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Did the Chinese precede Columbus?
by Louis Proyect
17 March 2002 14:00 UTC
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NY Times, March 17, 2002

Chinese Outdid Columbus, Briton Says
By JOHN NOBLE WILFORD

Theories about pre-Columbian contacts between the Old World and the 
New abound, and now a British amateur historian says he has gathered 
evidence showing that, in a double challenge to accepted history, the 
Chinese beat Columbus to America by 72 years and also circumnavigated 
the globe a century before the Magellan voyage.

In the early 15th century, China was the world's greatest naval power 
and Zheng He (pronounced jung huh), a eunuch who was close to the 
emperor, was its admiral. He led a fleet of huge ships through the 
Indian Ocean, reaching the east coast of Africa. Scholars think the 
Chinese could easily have continued around the Cape of Good Hope to 
Europe and America, if they had stayed their course of exploration. 
This much is documented.

But Gavin Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commander and 
navigation expert, has taken the story a global step forward. In a 
lecture before the Royal Geographical Society in London on Friday 
evening, he backed up his hypothesis with what he said were secret 
pre- Columbian maps showing results of the Zheng He voyage, ancient 
Chinese artifacts found far from home and remains of gigantic 
shipwrecks in Australia and the Caribbean.

Mr. Menzies also described how, on his home computer and with a 
commercial software package called Starry Night, he reconstructed the 
Chinese celestial navigation system and traced what he thinks is the 
epic round-the-world voyage of Zheng He from March 1421 to October 
1423. The Chinese, he concluded, explored the coasts of Africa, South 
America and Australia and sailed into the Caribbean and the Sea of 
Cortez, off what is now Baja California.

The presumed circumnavigation, Mr. Menzies argued, was achieved by a 
fleet of more than 100 ships, several times larger than the European 
caravels of 1492, that passed through the Indian Ocean, rounded the 
capes of Africa and South America and then crossed the South Pacific. 
Some of the ships might even have reached the Antarctic coast.

Ferdinand Magellan embarked on Europe's first circumnavigation in 
1519, and the surviving ship struggled back to Seville in 1522.

>From his 14 years of investigation, Mr. Menzies said he determined 
that the first European explorers of the New World, including 
Columbus and Magellan, carried maps derived from Chinese charts that 
somehow found their way to Venice in 1428 and then to Portugal. 
Authorities on the history of cartography said this might be the most 
controversial part of the new theory.

But the fact that Mr. Menzies was given a respectful hearing at the 
venerable geographical society indicated that his ideas were not 
being dismissed as those of a crank. The audience of diplomats, naval 
officers, geographers and other scholars raised no immediate 
objections to the evidence or reasoning. Publishers were also there, 
in anticipation of a planned auction of rights to a book Mr. Menzies 
is writing.

Mr. Menzies issued 17 pages of what he said was supporting evidence 
to back his findings. He said there was more evidence but it would 
not be disclosed until publication of the book.

In the meantime, some scholars reacted with polite skepticism.

"The burden of proof remains on Menzies' shoulders," said Dr. John R. 
Hebert, chief of the map division of the Library of Congress, who has 
not studied the evidence on which the new theory is based. "I have no 
problem accepting the voyages if Menzies can provide a convincing, 
well- documented presentation, with sufficient contemporary documents 
to support the claim."

Dr. Gillian Hutchinson, curator of the history of cartography at the 
National Maritime Museum in England, is not persuaded that a link has 
been established between Chinese maps and those the Europeans used in 
their American voyages.

"It is possible," she told The Daily Telegraph of London last week, 
"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."

In the lecture, Mr. Menzies said: "If people disagree with me they 
have got to come up with an alternative scenario. I say there is 
none." 

Adm. Sir John Woodward, who served on submarines with Mr. Menzies in 
the 1960's, said that he "is not some mad eccentric but a rational 
man, good at analysis  and he certainly knows all about charts."

In his lecture, Mr. Menzies said the primary evidence for his theory 
stemmed from his chance discovery that in 1428, the Portuguese had a 
chart of the world showing Africa, Australia, South America and 
various islands in remarkably accurate detail. For example, the chart 
clearly showed the Cape of Good Hope, which the Portuguese did not 
sail around until the end of the 15th century. He said the secret 
chart was the progenitor of several European maps in the later 15th 
century and in the early 16th century.

Mr. Menzies explained that the map was evidently based on documents 
that had been spirited out of China by the Venetian merchant and 
explorer Nicolo da Conti, who supposedly sailed with Admiral Zheng on 
part of one voyage. Da Conti is well known to historians as a source 
of knowledge about China in the 15th century.

Through research in Venice, Spain and Portugal, Mr. Menzies said that 
he found some of these early maps and also determined how the Chinese 
explorers were able to measure latitude and estimate longitude in the 
Southern Hemisphere, using Canopus as the guide star in place of 
Polaris, the North Star.

Mr. Menzies noted that the old maps "refer not to the world as it is 
today, but as it was five centuries ago, when sea levels and the 
apparent position of the stars were different." 

Using the program Starry Night, he recreated the star positions of 
that time. Then, to try to "anchor" the stars to the old maps, he 
drew a perpendicular line from a star in the Southern Cross to 
Deception Island off the tip of South America. "The maps suddenly 
line up with current coastlines to an uncanny degree," he said, 
showing the Chinese must have gotten that far west and south. 

Mr. Menzies also described nine wrecked Chinese ships that he said 
had been detected in the Caribbean Sea, which he said were further 
evidence of global voyaging by the Chinese fleet. He would not 
disclose their whereabouts. Scholars noted that the Caribbean has 
been thoroughly explored by undersea archaeologists and treasure 
hunters, and it seemed unlikely that such large wrecks would have 
been overlooked. The most current histories of cartography have no 
references to Zheng He voyages beyond the east coast of Africa.

In any event, after the admiral returned to China in 1423, political 
upheaval cost the emperor his throne. Conservative Confucian 
mandarins took over and turned the country inward. World discovery 
became a European enterprise.

-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3@panix.com on 03/17/2002

Marxism list: http://www.marxmail.org



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