Chinese Navigators in Insulinde about A.D. 1500 - article ; n°1 ; vol.18, pg 69-93
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Chinese Navigators in Insulinde about A.D. 1500 - article ; n°1 ; vol.18, pg 69-93


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Archipel - Année 1979 - Volume 18 - Numéro 1 - Pages 69-93
25 pages
Source : Persée ; Ministère de la jeunesse, de l’éducation nationale et de la recherche, Direction de l’enseignement supérieur, Sous-direction des bibliothèques et de la documentation.



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Published 01 January 1979
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J.V. Mills
Chinese Navigators in Insulinde about A.D. 1500
In: Archipel. Volume 18, 1979. pp. 69-93.
Citer ce document / Cite this document :
Mills J.V. Chinese Navigators in Insulinde about A.D. 1500. In: Archipel. Volume 18, 1979. pp. 69-93.
doi : 10.3406/arch.1979.1502
The Hung Wu emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1398) keenly
appreciated the importance of sea-power. He continued the naval
programme of the Yuan era, and established the Lung-chiang ("Dragon
river") shipbuilding yard at Nanking. Under his stimulating influence
maritime commerce flourished and he created a government monopoly of
foreign trade, forbidding Chinese to communicate with foreigners or to
go abroad. The Yung Le emperor (1402-1424) inherited a strong navy
and built new ships to strengthen it further. Adopting an expansive
overseas policy, he despatched a series of enormous naval expeditions to
the "Western Ocean" (Hsi-yang), mostly under the command of the
Grand Eunuch Cheng Ho 0).
On these expeditions, see; J.J.L. Duyvendak, "The true dates of the Chinese
maritime expeditions in the early fifteenth century", T'oung Pao XXXIV, 1938,
pp. 341-412 ; P. Pelliot, "Les grands voyages maritimes chinois au début du
XVe siècle", T'oung Pao XXX, 1933, pp. 237-452; J.V. Mills, Ma Huan,
Cambridge, 1970, pp. 8-34, with map on p. 16. See also : J.J.L. Duyvendak,
China's D scovery of Africa, London, 1949; J.K Fairbank and Têng S.Y., "On
the Ch'ing Tributary System", Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, vol. VI, n° 2;
1941, pp. 135-246 ; F. Hirth and W. Rockhill, Chau Ju-kua, St Petersburg. 1911 ;
Kuwabara Jitsuzo, "On P'u Shou-kêng", Memoirs of the Research Department of
the Toyo Bunko, n' II (1928), pp. 1-79 ; n° VII (1935), pp. 1-104 ; Lo Jung-pang,
"The emergence of China as a Sea Power during the Late Sung and Early Yuan
Periods", Far Eastern Quarterly, vol. XlV, n° 4, 1955, pp. 489-503 ; "The Decline
of the Early Ming Navy", Oriens extremus, vol. V (2), 1958, pp. 149-168 ; M.A.P.
Meilink-Roelofsz, Asian Trade and European Influence, The Hague, 1962 ;
W. Rockhill, "Notes on the relations and trade of China with the Eastern Archi
pelago and the coasts of the Indian Ocean during the fourteenth century", Part
I, T'oung Pao XV, 1914, pp. 419-447 ; Part II, T'oung Pao XVI, 1915, pp. 61-159
236-271, 374-392, 435-467, 604-626; Wang Gungwu, "The Nanhai Trade",
JMBRAS XXXI 1958, ,pp. 1-135 ; P. Wheatley, The Golden Khersonese, Kuala
Lumpur, 1961 ; O.W. Wolters, Early Indonesian Commerce, Ithaca, 1967. 70
The normal route on the first three expeditions (1405-1411) ran by
way of Vietnam to Surabaya in Java, then via Palembang, Malaka,
Pasai and Beruwala (in Sri Lanka, also known as Ceylon), to the termi
nus at Calicut. The fourth, fifth and sixth expeditions (1413-1422) went
on to Hormuz. On the fifth expedition (1417-1419) some ships nominally
under the command of Cheng Ho for the first time reached Aden and the
shores of East Africa, proceeding as far as MaPndi. On the sixth expe
dition (1421 — 1422) some ships visited the African coast as far as Bra-
wa. During 1421 four different Chinese fleets were traversing the Indian
Ocean at one and same time. This marks the zenith of Ming naval ascen
dancy. A seventh expedition was despatched in 1431 by the Hsiian Te
emperor (1426-1435). While the main fleet proceeded to Hormuz, some
ships went to Aden, and along the African coast as Giumbo (2). When
Cheng Ho returned from his last expedition in 1433, China was the
paramount sea-power of the Orient.
