A Chinese explorer reached America 72 years before Columbus and circled the globe a century before Magellan, according to British amateur historian Gavin Menzies.
Menzies read about an epic voyage undertaken by a Chinese admiral named Zheng He. From 1421 to 1423, backed by the Chinese emperor, Zheng He led more than 100 ships, armed with weapons and loaded with treasure, to the Middle East and Asia. Menzies thinks the admiral continued on to South America and also explored the Caribbean and the Sea of Cortez, near Baja California.
A retired Royal Navy submarine commander, Menzies says maps used by Columbus in 1492, Ferdinand Megellan in 1519, and other Europeans of the era were based on earlier Chinese charts, meaning that the Chinese traveled to these places first.
Menzies used these maps to recreate the Zheng He voyage. He used his home computer to run ?Starry Night? software that recreated the locations of Southern Hemisphere stars in the 1420s. He believes the Chinese explorer used the bright Southern Hemisphere star Canopus, as well as the Southern Cross, as navigational aids. While comparing the software?s results to ancient maps, he drew a line from one of the stars in the Southern Cross vertically to Deception Island, off the coast of South America. ?The maps suddenly line up with current coastlines to an uncanny degree,? he says.
Menzies thinks the Portuguese had a secret map in 1428 that showed Australia, South America, and the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. The Portuguese didn?t sail around the cape themselves until late in the century, however. ?What nobody has explained is why the European explorers had maps,? Menzies says. ?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??
Menzies has spent 14 years putting his theory together. His evidence includes shipwrecks near Australia and in the Caribbean, as well as porcelain and stone Chinese artifacts found in various locations. However, he won?t divulge all his evidence now, because he is hoping to get a book contract.
Other historians have documented Zheng He's travels through Malaysia, India, the Middle East and Africa. Along the way, the admiral captured the Sri Lankan king and conducted military attacks along the African Coast. His many-masted ships were marvels of technology for that time. But up until now, there?s been no evidence that the Chinese voyages extended beyond the southern tip of Africa.
He believes that Italian explorer Nicolo da Conti, who is thought to have sailed with Zheng He, may have provided the charts to the Portuguese. Gillian Hutchinson, curator of the history of cartography at the National Maritime Museum in London, is not sure that link is real. ?It is possible that Chinese geographical knowledge had reached Europe before the Age of Discovery,? she says, ?But Mr. Menzies is absolutely certain of it, and that makes it difficult to separate evidence from wishful thinking.?
Zheng He returned to China and died in 1433, a decade after his emperor had lost the throne to Confucian mandarins, who were not interested in global exploration. In 1436, which is still more than 50 years before Columbus set sail, an imperial ban was issued on the construction of oceangoing vessels, ending the country?s era of discovery.
Phillip Sadler, a celestial navigation expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says that Zheng Hu and Chinese technology could have made the trip. The knowledge required to navigate using stars goes back at least to the Ancient Greeks. Until the 18th Century, however, the art was limited to knowledge of latitude. Figuring longitude requires precise clocks that display local time, and even Columbus and Magellan didn?t have those. But that didn?t prevent them from voyaging around the world.
?I don?t think you need much celestial navigation to go around the globe,? Sadler says. ?You just start off, you go east or west, and if you hit something, you go left or right. Hopefully you get around things.? Sadler says if Zheng He turned left each time he ran into a continent, he would have fared pretty well. ?Columbus himself was a pretty terrible navigator,? Sadler says, ?He was essentially just sailing due west.?
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