EPISODE XXI: ANCIENT CHINESE EXPLORERS
In ancient times, far before Columbus ever set sail for the New World, there existed cultures with the capabilities of reaching these same distant shores…
Long thought to be a closed-off place full of exotic secrets, the Chinese were once mighty mariners that carved out substantial naval trade empires across the Indian and South China seas. Seventy years before Columbus reached the shores of North America, a Chinese admiral by the name Zheng He commanded an impressive fleet of over 300 ships known as the Treasure Fleet. The ships were massive in comparison to European counterparts, up to 400 ft, or three times the size, with up to 7 or more masts. The main decks were as big as a soccer field, and all were equipped with advanced engineering technology to help ride ocean swells safely. That these ships could have reached North America is of no question, the only thing remains, would they have dared?
Zheng He was a formidable leader. He’s contemporaries said his voice bellowed as if from a hundred bells. However, He had decidedly humble beginnings. He was born Ma He to a Muslim family in the far southwest, in today's Yunnan province. At ten years old he was captured by soldiers ordered there by the first Ming emperor intent on subduing the south. It was here that He became a eunuch, as was unfortunately customary in those times. He was then sent to the capital to be trained in military ways.
Growing up to be a burly, imposing man who stood over six feet tall with a chest his contemporaries said measured over five feet around, He was extremely talented and intelligent. He received both literary and military training, then made his way up the military ladder with ease, making important allies at court in the process. When the emperor needed a trustworthy ambassador familiar with Islam and the ways of the south to head his splendid armada to the "Western Oceans," he naturally picked the talented court eunuch, Ma He, whom he renamed Zheng.
Zheng He led at least 7 voyages between 1405-1433, and sailed over 40,000 miles on the massive ships described above, in huge armadas with a crew of 27,000. , his fleets roamed the oceans between 1405 and 1435. His exploits, which are well documented in Chinese historical records, were written about in a book which appeared in China around 1418 called “The Marvellous Visions of the Star Raft”.
The reason for all these voyages? China was the leader of quality manufactured goods, but they needed prestige and respect and so they engaged in voyages for trade to gain supremacy in the seas. Africa, in particular, had things the Chinese wanted: ivory medicine, spices, exotic wood and exotic wildlife Beginning in the first century A.D., when the Han Emperor Wang Mang was given a rhinoceros, the only gifts from the tributary states that really seemed to impress the Chinese emperor were animals. Zheng He brought back lions, orynxes, nilganias, zebras and ostriches from Africa, but the biggest commotion was caused when a giraffe was delivered as a tribute from a ruler in Bengal in 1414.
Many people believe that it was Zheng He, in his colossal multi-masted ships stuffed with treasure, silks and porcelain, who made the first circumnavigation of the world, beating the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan by a century. His knowledge of astro-navigation helped him to work out that the Chinese, using the brilliant star Canopus to chart their course, had sailed close to the South Pole.
The World Map:
The main piece of evidence to support the idea that Zheng He travelled the world and discovered America decades before Columbus is a medieval world map of mysterious origin. The idea was first popularized by the 2002 book titled 1421: The Year China Discovered America. It argues that on March 8, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China to "proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas…
Originally said to have surfaced from a Shanghai Dealer who claimed it was a 16th-century reproduction of a map from a Chinese expedition in 1418, the map shows the world in great accuracy, but there are many inconsistencies as well. Western experts say the map resembles a French 17th-century world map with its depiction of California as an island. That China is not shown in the center also suggests the Chinese did not make the map, another expert claims. Also, on the map there are Chinese characters that were not used till much later, suggesting a map of much more recent provenance. However, one can argue that if it was a reproduction some new ideas could have potentially been incorporated into it... Overall, the map represents a very difficult piece of evidence to reconcile and is the subject of much debate to this day.
Whether this map is connected to Zheng He at all, the fact remains that the Chinese possessed the capabilities of seafaring adventures across the Atlantic. More controversial evidence in the form of ship anchors found off the coast of California has been used to support the idea that a fleet of ships could have made their way. Larry Pierson argues that the collection of numerous large rocks with perfect circles carved out of them that were found in the 1980’s scattered in roughly an acre squared were actually anchors used by Chinese sailors, and could potentially represent a massive shipwreck of an entire fleet. The rocky coastline of Oregon and California are conducive to rough sailing conditions that the Chinese could not have prepared for, and having wooden vessels, they could easily have been dashed upon the enormous rocks lining the coastline.
While many of these supposed anchors have been proven to be naturally formed through erosion, some experts claim that there is a noticeable difference in the man-made ones. Even more notable is that some of these rocks have been tested and found to have originated in Chinese quarries thousands of miles away. In addition, there have been discoveries in the Central American region of Chinese pictograms on rocks around Arizona, New Mexico as well as inscriptions on Jade celts that match with ancient Chinese characters that match up to the rough dates proposed for Chinese voyages.
While all of this is highly debatable, the premise that the Chinese could have made it to America decades if not centuries before Columbus is arguably more than plausible, it is a certainty. The only mystery remains as to whether the great mariners of times long past had the ambition to pursue the high seas to the edges of the earth and the will to endure the hardships of months offshore in the rough conditions the Atlantic would spit at them…
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Written by Amber Rae Bouchard