1421: The Year a Chinese Muslim Discovered America

7/4/2003 - Education - Article Ref: IC0301-1843


The British submarine engineer and historian Gavin
Menzies gave an astounding seminar on March 15, 2002
to the Royal Geographical Society in London, with
evidence to support his theory that Zheng He, a
Chinese Muslim navigator in the Ming dynasty, beat
Columbus by more than 70 years in discovering America.

Using evidence from maps drawn dated before Columbus'
trip that clearly showed America, and astronomical
maps traced back to Zheng He's time, Menzies is
confident that the Zheng He should be honored as the
first discoverer of America.

Menzies's conclusion is based on 14 years of research
that includes secret maps, evidence of artifacts, and
apparent proof of the voyage provided by the modern
astronomy software program Starry Night.

As key evidence for a voyage that will remake history,
Menzies says he obtained ancient Chinese navigation
charts associated with the travels of Zheng He. The
journey ran from 1421 to 1423. Menzies maintains that
the ships sailed around the Southern tips of both
Africa and South America.

The late evening southern sky as it would have looked
on March 18, 1421, from off the southern tip of South
America. Reconstructed with Starry Night Software to
compare with maps found from Zheng He's voyages.
"I set Starry Night up for dates in 1421 for parts of
the world where I thought the Chinese had sailed,"
explained Menzies, a navigation expert and former
Royal Navy submarine commander. He found that in two
separate locations of the voyage, easily recognizable
stars were directly above Zheng He's fleet.

Those stars have since moved, due to changes in
Earth's orientation in space. Earth's spin is slightly
imperfect, and its axis carves a circle on the sky
every 26,000 years. The phenomenon, called precession,
means that each pole points to different stars as time
progresses. Menzies used the software program to
recreate the sky as it would have looked in 1421.

"I had Chinese star charts, and I needed to date the
charts," he said. "By an incredible bit of luck, one
of the courses they steered, between Sumatra and
Dondra Head, Ceylon, was due west."

This part of the journey was very near the equator in
the Indian Ocean. Both Polaris, the North Star, and
the bright southern star Canopus, which was very
nearly above the celestial south pole, were on the
charts. "From that I was able to determine the
apparent shift of Polaris (due to precession). I could
therefore date the chart to 1421, plus or minus 30

Phillip Sadler, a celestial navigation expert at the
Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, says the
estimation of a map's age based on star positions is
possible. He said an estimate within 30 years, as
Menzies claims, is possible.  

About Zheng He:

Zheng He (1371-1435), or Cheng Ho, is China's most
famous navigator. He built a total of 1622 ships and
made at least seven major excursions between 1405 AD
and 1430 AD. He traveled more than 50,000km and
visited over 30 countries, reaching Somalia and
probably Europe (France, Holland and Portugal).

Zheng He constructed many wooden ships, some of which
are the largest in the history, in Nanjing. Three of
the shipyards still exist today.

In each trip, he led a troop of 27,800 people on more
than 300 ships. In each trip, 62 major ships of this
fleet were employed, each over 400 ft long and 193 ft
wide, holding 1000 people per ship, dwarfing Columbus'
Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than six-fold.

In the 1930s, a stone pillar was discovered in a town
in Fujian province. It held an inscription that
described the amazing voyages of Zheng He.

Zheng He described how the emperor of the Ming Dynasty
had ordered him to sail to "the countries beyond the
horizon," all the way to the end of the earth." His
mission was to display the might of Chinese.

The pillar contains the Chinese names for the
countries Zheng He visited. He wrote:

We have...beheld in the ocean huge waves like
mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on
barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue
transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily
unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their
course rapid like that of a star, transversing the
savage waves as if we were treading a public

The countries and territories covered and recorded in
the official Ming history includes Java, Sumatra,
Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon,
Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia, Mogadishu.
As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa,
among the souvenirs he brought back to China were the
giraffes and lions, indigenous animals of Africa.

The official history also mentioned "Franca" (which
was the territory to describe today's France and
Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described
as tall people with red hair and beard, long nose, and
deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the Europeans in
their native countries, then the only way would be to
navigate around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez
Canal was a throughway.

Unfortunately, Zheng He's magnificent accomplishment
was later targeted by other courtiers as wasteful.
Most of his records were destroyed and building of
ships with more than three masts were considered
crimes punishable by death. So, a large part of his
excursion (which might include the America part) has
no reports.

In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are
clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves
as the descendants of Zheng He's crew.

His achievements show that China had the ships and
navigational skills to explore the world.
Mysteriously, China did not follow up on these
voyages. The Chinese destroyed their ocean going ships
and halted further expeditions. Thus, a century later,
Europeans would "discover" China, instead of the
Chinese "discovering" Europe.

