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  • Writer's pictureMario Teng



European powers travelled great lengths to satiate their ravenous appetite for spices and wrestled one another as they carved Southeast Asia up for their pound of flesh.



Much about the Ming treasure voyages has been a subject of academic debate. However, among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia, the Ming treasure voyages were remembered as symbols of strength projected by the Chinese civilisation as well as a source of Chinese ethnic pride. They were especially famous because at the time, the voyages were unprecedented feats on many fronts.

The sheer scale and scope of the expeditionary fleet was quite the sight to behold and left onlookers marvelling. The fleet carried vast amounts of treasures—ergo the name treasure voyages—and was highly militarised to protect the assets. Together, the military might of the fleet and the fortunes onboard the ships served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world, as well as to woo foreign states into declaring themselves tributaries of China. The Melaka Sultanate was one of those states.

Seven maritime expeditions were undertaken between 1405 to 1433. The first three ventured as far as Kozhikode—or previously Calicut—on India's Malabar Coast, the fourth reached Hormuz on the Persian Gulf, and the last three travelled all the way to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa. On the other side of the Old World, the Europeans only discovered the coast of West Africa in 1434, the southern tip of Africa in 1488, and a maritime route to India in 1498. In other words, the world has never seen a state-sponsored naval expedition of this mileage and it was at least 50 years before the Chinese treasure voyages were beaten by a new record holder.

Further solidifying the legendary status of the Ming treasure voyages were no doubt the treasure ships, the largest vessels within the expeditionary fleet. If we take the description of the treasure ships in Chinese accounts as true, then the ships, at 135 metres in length, would have been twice as long as any other wooden ship measured and recorded until the 20th century, more than five centuries later. However, poor documentation and conflicting sources make it hard for historians to corroborate their actual sizes. Furthermore, wood was the main material used to build ships in that era but wooden ships cannot survive the stresses that steel ships today can bear. The larger the design of the wooden ship, the more impractical it was for the ship to navigate in open ocean. Realistic estimates range from 61 to 76 metres in length, which are still impressive and huge for its time.

Naturally, the man in charge of these voyages also became a subject of veneration among overseas Chinese. It was not uncommon for Zheng He, and some of his crews, to be deified in Chinese temples and his adventures turned into tales and legends.

A monument of Zheng He in the Stadthuys, Melaka.
A monument of Zheng He in the Stadthuys, Melaka. Image acquired from Wikimedia Commons, "Marcin Konsek".

Yet, his background is peculiar, and one that not many people—and Chinese—are familiar with. Firstly, he was a Muslim, though his religious beliefs were described as eclectic, meaning that they were derived from a diverse range of sources. Secondly, he was a eunuch. When the Yuan dynasty fell to the Ming army, a pre-pubescent Zheng He was captured, castrated, and placed in the service of the prince Zhu Di. As fate would have it, the prince eventually wound up becoming emperor of China after a brief civil war. Zheng He, his eunuch servant and his trusted advisor, would earn the prestigious titles of Grand Director of the Directorate of Palace Servants and later Chief Envoy when he was given control of the Chinese expeditionary fleet and embarked on the naval expeditions.


A fun trivia that I always like to share with other people on the significance of the spice trade was the fact that in the 1600s, nutmegs could be sold in Europe at 680 times the buying price in Asia. For comparison, black pepper could be sold at 14 to 17 times the original price in Asia. The reason behind the insane mark-ups of nutmegs was that its production only existed on one specific chain of islands in Indonesia called the Maluku Islands. Before the colonial era, the plant that produces nutmeg (its seed) and mace (the seed covering) as well as another plant that produces cloves (its flower buds) can be found nowhere else in the world.

Nutmeg (the brown core) and mace (the red outgrowth around the nutmeg) of the Myristica fragrans tree.
Nutmeg (the brown core) and mace (the red outgrowth around the nutmeg) of the Myristica fragrans tree. Image acquired from Wikimedia Commons, "AntanO".
Cloves (dried) of the Syzygium aromaticum tree.
Cloves (dried) of the Syzygium aromaticum tree. Image created by Brian Arthur.

So significant was the Maluku Islands to lucrative spice operations that it was dubbed the Spice Islands. Since the Age of Exploration, European colonial powers actively hunted for its location to extract its profit. In the 1600s, the Dutch Empire pushed the Portuguese Empire out of Southeast Asia and attempted to enforce a monopoly on nutmeg production on Banda Islands, a subset of the Maluku Islands. The Bandanese resisted against the prospect of selling their nutmegs only to the Dutch and the Dutch grew impatient that the negotiations were going nowhere. The escalating conflict eventually resulted in the ambush and killing of a Dutch admiral and his crew, giving the Dutch their casus belli.

When the dust settled, the Banda Islands were severely depopulated. Before the conquest, it was estimated that there were about 15,000 Bandanese. After the conquest, only an estimated 150 to 600 remained. The difference was either killed in the conquest or enslaved, deported, or displaced in the aftermath. The Dutch had fully secured their monopoly of the spices.

Oh, and just another fun trivia, did you know that nutmegs are actually toxic?


Prior to the Industrial Revolution, spices were the main source of wealth for European colonial powers. To increase crop yield and profit margins, botanical gardens were established to study the plants and test various cultivation techniques. In 1819—the year of Singapore's founding by the British—William Farquhar established Singapore's first botanical garden and a spice plantation to experiment with the cultivation of pepper, coffee, cloves, nutmeg, and cotton. In 1822, Stamford Raffles and his acquaintance expanded and renovated the garden. You may find out more about Farquhar's and Raffles' contributions to the development of colonial Singapore as well as their feud in Episodes 6 to 13.

By 1829, the garden was shut down. High upkeep, along with the lack of funding and government support, made it difficult to keep the garden going. Not to mention, Raffles had permanently left the settlement in 1823 and returned to Britain for his retirement. Though a section of the garden was briefly revived in 1836 and turned into a nutmeg estate to exploit the spike in nutmeg prices, it closed down again not too long after.

In 1859, plans to re-establish a botanical garden in Singapore were renewed, but a new location was chosen for the endeavour. The garden's focus also changed from a horticultural plot to an ornamental and recreational garden. This new garden was named the Singapore Botanic Gardens, which stands till date and subsequently became Singapore's First UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2015.

The concert platform at Singapore Botanic Gardens.
The concert platform at Singapore Botanic Gardens. Image created by Marklin Ang.

As for the previous botanical garden at Fort Canning Hill, the National Parks Board recently launched nine historical gardens in the same location to present the rich history of the hill to the public. Among the nine is a spice garden, featuring more than 180 varieties of plants and a small gallery detailing the significance of the spice trade in the region and its history.

The Spice Gallery and garden at Fort Canning Park.
The Spice Gallery and garden at Fort Canning Park. Image acquired from the National Parks Board.

I have been there myself and I must say... it was a tranquil break from hustle and bustle of the city.



The Story of Singapore is a history podcast created by Mario Teng, tracing the historical and political developments of Singapore, from a backwater kingdom in the 1300s to an economic miracle by the turn of the 21st century.

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So much of who we are is where we have been. History may not seem all that important in this modern world but as we venture into a future...


Empires rose, empires fell. Powerful geopolitical forces conspired to shape Southeast Asia’s developments in the centuries to come.


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