Trade Patterns and Prestige in Zheng He and Africanus
In his fascinating account of his voyages, Zheng He describes the role of trade, specifically in the form of tribute and gifts, in the Ming ‘Treasure Fleets’ he led. Overall, the pattern Zheng He depicts is that of a kind of ‘prestige economy’ of tribute and gifting: the rulers of “barbarian” (non-Chinese) lands give tribute to the glory of the Yongle Emperor, while Zheng He and his party hand out gifts to them in the emperor’s name. “Thus the barbarians from beyond the seas… have come to audience bearing precious objects and presents” (Zheng He 2). Zheng He reports receiving tribute of “precious objects, precious birds and rare animals” in his second voyage, and this proves a running theme in his account of the more positive interactions between the Chinese and foreign rulers in Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and the Horn of Africa (4).
The way in which Zheng He describes the emperor-mandated purpose of his mission is fascinating in its own right: the Yongle Emperor has commissioned him to lead this vast expedition and give out presents “in order to make manifest the transforming power of the (imperial) virtue and to treat distant people with kindness” (2). This is clearly an important part of the prestige economy that it was Zheng He’s project to create and maintain: the extension of Ming Chinese influence and renown across the sweep of the Indian Ocean, to be achieved by cultivating friendly relations with local rulers (2-4). With his immense fleet and considerable number of troops, Zheng He was well positioned to command the awe and respect of “barbarian” rulers, but the purpose of the voyages was clearly to cultivate tributary relationships, following long-standing patterns in Chinese foreign relations.
A clear sign of the success of Zheng He’s mission comes from the list of exotic animals he received from mostly Arabian and East African rulers: giraffes, oryxes, zebras, lions, camels, and ostriches (4). According to Zheng He, the voyages became such a success that the local kings of these distant regions—far, far away from China—vied to outdo each other, giving lavish, rich presents and even letters of homage (4-5). Of course, this begs some rather important questions about the motivations of not only Zheng He and his imperial sponsor, but also the local rulers: why did the Yongle Emperor find the voyages worth sponsoring for a time, and why did the local rulers find it worthwhile to present tribute?
Zheng He’s writings give some important clues to both the value of the voyages for China, and the reasons why local rulers found it prudent and even desirable to present tribute. For one thing, for China there was the clear political value of the voyages. Though incredibly expensive, they stood as a testament to Chinese power, reifying the status of the emperor. Zheng He is also very clear that he repeatedly intervened in the affairs of local kings: during his third voyage, his fleet visited Sri Lanka, and ran afoul of the local king Yaliekunaier (4). Zheng He states that this king “was guilty of a gross lack of respect and plotted against the fleet” (4). After Zheng He’s party discovered the plot, they imprisoned the king and took him back to China, where he was presented to the Chinese emperor. The Chinese emperor later pardoned him and allowed him to return to his own country (4). Zheng He also speaks of suppressing piracy, and even putting down a revolt led by a would-be usurper in South India (4). In other words, Zheng He was promoting stability in the interests of an imperial project: a network of political influence in lands that were of strategic importance for the thriving Indian Ocean maritime trade (4-5). Not only does this exposition of his willingness to use force explain much about Chinese motives, it also speaks to at least two very important reasons why local rulers would have gone along with it: the political and military advantages of Chinese protection, and the corresponding risks of incurring Chinese displeasure. This, again coupled with the commercial advantages of the rich Indian Ocean trade, explains the phenomenon of Zheng He’s voyages and their reception.
Leo Africanus’ account of Timbuktu, at the time under the rule of the powerful Songhai Empire, shows a cosmopolitan city that is utterly reliant on trade. As with Zheng He, it is clear that trade wealth goes hand in hand with prestige: indeed, the wellbeing of this very prosperous city clearly depends on its prestigious status as a hub of trade linking the Sahel with the world of North Africa and the Middle East. “The shops of the artisans, the merchants, and especially the weavers of cotton cloth are very numerous,” Africanus states (83). This attests to the thriving status of industry in the city. However, the tremendous wealth of the city is the more clear with Africanus’ next statement: “Fabrics are also imported from Europe to Timbuktu, borne by Berber merchants” (83). Thus, despite a thriving domestic textile industry, Timbuktu is wealthy and populous enough for it to be profitable to import fabrics across the Sahara, all the way from Europe.
But where Zheng He describes trade and tribute in service to a prestige economy, Africanus enumerates specific commodities. In addition to textiles imported from Europe, the inhabitants of Timbuktu make use of horses imported from Barbary, i.e. Mediterranean North Africa (84). The willingness of both Zheng He and the Songhai emperor to use force also presents some parallels and some differences: not unlike Zheng He, the Songhai ruler is willing to attack those who refuse to pay him tribute (84). However, even here there is a difference, for the concern seems to be less a matter of king-making and more a matter of direct territorial control. A much more important difference is the disposition of conquered foes, for Africanus informs his readers that “When he [the Songhai ruler] has gained a victory, he has all of them—even the children—sold in the market at Timbuktu” (84). Thus, as with Zheng He, the writings of Africanus show a nexus between trade, prestige and empire, although the specific forms in the case of Timbuktu vary greatly in accordance with the culture and the period.
Leo Africanus. “A Description of Timbuktu, 1526.” Sources of World Societies, vol. II: Since 1450. 2nd ed. 83-84. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.
Zheng He. “Stele Inscription, 1431.” Sources of World Societies, vol. II: Since 1450. 2nd ed. 1-5. Boston, MA: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. Print.