Zheng He – The Admiral and Chinese fishing nets

In the year 1405, a small boy spent a humid afternoon looking out into iridescent expanse of the Arabian Sea from the doorway of a thatched hut situated beside the mouth of the Periyar River. A stiff breeze blew in from the sea cooling the sweat on his body, and then without warning, a massive shadow appeared on the horizon, terrifying the little fellow, who ran indoors calling out to his mother.

A writer has chronicled this event – “As the shadow rises, it breaks into a cloud of tautly ribbed sail, aflame in the tropical sun. With relentless determination, the cloud draws ever closer, and in its fiery embrace an enormous city appears. A floating city, like nothing the world has ever seen before… stretched across miles of the Indian Ocean in terrifying majesty is the armada of Zheng He, admiral of the imperial Ming navy.”

Zheng He’s armada had arrived for the first time on the coast of Kerala. Zheng He, eunuch, Chinese mariner, explorer, diplomat, fleet admiral of his Ming emperor’s fleet, commanded numerous expeditionary voyages to Asia and East Africa from 1405 to 1433, almost a century before Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas and Vasco da Gama’s in India. Going by ancient diagrams of the dimensions of the ships in the Ming fleet, all the ships of Columbus and da Gama together would have been comfortably stored on a single deck of a treasure ship in the fleet. The largest ships in the fleet — called “baoshan,” or “treasure ships”, bore nine masts on their decks, rigged with square sails that could be adjusted in series to maximize efficiency in different wind conditions.

Zheng’s armada consisted of 317 ships armed with dozens of small cannons and bore a contingent of about 28,000 men, accompanied by hundreds of smaller ships filled with water and provisions, besides silks and brocades as gifts, accommodating more than 500 passengers, many in luxurious staterooms with balconies and enormous cargo holds carrying 2500 tons. Admiral Zheng led seven expeditions to Kozhikode between 1405 and 1433 and is believed to have passed away in there in 1433.

The Chinese fishing nets, situated at the mouth of the river, at Fort Kochi, a short distance away from Xandari Harbour, the wok, commonly used in kitchens across Kerala and the design of roofs in traditional Kerala architecture are a legacy of these expeditions that the admiral Zheng undertook. Most often, the structure of a Chinese net will consist of cantilevered arms extending to about 10 m in length with a net expectantly suspended over the sea and large stones suspended from ropes as counterweights at one end of the cantilever. The rig is counter balanced so that the weight of a man walking along the main beam is sufficient to cause the net to descend into the water. A net is usually operated by a team of up to six fishermen. Whilst nets of a similar design are to be found throughout China and Indochina, in India, they are today found throughout the backwaters around the ancient maritime ports of Kochi and Kollam in Kerala.