The British submarine engineer and historian
Gavin Menzies gave an astounding seminar on March 15, 2002 to the Royal
Geographical Society in London, with evidence to support his theory that Zheng
He, a Chinese Muslim navigator in the Ming dynasty, beat Columbus by more than
70 years in discovering America.
Using evidence from maps drawn dated before
Columbus' trip that clearly showed America, and astronomical maps traced back to
Zheng He's time, Menzies is confident that the Zheng He should be honored as the
first discoverer of America.
Menzies's conclusion is based on 14 years of
research that includes secret maps, evidence of artifacts, and apparent proof of
the voyage provided by the modern astronomy software program Starry
As key evidence for a voyage that will remake
history, Menzies says he obtained ancient Chinese navigation charts associated
with the travels of Zheng He. The journey ran from 1421 to 1423. Menzies
maintains that the ships sailed around the Southern tips of both Africa and
late evening southern sky as it would have looked on March 18, 1421,
from off the southern tip of South America. Reconstructed with Starry
Night Software to compare with maps found from Zheng He's voyages.
"I set Starry Night up for dates in 1421
for parts of the world where I thought the Chinese had sailed," explained
Menzies, a navigation expert and former Royal Navy submarine commander. He found
that in two separate locations of the voyage, easily recognizable stars were
directly above Zheng He's fleet.
Those stars have since moved, due to changes in
Earth's orientation in space. Earth's spin is slightly imperfect, and its axis
carves a circle on the sky every 26,000 years. The phenomenon, called
precession, means that each pole points to different stars as time progresses.
Menzies used the software program to recreate the sky as it would have looked in
"I had Chinese star charts, and I needed
to date the charts," he said. "By an incredible bit of luck, one of
the courses they steered, between Sumatra and Dondra Head, Ceylon, was due
This part of the journey was very near the
equator in the Indian Ocean. Both Polaris, the North Star, and the bright
southern star Canopus, which was very nearly above the celestial south pole,
were on the charts. "From that I was able to determine the apparent shift
of Polaris (due to precession). I could therefore date the chart to 1421, plus
or minus 30 years."
Phillip Sadler, a celestial navigation expert
at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says the estimation of a
map's age based on star positions is possible. He said an estimate within 30
years, as Menzies claims, is possible. (Continues
on Page 2)
About Zheng He:
Zheng He (1371-1435), or Cheng Ho, is China's
most famous navigator. He built a total of 1622 ships and made at least seven
major excursions between 1405 AD and 1430 AD. He traveled more than 50,000km and
visited over 30 countries, reaching Somalia and probably Europe (France, Holland
Zheng He constructed many wooden ships, some of
which are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of the shipyards still
In each trip, he led a troop of 27,800 people
on more than 300 ships. In each trip, 62 major ships of this fleet were
employed, each over 400 ft long and 193 ft wide, holding 1000 people per ship,
dwarfing Columbus' Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than six-fold.
In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in
a town in Fujian province. It held an inscription that described the amazing
voyages of Zheng He.
Zheng He described how the emperor of the Ming
Dynasty had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the horizon,"
all the way to the end of the earth." His mission was to display the might
The pillar contains the Chinese names for the
countries Zheng He visited. He wrote:
We have...beheld in the ocean huge waves
like mountains rising sky-high, and 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 rapid like that of a
star, transversing the savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.
The countries and territories covered and
recorded in the official Ming history includes Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam,
Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia,
Mogadishu. As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa, among the souvenirs
he brought back to China were the giraffes and lions, indigenous animals of
The official history also mentioned
"Franca" (which was the territory to describe today's France and
Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described as tall people with red
hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the
Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate
around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway.
Unfortunately, Zheng He's magnificent
accomplishment was later targeted by other courtiers as wasteful. Most of his
records were destroyed and building of ships with more than three masts were
considered crimes punishable by death. So, a large part of his excursion (which
might include the America part) has no reports.
In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes
that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants
of Zheng He's crew.
His achievements show that China had the ships
and navigational skills to explore the world. Mysteriously, China did not follow
up on these voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships and halted
further expeditions. Thus, a century later, Europeans would "discover"
China, instead of the Chinese "discovering" Europe.
China has a very old seafaring tradition.
Chinese ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty. Chinese sailors
had an important invention to help them-the compass. The compass, or "south
pointing spoon," started out as a fortune-telling instrument used like an
Ouija board. By the Song era, sailors had taken it up. As a foreign ship captain
wrote, "In dark, weather they look to the south pointing needle, and use a
sounding line to determine the smell and nature of the mud on the sea bottom,
and so know where they are.
Chinese shipbuilders also developed
fore-and-aft sails, the sternpost rudder, and boats with paddlewheels.
