Book Review: When China Ruled the Seas

Louise Levathes, When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne 1405-1433. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994. Pp 10-252. 

Lousie Levathes presents readers with an era of China’s naval power in its golden age.  Levathes is a Johns Hopkins Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University and was a staff writer for National Geographic for ten years.  In the book, she describes the seven voyages of Muslim, Eunuch, Admiral Zheng He. He was the trading emissary and admiral of the Ming dynasty between 1405-1433. The aim of the book is to examine how and why the massive, complex treasure fleet appeared, operated and then disappeared within the span of a lifetime. It also explores why the Ming retreated into the modern Western stereotype of landlocked and reclusive. Finally, Levathes seeks to elaborate on the context which China understands itself both during the Ming Dynasty and how that translates into the modern era. (Levathes 21)    

The book’s eleven chapters are ten to twenty pages each.  It has a smooth narrative flow which is easy for the uninitiated to read.  Levathes uses three firsthand accounts of the voyages of Zeng He, several contemporary sources to corroborate events and many secondary records written within 200 years of the events.  This book provides an excellent resource guide for jumping into further reading about Chinese Naval Power in the Ming Dynasty.  

The first chapter sets the foundational framework of the early seafaring Yi people.  Next, chapter two provides the context of Confucianism and its implications within the elite ruling class.  It is this tension between the dominant doctrines of Confucianism which espoused the priority of agriculture, austerity and caring for the people juxtaposed with the allure and risk of trade, tribute and the wealth it brings.  This conflict factors heavily into the following chapters especially as the Ming are justifying abandoning the practice altogether.  

In chapters three through eight, Levathes develops the princeling Zhu Di, and his usurpation of the Ming Empire in 1402.  Zheng He follows as she discusses the strong bond of loyalty that the two build from an early age.  After hearing rumors of the deposed emperor alive overseas, Zhu Di justified the construction of a naval fleet to his academic Confucian advisors which, incidentally, happen to have enormous capacity for trade.  After discussing the shipyard process for the vessels, Levathes moves to the voyages themselves highlighting in narrative detail the adventures to Calicut, Ceylon, Malacca, Japan and the Persian Gulf.   

In chapters nine through eleven, Levathes covers the death of the emperor Zhu Di and the rise of his grandson, Zhu Zhanji who engaged Zheng He to re-establish China’s dominance in the international marketplace. Zhu Zhanji died unexpectedly of a short illness in 1435 and by 1437, his successor had halted all shipyard construction.  This was the end of the great Chinese treasure fleets.  The final chapter provides historical and political context to the events around Zheng He’s voyages and the rise and fall of the Ming international presence. 

Levathes does an excellent job describing how Zheng He and his fleets dominated the Pacific.  What is curious is how the political forces that Zhu Di and Zhu Zhanji encountered are so similar modern China’s today.  China’s land is vast and fleets are expensive.  External influence can create political chaos and division. It takes strong authority to manage both and Levathes provides an excellent window into the Chinese thought process, even today. 

Book Review: We, The Navigators

David Lewis, We, The Navigators: The Ancient Art of Landfinding in the Pacific, Second Edition. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1972. Pp. vii, 442.  

Western sailors once considered it impossible to reliably navigate with use of magnetic compass, sextant and maps. In We, The Navigators, David Lewis chronicles the methods of ancient Polynesian navigation while voyaging with the native practitioners.  David Lewis authored ten books in related fields and was a recipient of the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of Navigation. Lewis states “The aim of this book is to make a detailed examination of indigenous navigational concepts and methods and to assess their efficacy and limitations.” (Lewis 3) 

Broken into the five sections,  Lewis begins with the origin of his interests and then flows to the techniques of navigating and landfinding. He concludes with some historical color for why these sailors went to sea. Chapters average roughly fifty pages with the more technical instruction making up the bulk of the work.   

Chapter one provides quick central Pacific regional history. The follows with his reasons for personal interest in the topic.  In 1965, Lewis sailed the central Pacific “to bring academic theories of navigation to sea level by testing in practice methods that were reputed to have been used by the old-time Polynesians.” (Lewis 19)  Lewis introduces Tevake of the Santa Cruz Reef Islands and Hipour of the Carolinian Islands.  These two men provided Lewis much of the technical instruction he records.   

The middle chapters start with foundational topics covering designs of the boats used, how they were rigged and provisioned.  Next, Lewis launches into the concept of celestial navigation and the sidereal compass.  Effectively, the sidereal compass method observes a group of stars in a 360 degree circle around the horizon.  Ancient navigators must memorize the location and timing of each of these stars and then be able determine his vessel’s relative position to each.  Once position is established, he now knows his own relative position to other landmasses in the ocean. All of this is done by observation, memory and experience without paper or instrument.   

From here, Lewis discusses the dead reckoning (DR) calculation of speed and direction over a known time. DR solves for distance travelled and current or projected location.  DR coupled with the use of sidereal compass make a unique system of checks and balances enabling the trained navigator to continue to refine his understanding of the vessel’s position on a mental map.  

In the final technical chapter, Lewis covers the importance of environmental aids such as clouds, sea birds, swells, and how properly observing these can provide further position refinement to the navigator without instrument, map or magnetic compass.  For example, at night, phosphorescent algae activated in an island’s surf can create a miles long trail for navigators to follow in a moonless sky with no ambient light.   

To close the book, Lewis provides some commentary on the complexities of applying the techniques above.  He finally closes with a brief history of various groups of pacific Islands and their discovery by the western world.  Lewis does an excellent job of cataloging the technical aspects of the navigational art as well as providing the historical and some anthropological context as well.  This is best suited for those with a nautical background as Lewis writes from a sailor’s perspective. However, this book is very accessible to the layperson how has no experience on the high seas.  

