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zheng he circumnavigation? (fwd)
by Boris Stremlin
10 March 2002 21:19 UTC
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From the Daily Telegraph, March 4th issue

Explorer from China who 'beat Columbus to America'
By Elizabeth Grice
(Filed: 04/03/2002)

HISTORY books in 23 countries may need to be rewritten
in the light of new evidence that Chinese explorers
had discovered most parts of the world by the mid-15th

Next week, an amateur historian will expound his
theory - backed up by charts, ancient artefacts and
anthropological research - that when Columbus
discovered America in 1492, he was 72 years too late.
And so were other explorers, such as Cook, Magellan
and Da Gama, whose heroic voyages took them to
Australia, South America and India.
Instead, according to Gavin Menzies, a former
submarine commanding officer who has spent 14 years
charting the movements of a Chinese expeditionary
fleet between 1421 and 1423, the eunuch admiral, Zheng
He, was there first.

According to Menzies, 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.
Menzies will present his findings at the Royal
Geographical Society on March 15 before an invited
audience of more than 200 diplomats, academics, naval
officers and publishers. Their initial reaction, based
on an outline of his thesis, ranges from excitement to

But if the number of acceptances - 85 per cent - is
anything to go by, he will not be ignored.
He originally intended to write a book about the
significance of the year 1421 around the world. While
researching it in Venice, he was shown a planisphere,
dated 1459, which included southern Africa and the
Cape of Good Hope.

Yet the Cape was not "discovered" as a sea route by
Vasco da Gama until 1497. On the planisphere was a
note in medieval Phoenician about a voyage round the
Cape to the Cape Verde Islands in 1420 - and a picture
of a Chinese junk.

Menzies felt he was on to something.
Using Chinese star charts and maps that pre-date the
expeditions of Cook, Magellan, de Gama and Columbus,
he has reconstructed what he believes is the epic
voyage of Zheng He.

He says 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.

He determined their latitude and went on to find
literary and archaeological evidence to show that the
Chinese had effectively circumnavigated the world.
Menzies, 64, admits that his greatest fear was being

He said: "When I started, I was terrified people would
think I was a crank. But although my claim is
complicated and stands history on its head, I am
confident of my ground.

He added: "What nobody has explained is why the
European explorers had maps. Who drew the maps? There
are millions of square miles of ocean. It required
huge fleets to chart them. If you say it wasn't the
Chinese, with the biggest fleets and ships in the
world, then who was it?"

Admiral Sir John Woodward, who served on submarines
with Menzies in the 1960s and will be at his lecture,
describes him as a brilliant maverick.
He said: "I was his teacher on a commanding officers'
qualifying course and he was the cleverest, sharpest
and best I had seen. He is not some mad eccentric but
a rational man, good at analysis - and he certainly
knows all about charts."

Chinese ocean-going supremacy in the first half of the
15th century is not in question.
The expeditionary junks were three times the size of
Nelson's Victory and dwarfed the 16th century
ocean-going European caravels. Under his patron, the
Yong-le Emperor Zhui Di, Zheng He made seven great
voyages to bring foreigners into China's tribute

When he returned in October 1423, China was in
political and economic chaos. The treasure fleet, now
considered frivolous, was mothballed, admirals
pensioned off and shipyards closed.

Although most of the records of Zheng He's voyage were
expunged, a few maps and star charts survived.
Menzies believes they were taken to Venice by a
merchant traveller, Nicolo da Conti, who had joined
one of the Chinese junks in India. In his travel book
published in 1434, da Conti claims to have sailed to
China via Australia - 350 years before Captain Cook.
Menzies argues that, on his way through Venice in
1428, the King of Portugal's eldest son obtained the
salvaged maps and incorporated them into a map of the

The most controversial part of his theory is that
copies of parts of this mappa mundi were used by da
Gama, Magellan and Cook. Some of these still survive
in museums: Patagonia (1513), North America (1507),
Africa (1502) and Asia and Australia (1542).

The letters and logs of the European explorers -
including Columbus - certainly acknowledge that they
had maps, says Menzies. "They knew where they were
going before they set out."

Using his knowledge of winds and tides, Menzies has
located what he believes are nine Chinese leviathans
wrecked in the Caribbean in December 1421.
Pictures of the hull ballast on the seabed show stones
identical in shape and size to those found in a
Chinese treasure ship recently excavated in the

Menzies declines to name the uninhabited island
because he believes some of the ships may still
contain treasure and he wants to investigate them.
Gillian Hutchinson, curator of the history of
cartography at the National Maritime Museum, is not
persuaded that there is a provable link between the
Chinese maps and those the Europeans used.

She says: "It is possible that Chinese geographical
knowledge had reached Europe before the Age of
Discovery. But Mr Menzies is absolutely certain of it,
and that makes it difficult to separate evidence from
wishful thinking."

Diplomats of the countries whose early history may be
affected by his thesis are reacting with a surprising
degree of warmth.

Gregory Baughen, first secretary at the New Zealand
High Commission, says: "It sounds exciting. We're all
ears. Chinese artefacts have been found around the
coast for some time."

Luis de Sousa, press councillor at the Portuguese
Embassy, says: "Magellan is in all the books and his
descendants carry his name with -+pride. But if the
Chinese circumnavigated the world first, which is
quite possible, then let's give them their 15 minutes
of limelight."

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