I. EARLY CHINESE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY
Between 1421 and 1423 the Chinese mounted the largest fleet the world had ever seen which reached the far corners of the earth. The fleet discovered and charted the New World seventy years before Christopher Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. The revelation of these achievements has challenged our notions of voyages of discovery and means that our knowledge of history has to be revised.
II. THE PIZZIGANO CHART
In the early 1990’s Gavin Menzies, a former British navy captain, discovered an unusual chart that was drafted in 1424 by a Venetian cartographer named Zuane Pizzigano. The chart showed a group of four islands in the Caribbean – Satanazes, Antilia, Saya and Ymana that did not appear in other map and marked places where no European had visited before such as Patagonia, the Andes, Antarctica and the east coast of Africa.
Menzies determined that these explorers were Chinese because only they had the skills in astro-navigation, horticulture and had a huge fleet large enough to mount such an epic voyage. (1)
III. DESTRUCTION OF DOCUMENTARY EVIDENCE
When the fleet returned home in October 1423, emperor Zhu Di had fallen from the throne and a great storm had destroyed his palace. This was seen as a bad omen and as a result when his son succeeded to the throne he rejected the outside world and destroyed the majority of China’s documents recording China’s previous expansionist policies.
IV. ZHENG HE – THE EUNUCH
In 1402 emperor Zhu Di succeeded to the throne by overthrowing Zhu Yunwen and because he was not his father’s designated heir he sought to prove the legitimacy of his regime in the eyes of the Gods by conceiving a grand plan and for its’ implementation he turned to his bodyguard, admiral Zheng He.
Zheng He was a eunuch. Eunuchs were Mongol boys whom the Chinese castrated by severing their penises and testicles, after defeating the Mongols in the fourteenth century. Then they were conscripted into the army or used as personal servants to the emperor.
The grand plan involved forming an armada to establish an empire, building a new capital city in Beijing and extending the Great Wall of China.
V. THE GRAND PLAN
A. ‘Tribute System’
Zheng He was commandeered to assemble a large armada to sail and chart the oceans of the world bringing foreign rulers and the entire world into China’s ‘tribute system’. (2)
Under that system rulers paid tribute to China in return for trading privileges and protection against enemies. China always gave its’ trading partners a greater value of goods – silks and porcelain at discounted prices, often funded by soft loans – than was received from them. Thus they were in perpetual debt to China.
B. Beijing – The New Imperial City
In 1404 in furtherance of a plan to build a new capital city four and a half million artisans and laborers were employed to work on construction and one million to guard them.
Beijing was to be the intellectual capital of the world with libraries and storage for four thousand encyclopedias, the opinions of 120 philosophers and sages of the Song dynasty together with commentaries of thinkers from the 11th and 13th centuries.
This would be unlike anything else in the rest of the world where printing was unknown and culture and scientific knowledge lagged far behind.
C. The Great Wall of China
This had been built between 221 and 206 BC to protect the northern frontiers from attack and the new wall was to run 6,400 kilometers west from the Pacific to the Heavenly Mountains in central Asia.
VI. THE ARMADA
The Chinese had the most powerful navy in the world. Their treasure ships were ocean-going monsters built of teak, the rudders stood 36 feet high and they could carry more than 2000 tons of cargo. The galleys were protected by archers and were armed with gunpowder weapons, cannons, mortars flaming arrows and exploding shells.
The armada was organized like a modern convoy with the flagships at the center surrounded by junks, 90 feet long and 30 feet wide and an outer ring of warships.
The ships could remain at sea for over three months and cover 4500 miles because accompanying them were water tankers and grain ships with chickens, dogs, pigs and other animals for food and horses for the cavalry.
Trading ships from other nations would join in and the altogether there were more than 800 ships and crews large enough to fill a city.
Unlike European voyages which were aimed at finding treasure Chinese voyages
were scientific expeditions and included various professionals like interpreters, navigators, engineers and physicians to search for healing plants.
VII. MENZIES’ METHODOLOGY
In order to support his thesis that Zheng He had discovered the New World Gavin Menzies had to follow the route the Chinese ships had taken but also to find traces of their presence in places along those routes.
Some thirty-four lines of evidence had survived the destruction of the records and he was also helped by his experience as a navigator in the navy and by Chinese historian, Ma Huan, who documented the first part of the voyage in his diaries. (3)
VIII. THE GREAT VOYAGE
A. Chinese Astronomy
The armada set sail on March 8, 1421 and the hull shape of the ships meant that they had to sail before the wind.
In Chinese astronomy latitude was determined not by the distance north of the equator but by the distance from the North Pole which was determined by the altitude of Polaris, a bright star above the North Pole (i.e. its’ height above the horizon).
By sailing due south and keeping Polaris dead astern, the fleet could measure the star’s altitude with their sextants and thereafter every twenty-four hours to determine the change of latitude (i.e. its distance south of the North Pole).
Polaris was not visible in the southern hemisphere and therefore could not determine latitude south of the equator.
B. Da Conti and Fra Mauro
According to Ma Huan the armada sailed towards the Indian Ocean where it was divided into four fleets – three under the command of Hong Bao, Zhou Man and Zhou Wen. Zheng He commanded the fourth which sailed to south-east Asia before returning home in November 1421.
The fleet then sailed to Calicut in India and then up the west coast of Africa to the Cape Verde islands.
In a report of his journey to the Papacy a Venetian trader named Niccolo da Conti (c. 1395 – 1469) described the presence of Chinese warships in Calicut at the time of his visit. Also, a map of southern Africa dated 1459 and drawn by a Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro, included a drawing of Zheng He’s junks.
Both men claimed that a Chinese junk had sailed round the Cape of Good Hope and into the south Atlantic and this was confirmed by a Chinese chart dat 1420 called the Kangnido map which accurately depicted the coasts of Africa and must have been drawn by someone who sailed round the Cape.
Furthermore the Chinese had a practice of leaving carved stones as monuments to their achievements when they stopped at places on their voyages. Examples of stones found were the Matadi Falls in the Congo, a free standing one in Janela in Africa and another in Dondra Head in Sri Lanka.
After leaving the Cape Verde islands the fleet separated so admiral Zhou Wen went north with the current through the Caribbean to North America while admirals Hong Bao and Zhou Man took the current due south towards South America.
C. The Piri Reis Map
This map of South America drafted by an Ottoman admiral named Piri Reis in 1428 confirms that the fleet went to the Orinoco Delta and the Amazon. DNA of American Indian peoples in the Amazon, Brazil and Venezuela showed that they had diseases unique to China.
The winds then carried the fleet to Patagonia in south Argentina. A variety of birds and animals had been taken to and from the Americas. The Piri Reis map depicted a deer in Patagonia, a guanaco (type of camel) and a mountain lion which are native to South America. A native man and a dog-headed man or mylodon were found in the Chinese book called The Illustrated Record of Strange Countries 1430 which depicted animals found by the Chinese on their travels.