Last Monday was Columbus Day. Italians in some cities had parades honoring Christopher Columbus, the sailor credited with discovering the New World. It is not important to note that there was neither a country named Italy nor a people called Italians when he was born.
was not the first to set sail for unknown lands. Eric the Red found Greenland back when it was really green year round, and the Chinese skirted our shores earlier in the 15th century.
A new book by Gavin Menzies adds a lot of facts from old records in Europe and China about the early armadas of the Ming dynasty of China. 1421: The Year China Discovered America reads almost like a novel, yet it is back by historical evidence.
Menzies lived in China for two years before the Second World War and served in the Royal Navy in submarines from 1959 to 1970. As a junior officer he traversed the seas that Columbus, Dias, Cabral, Vaso da Gama, Magellan and Captain Cook sailed long ago.
In his research for the book he visited 120 countries, every major seaport and 900 museums and libraries. His greatest help came from Chinese sources and authorities on the voyages of Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing. All these admirals were new to me, having heard only of the famous Zheng He, who led the fleet to the coasts of East Africa and influenced the Arabs to set sail for Asia long before the European powers moved into the area.
Zheng He was appointed Commander-in-Chief of one of the largest fleets ever built. The ships were built on the Yangze River port of Nanjing. On one of my trips to China I visited his grave. He was a true hero in Chinese history. And, as so many heroes, was dismissed in the end by the Emperor.
The trips by the fleet and the many admirals covered the globe. They visited Alaska and down the West Coast of North and South America. There are evidences on the East Coast of visits by the Chinese. Their trips picked up and dropped off ambassadors, and they left many of the ancestors of what are called Overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia and India. Early European world maps were influenced by these Chinese pioneers.
This was during the years 1421-1423. Then the Ming dynasty rulers got cold feet and lost interest in the outside world. They not only destroyed the ships, but even the blueprints and shipyards. They shut off the bordersm and in another 150 years were overrun by the Manchus, who began the Qing dynasty that ended in 1911.
China has had unbelievable economic growth the last 20 years, and if they can open up a little more politically and begin to help the farmers and workers there is no reason to doubt they will become the world’s No. 1 economic power and lead the world in another 20 years.
If you like history, read “1421.”
Britt Towery writes for the Brownwood Bulletin in Brownwood, Texas. He and his wife were Southern Baptist missionaries to Taiwan (1956-66) and Hong Kong (1966-77; 1981-1992). He directed the opening of work on the China mainland, 1982-1992.