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Traversing Savage Waves
Ming Dynasty explorer may have discovered America
Aug 07, 2007
Ming Dynasty explorer Zheng He (courtesy of pureinsight.org)
Some say it was Columbus and others are sure it was Leif Eriksson who first discovered the New World. Historian and author Galvin Menzies says the honor goes to a Chinese admiral during the Ming Dynasty. His arguments are pretty compelling.
His book 1421: The Year China Discovered America contends that the naval officer Zheng He, sailing under imperial decree of Emperor Zhu Di, led excursions to southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe.
From evidence of sunken ships in the Caribbean and maps of the period found in China, the author concludes that Zheng He sailed a large fleet even farther west.
Mr. Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commander, traced the Chinese admiral's journeys to more than 100 countries. He gathered evidence from linguistic, map-making, anthropological, and biological sources, as well as his own navigational experience.
While in China, he found a Portuguese map and other charts from 1424 that depict Caribbean islands.
Exploration flourished during this period in China. In 1421 Zhu Di overthrew his Mongol overlords to become the first Ming emperor. He set out to discover and chart the entire world. The emperor wanted to spread Confucian and Buddhist harmony through trade and diplomacy. A Muslim eunuch named Zheng He served in his household and became one of the emperor's closest advisors.
At the Palace of the Celestial Spouse at Chiang-su and Liu Shia-Chang lies a stone inscription dated 1431.
It reads: "We, Zheng He and his companions [admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di's reign, received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians.
"Up until now seven voyages have taken place. Each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels.
"We have ... beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high. We have set eyes on barbarian regions far away..."—Explorer Zheng He, 1431
"We have...reached countries of the Western Regions, more than three thousand countries in all.
We have ... beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high. We have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapidly like that of a star, traversing those savage waves."
Chronicles of the Ming Dynasty state that Zheng led excursions to Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia, and Mogadishu. From Africa, Zheng brought giraffes and lions back to his homeland.
Documents also mention " Franca"—present-day France and Portugal—and Holland. The Chinese admiral's annals describe the Dutch as tall people with red hair and beards, long noses, and deep eye sockets.
BIGGER: Zheng He's ship compared to Columbus's flagship, the Santa Maria (courtesy of pureinsight.org)
If he did meet Europeans in their native countries, he would have had to sail around the Cape of Good Hope.
Ancient documents describe each of Zheng He's 62 flagships as roughly 450 feet long by 190 feet wide, holding a crew of 1,000. In contrast, Columbus's flagship Santa Maria measured a mere 75 by 25 feet.
Only a handful of ships and men returned home in the fall of 1423. The era of Chinese exploration ended soon after. With the death of Emperor Zhu Di, China entered its long night of isolation from the outside world.
The royal court dismissed these hardy explorers, and destroyed their ships and untold numbers of maps, charts, and chronicles. Only today are bits of evidence emerging, uncovering the exploits of the brave men of the Ming.
Skeptics cite the author's questionable scholarship and loose standards of proof, but public interest assures that these claims will stimulate new research and renew an appreciation for China's many contributions to world culture.
It is tempting to contemplate what the world would have been like if the Chinese presence in the New World had taken hold before the Europeans arrived. What a different America it would be.