely disputed - as the Treasure Ship with its nine masts is reputedly only stable enough to be used as a review barge in a calm river basin:

The 1405 expedition consisted of 27,800 men and a fleet of 62 treasure ships supported by approximately 190 smaller ships.

The fleet included:

• Treasure ships, used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies - nine-masted, about 126.73 metres (416 ft) long and 51.84 metres (170 ft) wide

• Equine ships, carrying horses and tribute goods and repair material for the fleet - eight-masted, about 103 m (339 ft) long and 42 m (138 ft) wide

• Supply ships, containing staple for the crew - seven-masted, about 78 m (257 ft) long and 35 m (115 ft) wide

• Troop transports - six-masted, about 67 m (220 ft) long and 25 m (83 ft) wide

• Fuchuan warships five-masted, about 50 m (165 ft) long

• Patrol boats, eight-oared, about 37 m (120 ft) long

• Water tankers, with 1 month's supply of fresh water

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.

In a Dubai Mall is a model comparing the ships of Columbus and Cheng Ho (Zheng He).

It is an interesting model but not widely accepted as a factual comparison of two sea-going vessels.

Dubai Mall ship models

What it seems safe to agree upon, is that the great Admiral did command vast fleets with ships larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria, La Niña and Pinta, and that he travelled to the countries to which his voyages have been attributed.

Reputedly, in 1985 the central mast of one of Zheng He’s ships was discovered -and it would have stood 11.07 meters high (about 36.3 feet) above deck.

On Singapore Harbour, the elaborately decorated Admiral Cheng Ho Cruising ship of today is a fitting tribute to a great mariner.

The incongruity of seeing what appears to be a Chinese temple floating on the modern harbour gives some idea of the wonder with which the massive fleet must have been met in the course of the voyages of the Admiral himself.

Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise Ship docked in Singapore

The dinner cruise travelled through flotillas of junks lashed one to another, and as we drew near to the mouth of the harbour there was a massive flotilla at anchor waiting to enter the busiest port in the world.

Ships waiting to enter Singapore Harbour

Strategically situated on the Straits of Malacca, Singapore has been a trans-shipping centre since the 13th century.

Now, the massive container port brings freight from 123 countries - from over 600 other ports.

Keppel Harbour has three container ports and at night the rows of light-festooned cranes look like a mechanical chorus line of giant preying mantis.

The dimensions of the port cannot be grasped from the sea – only suggested - but looking from the land to the straits you realise that the focus of Singapore is its port and its outward connections.

It has for centuries developed the ability to reap from the sea voyages of all nations both wealth from handling their cargos, and the ability to secure the natural resources not locally available, but necessary for the 4.4 million inhabitants of the 63 islands that make up the nation of Singapore.

Singapore port panorama

Around me on the dinner cruise of the Admiral Cheng Ho were fellow travellers in couples or groups, but even alone and in the grey winds of an approaching typhoon, it was a memorable experience - and caused me to discover a piece of Chinese marine history I had not previously known.

Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise Ship and umbrellas

It is a trip well worth taking – and reputedly the day trip – a different route – is equally rewarding.

Admiral Cheng Ho Cruise Ship Singapore

In the words of another great sea-goer, Jaques Cousteau:

When one man

for whatever reason

has the opportunity

to lead an extra-ordinary life ,

he has no right

to keep it to himself

For whatever reason, with the change of Emperor and the death at sea of the great mariner on his last voyage, the remarkable achievements of Admiral Cheng Ho were not captured in official records.

However, his exploits were so captivating that he lived on in fiction before being researched in later ages by scholars the world over.

Now, the dimensions of his exploits are finally being recognised and celebrated.

According to the Zheng He Society:

Zheng He was a Muslim and he distinguished himself by not imposing his own religious persuasion on people of other faiths.

He built many temples especially Mazu (Goddess of the Sea), and made generous donations to many temples in China and in Sri Lanka, also inscribing texts of Buddhist scriptures and donating them to Buddhist temples.

He gave assistance to people in other regions irrespective of whether they were Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist or Hindu.

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