The Cheng Ho Expedition Blog

The Cheng Ho Expedition Blog

During the 70th year anniversary of the Cheng Ho Expedition (2009-10), we are offering our readers a unique opportunity to join the adventure with Edward “Ned” Beckwith, the official expedition photographer. Click the graphic to the right and join Ned on his adventures.  

Brief biographies and pictures of the Cheng Ho explorers can be found here.

The History of the Cheng Ho Expedition


The Cheng Ho at Harbor in Hong Kong in 1940 

Even after traveling the world extensively, in the late 1930s David Fairchild was still dreaming of collecting plants in the exotic islands of the Dutch East Indies. He had discussed his plans with many people, and in 1939 he felt the time was finally right for his trip. Fairchild Tropical Garden had just been established, so there was a need for new plants and a place to send seeds to be grown. The biggest stumbling block to the trip was finding appropriate transportation. Even with Dr. Fairchild’s extensive connections, he could not find a ship they could use as a floating research vessel.       

Ann Archbold, daughter of the co-founder of Standard Oil, finally found the solution. She was enthusiastic about funding an expedition-and even participating herself-but it was apparent that this trip needed its own custom-built research ship. Ann agreed to have the ship built, and recruited Ted Kilkenny, an experienced yachtsman and adventurer, to build and captain the ship. And what a ship it was! Built in the Ah King shipyard in Hong Kong, it was classified as a junk by naval architecture, but a yacht by Western standards. The Cheng Ho’s 100 foot length easily carried the 19 passengers and crew and included hand carved teak, Chinese porcelain and inlay work, electric lights, baths and showers, a laboratory for Dr. Fairchild, a darkroom, and many other exotic and comfortable furnishings.

The crew met in the Philippines in late 1939, and the very first Fairchild Tropical Garden plant expedition began. The Cheng Ho and crew intended to sail for the next two years collecting plants and seeds to be sent back to the garden. But within six months, Germany had invaded Holland, and increasing conflict in the islands made further travel impossible.

Although shortened, the trip was very fruitful. More than 500 different kinds of plants were collected and shipped to the garden, including more than 90 species of palms and many shade and ornamental trees and numerous vines. Several of these plants are still growing in the garden. (Visit the expedition exhibit inside the Garden Café’s indoor seating area for more information and locations on those plants.)

If you want to read more about the Cheng Ho Expedition, Burt Zuckerman, former Garden Historian wrote about it in the garden’s publications:

            Voyage of the Cheng Ho, Garden News: 48(4) Ramble 1993

            Calamity Sunday, Garden News: 54(6) November 1999 

For more pictures of the expediton on flickr, click here.

For a map of where those pictures were taken on flickr, click here.