China has a very old seafaring tradition. Chinese
ships had sailed to India as early as the Han Dynasty.
Chinese sailors had an important invention to help
them-the compass. The compass, or "south pointing
spoon," started out as a fortune-telling instrument
used like an Ouija board. By the Song era, sailors had
taken it up. As a foreign ship captain wrote, "In
dark, weather they look to the south pointing needle,
and use a sounding line to determine the smell and
nature of the mud on the sea bottom, and so know where
they are.

Chinese shipbuilders also developed fore-and-aft
sails, the sternpost rudder, and boats with
paddlewheels. Watertight compartments below decks kept
the ship from sinking. Some boats were armor plated
for protection. All these developments made long
distance navigation possible.

After the Mongols were overthrown in 1368, the emperor
of the new Ming Dynasty wanted to assert Chinese
power. Because China was no longer part of a land
empire that stretched from Asia to Europe, the emperor
turned to the sea. He decided to build a navy. The
Chinese made elaborate plans that would not be
fulfilled for many years. A shipyard was built at the
new capital of Najing (Nanking). Thousand of varnish
and tung trees were planted on nearby Purple Mountain
to provide wood for shipbuilding. The emperor
established a school of foreign languages to train
interpreters. While all this was going on, the man who
would lead the navy was still an infant.

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Kunyang, a town in
southwest Yunnan Province. His family, named Ma, were
part of a minority group known as the Semur. They
originally came from Central Asia and followed the
religion of Islam. Both his grandfather and father had
made the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca. Zheng He grew up
hearing their accounts of travel through foreign

Yunnan was one of the last strongholds of Mongol
support, holding out long after the Ming Dynasty
began. After Ming armies conquered Yunnan in 1382,
Zheng He was taken captive and brought to Nanjing. The
eleven year old boy was made a servant of the prince
who would become the Yong Le Emperor. It was Yong Le
who renamed the boy Zheng He.

Zheng He is described in Chinese historical records as
tall and heavy, with "clear-cut features and long ear
lobes; a stride like a tiger's and voice clear and
vibrant." He was well liked and admired for his quick
wit in argument. Moreover, he was a brave soldier.
When his prince seized the Chinese throne from his
nephew, Zheng He fought well on his behalf. As a
result, Zheng He became a close confidant of the new
emperor and was given an important position at court.

The Yong Le emperor had ambitious plans. A vigorous
man, he rebuilt the Great Wall to the condition in
which it exists today. He also built his new capital
at Beijing, next to the remains of the former Yuan
capital. The emperor decided to go ahead with the sea
voyages that had long been planned. He appointed Zheng
He to lead them and gave him the title "Admiral of the
Western Seas."

At each country Zheng He visited, he was to present
gifts from the emperor and to exact tribute for the
glory of the Ming. The Chinese had a unique view of
foreign relations. Because China developed its culture
in isolation from other great civilization, it says
itself as the center of the world. The Chinese called
their country "the Middle Kingdom."

The Chinese emperor's duty was to attract "all under
heaven" to be civilized in Confucian harmony. When
foreign ambassadors came to the Chinese court, they
"kowtowed" as they approached the emperor. (The
required process of "kowtow" was to kneel three times
and bow one's head to the floor three times at each
kneeling.) In return for tribute from other countries,
the emperor sent gifts and special seals that
confirmed their rulers' authority. In fact, these
foreign kings were officially made part of the Ming

In 1405 Zheng He set out on his first voyage. No
nation on earth had ever sent such a fleet onto the
ocean. It included sixty-two large ships, some 600
feet long, larger than any other on the seas. Hundreds
of smaller vessels accompanied them. A Chinese
historian described them; "The ships which sail the
Southern Sea are like houses. When their sails are
spread they are like great clouds in the sky."

Zheng He's first port of call was in Champa, a part of
today's Vietnam. He was surprised to find many Chinese
living there. Merchants and craftsmen had emigrated
from the coastal provinces since the time of the Tang
Dynasty. They had already helped to spread Confucian
ideals, and Champs's ruler willingly offered tribute
for the Chinese emperor. In return, of course, Zheng
He presented the king with lavish gifts that were
probably more valuable.

Zheng He sailed away from the coast, westward across
the Indian Ocean. The ships traveled for days out of
sight of any land. Then they encountered a hurricane.
The ships tossed wildly in the fierce storm and seemed
to be on the verge of sinking. Then a "divine light"
suddenly shone at the tips of the mast. "As soon as
this miraculous light appeared, the danger was
appeased," Zheng He wrote.

When the Chinese sailors reached Calicut, India, their
giant ships created a stir. The ruler there presented
his visitors with sashes made of gold spun into
hair-fine threads and studded with large pearls and
precious stones. The Chinese were entertained with
music and songs. One crewmember wrote that the
Indians' musical instruments were "made of gourds with
strings of red copper wire, and the sound and rhythm
were pleasant to the ears."

