Map of the world may prove the Chinese beat Columbus to America

The Independent
Jan. 14, 2006

Could it be that America was discovered, not by Columbus, but by a Chinese admiral who was not only a eunuch and a Muslim but also a confidant of the Emperor during the Ming dynasty?

A map will go on display on Monday in Beijing which is already revolutionising thinking about 15th-century world history. The map is a copy made in 1763 of a chart dated 1418 which appears to prove claims that it was Admiral He, whose fleet sailed the oceans between 1405 and 1435, and not Christopher Columbus some 71 years later, who discovered the New World.

More than that, Admiral He's fleet passed the southern tip of Africa (Cape of Good Hope) 76 years earlier than Vasco da Gama; he rounded the globe about 100 years earlier than Ferdinand Magellan's fleet (1519-22); and surveyed Australia three centuries before James Cook did in the 18th century.

This extraordinary piece of nautical revisionism reveals that the Chinese, having already discovered the true extent of the world, did not go on to exploit and colonise it as the Europeans did. Instead, China retreated into a long, self-imposed isolation from the outside world.

It is a staple of Chinese propaganda that for their ancestors explorations were about friendship and promotion of peace, but the Europeans were motivated by colonisation, the control of foreign lands and the lure of gold and silver. Chinese officials never tire of pointing out that theirs is not an expansionist culture and there is nothing to fear from their country's growth in wealth and military power. Acceptance of this map will further underpin Beijing's often-repeated mantra.

The map, bought by a collector from a Shanghai for just $500, has six Chinese characters in the upper right corner marking it as a "general chart of the integrated world". Notation in the lower left corner says it was copied by Mo Yi Tong from a chart showing barbarians paying tribute to the Ming dynasty.

Admiral He's extraordinary journey began in Shanghai on 11 July 1405, when he led his fleet of several hundred ships equipped with the most technologically advanced navigational tool of the time, a rudimentary compass. The Admiral kept a journal of his travels.

"We have traversed more than 100,000 li [50,000km] of immense waterspaces and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising in the sky, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly] as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare."

The Economist, which first published details of the chart, said it was bought by a Chinese commercial lawyer named Liu Gang. Liu had been convinced, after reading the book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, by Gavin Menzies, a former RN submarine commander, merchant banker and amateur historian, that the map depicted Admiral He's voyages. Mr Menzies claimed in his best-seller that Zheng He had circumnavigated the world and discovered America by 1421.

There remains the possibility that the map is a fake, but the detail is extraordinary. It shows the outlines of Africa, Europe and the Americas, reveals that the Nile has two sources, and shows the North-West Passage free from ice. But there are inaccuracies: Britain and Ireland do not feature, and California is depicted as an island.

Tests are being done at Waik-ato university in New Zealand.

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