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China's Southern Sea

Protector of the Southern Seas

Between 1405 and 1433, the Ming Emperor Yung Lo (Yongle) ordered seven major maritime expeditions under the leadership of a Muslim court eunuch, Zheng He or Cheng Ho. Each expedition was provided with several seagoing vessels, which were 400 feet (122 meters) high, weighed 700 tons (635 metric tons), had multiple decks and 50 or 60 cabins, and carried several hundred people. About 60 vessels were used in the first voyage to India in 1405, for example, and all seven journeys involved over 28,000 persons. During these expeditions, the Chinese demonstrated their early command of the compass and shipbuilding techniques. They sailed the southern seas of Southeast Asia, the South Pacific, the Indian Ocean, the persian Gulf and the Red Sea, reaching as far as Malindi on the the coast of East Africa. But, in 1433, these missions ended just as suddenly as they had begun.

It was just a few decades before that the Chu Yuan Chang had finally driven the Mongols out of China and established the Ming dynasty, establishing himself as Emperor Hung Wu, with his capital in Nanking. Because the central government remained in the south, great efforts were made to expand China's trade and influence throughout its southern seas, or what it termed Nanyang. The Ming Emperor Yung Lo further inensified these efforts with his famous expeditions.

The presence of Ming fleets in Southeast Asia acted both as a deterrent to the expansion of the Siamese and Majapahit, and protection for the smaller kingdoms like Melaka. China saw Melaka as an important trading outpost and a growing force that would prevent the appearance of any single all-powerful state that would threaten either their southern borders or their trade. Protection by China also meant that Chinese junks (and trading ships of all flags) flocked to the relatively safe water of the Straits, changing Melaka from a sleepy fishing village to one of the greatest trading ports in Asia.

The founder of Melaka, Parameswara, certainly took advantage of this and did his best to be in the Emperor's good books. The frst Chinese envoy to Melaka was the eunuch Yin Ch'ing, whom "Pai-li-su-ra" welcomed warmly. Parameswara then sent a mission to China in 1405, with a request that "the mountains of the Emperor be made the guardians of our country." Cheng Ho was welcomed with great pomp and regalia when he arrived in Melaka in 1409, and Parameswara himself followed him back to China for a State visit to the Emperor in 1411. The Melaka retinue numbered over 450 persons!

Emperor Yung Lo's successors decided upon a deliberate policy of withdrawal and exclusion - and the decsion was taken to close China's doors to the outside world and abandon the expeditions. However, Melaka had by this time grown to a formidable force on its own, and was more than ready to look after itself. The Chinese withdrawal had encouraged the Siamese to take a more aggressive posture and the launched two massive invasions on Melaka. The first, in 1445, attacked overland through Pahang. This army was crushed by Melaka, and a leading role was played the headman of the Klang contingent - a man whom we would later know as Tun Perak. Eleven years later, Tun Perak became Bendahara and that same year the Siamese invaded again - this time by sea. The Melaka fleet met the invaders off Batu Pahat and drove them off.

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