I read Ma Huan's words to Vipin Vasudevan in the Cochin offices of the India Pepper and Spice Trade Association, on the very street where Zheng He's commercial agents had once talked business. Vasudevan, then the association's marketing executive, was managing the annual sale of 66,000 tons (59,874 metric tons) of Malabar pepper. A smile of recognition slowly lit his face as he listened to a passage from Ma about a 15th-century negotiating session in Malabar. Supervised by the Cochin maharaja's personal representative, it brought together local brokers, accountants, and prospective buyers. Goods and costs were discussed, an agreement drafted. Then, Ma wrote, all the parties joined hands, declaring "whether the price be dear or cheap, we will never repudiate it or change it."
It was, said Vasudevan, "so close to how pepper trading works now, that I could have written it myself." The Spice Trade Association had replaced the king's representative at the negotiating table, but the general process had barely changed. "Everyone involved is legally bound by the agreement," Vasudevan said, then added: "We are all morally bound by it as well."
Ma had written one of history's first descriptions of a futures market, the means by which Malabar pepper and most other world commodities are sold today. A market that can function only if Vasudevan's "moral bond" holds. A model of exchange in a world ever wracked by conflict.
It took me three days' travel out of Nairobi, by air, land, and sea, to reach Pate Island. I had been warned by Kenyan officials that roads into the area were dangerous, beset by marauding gunmen from wars in Somalia and Sudan.
Pate lies in Kenya's Lamu archipelago, just south of the Somali border. En route to its principal African destination, Malindi, the Treasure Fleet almost certainly anchored there for water and provisions.
In the 14th century Malindi and Pate were among the richest of the Swahili kingdoms, a grand civilization of merchant princes whose realm extended as far south as Mozambique. Reminders of that brilliant past are everywhere in the Lamu archipelago. Traditional wooden trading dhows are still built in Lamu, the islands' capital on Lamu Island, and the doors on its aging mansions are encircled with shards of pottery that wash up on the beaches.
Ghazzal Harith Swaleh, the learned administrative officer of Lamu's Swahili history museum, is convinced that the pottery is from Zheng He's fleet—a ship or two caught in a storm and foundered on the shoals. Local legend has it that shipwrecked Ming sailors swam to Pate, he told me, "where they married local women." Their descendants are said to have "Chinese eyes" and "Chinese-sounding" tribal names such as Famao and Wei.
I had arranged to sail to Pate from Lamu, wading ashore in a deserted lagoon. The landing place was called Old Shanga, explained my guide. "You know, like ‘Shanghai.' That's what our Chinese ancestors named it, maybe after their hometown." The guide didn't look Chinese to me, nor did any of his fellow villagers in New Shanga, a collection of mud-walled huts nearby. The trip seemed to have accomplished nothing—until we reached a small clearing, deep in the jungle, where the guide pointed to a series of coral-stone structures draped in vines. "Our ancestors' graves," he said.
These burial places, with their half-moon domes and terraced entries, were virtually identical to the classic Ming tombs that dot hillsides above Chinese ports from which shipwrecked Treasure Fleet sailors might have hailed.
A strange melancholy seemed to hang over the clearing, and I was glad to begin the long trek back to the lagoon.
THE LAST DAYS OF ZHENG HE
As the Treasure Fleet assembles in the autumn of 1431 at the Fujian harbor of Changle, Zheng He oversees the completion of another engraved pillar. Its inscription is a self-conscious statement for posterity. It is as though Zheng knows what lies ahead: history stands at a crossroads, and his own role in it is about to end. "[We] have recorded the years and months of the voyages to the barbarian countries," the admiral declares, "in order to leave [the memory] forever."
Zheng goes on to list the major landfalls in the previous six voyages, "altogether more than thirty countries large and small." He writes of his efforts "to manifest the transforming power of virtue and to treat distant people with kindness." He dreams, still, of a new world.
In the Chinese courtly tradition, the great admiral graces the pillar's inscription with a poetic flourish: "We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li [about 40,000 miles (64,374 kilometers)] of immense water spaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails loftily unfurled like clouds day and night."