Abruptly, China fell from its position of supremacy. The powerful
navy was allowed to desintegrate through neglect, and although the
government maintained naval forces which saw much action during the
sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they could barely repel the pirates
who attacked the coast. In marked contrast with the attitude of the
authorities was the keenness of the private venturers ; they built large
ships for trading abroad, and during the Ch'êng Hua period (1465-1487)
there started a great afflux of trading junks from the ports of southern
China to South-east Asia. The venturers also traded with Korea and
Manchuria. Some substantial might own as many as fifty
large sea-going ships. Malaka under the Malay sultanate became a
centre of trade for the Chinese and Chinese influence was strong in
Brunei. After their capture of Malaka in 1511, the Portuguese at first
encouraged the Chinese junk traffic. By about this time most of the
trade in the Philippines was in Chinese hands, and they gradually
obtained control of the diamond trade in south-west Borneo. Chinese
merchants and trading junks were much in evidence at all the ports
along the channels of Far Eastern trade, and when the Spanish galleons
from Mexico brought an annual subvention of bullion and Mexican
dollars to Manila, most of the found its way into Chinese
A Nautical Compendium : the "Shun Fêng Hsiang Sung"
The main source for the routes followed by the Chinese navigators
during the fifteenth century is the anonymous MS work bearing the
(2) The date of the visit to Giumbo is indicated in the "Veritable Records" (Shih lu) ;
see P. Pelliot, "Notes additionnelles sur Tcheng Ho et sur ces voyages", T'oung
Pao XXXI, 1935, p. 293, 71
subtitle Shun FêngHsiang Sung "Fair Winds for Escort", hereafter
called SF. This nautical compendium rests in the Bodleian Library at
Oxford (Laud MS Or. 145). According to J. Needham (3), it was compos
ed about 1430, though some statements in it may be after 1571 ; it was
edited by Hsiang Ta in 1961 (4). It treats of navigational theory and
practice, including mnemonics and prayers, and gives notes on individual
places along the sea routes.
SF contains sailing instructions for one hundred particular voyages. The furthest
points mentioned being, on the north, Japan and Hormuz ; on the east, Japan, Ryu-
kyu islands, Tai-wan, Philippine islands, Borneo and Timor ; on the south, Timor ;
on the west, Aden. And while it lacks any reference to the Moluccas in the east, or
to Africa or the Red Sea in the west, or to any place in the Malay Peninsula north
of Bukit Jugra, it contains instructions for navigating in the following areas: a)
Borneo : from Sulu southward to Tanjoing Mangkalihat and thence across to Donggala
in Sulawesi ; also from Balabac strait (south of Palawan), along the west coast of
Borneo as far as Gelam island ; also from Banjarmasin to Kota Waringin on the south
coast; b) Java: from Tanjung Sekong (near Merak), along the Pasisir, to Gresik
and Jaratan (near Surabaya) ; c) from eastern Java, along the islands, from Madura
to Timor ; d) Sumatra : the whole of the coasts, except for three stretches, namely,
from the Karimun islands (in the Malacca strait) to the Sungai Deli estuary (actual
Medan), from Pasai to Krueng Aceh, and from Pulau Betua to Pulau Sumur (southern
part of Lampung) ; from Mapor (east of Bintan), passing south of Bintan, and then
west to the Sumatran coast and north-west to Tebing Tinggi.