Watertight compartments below decks kept the ship from sinking. Some boats were
armor plated for protection. All these developments made long distance
After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the
emperor of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese power. Because China
was no longer part of a land empire that stretched from Asia to Europe, the
emperor turned to the sea. He decided to build a navy. The Chinese made
elaborate plans that would not be fulfilled for many years. A shipyard was built
at the new capital of Najing (Nanking). Thousand of varnish and tung trees were
planted on nearby Purple Mountain to provide wood for shipbuilding. The emperor
established a school of foreign languages to train interpreters. While all this
was going on, the man who would lead the navy was still an infant.
greatest adventurer, the 15th century Muslim,
Admiral Zheng He
Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a
town in southwest Yunnan Province. His family, named Ma, were part of a minority
group known as the Semur. They originally came from Central Asia and followed
the religion of Islam. Both his grandfather and father had made the Muslim
pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He grew up hearing their accounts of travel through
Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of
Mongol support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty began. After Ming armies
conquered Yunnan in 1382, Zheng He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The
eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince who would become the Yong
Le Emperor. It was Yong Le who renamed the boy Zheng He.
Zheng He is described in Chinese historical
records as tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear lobes; a
stride like a tiger's and voice clear and vibrant." He was well liked and
admired for his quick wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier. When
his prince seized the Chinese throne from his nephew, Zheng He fought well on
his behalf. As a result, Zheng He became a close confidant of the new emperor
and was given an important position at court.
The Yong Le emperor had ambitious plans. A
vigorous man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in which it exists
today. He also built his new capital at Beijing, next to the remains of the
former Yuan capital. The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea voyages that
had long been planned. He appointed Zheng He to lead them and gave him the title
"Admiral of the Western Seas."
At each country Zheng He visited, he was to
present gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the glory of the Ming.
The Chinese had a unique view of foreign relations. Because China developed its
culture in isolation from other great civilization, it says itself as the center
of the world. The Chinese called their country "the Middle Kingdom."
The Chinese emperor's duty was to attract
"all under heaven" to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When foreign
ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they "kowtowed" as they
approached the emperor. (The required process of "kowtow" was to kneel
three times and bow one's head to the floor three times at each kneeling.) In
return for tribute from other countries, the emperor sent gifts and special
seals that confirmed their rulers' authority. In fact, these foreign kings were
officially made part of the Ming Dynasty.
In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage.
No nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the ocean. It included
sixty-two large ships, some 600 feet long, larger than any other on the seas.
Hundreds of smaller vessels accompanied them. A Chinese historian described
them; "The ships which sail the Southern Sea are like houses. When their
sails are spread they are like great clouds in the sky."
Zheng He's first port of call was in Champa, a
part of today's Vietnam. He was surprised to find many Chinese living there.
Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated from the coastal provinces since the time
of the Tang Dynasty. They had already helped to spread Confucian ideals, and
Champs's ruler willingly offered tribute for the Chinese emperor. In return, of
course, Zheng He presented the king with lavish gifts that were probably more
on Page 3)
Zheng He sailed away from the coast, westward
across the Indian Ocean. The ships traveled for days out of sight of any land.
Then they encountered a hurricane. The ships tossed wildly in the fierce storm
and seemed to be on the verge of sinking. Then a "divine light"
suddenly shone at the tips of the mast. "As soon as this miraculous light
appeared, the danger was appeased," Zheng He wrote.
When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut,
India, their giant ships created a stir. The ruler there presented his visitors
with sashes made of gold spun into hair-fine threads and studded with large
pearls and precious stones. The Chinese were entertained with music and songs.
One crewmember wrote that the Indians' musical instruments were "made of
gourds with strings of red copper wire, and the sound and rhythm were pleasant
to the ears."
On the way back to China, the fleet threaded
its way through the Straits of Malacca, stopping at the large islands of Sumatra
and Java. Zheng He established a base at the Straits that he would use for each
of his seven voyages. There are thousands of smaller islands in this vast
archipelago, and some were pirates' lairs. The pirates preyed on unwary
fishermen and small merchant vessels. Zheng He, showing how the emperor treated
those who disrupted harmony, attacked and destroyed a fleet of pirate ships. He
captured the leader and brought him back to Beijing for execution.
When Zheng He returned, the emperor was
pleased. He sent his admiral on ever-longer voyages. Seven times, Zheng He's
ships set sail for unknown lands. On and on he went, following his orders to
travel as far as he could. He reached Arabia, where he fulfilled a personal
dream. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that is the duty of every good Muslim
once in his lifetime. He also visited Prophet Muhammad Mosque in Medina. On the
fifth voyage, he reached the coast of Africa, landing in Somalia on the east
Zheng He organized each expedition on an
enormous scale. Besides sailors and navigators, they included doctors, scribes,
shipwrights, and cooks. On some voyages Muslim religious leaders and Buddhist
monks were brought along to serve as diplomats in lands where people were Muslim
Each ship brought enough food to last the whole
voyage, in case "barbarian" food was not acceptable. In addition to
rice and other food that could be preserved, the ships carried huge tubs of
earth on deck so that vegetables and fruit could be grown.
On each voyage the fleet anchored at the
Malacca base, where provisions, tribute, and gifts were stored in warehouses.
