Admiral Zheng He
China was trading with Indonesia by the early fifteenth century if not before. The northern Australian coast was probably sighted or visited by intrepid Chinese seafarers like the Ming Muslim Mongolian eunuch Admiral Zheng He (Cheng Ho, 1371–1433), a member of the Chinese imperial court who from 1405 to 1433 mounted seven expeditions from the Yangtze on a scale far exceeding that of any European Enlightenment voyage of exploration. His destinations included Southeast Asia, India, the Middle East, East Africa, and the Horn of Africa with fleets of armed vessels. One squadron totalled 300 ships including water tankers and a contingent of 28,000 officials, sailors, doctors, marines and gunners. His largest ships were 30 times the size of the vessel used by Columbus on his great voyage of discovery in 1492, the Chinese vessels having advanced rudders, watertight compartments, complex signaling devices, elaborate charts of the Indian Ocean and magnetic compasses. Chinese sailors knew the coasts of India, Arabia and East Africa, returning a giraffe to China from Aden.
Timor, just a few hundred kilometers from the Australian north coast, was part of an early trade route linking China, India, and Indonesia. The main commodity was sandalwood but honey, beeswax wax and female slaves were also traded. Trading was well known to China in the 15th century especially the white sandalwood imported from Timor since the 7th century CE and used in China for incense and carving.
In 1432 China was world leader in the construction of ocean-going ships but the 1480 Ming Emperor forbade overseas exploration in an inward-looking policy that changed the potential face of history.