More precisely, SF give» details of 27 voyages concerned with Insulinde:
a) Seven voyages between China and Insulinde ; namely, from Kwang-tung to Malaka
(and return); from Wu-yii (near Hsia men, also known as Amoy) to Tuban (and
return), to Jaratan (and return); to Sukadana (and return), to Lawe (near Pontianak)
(and return); from Chiian-chou to Brunei and to JDonggala (and return); b) Twelve
voyages betwem other foreign places and Insulinde; namely, from Pointe Ké Ga
(South Vietnam) to Banter- ^and return); from Siam to Malaka (and return); from Siam
to Borneo and Mindanao (and from Luzon to Brunei (and from Patani
to Timor : from Pulau Tioman to Tebing Tinggi (and return); from Pulau Tioman to
Brunei (and return); from Malaka to Pasai (and return); from Malaka to Palembang
(and return) and to Calicut (and return); c) Eight voyages between places within Insulin
de; namely, from Banjarmasin to Kota Waringin; from Palembang to Jaratan (and
return) ; form Banten to Timor ; from Banten to Demak (and return) ; from Banten
to Banjarmasin (and return) ; from Krueng Aceh to Barus ; from Bams to Priaman
and from Priaman to Banten.
(3) J. Needham, Science and Civilisation in China, Cambridge, vol. IV, pt 3, 1971,
p. 581.
(4) Hsiang Ta, Liang-chung hai-tao chên-ching, Chung-hua shu-chii, Pei ching, 1961,
277 p. 72
In specifying the stages of a run, the usual formula in Chinese texts
is : "From, place A steer x" : after y watches you make place B" (5) .
Time was measured in terms of a kêng (watch) of 2.4 hours ; and when
places can be identified with reasonable certainty, the distance can be
measured on a chart, and the speed can be calculated ; on a long-dis
tance voyage in the open sea the speed of Chinese ships at this time
averaged about 4 knots or 6.4 km an hour — roughly, 10 sea-miles
(16 km) in a watch, and 100 sea-miles (160 km) in 24 hours. The book
records certain stellar altitudes but none further east than Pulau Wé
95°13' E.) (6). (near Aceh,
Other Sources
a) SF can be implemented by data provided by the Mao K'un map (c. 1421).
Ihis MS cartogram was reproduced in the book of Mao Yiian-I, Wu Pei Chih
'•Records of Military Preparations" (1628). It is usually considered to record the
tracks of Cheng Ho's voyages and may provisionally be regarded as referring to a
time "about 1421". It may be described as a patchwork of maplets, each having its
own orientation and scale; it specifies the courses to be followed, the principal land
marks, the time taken in .sailing between them, most of the points along the coasts,
and other matters which could be of importance to sailors, on the voyages from
China to Persia, Arabia and East Africa.
The furthest points shown are : in the north, Nanking and Hormaz ; in the east,
the Pescadores islands, Tanjung Datui in western Borneo, and the east coast of Java ;
in the south, the south coast of Java, and Ma-lin-ti (perhaps Mozambique), in east Afri
ca; in the west, the east coast of Africa and the Red Sea. The map does not show the
Ryu-kyu islands or Japan ; nor does it show any part of Borneo east of Tanjung
Datu. It records a number of stellar altitudes and sometimes these provide very
useful information, but some are patently incorrect, and none refers to places further
than Cochin (7).
(5) A composite English-Arab-Chinese compass will be found in : J.V. Mills, "Arab
and Chinese navigators in Malaysian Waters in about A.D. 1500", JMBRAS p."
226 (vol. XLVII, part 2), 1974, pp. 1-82 (between p. 10 and 11).
(6) In the present study, the following Pilots were used: N° 30,,- China Sea Pilot
vol I (3rd éd., 1964); N° 31.- China Sea Pilot, vol II (3rd éd., 1961); N° 33.-
Eastern Archipelago Pilot, vol. I (7th éd., 1963) ; N° 34.- Eastern Archipelago
Pilot, vol. II (7th éd., 1961) ; N° 35.- Eastern Archipelago Pilot, vol. Ill (6th
éd., 1968) ; N° 36.- Eastern Archipelago Pilot, vol. IV (4th éd., 1966) ; N° 44.-
Malacca Strait and West Coast of Sumatra Pilot (5th éd., 1971).
(T) It would be unsafe to conclude that Chinese trading ships visited all the places
named in the map, or followed all the tracks here shown. On this map, see : Mills,
Ma-huan, pp. 236-302, with map on pp. 290-291, 73
Canton, 74
b) Another source is the Hsi Yang Ch'ao Kung Tien Lu or "Records of the
Tributary Countries in the Western Ocean", compiled by Huang Shêng-Tsêng in 1520;
the first printed edition was the Chieh yiieh shan fang hui ch'ao edition of 1808 (8).
