Tuesday, January 21, 2020

1433 - Zheng He arrives in Great Zimbabwe

In the early fifteenth century, Admiral Zheng He commanded the greatest expeditionary fleets the world had ever known. The Ming Dynasty invested heavily in expanding Chinese influence, especially its third emperor, Yongle, who outfitted a fleet to be commanded by his longtime supporter, Zhenge He. Born Ma Ho during the turbulent western wars between the Mongols and the Mings, he had been captured at ten and forced into the Ming army commanded by young Yongle. Ma Ho proved successful at all he did, and he was selected to become head eunuch with a new name, Zheng He.

In 1404, Zheng He was placed in command of the fleet dispatched to bring in the nations to the south as tributaries under the emperor’s influence. Among the 317 ships in the fleet were 62 “treasure ships,” said to be over 180 feet long and loaded with gifts of tea, silk, porcelain, and manufactured goods. In addition to the thousands of sailors, crews also included scholars and cutting-edge technology such as gunpowder rockets and cannons as well as magnetically-driven compasses for navigation. For the next 30 years, Zheng He would command seven expeditions through Indonesia, India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa.

While pushing southward on the African coast past Mogadishu to Malindi and Zanzibar, Zheng He heard the traders’ discussion of an inland empire so rich with gold that it rivaled the legendary wealth of Mali. Messengers back to China had brought further news of the Xuande emperor’s disinclination toward these expeditions, and Zheng He feared this might be his last. Deciding to go for broke, Zheng He led an excursion inland to contact this empire while the main fleet explored the coast, mapping much of Madagascar. It was very different to take up an expedition on land, but Zheng He had already defeated the Kingdom of Kotte inland on Sri Lanka.

Zheng He and his smaller boats followed rivers to the Kingdom of Zimbabwe, a term referring to the stone fortresses built at defensive positions throughout the plateau. Zheng He trekked to its greatest city with towering stone walls over 30 feet tall. Though impressive even by the standards of China, the kingdom in the south was clearly in a state of decline. The land was turning arid, and much of the gold in the rivers had given out, prompting one prince, Nyatsimba Mutota, to move northward in conquest for new resources, especially valuable salt.

The kingdom struck Zheng He as an enormous new partner with its control of the gold and ivory of the entire region. He won favor with Mutota with gifts and dispatched scholars and craftsmen to show irrigation techniques for improved crop yields as well as methods for upgrading mines. Mutota was so impressed that he began collecting engineers, bringing them from China, Arabia, and later Europe. The most important exchange was with China for gunpowder and cannons, which furthered the Mutapa people’s position as the military superpower of the region.

Through the years, invention solved problems as they arose. As the miners needed to dig deeper into the earth for gold, iron, and copper, engineers developed pumps to use suction to clear the shafts of water. With the struggle for food for a large population, labor-saving devices were of the utmost importance, pushing the development of engines. Factories sprang up around the rivers driven by waterwheels. Threats of deforestation were overcome by the discovery of massive coal reserves to the west; coal in turn proved to burn more efficiently than wood and allow for leaps forward with metallurgy.

By 1700, the Zambezi River was the industrial center of the world. Steam-driven ships brought in textiles and other raw materials, then exported manufactured goods back to ports as far away as China and the Americas. The expansive Mutapa Empire dominated Africa south of the equator, serving as a balance between European influence in the northwest and Muslim influence in the northeast. Mutapan trade colonies would become thriving cosmopolitan centers for centuries to come all along the southern Atlantic and Indian Oceans.


In reality, Zheng He died in 1433 in Calicut, India. By then, expeditions had started to go out of fashion with the emperor as policies turned back toward isolationist Confucian ideals. Soon the size of ships was legally restricted to prevent reckless gambling on oversea ventures.

Friday, January 10, 2020

What if Napoleon's Suicide Attempt had Succeeded?

This article first appeared at Today in Alternate History.

April 13, 1814 -

The surrender of the leaders in Paris effectively ended the War of the Sixth Coalition. The Sénat conservateur then passed the Emperor's Demise Act, and Napoleon Bonaparte was officially deposed from power. Undeterred, he mustered his forces in the nearby canton of Fontainebleau and prepared to march on the capital. Although the rank and file might well have followed him, his marshals mutinied. In his despair, Napoleon committed suicide swallowing a pill that he had carried after nearly being captured by the Russians during the retreat from Moscow.

The sudden release of triumph across the British Empire was only matched by the scale of panic felt in the United States of America. Basking in her glorious victory on the continent of Europe, Great Britain would quickly re-focus her resources on the military sideshow they had dismissively called "the American War." A rapid escalation would trigger a series of tumultuous events that led up to New English Independence Day, the succession of the entire northeast region on January 5, 1815, during the Hartford Convention.

