Imperialism Masked by the Gift of Faith

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During the 15th and 16th centuries C.E. various maritime expeditions were on the rise. These included but were not limited to voyages conducted by some of the leading powers at the time: the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal and the Ming Empire. Despite Spain and Portugal being on the Western part of Europe and the Ming Empire being located in the Eastern part of Asia, they all shared the same ultimate motive, imperialism. Due to the shared motive behind these expeditions, the similarity in motive outweighs the negligible differences, consisting of what was proclaimed as the real intention of these trips and what was to be brought back with them.

The Portuguese conducted maritime voyages for various reasons, these included commerce, the spread of Christianity, and the most important, imperial conquest. When Vasco da Gama arrived from Calicut, he wrote “And when they shall have thus been fortified in the faith there will be an opportunity for destroying the Moors of those parts. Moreover we hope, with the help of God that the great trade which now enriches the Moors… shall in consequence of our regulations, be diverted to the natives and ships of our own kingdom (TTS, page 7).”

The real purpose of the expedition is shown through this journal entry, the Portuguese wants to use faith as a means to challenge the Muslims. By converting Indians, Portuguese would gain Christian comrades that would help them willingly, to take over the Muslims in that area. By defeating the Muslims, Portuguese would be able to gain control of the trade that is presently in the palms of the Muslims. After gaining access to larger trade routes, Portugal would then be able to expand their kingdom, showing that is the real motive behind this expedition.

Although many advised Ferdinand and Isabella of Christopher Columbus’s voyage being impossible, they still funded his trip. Christopher Columbus believing he was on route to India landed in the Caribbean, where he wrote to Ferdinand and Isabella, “I promise, that with a little assistance afforded me by our most invincible sovereigns, I will procure them as much gold as they need, as great a quantity of spices, of cotton, and of mastic…, and as many men [slaves] for the service of the navy as their Majesties may require (TTS, page 11).”

Columbus set sail proclaiming he wanted to spread Christianity and acquire spices and gold for their majesties. However when he writes to Ferdinand and Isabella, he states the most valuable gain from this trip being the recruitment of men as slaves. He shows the need of these men for imperial conquest, as the real motive of this exploration. The need of men for imperial conquest is masked by the need for spices, gold, and the spread of Christianity. Through his letter, his interests and wanted outcomes can be seen as very similar to Vasco da Gama’s. Both of these voyagers want to gain spices, gold, an increase in commerce, but the most important for them being imperial conquest.

Zheng He’s intention for his large expeditions did not include the spread of his faith, and to garner gold and spice, but did have an imperial motive. Zheng He claimed the main purpose of his ordered voyage was to display the Emperor Yongle’s kindness upon other countries, and to bestow upon them gifts.

However it is revealed the Emperor ordered Zhen He to carry out these enormous trips to “… confer presents on them in order to make manifest the transforming power of the imperial virtue and to treat distant people with kindness (WOH, page 11).” In this excerpt, Zheng He shows the ultimate reason of being commanded by the Emperor had “imperial virtue”, meaning the Emperor wanted to display the vast amount of power he possessed, and what he was possible of. This motive was masked by delivery of gifts and kindness.

The Emperor wanted to politely show others of what he was capable of doing to them, which can be seen through the manner of which these trips were conducted. Zheng He was ordered along with others “at the head of several tens of thousands of officers and flag-troops to ascend more than one hundred large ships… (WOH, page 10).” When Zheng He conducted these trips he had thousands of men and hundreds of enormous ships.

This information allows one to realize that the Emperor did have imperial motives. If he did not, he would never order such vast amount of men and ships to carry out this mission. Along with flag-troops which are used to mark other territory as one’s own. Through these records, the Emperor’s clever scheme is revealed, of presenting foreigners with gifts that display kindness, but in reality it is to exemplify your capability on an imperial level.

Some might argue the expeditions led by Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, and Zheng He were to spread religion and for an increase in commerce which would enable them to garner more resources and imperialism was never the direction in which they were sailing.

When Vasco da Gama sailed to Calicut, he wrote, “And when they shall have thus been fortified in the faith there will be an opportunity for destroying the Moors of those parts. Moreover we hope, with the help of God that the great trade which now enriches the Moors… shall in consequence of our regulations, be diverted to the natives and ships of our own kingdom (TTS, page 7).” Vasco da Gama’s only motive was not to spread Christianity. He wanted to convert Indians to Christianity so they would aide him in taking over the trading that was in possession of the Muslims.

The only way possible to expand their kingdom was through the defeat of the Muslims. This is why the spread of Christianity and increase in commerce was important, but was definitely not the main reason of this expedition. If these two aspects were met, only then the expansion of the Portuguese kingdom could be met. Similarly, Columbus set sail proclaiming he was going to return after spreading Christianity and obtaining spices.

However in his letter to Ferdinand and Isabella, he writes: “I took possession of all these islands in the name of our invincible king, yet there was one large town in Espanola of which especially I took possession, situated… in every way convenient for the purposes of gain and commerce (TTS, page 11).” When Columbus writes to Ferdinand and Isabella, he talks of taking possession of multiple islands.

He says these islands would allow them to trade and lead to their gain. He never mentions religion, but writes of these islands that would allow for the kingdom of Spain to expand. Before sailing he never mentions conquering land but indulges in the act, clearly displaying an imperial motive from the start. Unlike the Europeans, Zheng He never spoke of spreading religion or increasing trade, He displayed a motive of dispersing gifts to foreigners, however he too had an imperial motive. When He embarked on his journey accompanied by thousands of men, it took place on hundreds of ships.

So if imperialism was never a thought, why set sail in such a manner? The manner in which He sailed demanded respect from others and showed the Ming Empire of being much stronger. The true intent of Emperor Yongle is clearly displayed in Zheng He’s seventh voyage when “king Yaliekinaier (Alagakkonara) was guilty of a gross lack of respect and plotted against the fleet… thereupon that king was captured alive (WOH, page 11).”

During this voyage, Zheng He displays the true motive behind his expedition. It wasn’t to simply to bestow upon foreigners various gifts, it was to display the Emperor’s imperial power. When they suspected disrespect and treachery, they captured the King of Xilanshan, and held him captive for two years. However to set as an example that the Emperor had ultimate power they returned him, and showed King of Xilanshan was no match for Emperor Yongle of the Ming Empire. This explains why the ultimate motive of the Emperor was not to gift other countries, but to show their imperial strength, demonstrated by the manner in which they sailed and behaved. All of these sailors embarked on their journey proclaiming of different intentions, nevertheless sharing the same motive, imperialism.

Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, and Zheng He had similarities behind the motive for their voyages which strongly outweighs any negligible differences. The differences consisted of what they proclaimed to do, da Gama and Columbus proclaiming to spread Christianity and obtain spices, and gold, on the other hand, Zheng He bestowing upon foreigner’s the Emperor Yongle’s kindness. However, all of these expeditions were for the same ultimate purpose, imperialism, whether it was to imperialize and add to the present kingdom or display imperialistic strength.

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Imperialism Masked By the Gift of Faith. (2019, Mar 13). Retrieved from

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