Huang, following (the arrangement in the book of Ma Huan, the weUknown Ying Yai
Shêng Lan, relative to the voyages of Ctoêng Ho and completed about 1435, describes
the following 23 countries (the five countries printed in italics are added by him) :
First Chapter : Champa, Cambodia, Java, Palembang, Malaka, Brunei, Sulu, Pahang,
and Ryu-kyti ; Second Chapter : Siam, Aru (Deli), Samudra (Lho Seumawe), Lambri
(Sigli), Maldive and Laccadive islands, Sri Lanka, and Bengal ; Third Chapter : Quilon,
Cochin, Calicut, Dhufar, Hormuz, Aden, and Mecca. Of the 23 countries described
by Huang and the 20 countries described by Ma Huan, 18 are common to both
(Huang omits 2 of Ma Huan's countries, namely Lide (Meureudu) and the Nicobar
and Andaman islands).
In the case of 10 countries Huang gives details of a sea route/ by which the
country in question can be reached. In the case of seven countries .the usual formula
is : "From place A after x watches you reach place B" ; but sometimes the number of
watches is omitted. These 7 rouîtes are : from Fu-cfaou to Qui-nhon : from Cap
Varella to Gresik ; from Gresik to Palembang ; from Palembang to Malaka (to be
found in the First Chapter, ff.l, 7,1 lv. and 13 respectively); from Chang-chou to
Siam ; from Malaka to Pasai ; from Pasai to Beruwala (to be found in the Second
Chapter, ff. 1, 4 and 9 respectively). In one case, on the route from Masulipatam to
Lambri, he names 3 intermediate landmarks without stating the number of watches
(2nd Ch., f.6v) ; in another case, on the route from Quilon to Lambri, he specifies
the compass courses to be steered on each of the 7 days' journey, without naming
any intermediate landmark (3rd Ch., f.l) ; and; at last, on the route from Bengal to
the Maldives, he records the altitude of the Pole Star on 6 occasions while the ship
proceeded southward as far as Namunakuli (Parrot's beak mountain) in Sri Lanka,
after which he gives the number of watches occupied in making three different land
marks before reaching Male (2nd Ch., f.7).
Varella Huang to Gresik, sets out from the stages Gresik on to four Palembang, voyages from described Paiemibang in SF to : namely Maiaka from and from Cap
Malaka to Pasai. He also records two different voyages : namely, from Masulipatam
to Lambri and from Quilon to Lambri.
c) We may also make use of the Tung Hsi Yang K'ao or "Study of the Eastern
and Western Oceans", written by Chang Hsieh in 1618 (»). The book for the most
pant consists of historical and geographical notes on various countries in eastern Asia,
from Japan in the north, Timor in the east, and Banten in the south, to Aceh in the
west. Parts of the book refer to events of an earlier period. In most cases the instruc
tions are adequate, that is they state both the course to be steered and the
time taken in sailing between the various landmarks. No stellar altitudes are recorded.
(8) This is the edition used by the present writer ; there were three later printed
editions, and all the editions exhibit slight differences.
(») The present writer used the Shang-wu edition, Shanghai, 1936. 75
The Western Route
Chinese ships approached Indonesian waters along two routes, a
western route and an eastern route. Between, and beyond, these two
routes ran numerous ramifications. On the seven voyages between China
and Insulinde specified in SF, in five cases ships followed the western
route (namely, from Kwang-tung to Malaka and from Wu-yu, near
Amoy, to Tuban, Jaratan, Sukadana and Lawe) ; and in two cases they
followed the eastern route (namely, from Ch'uan-chou to Brunei and
to Donggala).