Book Review: European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500

Archibald R Lewis and Timothy J Runyan, European Naval and Maritime History, 300-1500.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985.Pp. xi, 192. 

Lewis and Runyan’s work was the first popular attempt to present a survey of the develop of European maritime and naval power through the middle ages. (Runyan xi). Archibald Lewis co-authored fourteen books on medieval European history and was a professor of history at the University of Texas and University of Massachusetts. Timothy Runyan is a professor of maritime history at East Carolina University and has written extensively on shipping and medieval England. This survey includes politics, naval architecture, naval administration, naval warfare, strategic planning throughout the different eras it addresses.  The authors use primary and secondary sources as well as preceding historical works and archeological journals. 

The book’s seven chapters are approximately twenty pages each. They concisely discuss the rise and maritime arc of the Romans, Byzantines, Muslims, Celts and Norse, English and finally Iberian peoples.  Each chapter discusses technological contributions such as Byzantine offensive dromon.  It covers naval tactical developments such as Venetian and Genoese convoys. Operational matters such as Constans II’s administration of the Byzantine hinterlands with a well-compensated militia supported by a strong national Navy which allowed him to elude the cost of a large standing army.  Finally, they include element of grand strategy such as the complete integration of financial, industrial, commercial and maritime aspects of the Islamic reign over the Middle Sea.  

The main ideas that Runyan and Lewis develop are that there was very little technological change other than the incremental development of ships throughout the middle ages. Other than ramming or Greek fire, naval tactics were typically constrained to boardings for hand to hand combat. This did not dramatically advanced until the 12th century when crews began to fight the ships on the open seas. While technological and tactical advances were limited, major developments in naval strategy and administration gave groups like the King Canute’s Vikings, Muslims and Venetians the ability to consistently project power across vast distances for extended periods. With the security provided by sea power, the authors discuss how economic and diplomatic efforts flourished for each of the reigning empires. Finally, the limitations of sea power are demonstrated with examples like the Byzantines ceding territory to the Slavs or King John’s ceding northern France and other land-based groups who they could not defend against. Sea power works well as a part of a comprehensive strategy, but it is insufficient without intelligent diplomatic, economic and land-based military policies in place.  

The statement that none of the amphibious assaults the Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War or World War II surpasses medieval Europe’s tactical abilities (Runyan 167) must be taken as exaggeration as the added elements of air power, advanced munitions and undersea warfare surely eclipse the complexity of medieval amphibious operations. However, this comparison is surely to highlight the complexity of planning and execution performed by the medieval forces before modern technologies.  

The book reads easily and doesn’t require scholarly background to enjoy.  It does an excellent job in its stated goal of providing a comprehensive general survey of the progress of sea power through the medieval period.     

Book Review: Arab Seafaring by George F. Hourani

George F. Hourani, Arab Seafaring. Expanded Edition. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951.Pp. Vii, 189.

  For a time, the Arab Seafarers ranged from Spain to India at their peak, however in western history, their contribution is often overlooked. Dr. George F. Hourani, Professor of Near Eastern Studies at the University of Michigan, provides a survey of Arab seafaring primarily in the Indian Ocean and its tributaries.  Broken into three broad chapters between thirty to fifty pages, Hourani discusses the pre-Islamic trade routes, trade under the Caliphate and the technical features of the Ships involved.  In the expanded version are thirty-five pages of notes and index, helpful for providing context and cross reference for the unfamiliar terms of the subject. The author has over three hundred bibliography entries from ancient and modern Western and Arab sources.  At one hundred eighty-nine pages from stem to stern, the book serves as a dense historical digest of Arab sailing from antiquity to the end of the Caliphate.  

The first chapter is broken into six smaller sections. They act as a primer working from prehistory to the rise of Alexander. Next are the Greek and Roman eras of the Persian Gulf followed by those eras in the Red Sea. He ends the pre-Islamic era with the Sassanid and Byzantine Empires and an appendix of trade with China before the Caliphate. Within these sections, he highlights the uses of all waterways for Arab trade from the Oceans to rivers and canals.  A unique feature of Arab Sea trade is that it was not merely coastal like the Mediterranean peoples’ but penetrated deep within the countryside of Mesopotamia and India using the great rivers and associated canals (Hourani 11).

Chapter two engages the Caliphate with the general consequences of Islamic expansion followed by the Arabs on the Mediterranean. The second half of the chapter discusses trade with the Far East and East African coasts. Finally, it concludes with the end of Arab eminence and the rise of the Portuguese in Vasco da Gama (Hourani 83)  Of particular interest, was the Arab record of the rhythm of travelling to the port of Canton in 851 AD.  With stated timeframes for each voyage and an eighteen-month round trip cycle, it was apparent that the shipment cycle happened on an industrialized level between “al-Iraq and… China” (Hourani 76).

In his final chapter, the author uses five sections to detail the Hulls and their equipment, masts, and sails, and finally navigation and sea life.  He finishes the effort with four sea stories from the era detailing the experience of life at sea.  This is immensely illuminating because it provides the reader with the “how” of Arab sea travel.  Whether it is how the older ships were sewn together, wood selection, techniques for sailing into the wind or tales of shipwrecks and heroes, this section piques human-interest beyond the typical historical events and dates.

The book lacks an engaging narrative feel, and for the uninitiated many of the terms and events are unfamiliar and reading becomes cumbersome and dry.  However, with a second pass it comes proves to be an excellent resource or desk reference for anyone to build a catalog of knowledge on Near Eastern maritime trade.