Copyright The International Herald Tribune
SATURDAY, JUNE 25, 2005
SINGAPORE Did Chinese sailors really discover America before Columbus? A new exhibition sets the scene, presenting new evidence that lends support to the assumptions made in “1421: The Year China Discovered America” by Gavin Menzies.
“1421: The Year China Sailed the World,” in Singapore in a special tent near the Esplanade (until Sept. 11), is primarily a celebration of Admiral Zheng He’s seven maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1423. With a fleet of 317 ships and 28,000 men, Zheng He is generally acknowledged as one of the great naval explorers, but how far he actually went remains a matter of dispute.
With original artifacts, videos and interactive exhibits, “1421” aims to take visitors through Zheng He’s life story, setting the historical and economic context of his voyages. Against this factual background, Menzies’s theories are presented, along with new evidence, mainly maps, backing his claims.
The exhibition starts in Hunnan (China) in 1382, with a narrative space giving some background on Zheng He’s youth. Zheng, a Chinese Muslim, was captured as a child in wartime by the Ming army and made a eunuch to serve at court. He became a scholar and a trusted adviser to the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, who sent him on a mission to “proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas.”
When the giant fleet returned in 1423, however, the emperor had fallen. With that change of leadership, China began a policy of isolationism that would last hundreds of years. The large ships were left to rot at their moorings, and most of the records of the great journeys were destroyed (though some argue the records still exist).
A lattice maze in the exhibition takes visitors through the internal turmoil dominating the early part of the Ming dynasty. In the main room, five giant masts and sails mark the admiral’s first five voyages, each depicting the destination while highlighting important historical facts such as the trade of spices and teas and life on board the ships.
With 600 years of sailing experience, the Chinese had already developed many tools useful to sailing over great distances – like magnetized compasses and watertight bulkhead compartments of a kind the West would have to wait hundreds of years for. Importantly, Zheng He’s ships, known as junks, included on-board vegetable patches, growing soybeans in tubes all year to provide protein and vitamin C, guarding sailors against scurvy.
Along with examples of spices and other goods that the fleet would have brought back to China, the visitors can find ancient artifacts like unusual animal-shaped money from Malacca (Malaysia) made of tin, which the Chinese produced as currency when their copper coins ran out. Shaped in the form of animals like crocodiles, turtles and chickens, these coins were exclusive to Malacca but have been found in shipwrecks throughout Asia.
Arguing that the Chinese had reached America 70 years before Columbus, Menzies’s book caused a stir when it was published in 2002. “Columbus had a map of America, de Gama had a map showing India and Captain Cook had a map showing Australia, and it’s not my saying; it’s the explorers saying it,” the retired British Royal Navy submarine commanding officer said in an interview. “None of the great European explorers actually discovered anything new. The whole world was charted before they set sail. So somebody before them had done it, and that was the basis of the book,” he said.
Since then, the Web site he created to centralize evidence to substantiate his book has received more than 100,000 e-mails from people across the globe coming forward with “massive evidence” corroborating his claims, Menzies said. “It’s no longer about my book. It’s really a collective work.”
Menzies, who is planning to revise his book by 2007 in light of the latest evidence, now believes that Zheng He was not the first to sail to America. “One of the mistakes I made in my book was to say that Zheng He did everything. He had a legacy. Most of the world had already been mapped by Kublai Khan’s fleet,” he said.
The exhibition shows copies of Kublai Khan’s maps, recently found at the U.S. Library of Congress by an academic. The documents clearly show North America. Menzies said he believes the maps, which are currently being carbon-dated, are from the late 13th century.
The exhibition also presents copies of Korean maps from the collection of Charlotte Rees, which she inherited from her father, a third-generation missionary born in China. Rees’s maps date from the 16th century, but they are believed to be replicas of Chinese maps dating to 2200 B.C. Menzies believes Zheng would have known of these maps and hence how to reach the Americas – although he had to improve the charts, which contained longitudinal errors.
According to Menzies, recent evidence has been found of what are believed to be wrecked Chinese junks in Florida, South Carolina, New York and Canada. More compellingly, Menzies says, a new archaeological site in Nova Scotia at Cape Dauphin, discovered by the Canadian architect Paul Chiasson and represented by photos at the exhibition, indicates an early Chinese settlement.
Chiasson, in an e-mail interview, said, “The position of the wall on the side of the hill (not the summit), the layout of the wall across the hilly topography and the relationship of a small settlement located within the wall to the overall enclosure all point away from a European origin and appeared to point to a Chinese origin.”
While some archaeologists argue that the settlement could be Viking, Chiasson disagrees, pointing out that the nearest and largest evidence of any Viking settlement in the area is more than 700 kilometers to the north and that the Vikings were building much smaller outposts than the one discovered.
The site has just been surveyed by Cedric Bells, who has also worked on a New Zealand site believed to have Chinese junks. Bells has found canals, smelters, mines, Buddhist tombs, Islamic graves, barracks, all pointing to a very large settlement, Menzies said. “This site is unquestionably Chinese and unquestionably pre-European. I actually believe it’s quite possible it was started by Kublai Khan and then further developed by Zheng He.”
Carbon extracted from one of the mines is now being carbon-dated, and there are plans to request permission from the Canadian government for DNA testing and carbon-dating to be made on the bones found in graves.
The new evidence is likely to generate as much controversy as the book. Tan Ta Sen, president of the International Zhen He Society, believes the evidence shown in the exhibition is “opening doors” but needs to be further substantiated.
“The book is very interesting, but you still need more evidence,” Tan argued. “We [the society] don’t regard it as an historical book, but as a narrative one. I want to see more proof. But at least Menzies has started something, and people could find more evidence.”