18 March 2002
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
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
"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
Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company