Monday, June 15, 2020

Guest Post: Zheng He Rescues Byzantium

This article first appeared at Today in Alternate History.

"The voyages of the great Chinese fleet were missions of exploration and commerce. They were not enterprises of conquest. No yearning for domination obliged Zheng to scorn or condemn what he found. What was not admirable was at least worthy of curiosity. And from trip to trip, the imperial library in Beijing continued growing until it held four thousand books that collected the wisdom of the world. At the time, the king of Portugal had six books." ~ Eduardo Galeano

In 1433, after an epic journey around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Strait of Gibraltar, the huge expeditionary fleet of Admiral Zheng He finally reached the continental boundary between Europe and Asia. Safe passage through the Mediterranean Sea was guaranteed by the Venetian Navy on the basis of a long-standing peaceful invitation to the Chinese Emperor made centuries before by Marco Polo. Exhausted by the Ottoman onslaught that had led to the military disaster at the Siege of Thessalonica, Venice did not have much choice.

To prevent the navy bottle-necking the Bosporus, the Admiral was forced to send ahead some smaller Fuchuan warships to complete the journey to Byzantium. Zheng He had spent three decades commanding seven expeditions through Indonesia, India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa. Nevertheless his voyage to Byzantium, at the climax of his career, would be truly historic. This was largely because of good timing - his arrival was warmly welcomed by John VIII Palaiologos. Facing an existential crisis, the Byzantine Emperor was desperately in need of aid from any source in order to continue a losing fight against the resurgent Ottomans. The Chinese were potential saviors, even though their influence would lead to yet another major religion, Buddhism, becoming a part of the already complicated Byzantine social dynamic.

Zheng He was himself born of a Muslim family, and his voyage was one of exploration rather than conquest, but even so his arrival was hugely consequential. With a military alliance affirmed, Zheng He's fleet, featuring numerous ships larger and more heavily armed than any Europe or the Middle East had ever seen, made short work of the Ottoman fleet that had dominated the Bosporus. Suddenly cut off from supply, sultan Murad II's tremendous advance through the Balkans came to a halt. In a series of battles behind enemy lines that would have impressed Hannibal himself, Murad held onto his position until his death in a decisive defeat at the hands of an army of the Serbian-Hungarian alliance. Murad's son Ahmed was placed on the throne, followed by Alaeddin, and ultimately Mehmed II as a series of early deaths plagued the household. Mehmed would cut his leadership teeth battling the Timurid Empire in the east, expanding the Ottoman Empire far into the Middle East as he gained the epithet "Conqueror."

In addition to tipping the balance in the favor of Byzantium, Zheng He brought with him applied science and technology that would transform the fortunes of the vulnerable Byzantine Empire at its weakest moment. Most significant of all the fortifications of the capital city would be dramatically improved by the time of the succession to Constantine XI in 1448. The Ottomans had missed their chance and decided never to return in another siege attempt. Instead, their conquests stretched from Persia all the way down the eastern coast of Africa to the Great Zimbabwe.

The wealth and power of Zheng He's fleet would have a massive effect on Byzantium, which would become the industrial center of the world by the dawn of the eighteenth century. 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 Byzantine Empire dominated the region, serving as a perfect balance between Christian and Muslim influences with a booming multi-faith population.

Author's note: In reality Zheng He died in 1433 in Calicut, India. By then, China's 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.

Provine's coda:
With the Balkan states coming into their own, Byzantium found itself in a new world.The city, now a shadow of its former empire that once spread across the Mediterranean world, was precariously balanced between Orthodox Christians to the west, Catholic Christians in the north, and Muslims to the east. Papal influence in the region waned since the promised rescue by the Holy Roman Empire was delivered instead by non-Christian Zheng He. Fortunately, the Byzantine emperors knew something everyone could believe in: money.

Word soon spread about the development in Germany of a printing press that could produce 3,600 pages in the same day a scribe could write 40, which the inventor Guttenberg planned to use to sell mass-produced Bibles. Religious implications aside, the Byzantines were far undermanned and an increase in production like that was much needed. The city was already a center of engineering: even hundreds of years before, ambassadors were greeted by mechanical birds singing artificial songs and a throne that could rise thirty feet in the air on hydraulic pumps. If engineers could make machines to sing, why not to do practical things? Encouraged by an imperial bounty, designers from all over the world, including the Chinese on the lengthy route around Africa, flooded the city with machines that could automatically spin, weave, and sew textiles into completed garments. The same happened with pottery, furniture, paper, practically anything that could be manufactured. Factories powered by pneumatic and hydraulic engines lined the landscape, and Byzantium earned a new nickname as "the World's Factory" as raw materials flowed in and goods flowed out.

Other nations hurried to catch up, such as the popes working to modernize Rome, the states of Germany building an iron-based trade network, and the Ottomans rebuilding the Pharaoh's Canal to shorten the travel time by boat to the Far East. China, too, felt the effects of closer east-west relations. Rather than following Confucian ideals toward closing off the nation, new models of Confucian thought drove the emperor to expand Chinese influence into "untamed" regions that they felt could benefit from their teaching. In an impressive feat of international agreement build a railway linking Byzantium with Beijing.

While the proximity meant potential for wealth, Byzantium long knew the significance of industrial espionage. A millennium before, Nestorian monks had smuggled silkworms in hollowed-out walking staffs and ended China's monopoly on silk production. The Byzantines greedily guarded their industrial secrets and built up a city guard that kept a careful eye on anyone who knew even parts of how machines worked. Witch hunts routinely broke out, leading to executions of engineers, such as that of famed designer Leonardo da Vinci when he refused to give up the codes embedded in his sketchbooks.

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