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A BRIEF HISTORY OF OCEAN EXPLORATION
Despite the dangers, humans continued to explore the oceans for a thousand years beyond the time of Homer, staying close to shore at first, then gradually venturing farther and farther offshore, seduced by the traditionally calm waters and idyllic weather of the Mediterranean. In 1000 B.C. the Phoenicians took control of the Mediterranean and made it a Phoenician lake. If we believe Herodotus, a Phoenician crew was the first to circumnavigate Africa, taking three years to pass from the Red Sea, down the east coast, around the Cape of Good Hope, and back through the Straits of Gibraltar.5 From Scandinavia, Viking raiders reached England, France, and Spain, and traveled east to parts of Russia and coastal areas of the Baltic Sea. Piloting sturdy but light oceangoing vessels 60 to 80 feet long, they crossed the North Atlantic Ocean to Iceland and Greenland, and reached North America (Newfoundland) around A.D. 1000.
At this same time, but half a world away, China was turning out the world’s best sailors and navigators. The Chinese developed paper, produced accurate nautical charts, used astronomy for navigation, and began to explore the South China Sea in the most reliable oceangoing vessels built up to that time.6
When Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Di came to power, he placed a man named Cheng Ho in charge of a shipbuilding program. At a shipyard in Nanking, Ho saw to the building of hundreds of vessels—some nearly 500 feet long—to create a Treasure Fleet that was to explore all of the known oceans and develop trade with foreign nations. Cheng Ho led seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433, traveling south to cross the Bay of Bengal, the Arabian Sea, and the Indian Ocean and, to the north, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan. In the west, he reached the east coast of Africa, near the site of Mombassa, and in the northwest, he traversed the Red Sea as far as Mecca and into the Persian Gulf. He also visited Sumatra, Indonesia, Thailand, and Borneo. He chronicled rough seas and vessels lost on his voyages. In 1424, the emperor died and his successor closed the shipyard and idled the fleet. The Chinese withdrew into isolation.
Arab traders took the place of the Chinese and by A.D. 1400 were in control of the trade routes and principal ports in the Indian Ocean.