The western route constituted the main route to India and Western
Asia. Starting from his home port, the navigator followed the islands
off the China coast as far as Hai-nan, then crossed to Culao Re (Wai-Io
shan) and followed the coast of Vietnam as far as Cape Varella (Ling
shan). From here a branch route ran southward to Catwick islands
(Tung-hsi-tung) . Following the main route, ships made Cape Padaran
(Lo-wan-t'ou), rounded the cape to reach Pointe Ké ga (Ch'ih-k'an) ,
and then proceeded in a south-western direction to Pulo Condore
(K'un-lun), and to Pulau Tioman (Chu-p'an shan), where they would
join the track of ships travelling from Siam (Hsien-lo) to Malaka (Man-
la-chia). Beyond Pulau Tioman three cross-routes spread out, in an
easterly or south-easterly direction, towards Airabu island (Lin-na-jo),
towards Damar island (P'ien-to) — both of them being part of the
Anambas group — and towards the Badas islands (Ch'i hsù).
Proceeding south on the main route, the navigator would make
Pulau Aur (Tung-hsi-chu), south of P. Tioman, whence a cross-route
ran southeast via P. Pejantan (Jan-tan shan) to Sukadana, and a branch
route ran southward via P. Mapor (Ch'ang-yao hsu) — near Bintan —
to Palembang. The navigator next travelled east of Pulau Tinggi
(Chiang-chtin-mao), whence a branch route ran south to Mapor and then
west to Tebing Tinggi.
The main route passed on the east of the Lima islands (Lo-han hsu)
— SE of the Malay Peninsula — and the navigator would obtain his
first near-by view of an Indonesian island in Ma-an shan ("Horse saddle
Mountain", Bintan great hill) on the island of Mien-tan (Bintan). On
approaching Pai-chiao ("White rock", Pedra Branca, Horsburgh light),
he steered 262^° or 270° to pass through Singapore strait. 76
Accepting the evidence of ithe Chinese sources, the present writer considers that
the navigation of the Strait took the following course (10) : the navigator passed south
of Kuan island ("Official island", Pulau Temlbakul) and P'i-p'a island (Pulau Sakijang
Pelepah) and north of Niu-shih chiao ("Ox dung rock", Buffalo rock), at which point
he entered Lung-ya men ("Dragon tooth strait", the strait between Buffalo Rock and
Pulau Setumu) ; proceeding, he passed north of Liang-san island (Pulau Labon) and
south of Ch'ang-yao island ("Long waist island", Pulau Setumu, Raffles light). At this
point he steered 262Vz° and then 292V20, and after passing Sha-t'ang ch'ien ("Granulat
ed sugar shoal", Pulau Nipa) on his left, he reached Chi-li-mên (Little Karimun island).
Entering the Strait of Malaca, the navigator passed P'ing chou ("Equal islands", The
Brothers) on his left and P'i-sung (Pulau Pisang) on his right ; on this stage he would
meet the track of ships travelling along the branch route from Malaka to Palembang.
Continuing along the eastern side of the Strait, he passed Shê-chien shan ("Shoot
arrows mountain", Bukit Banang, south of Malaka) and Wu hsu ("Five islands",
Water islands) and entered the port of Malaka.
Re-starting from Malaka, the navigator passed Chia wu hsu ('False
Five islands", Cape Rachado), and when about 12 miles (19 km) from
Mien-hua hsu ("Cotton island", Bukit Jugra, north of Malaka) bearing
21°, he changed course to 292 V20 ; this brought him through the passage
about 4 miles (6 km) wide between South and North Sands to Chi-ku
islands ("Chicken bone islands", Aroa islands) ; and he went on to pass
between the two Shuang islands ("Double islands", The Brothers, Pulau
Pandang and Pulau Salahnama). Proceeding now along the western side
of the Strait, he made Tan hsii ("Single island", Pulau Berhala), Ya-lu
(Aru, at the estuary of the Sungai Deli), Pa-lu t'ou (Uiung Peureulak).
rounded Chi-shui wan t'ou ("Swift water bay head", Tanjung Jambuair,
Diamond point) and steered 277^° to Su-mên-ta-la (Samudra-Pasai) .
Starting again from Pasai he sailed in a north-westerly direction to Ch'ieh-
nan-mao (Pulau Wé) , where he would meet ships travelling from Masu-
lipatam and from Quilon along the route from Pulau Wé to Nan-wu-li
(Lambri). From Pulau Wé, he proceeded northward to Lung-hsien hsii
("Dragon spittle island", Pulau Rondo), whence ships travelled west
ward to Sri Lanka and Western Asia, and north-westward to Bengal.
