Taicang was the world`s seaport No.1 in the 14th century
In the early 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He, today the best-known seafarer of Chinese history, also arrived at Galle, Sri Lanka’s most important harbour at the south-western shores of the island. Zheng He’s state-sponsored fleet, much larger than those of later European maritime powers, was engaged in securing and increasing Chinese trade in the first place. Zheng He`s naval expeditions are called “trade voyages”.
The “Galle Trilingual Inscription” left by Zheng He in Galle was discovered in 1911, seven years after the Chinese scholar and reformist Liang Qichao had rescued Zheng He’s naval expedition from neglect by the official Confucian historiography, in one of his biographical workes called “Our Homeland's Great Navigator, Zheng He”.
The historically significant inscription confirming Chinese presence in the late medieval Sri Lanka is now kept in the National Museum in Colombo. The three languages used in this inscription were Chinese, Tamil and Persian. Indeed, Persian was more widespread than Arabic among Muslim traders in Asia, Tamil was an international trade language, too. The inscription left by Zheng He, though he himself was a Chinese Muslim, praises the Buddha and mentions donations to the Hindu temple of Tondeswaram at Sri Lanka’s southernmost point, Dondra Head.
The Muslim trades and Chinese naval expeditions those days, in contrast to Christian sailors from Europe, did not persecute other religions nor did they seek military hegemony on land, they were usually interested in peaceful trade relations. However, besides attacking pirates and displaying force when the Chinese fleet was threatened by Arab rulers, there is another exception from the rule: The Chinese intervened militarily on the island of Sri Lanka, punishing the local Sinhalese ruler Alakeshwara, then risiding in Kotte. He had been a mighty minister before finally usurping the throne in Kotte for his own family. Alakeshwara turned out to be hostile to Chinese maritime control near the island. The resulting military conflict between China and Sri Lanka is named after the reigning dynasties, “Ming–Kotte War”.
On his first official naval mission, with 62 ships of unprecedented size and a crew of almost 30,000, Zheng He landed on the island of Sri Lanka in 1406. When not welcomed but treated disrespectfully by the Kotte king, the Chinese admiral left the island, continuing the journey to “pepper capital” Calicut in south-eastern India. However, the unpleasant encounter did not remain without serious consequences. Alakeshwara perceived Chinese control of this crucial region in the Indian Ocean as a provocation and started threatening Chinese trade routes by committing piracy. This was finally forcefully punished by Chinese landing troops attacking Kotte.
During the third Chinese treasure voyage, which was the second led by Admiral Zheng He, the Chinese fleet, then on their way back from southern India, returned to Sri Lanka in 1411. Admiral Zheng He anchored at Colombo very close to Kotte. Maybe because the Sinhalese ruler Alakeshvara was planning an attack on the fleet, Admiral Zheng He with 2000 troops conquered the capital Kotte. He took captive Alakeshvara and his family as well as some other court dignitaries.
On his return to the Chinese (second) capital Nanjing, Zheng He presented his Sinhalese captives to the Yongle Emperor, the most famous Chinese Ming Emperor, who finally decided to let them return to Sri Lanka but to replace Alakeshvara by a china-friendly ruler in Kotte. This turned out to have already ocured, before Alakeshvara returned to Sri Lanka, since the former royal dynasty of Kotte, once ousted by Alakeshvara, had already reestablished their reign. From then on, the Chinese fleet did not experience no more hostilities during their later expeditons visiting the island of Sri Lanka.
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