Suez Canal

The Suez Canal and the Passage of Zheng He’s fleet on its way to Italy in 1434

Dr. Stephen Davies, Museum Director, Hong Kong Maritime Museum

Almost all scholars – except Mr Menzies and his team – agree that there was no connection between the Red and Mediterranean Seas in the 15th century. Remnants of a connection that may have been open in the early 12th century remained. But even that connection was shallow and relatively narrow. For even supposing it to have maintained the width of the 6th century BCE canal of Darius (sufficient for two triremes to row past each other), that would not entail a width of greater than 100’. One can see that from the dimensions of the reconstruction trireme, the Olympias, as recounted in J. S. Morrison, J. F. Coates, N. B. Rankov, The Athenian Trireme: The History and Reconstruction of an Ancient Greek Warship, 2nd ed., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, p.270 . Each trireme with oars extended would have taken up about 12m of width. Two passing, allowing a close but generous shave, would have taken up 30m or 100’. That’s 50’ narrower than the 1869 Suez Canal and 80’ narrower than the beam of Zheng He’s treasure ships as propounded by Mr Menzies.
The following drawing assumes, however, that miraculously in 1432 Arab engineers completed a canal that was as wide and deep as the one Ferdinand de Lesseps was to complete with more primitive western industrial technology 437 years later. De Lesseps’ 1869 Suez Canal (cross section in red) is shown below with a typical early-19th century wooden warship of the largest size in the middle and around it a cross section of putative Zheng He baochuan to the Ming Shih dimensions uncritically taken by Mr Menzies to be exact measurements.


The canal as dug by de Lesseps in 1869 was 150’ wide at the top narrowing to 72’across the bottom and was 26’ deep. Mr Menzies tells us that Zheng He’s largest vessels were ‘about 480’ in length…and 180’ across’ (1421, the year China discovered the world, London: Bantam, 2003, p. 65). It follows, one suggests a bit tentatively of course, that getting Zheng He’s ships from Suez to the River Nile would have been a bit of a challenge.
In fact it must have been a phenomenal challenge because these ships were not just wide and probably drew about the same amount of water as a 19th century first rate ship of the line – compared to which, of course, they were immensely larger and immeasurably superior. They were also incomparably more massive. Indeed a fair comparison in volumetric terms of the baochuan favoured by Mr Menzies against other ships we know the size of shows that the Treasure Ship was vast.

It was indeed a lot larger than one of the largest first rate line of battle ships built, the British HMS Victory which is show in corss section in the canal above with the baochuan . It was a lot larger than one of the three largest sailing vessels ever known to have been built in the west, the Preussen. Indeed it was massively much larger, working out at two and three quarter times the size of the Preussen and six and a third times the size of the Victory. Think carefully about that for a minute or two.

A neat way of envisaging that, in case you felt the Suez Canal drawing was a bit much to accept, is to use a simple ‘gift box’ image. Imagine that you have a simple rectangular box into which the hull of any vessel neatly fits. Just to show a variety, we’re not just going to use the baochuan, the Victory and the Preussen. We’re going to toss in four ‘gift boxes’ additional to the one for the Menzies and others baochuan. Each would snugly contain the relevant vessel stripped of its rig, in terms of hull length (excluding bowsprit), beam, and moulded depth (including deckhouses, poop decks, etc) and we’re going to add a large 19th century junk of known dimensions, the Keying, and the pathetic little cockleshell in which Columbus crossed the Atlantic, according to Mr Menzies in 1434 thanks to Zheng He’s visit, the Santa Maria. I have drawn a sketch of the result in the diagram below.