Some writers, rejecting the Chinese evidence, consider that the route ran through
Keppel Harbour. The present writer feels bound to accept the statement made
eight times and by four different Chinese, writers, to the effect that after reaching
the Karimun islands on the southward voyage, the navigator steered 120° or
112 Vz", that is south 01 ùue east, whereas the course to Keppel Harbour would
run north of due east. See Mills, Ma-Huan pp. 311-328 ; Mills, "Arab and
Chinese navigators ...", pp. 26-32; Wheatley, The Uolden Khersonese, pp.
101-102. 77
The Western Branches
a) From Pulau Aur to Bant en.- From. Tung^hsi-chu (P. Aut) a route ran south
ward past Ch'ang-yao hsii (P. Mapor), Lung-ya ta-shan (Gunung Daik, on Pulau
Lingga), Man-t'ou hsù ("Steamed bread island", Saya islet), Ch'i hsu ("Seven islands",
Pulau Tujuh) and P'êng-chia shan ("Bangka Mountain", Gunung Menumbing) —
also called Niu-t'ui-ch'in, "Ox leg lute"), to the mouth of the Sungai Palembang,
where some ships went up the river to Chiu-chiang ("Old Haven", Palembang). Cont
inuing southward, ships entered Selat Bangka, passed through Hsia-mên ("Narrow
strait", between Tanjung Tapa and Tanjung Berani), and made San-mai hsii (P.
Maspari), Tu-ma-hêng estuary (n) (Wai Tulang Bawang) and Lin-ma-t'a eatuaxy
(Wai Seputih). Proceeding southward, the navigator steered 165° and then lllVz0,
sometimes sighting the bank nick-named Ghên-pu-chên chia-pu-chia ("Neither true
nor fake", Syahbandar bank) and after ten watches made Kao-ta-lan-pang haven
(Wai Sekampung). Thenoe he steered \\2Vz0 and 187V20 and after 3 watches passed
west of Nu-sha-la island (P. Mundu), and steering 187%° for a further three watches
reached Lei-tan-ta haven (Ketapang), whence steering 180° for five watches he
arrived at Shih-tan (P. Sumur, at the south-eastern extremity of Sumatia).
From here he changed course to south-east and after seven watches made Shun-t'a
On the return journey ships migth take a more easterly course, sailing from
Sunda to Pulau Mundu, and then to P'i-ta mountain head fi anjung Murung on Pulau
Lepar), through Macclesfield channel, past Tanjung Berikat the most easterly point
of Bangka island, and then northward to sight Pulau Aur.
b) From Pulau Tinggi to Tebing Tinggi.- From P. Tinggi (south of P. Aur, near
the east coast of the Malay Peninsula), a roulte ran southward along the east coast
of P. Bintan (Mien-tan shan) and P. Mapor. Having passed Mapor, the navigator chan
ged course to 2171/2° and then 225°, and entered the waters of Ch'ang-yao ti-êrh hsii
("Long waist second island"), that is the waters south of Pulau Numbing,
104°44' E. He continued on this course until he reached Chu-mu t'ou ("Pig 0°44' mother N.,
0°15' N., 104°16'E.). He then steered 262%° and later 247 V4° until head", P. Kebat,
after two watches, he sighted the Sumatra coast. He is directed to fallow the coast until
he recognizes the correct channel to enter (north of Mendoi island), in order to reach
Ting-cni-i (Pulau Tebing Tinggi). On the return journey, ships left the Sumatra coast
at Tu-shih men ("Single sitone strait", between Durai and Burung islands, c.0°28'
N. 103° 35' E.) and steering 90° for five watches made Hou-mien shan ("After face
mountain", P. Merodong, 7a/2° successively for five 0°24' watches, N., they 104°27'E.). arrived Then at Mapor. steering 67Î/20, 45°, 22^° and
c) From Little Karimun island to Palembang.- North of P'ing chou (The
Brothers) the main route converged with the route of ships on the run between
Malaka and Palerrtbang. This branch route ran on. the west of Chi-li-mên mountain
(Little Karimun island), on the east of Kuei hsii ("Devil island", Pulau Rangsang),
(u) Hêng is pronounced wang in Cantonese, and hoâin in the language of Amoy.