Zheng He found that foreign kings and princes particularly admired the famous
blue-and-white Ming porcelain dishes, vases, and cups. Foreigners still yearned
for Chinese silk, for cotton printed with Chinese designs, and for the coarse
but long lasting, brownish yellow cloth known as Nankeen because it was made in
Nanking (now Nanjing). The holds of Zheng He's ships were also crammed with gold
and silver, iron tools, copper kitchenware, and perfumes.
In exchange for such wares, and as tribute,
Zheng He brought back medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, precious, gems, pearls,
rhinoceros horns, ivory, and exotic animals. On the homeward voyage, the fleet
again stopped at their base to sort out the foreign goods and wait for a
favorable wind to return to China.
The expeditions were an important source of
information about foreign countries. A crewmember described the Nicobar Islands
in the Bay of Bengal off the east coast of India:
Its inhabitants live in the hollows of trees
and caves. Both men and women there go about stark naked, like wild beasts,
without a stitch of clothing on them. No rice grows there. The people subsist
solely on wild yams, jackfruit and plantains, or upon the fish which they catch.
There is a legend current among them that, if they wear the smallest scrap of
clothing, their bodies would break into sores and ulcers, owing to their
ancestors having been cursed by Buddha for having stolen and hidden his clothes
while he was bathing.
In Sri Lanka, the Chinese visited Buddhist
Temple Hill, where Buddha was said to have left his footprint on a rock. They
marveled at all the temples, particularly one that held a relic of the Buddha's
tooth. According to a crew member, the people of the island do not venture to
eat cow's flesh, they merely drink the milk. When a cow dies they bury it. It is
capital punishment for anyone to secretly kill a cow; he who does so can however
escape punishment by paying a ransom of a cow's head made of solid gold.
Sri Lanka seemed like a treasure island, where
rubies and other precious stones were abundant. The people harvested pearls from
the sea and had discovered the trick of making cultured pearls by planting a
speck of sand inside an oyster's shell.
The king of Sri Lanka was an ardent Buddhist
who treated both cows and elephants with religious respect. However, because he
did not show proper respect for the ambassadors from the Son of Heaven, he was
taken back to China for "instruction." He was returned to his island
on a later voyage.
When the Chinese reached the east coast of
Africa, they found people who built houses of brick. "Men and women wear
their hair in rolls; when they go out they wear a linen hood. There are deep
wells worked by means of cog wheels. Fish are caught in the sea with nets."
The Africans offered such goods a "dragon saliva, incense, and golden
amber." The Chinese found the African animals even more amazing. There
included "lion, gold-spotted leopards, and camel-birds (ostriches), which
are six or seven feet tall." The most exciting thing that Zheng He ever
brought back to the emperor's count was a giraffe.
The animal came from today's Somalia. In the
Somali Language, the name for giraffe sounds similar to the Chinese word for
unicorn. It was easy to imagine that this was the legendary animal that had
played an important part in the birth of Confucius. Surely, it must be a sign of
Heaven's favor on the emperor's reign.
When the giraffe arrived in 1415, the emperor
himself went to the palace gate to receive it, as well as a "celestial
horse" (zebra) and a "celestial stag" (oryx). The palace
officials offered congratulations and performed the kowtow before the heavenly
When Zheng He came back from his seventh voyage
in 1433, he was sixty-two years old. He had accomplished much for China,
spreading the glory of the Middle Kingdom to many countries that now sent
tribute and ambassadors to the court. Though he died soon afterward, his
exploits had won him fame. Plays and novels were written about his voyages. In
such places as Malacca and Java, towns, caves, and temples were named after him.
However, a new Ming emperor had come to the
throne. His scholar-officials criticized Zheng's achievements, complaining about
their great expense. China was now fighting another barbarian enemy on its
western borders and needed to devote its resources to that struggle. When a
court favorite wanted to continue Zheng He's voyages, he was turned down. To
make sure, the court officials destroyed the logs that Zheng He had kept. We
know about his voyages only from the pillar and some accounts that his
Thus, China abandoned its overseas voyages. It
was a fateful decision, for just at that time, Portugal was beginning to send
its ships down the west coast of Africa. In the centuries that followed,
European explorers would sail to all parts of the world. They would establish
colonies in Africa, America, and finally in the nations of East Asia. China
would suffer because it had turned its back on exploration. Zheng He had started
the process that might have led the Middle Kingdom to greater glory
Unfortunately the rulers of the Ming Dynasty refused to follow his lead.
Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of
the Ming emperor Xuande (1435) and was buried in the southern outskirts of
Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in Nanjing.
In 1985, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng
He's voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built on the site of the
original tomb in Nanjing and reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic
teachings, as Zheng He was a Muslim.
At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style
structure, which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings of the man
himself and his navigation maps. To get to the tomb, there are newly laid stone
platforms and steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided into four
sections with each section having seven steps. This represents Zheng He's seven
journeys to the West. The Arabic words "Allah (God) is great" are
inscribed on top of the tomb.
Here for Slide Show