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treasure ship


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1 A Chinese warship built during the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Renowned for their exploration by sea during the first half of the 15th century, they were large, junk-rigged vessels with as many as nine masts, certainly larger than any western sailing vessel of that era. Commanded by the eunuch Cheng Ho, fleets of these ships undertook extensive voyages. The first one set sail in 1405 to find the emperor's nephew, who had fled the country, and to trade. The size and power of these treasure ships, and the riches they carried, so overawed the rulers of the places they visited that when the ships returned to China they were quickly followed by envoys eager to pay tribute to the emperor. The emperor's nephew was never found, but so much status and new knowledge had been gained that the emperor mounted six more voyages. The last sailed in 1431, but soon afterwards there was a change in policy and China lost interest in the maritime power it had built up.

Ordinary seagoing trading junks were up to 52 metres (170 ft) long, the biggest, according to the 13th-century explorer Marco Polo, having a draught of about 6 metres (20 ft). However, treasure ships were, according to what records remain, much larger. There has been much discussion about the size of these vessels (see, inter alia, A. Sleeswyk, ‘The Liao and Displacement of Ships of the Ming Navy’, Mariner's Mirror, 82 (1996), 1: 3) as the records are difficult to interpret. It has been thought that they almost certainly exaggerate their size as it is generally agreed that it is impossible to build a structurally safe seagoing ship of wood which exceeds 80 metres (260 ft) in length unless it is reinforced with iron or steel. However, the naval architect Colin Mudie has shown that it is quite possible that they were longer than this (see Figs. (a) and (b) overleaf).

The Chinese are intensely interested in the exploits of their treasure ships and are building a number of replica ships to exhibit in various parts of the world, the first starting from Hong Kong in 2005. They have no engines but will be towed to 80 or so major coastal cities where they will be put on display.

2 The Spanish carracks, and later galleons, known as register ships, which brought back treasure from Spanish colonies in Central and South America during the 16th–18th centuries. The silver, and later the gold, extracted from these colonies was carried up the western coast of South America in treasure ships to the port of Panama, or to Vera Cruz on Mexico's east coast. The treasure unloaded at Panama was taken by mule trains across the Isthmus, though some, particularly during the rainy season, was shipped down the Chagres River to the Caribbean. It was stored at Nombre de Dios and then loaded onto the fleet of ships which arrived every autumn from Spain carrying supplies and merchandise for the Spanish colonists. Unlike the swift galizabra, these ships returned to Spain in heavily escorted flotas. Treasure ships also sailed from Mexico to Manila carrying silver which was used mainly to purchase Chinese silk.

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Subjects: Maritime History.


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