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Pre-Columbian Chinese Megaships Ruled The Seas, Then They Burned Them

Long before Christopher Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, a Chinese admiral named Zheng He launched the greatest armada the world had ever seen: more than 300 ships with nearly 28,000 men. The largest of his vessels could have fit Columbus' ship, the Santa Maria, inside of it—plus three more Santa Marias. China's emperor had ordered the construction of these megaships, which boasted nine masts, 12 sails, and four decks. They were large enough to carry 2,500 tons of cargo. The fleet's expedition, in 1405, included astronomers and scholars in addition to sailors and soldiers. The Chinese had been extending their power out to sea for hundreds of years in order to bolster trade networks.

By the time Zheng He set sail, Chinese naval technology—magnetic compasses, construction of double hulls, sail design, and rigging—was unrivaled throughout the world. They ruled the seas, eventually reaching shores as distant as the southeastern coast of Africa. But then, a generation later, the Chinese turned back. The fleet shrank, the voyages stopped, and pirates retook control of the ocean. In 1525, while the Spanish were exploring the Americas, the Chinese government had their last ships burned. The world's most powerful technology for international prestige, exploration, and trade—gone.

Destroyed not by an enemy, or by a natural disaster, but by themselves. Why? Certainly, building and maintaining ships is expensive. But what if, instead of burning those ships, they had continued exploring? What if they had sailed around Africa to Europe and beat Columbus to the Americas? Or what if they had crossed the Pacific? The Spanish explorer Hernán Cortés might have gone all the way to the west coast of America only to discover a fleet of enormous Chinese ships. Instead, they committed what some consider one of the biggest blunders in history.

Possible Preaching Angles: (1) Endurance; Perseverance; Discipleship; Obedience—What do we miss when we don't press deeply into our journey of following Christ as Lord? (2) Vision; Leadership; Risk—When leaders lose their vision there are grave consequences.

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