Suez 2

1: ‘Gift box’ comparison of the sizes of the Treasure Ship and the Great Eastern

Assume that 50’, close to the beam measurements of the Victory and Preussen, represents one gift-box-side unit. The Treasure Ship’s box will have the following dimensions: 7.98 units long, 3.26 units wide, 1.35 units high. It will be 35.12 cubic units in volume. The Victory’s box will be 3.9 units long, 1.04 units wide and 0.92 units high. It will contain 3.73 cubic units. The Preussen’s box will be 8.15 units long, 1.07 units wide and 0.86 units high. It will contain 7.5 cubic units. The Keying’s box will be 3.2 units long, 0.66 units wide and 0.9 units high. It will contain 1.9 cubic units. It follows that in terms of visible bulk on the measures we have, the largest Ming Dynasty Treasure Ship to sail through the canal dug during the 11th century rule of Abu ‘Ali Mansur Tāriqu l-Ḥākim – apparently without telling him, since he is also said to have successfully ordered the canal to be closed! – and kept open throughout the turbulent three centures that followed, was nearly ten times the size of one of the largest wooden warships of the apogee of fighting sail in the west. It was three or four times the size of one of the largest sailing vessels the western world ever built and nearly twenty times larger than the only junk known to have made it to the North Atlantic. And, as the diagram shows, the baochuan was nearly four hundred times the size of the cockleshell in which Christopher Columbus sailed to the Americas. Jolly impressive indeed – but maybe too much so to make it through any Suez Canal before the late 20th century.

Why? Well, here’s another diagram. Too large to go through the first Suez Canal because it drew too much water – 30’ loaded – the Great Eastern was in its day a byword for what one would think of as a maritime behemoth, leviathan or absolute whopper. It was also, we need to note, six times larger than any ship then afloat when it was launched in 1858, eleven years before the modern Suez Canal opened. However in volumetric terms (i.e. the amount of space it took up), it was actually smaller than the baochuan in which Mr Menzies invites us to believe Zheng He set sail, voyaged up the Red Sea and sailed through a probably non-existent canal into the Mediterranean. Let’s use our gift box idea again to show why:

Suez 3
2: The Treasure Ship and the Great Eastern compared

Obviously the Great Eastern was a lot longer than the baochuan. But its beam was only half that of the baochuan at 82’. Though that was too wide for the bottom of the Suez Canal (the cross section of the Great Eastern was almost rectangular) which was only 72’ wide so accessible to the Great Eastern, at a squeak, only in ballast when it drew 20’ as opposed to a full load draft of 20’. Anyway, on Menzies’ measurements the Great Eastern, which only just fit the 1869 Suez Canal in ballast, was slightly over half the beam of the baochuan. So we can get a reasonable comparison of relative volume, as Diagram 2 shows, by halving the Great Eastern’s length and doubling its beam just to show how in terms of volume Brunel’s monster for its day – nothing larger was to be built until the RMS Celtic in 1901 – it actually occupies less space than the baochuan. Indeed on our ‘gift box’ measure the Great Eastern was 27.8 cubic units compared to the Treasure Ship’s 35.12 units. In terms of pure ‘gift box’ volume that makes it 20% smaller than a Treasure Ship.

Unless it was unloaded – and even then only very slowly with but inches to spare as the diagram shows – the Great Eastern couldn’t get through the technological wonder of a canal (but of course in Menziesesque terms primitive and derivative) dug by a zillion workers for M. de Lesseps that opened in 1869.

Suez 5





60’ moulded depth






The Great Eastern in ballast just fitting the 1869 canal, with the largest late 19th century baghlah for comparison

So why on earth should we believe that a vessel 20% larger in volume and rather wider than M. de Lesseps canal was, could have got through a canal which almost certainly didn’t exist, but which would have been designed for dhows, the largest of which ever claimed by anyone was not more than 150’ long (the baghlah, ghanjah and boum – see Ministry of Information & Culture, Sultanate of Oman, Oman, a seafaring nation, Muscat: Ministry of Information & Culture, 1979, pp.118, 123 & 12).

There is absolutely no solid evidence that stands up to scrutiny that a large fleet of Chinese vessels visited Italy in the first half of the 15th century. No record mentions it – yet this was a time when any wonder was eagerly commented on and recorded. But let’s assume everyone was having a blind month, or that assiduous traducers of the record of the kind beloved by conspiracy theorists have subsequently – and unbelievably thoroughly – trashed the entire, Europe-wide record. That still leaves Mr Menzies’ theory with a very large problem. How the heck did the ships get to the Eastern Mediterranean via the Isthmus of Suez?

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