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Hi, I’m John Green; this is Crash Course
World History and today we’re going to do
some compare and contrast, because that’s
what passes for hip in world history.
Right, so you’ve probably heard of Christopher
Columbus who in 1492 sailed the ocean blue
and discovered America, a place that had been
previously discovered only by millions of people --
Mr Green, Mr Green! Columbus was just a lucky
Yeah, no. Here’s a little rule of thumb,
Me from the Past: If you are not an expert
in something, don’t pretend to be an expert.
This is going to serve you well both in your
academic career and in your Kissing Career.
So unlike Me from the Past, I'd argue that
Columbus has a deserved reputation in history
— but was he really the greatest sailor
of the 15th Century? Well, let’s meet the
other contestants. In the red corner, we have
Zheng He, who, when it comes to ocean-going
voyages was the first major figure of the
15th century. And in the blue corner is Vasco
da Gama, from scrappy little Portugal, who
managed to introduce Europeans to the Indian
Ocean trade network. Columbus, you have to
sit in the polka-dotted corner.
As you’ll no doubt remember from our discussion
of Indian Ocean trade, it was dominated by
Muslim merchants, involved ports in Africa
and the Middle East and India and Indonesia
and China, and it made a lot of people super
rich. This last point explains why our three
contestants were so eager to set sail. Well,
that and the ceaseless desire of human beings
to discover things and contract scurvy.
Let’s begin with Zheng He, who is probably
the greatest admiral you’ve never have heard
of. Couple of important things about Zheng
He, First, he was a Muslim. That may seem
strange until you consider that by the late
14th century, China had long experience with
Muslims, especially when they were ruled by,
wait for it... The Mongols.
Secondly, Zheng He was a eunuch. Fortunately,
15th century China had excellent general anesthesia,
so I’m sure it didn’t hurt at all when
they castrated him — what’s that, Stan?
They didn’t have any anesthesia? Oh, boy.
Oh. Stan! I’M SEEING IT! I can see, AH AH
AHHHH. Stan! SHOW ME SOMETHNG CUTE RIGHT NOW!
Oh, hi there kitty! How’d you get in that
little teacup? Thank you, Stan. Right, so
Zheng He rose from humble beginnings to lose
both of his testicles, and become the greatest admiral
in Chinese history. Let’s go to the thought Bubble.
Between 1405 and 1433, Zheng He led seven
voyages throughout the Indian Ocean, the expeditions
of the so-called treasure ships, and they
were huge. Columbus’ first voyage consisted
of three ships. Zheng He led an armada of
over 300, with a crew of over 27,000 — more
than half of London’s population at the
time. And some of these ships were, well,
enormous. The flagships, known as the treasure
ships, were over 400 feet long and had 7 or
more masts. See that little tiny ship there
in front of the Treasure Ship? That’s a
to-scale rendering of Christopher Columbus’s
flagship, the Santa Maria.
Zheng He wasn’t an explorer: The Indian
Ocean trade routes were already known to him
and other Chinese sailors. He visited Africa,
India, and the Middle East, and in a way,
his journeys were trade missions, but not
in the sense of filling his ships up with
stuff to be sold later for higher prices.
At the time, China was the leading manufacturer
of quality goods in the world, and there wasn’t
anything they actually needed to import. What
they needed was prestige and respect so that
people would continue to see China as the
center of the economic universe, so there
was a tribute system through which foreign
rulers or their ambassadors would come to
China and engage in a debasing ritual called
the kowtow wherein they acknowledged the superiority
of the Chinese emperor and offered him - or
her, but usually him - gifts in exchange for
the right to trade with China.
The opportunity to humble yourself before
the Chinese emperor was so valuable that many
a prince was happy to jump on a treasure ship
and sail back to China with Zheng He. Also,
these tribute missions brought lots of crazy
things to China, including exotic animals:
from Africa, Zheng He brought back a zoo’s
worth of rhinos, zebras, and even giraffes.
Basically, he was like the medieval Chinese
Noah. Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So the Chinese were world leaders in naval
technology, and they wanted to dominate trade
here in the Indian Ocean. So why, then, did
these voyages end? One reason was that Zheng
He couldn’t live forever, and sure enough,
he didn’t. Also his patron, the Yongle Emperor,
died. And the emperor’s successors weren’t
very interested in maritime trade. They were
more concerned with protecting China against
its traditional enemies, nomads from the steppe.
To do this, they built a rather famous wall.
The Great Wall was mostly built under the
Ming Dynasty using resources that they only
had because they stopped building gigantic
ships. Just imagine what might have happened
if the Ming emperors had embraced a different
strategy. One that was based on outreach instead
And now, to the blue corner. Representing
Portuguese exploration, we have Vasco da Gama.
Couple things about Portugal: first, it has
a fair bit of coastline. Secondly, it was
relatively resource-poor, which meant it relied
upon trade in order to grow. Also, the Iberian
peninsula was the only place in Europe where
Muslims could be found in large numbers in
the 15th century, which meant the Christian
crusading spirit was quite strong there, presumably
because Muslims had brought so much stability
and prosperity to the region.
And chief among these would-be crusaders was
Prince Henry the Navigator, so called because
he was not a navigator. He was, however, a
patron, not only of sailors themselves, but
of a special school at Sagres in which nautical
knowledge was collected and new maps were
made, and all kinds of awesome stuff happened.
And all that knowledge gave Portuguese sailors
a huge competitive advantage when it came
Henry commissioned sailors to search for two
things. First, a path to the Indian Ocean
so they could get in on the lucrative spice
trade. And second, to find the kingdom of
Prester John, a mythical Christian King who
was supposed to live in Africa somewhere,
so that Henry could have Prester John’s
help in a crusade.
