The history of the Channel islands maritime museum

The Museum was the culmination of a shared vision by Harry Nelson, a collector of marine art and a Channel Islands Harbor businessman, and by Bud Smith, the major developer of Fisherman’s Wharf, both of whom desired to see a cultural asset at the Harbor.

about harry nelson

Two years before the museum opening in 1991, Harry Nelson formed a Board of Trustees and became its Chairman. Harry was an attorney by profession, but became interested in marinas and eventually established Almar Marinas, with two locations in Ventura County along with others in California and in Mexico and Hawaii. His love and appreciation of maritime art began when he and his wife, Joyce, on a trip to Europe in the sixties, purchased two small paintings. In the following years, the collection grew into one of the finest privately-owned maritime-themed collections in the world. The art is strong in its representation of 17th Century Dutch and British artists (Willem van de Velde, Ludolf Backhuysen, John Wilson Carmichael, Bonaventura Peeters), as well as prominent American painters (John Stobart, Thomas Hoyne, David Thimgan, and others). Much of the Nelson collection of marine art and models of historic ships is exhibited here in the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. Before passing away in 2002, Harry established the Nelson Maritime Arts Foundation to assure continued support of the Museum.

about bud smith

Ventura County can thank Bud Smith for much of its commercial development. Bud not only had a hand in the Fisherman’s Wharf complex, but for most of what’s at the Harbor. He also developed extensive holdings along the south side of the 101 freeway, known as the Wagon Wheel property, as well as the Financial Plaza, said to be the tallest building between Los Angeles and San Jose. Prior to his passing, Bud formed the Smith Foundation, which continues to provide financial assistance to the Museum.

the museum

The Museum began as the Ventura County Maritime Museum in 1990 at Fisherman’s Wharf at Channel Islands Blvd and Victoria Avenue in Oxnard. It remained at this site until 2012 when it moved to a new location across the Channel and was renamed the Channel Islands Maritime Museum. Smith was to provide seed money for the building to house Nelson’s collection. Nelson pledged $100,000, while volunteers and friends were to transform the bare-bones interior of the building into a museum. The Ventura County Harbor Department lent their support to the effort by offering a no-rent lease for the finished property. The Museum was launched as a non-profit corporation in February 1991, with a magnificent black-tie affair that reached out to the political and business leaders of the region. 

the collection

The Museum has an extensive and world-class maritime art collection, featuring 17th century Dutch and Flemish masters such as Willem van de Velde and Bonaventura Peeters, 18th century British artists Edward Cooke and Robert Salmon to noted modern day artists John Stobart, David Thimgan, and Thomas Hoyne. Ship models trace more than 3000 years of maritime history, from ancient Egyptian reed boats and tomols used by local Chumash to modern day car carriers. The Museum houses the largest collection of antique Prisoner of War sailing ship models on display in the United States. These models, including eight rare bone models, were made by French prisoners of the British during the Napoleonic Wars. In addition, the Museum exhibits the entire life’s work of Ed Marple, one of America’s foremost ship model builders. Other exhibits on whaling, sailor’s arts, navigational instrument and the history of the Channel Island Harbor and The Port of Hueneme round out the permanent collection. Special topical and featured guest artist exhibitions are presented on an ongoing basis.

Zheng He’s initial trip took him from the South China Sea through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, India, and back. The emperor’s purpose for this expedition seems to have been to obtain recognition and gifts from other rulers. The voyagers did not intend to conquer or colonize, but they were prepared to use military force against those who refused to respect them.

Near the end of the voyage, Zheng He’s ships encountered pirates in the Sumatran port of Palembang. The pirate leader pretended to submit, with the intention of escaping. However, Zheng He started a battle, easily defeating the pirates — his forces killing more than 5,000 people and taking the leader back to China to be beheaded.

Five more voyages followed before Emperor Yongle’s death in 1424; they included excursions to Hormuz — the Arab port at the mouth of the Persian Gulf — and the coast of eastern Africa, from which He returned with giraffes, zebras, and other items unfamiliar to the Chinese.

On his seventh and final voyage, from 1431 to 1433, Zheng He apparently died at sea and was likely buried off the coast of India, although some of his descendants believe that he made it back to China and died soon after his return.

Inscribing His Adventures

Leaving on his final voyage, at age 60 — the traditional Chinese age of reflection — Zheng He stopped at two places in China to have granite inscriptions placed so that his deeds would be understood and not forgotten. These tablets were erected in Liujiagang (now Liuhe), a port on the Yangtze River, and at Changle, in Fujian province.

In the first inscription Zheng He describes his dependence on Tianfei (“Heavenly Princess”), the goddess of Chinese sailors:

[We have] traversed over a hundred thousand li of vast ocean [and have] beheld great ocean waves, rising as high as the sky and swelling and swelling endlessly. Whether in dense fog and drizzling rain or in wind-driven waves rising like mountains, no matter what the sudden changes in sea conditions, we spread our cloudlike sails aloft and sailed by the stars day and night. [Had we] not trusted her [Heavenly Princess’s] divine merit, how could we have done this in peace and safety? When we met danger, once we invoked the divine name, her answer to our prayer was like an echo; suddenly there was a divine lamp which illuminated the masts and sails, and once this miraculous light appeared, then apprehension turned to calm. The personnel of the fleet were then at rest, and all trusted they had nothing to fear. This is the general outline of the goddess’s merit…

When we arrived at the foreign countries, barbarian kings who resisted transformation and were not respectful we captured alive, and bandit soldiers who looted and plundered recklessly we exterminated. Because of this the sea routes became pure and peaceful and the foreign peoples could rely upon them and pursue their occupations in safety. All of this was due to the aid of the goddess.

The “divine lamp” Zheng He mentions is thought be “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the electrical discharge from a ship’s mast that occurs after a storm at sea. On the second inscription, which follows below, Zheng He explains the purpose of the voyages and his gratitude to the sea goddess:

If men serve their prince with utmost loyalty, there is nothing they cannot do, and if they worship the gods with utmost sincerity there is no prayer that will not be answered…

We, [Zheng] He and the rest, have been favored with a gracious commission from our Sacred Prince to convey to the distant barbarians the favor [earned by their] respectfulness and good faith. While in command of the personnel of the fleet, and [responsible for the great] amount of money and valuables [our] one concern while facing the violence of the winds and the dangers of the nights was that we would not succeed. Would we then have served the nation with utmost loyalty and worshipped the divine intelligence with utmost sincerity? None of us could doubt that this was the source of aid and safety for the fleet in its comings and goings. Therefore we have made manifest the virtue of the goddess with this inscription on stone, which records the years and months of our going to and returning from the foreign [countries] so that they may be remembered forever.

The Legacy of Zheng He’s Adventures

The voyages of Zheng He are a favorite topic of world historians today. They show that Chinese ships could have ruled the Indian Ocean for many more years and possibly been able to sail to the Americas. Why didn’t they? What if they had? How different would the world be?

After the final voyage, the Chinese emperor suddenly ordered that these expensive expeditions be halted. The ships were left to rot in the harbors, and craftsmen forgot how to build such large ships, letting the knowledge slip away. The Confucian ministers who advised the emperor distrusted the eunuchs, who supported the voyages. New military threats came from the Mongols in the north and the ministers argued that resources needed to focus on land defenses there instead.

Three firsthand accounts survive, written by men who sailed with Zheng He — two from officers and one from a translator. Eventually, Chinese interest in these accounts revived in the 20th century. Prior to that, Zheng He’s exploits were passed on by storytellers who used them as a source of wonder, blending them with other fantastic tales.

By Cynthia Stokes Brown

All Khan Academy content is available for free at