Although President James Madison was hardly Napoleon Bonaparte, it was during his second term that the War of 1812 raged, and Canada became victim to American campaigns. King George III was still on the throne, determined to push British interests primarily through exclusive trading arrangements. Even though many red-blooded members of the British elite still sought revenge for the American Revolution, their goal was always to break-up the nascent republic rather than re-occupy its territory. This disruptive approach of unsettling their former colonies was self-evident in the manipulative dealings with slaves and native Americans, and the primary role of the Royal Navy in leading the campaign. However, the capitulation of Napoleon was an opportunity for the British government to send its war-hardened veterans to North America before the end of military season ended.

It was decided that seizing control of the Great Lakes was the show of strength that would force the outcome. This was achieved through a hard-fought naval triumph at Lake Champlain followed up by victory on land at Battle of Plattsburgh. Due to the geography, it was unthinkable that these forces could conquer, let alone re-colonise, the continental United States, especially since the American population of five million had grown to match that of the British Isles and become proudly independent. However, the Tories still had their moment of satisfaction because news of their military achievements swung opinion at the Hartford Convention. This enabled arch-Federalist Harrison Gray Otis to win the argument for succession. After all, with the notable exception of John Adams, the United States had been dominated by Virginia planters, almost to the point of tyranny. While no one could speak ill of George Washington, the hero of the young country, the policies of Thomas Jefferson and his protege James Madison had infuriated New England. The unequal Treaty of Ghent redrew the map satisfying many of the British war aims. This provoked fury in the rump United States, and one man, General Andrew Jackson, began to plan for a third war with the Tories that would expel Great Britain from North America altogether.

Author's Note

In reality, the potency of Napoleon's pill had weakened with age. He survived to be exiled to Elba, while his wife and son took refuge in Austria. Weary of war, Britain agreed to the terms of the Treaty of Ghent to end the War of 1812 in North America.

Addendum - War of 1832

Having lost the Michigan Territory, the Jeffersonian-endorsed James Monroe lost control of the Democratic-Republican Party, prompting Georgian William H. Crawford to win the presidential election of 1816. Many argued that he had been the Secretary of War during the bleakest times of the fight, although supporters stated that things could have gone even more badly, such as Jackson's heroic victory at New Orleans (though it was technically an illegal battle with the war already ended by the Treaty of Ghent). Crawford noted that the final military action of the war had actually been the capture of the Nautilus, an East India Company brig, by the USS Peacock. If the United States were going to compete with Britain for land, it would need to stand up to them at sea as a world naval power.

The expansion of the United States Navy was timely with the next conflict, the Spanish War (1818-1820). General Jackson invaded Florida, pursuing escaped slaves and outlaws into the chaotic region where Spanish influence had all but disappeared due to exhaustion during the Napoleonic Wars. With American ships threatening Spanish islands in the Caribbean, Spain was quick to accept terms of the surrender of Florida. With the Crawford Doctrine telling Europeans to "leave America for the Americans," the American Navy added a good deal of threat to colonies.

Although physically unwell (Jackson had two bullets permanently lodged in his body), his applauded efforts in the war prompted his election to the presidency in 1824. He and Crawford had broken over the issue of national banking laws, especially in the fallout of the Panic of 1819. Expansionism meanwhile turned northwestward along with the removal of Native Americans to Indian Territory. New Englanders in the Federated States decried the rapid expansion of slavery, but Americans dismissed them with vocal derisive language.

Jackson nearly achieved his "Canadian War" in 1827 when tensions between Upper Canada and Lower Canada escalated being the British governor and the French-speaking locals of had been Quebec. Popular reformer Louis-Joseph Papineau had been elected speaker of the assembly in 1815, but Governor George Ramsey, Earl of Dalhousie, called for new elections in 1827 in an attempt to bump him out. Jackson offered to liberation, but Britain simply responded to petitions for change with the withdrawal of Governor Dalhousie.

His war finally came in 1832 with the new election. Newspaper publishers had been arrested on vague grounds, and three people were killed by British troops when they opened fire on a protesting crowd. Jackson called it a repeat of the early days of the American Revolution with arrests and the Boston Massacre. Although Papineau wanted only approval of his Ninety-two Resolutions for reform, Jackson-inspired revolutionaries led to conflict and ultimately a declaration of independence. Jackson dispatched his navy for the St. Lawrence River and coordinated generals in Ohio to seize the Great Lakes region. Britain responded with its own navy, and battles continued up and down the North American east coast for years. Riding the call for war, Jackson was elected to an unprecedented third term as president.

New England's Federated States fought to remain neutral, though it suffered numerous incursions from both sides. As the war dragged on through the 1830s, both sides became exhausted with Britain troubled by financing such a large-scale and distant war while Jackson becoming increasingly dictatorial, only narrowly winning reelection in 1836. New England at last was able to broker peace with Quebec's independence and the purchase of Upper Canada by the United States (including large payments to those who had suffered in the war). Britain maintained it colonies along the Atlantic with the exception of Labrador.

The United States proclaimed it as a great victory, and new warhawks began turning their heads toward Mexico for further conquest in the 1840s.

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