Da Gama was the first of Henry’s protégés
to make it around Africa, and into the Indian
Ocean. In 1498, he landed at Calicut, a major
trading post on India’s west coast. And
when he got there, merchants asked him what
he was looking for. He answered with three
words: Gold and Christians. Which basically
sums up Portugal’s motivations for exploration.
So, once the Portuguese breached the Indian
Ocean, they didn’t create, like, huge colonies,
because there were already powerful empires
in the region. Instead, they apparently sat
in the middle of the Indian Ocean doing nothing.
Actually, they were able to capture & control
a number of coastal cities, creating what
historians call a “trading post empire.”
They could do this thanks to their well-armed
ships, which captured cities by firing cannons
into city walls like IRL Angry Birds.
But since the Portuguese didn’t have enough
people or boats to run the Indian Ocean trade,
they had to rely on extortion. So, Portuguese
merchant ships would capture other ships and
force them to purchase a permit to trade called
a cartaz. And without a cartaz, a merchant
couldn’t trade in any of the towns that
Portugal controlled. To merchants, who’d
plied the Indian Ocean for years in relative
freedom, the Portuguese were just glorified
pirates, extracting value from trade without
adding to its efficiency or volume.
So, the cartaz strategy sort of worked for
a while, but the Portuguese never really took
control of Indian Ocean trade. They were successful
enough that their neighbors, Spain, became
interested in their own route to the Indies,
and that brings us to Columbus.
But first, let’s dispel some myths:
One, Columbus and his crew knew the earth
was round. He was just wrong about the earth’s
size. Columbus used Ptolemy’s geography
and the Imago Mundi, based on Muslim scholarship
— and ended up overestimating the size of
Asia and underestimating the size of the oceans.
Two, Columbus never thought he’d made it
to China. He called the people he encountered
“Indians” because he thought that he’d
made it to the East Indies, what we know as
And three, Columbus was not a lucky idiot.
He navigated completely unknown waters primarily
relying on a technique known as dead reckoning,
in which you figure out your position based
on three pieces of information: the direction
you’re going, your speed, and the time,
which you figure out via hourglass. With only
that technology to guide you, it's not actually
that easy to hit a continent. Come here, people
who are saying he didn’t hit a continent,
that he only hit some islands. Come here.
Oh, it’s time for the Open Letter?
An open letter to the Line of Demarcation.
But first, let’s see what’s in the secret
compartment today. Oh, its a globe. Thanks
Stan! Just what I always needed.
Dear Line of Demarcation, You have so much
to teach us about the way that the world used
to work, and the way that it works now. In
1494, Pope Alexander VI settled a dispute
between Portugal and Spain by dividing the
world into two parts: The Spanish part, and
the Portuguese part. This whole thing, at
least according to Pope Alexander VI, could
be split between Spain and Portugal.
At least when it came to so-called unclaimed
land. I mean, unclaimed by whom? You know
all the American Indians were like, “wait,
this land is available? In, in that case,
we’ll just, we’ll just keep it. If it's
all the same to you.”
Anyway, Line of Demarcation, I have great
news for you. What Alexander VI did totally
worked. We haven’t had a problem since.
Best wishes, John Green
So, Columbus’s first journey (he made four,
the last three of which were pretty calamitous)
was tiny, and he initially landed on a small
Caribbean island he called San Salvador in
search, like the Portuguese, of Gold and Christians.
He was able to convince Ferdinand and Isabella
of Spain to fund his expedition by promising
riches and conversions of the natives, hopefully
to sign them up for yet another crusade.
And there’s a long-standing myth that Columbus
tricked Ferdinand and Isabella into paying
for his trip, but in fact they’d commissioned
two different sets of experts to analyze his
plans, both of which agreed, he was crazy.
One called the plan, “Impossible to any
But even so, Ferdinand and Isabella footed
the bill, partly because they were full of
Crusading zeal after expelling the Muslims
from Spain, and partly because they were desperate
to get their hands on some of that pepper
richness. Columbus, of course, failed at finding
riches — he returned with neither spices
nor gold. He did create some Christians, as
we’ll discuss in a future episode, but in
terms of goal accomplishment, Columbus was
much less successful than either Zheng He
or Vasco de Gama.
But within two generations of Columbus, Spain
would become fantastically wealthy, and for
a time they were the leading power in Europe.
Columbus’s voyages also had a huge, largely
negative, impact on the people the Spanish
encountered in the Americas. And excitingly
from my perspective, once Columbus returned
from San Salvador, we can speak for the first
time of a truly world history. Except for
So who was the greatest mariner of the 15th
century? Well, as usual, it depends on your
definition of greatness. If you value administrative
competence over ill-advised adventure, than
Zheng He is certainly the winner. But the
reason we remember Columbus over him or Vasco
de Gama is that Columbus’s voyages had a
lasting impact on the world, even if it wasn’t
necessarily a positive one. And that makes
me wonder what kind of person you’d want
to be: A capable administrator and brilliant
sailor like Zheng He? A daring captain like
de Gama? Or the bearer of a complicated but
famous legacy like Columbus? Let me know in
Thanks for watching, and we’ll see you next
Crash Course is produced and directed by Stan
Muller, our script supervisor is Danica Johnson.
The show is written by my high school history
teacher Raoul Meyer and myself, and our graphics
team is Thought Bubble.
Last week’s Phrase of the Week was, “You
smell pretty.” Thanks for that suggestion,
by the way. If you want to suggest future
phrases of the week, you can do so in comments,
where you can also guess at this weeks phrase
of the week or ask questions about today’s
video that will be answered by our team of
historians. Thanks for watching Crash Course,
and as we say in my home town, Don't Forget
To Be Awesome.
Ahhh, crash! No, avoided!