On the way back to China, the fleet threaded its way
through the Straits of Malacca, stopping at the large
islands of Sumatra and Java. Zheng He established a
base at the Straits that he would use for each of his
seven voyages. There are thousands of smaller islands
in this vast archipelago, and some were pirates'
lairs. The pirates preyed on unwary fishermen and
small merchant vessels. Zheng He, showing how the
emperor treated those who disrupted harmony, attacked
and destroyed a fleet of pirate ships. He captured the
leader and brought him back to Beijing for execution.

When Zheng He returned, the emperor was pleased. He
sent his admiral on ever-longer voyages. Seven times,
Zheng He's ships set sail for unknown lands. On and on
he went, following his orders to travel as far as he
could. He reached Arabia, where he fulfilled a
personal dream. He made the pilgrimage to Mecca that
is the duty of every good Muslim once in his lifetime.
He also visited Prophet Muhammad Mosque in Medina. On
the fifth voyage, he reached the coast of Africa,
landing in Somalia on the east coast.

Zheng He organized each expedition on an enormous
scale. Besides sailors and navigators, they included
doctors, scribes, shipwrights, and cooks. On some
voyages Muslim religious leaders and Buddhist monks
were brought along to serve as diplomats in lands
where people were Muslim or Buddhist.

Each ship brought enough food to last the whole
voyage, in case "barbarian" food was not acceptable.
In addition to rice and other food that could be
preserved, the ships carried huge tubs of earth on
deck so that vegetables and fruit could be grown.

On each voyage the fleet anchored at the Malacca base,
where provisions, tribute, and gifts were stored in
warehouses. Zheng He found that foreign kings and
princes particularly admired the famous blue-and-white
Ming porcelain dishes, vases, and cups. Foreigners
still yearned for Chinese silk, for cotton printed
with Chinese designs, and for the coarse but long
lasting, brownish yellow cloth known as Nankeen
because it was made in Nanking (now Nanjing). The
holds of Zheng He's ships were also crammed with gold
and silver, iron tools, copper kitchenware, and

In exchange for such wares, and as tribute, Zheng He
brought back medicinal herbs, dyes, spices, precious,
gems, pearls, rhinoceros horns, ivory, and exotic
animals. On the homeward voyage, the fleet again
stopped at their base to sort out the foreign goods
and wait for a favorable wind to return to China.

The expeditions were an important source of
information about foreign countries. A crewmember
described the Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal off
the east coast of India:

Its inhabitants live in the hollows of trees and
caves. Both men and women there go about stark naked,
like wild beasts, without a stitch of clothing on
them. No rice grows there. The people subsist solely
on wild yams, jackfruit and plantains, or upon the
fish which they catch. There is a legend current among
them that, if they wear the smallest scrap of
clothing, their bodies would break into sores and
ulcers, owing to their ancestors having been cursed by
Buddha for having stolen and hidden his clothes while
he was bathing.

In Sri Lanka, the Chinese visited Buddhist Temple
Hill, where Buddha was said to have left his footprint
on a rock. They marveled at all the temples,
particularly one that held a relic of the Buddha's
tooth. According to a crew member, the people of the
island do not venture to eat cow's flesh, they merely
drink the milk. When a cow dies they bury it. It is
capital punishment for anyone to secretly kill a cow;
he who does so can however escape punishment by paying
a ransom of a cow's head made of solid gold.

Sri Lanka seemed like a treasure island, where rubies
and other precious stones were abundant. The people
harvested pearls from the sea and had discovered the
trick of making cultured pearls by planting a speck of
sand inside an oyster's shell.

The king of Sri Lanka was an ardent Buddhist who
treated both cows and elephants with religious
respect. However, because he did not show proper
respect for the ambassadors from the Son of Heaven, he
was taken back to China for "instruction." He was
returned to his island on a later voyage.

When the Chinese reached the east coast of Africa,
they found people who built houses of brick. "Men and
women wear their hair in rolls; when they go out they
wear a linen hood. There are deep wells worked by
means of cog wheels. Fish are caught in the sea with
nets." The Africans offered such goods a "dragon
saliva, incense, and golden amber." The Chinese found
the African animals even more amazing. There included
"lion, gold-spotted leopards, and camel-birds
(ostriches), which are six or seven feet tall." The
most exciting thing that Zheng He ever brought back to
the emperor's count was a giraffe.

The animal came from today's Somalia. In the Somali
Language, the name for giraffe sounds similar to the
Chinese word for unicorn. It was easy to imagine that
this was the legendary animal that had played an
important part in the birth of Confucius. Surely, it
must be a sign of Heaven's favor on the emperor's

When the giraffe arrived in 1415, the emperor himself
went to the palace gate to receive it, as well as a
"celestial horse" (zebra) and a "celestial stag"
(oryx). The palace officials offered congratulations
and performed the kowtow before the heavenly animals.

When Zheng He came back from his seventh voyage in
1433, he was sixty-two years old. He had accomplished
much for China, spreading the glory of the Middle
Kingdom to many countries that now sent tribute and
ambassadors to the court. Though he died soon
afterward, his exploits had won him fame. Plays and
novels were written about his voyages. In such places
as Malacca and Java, towns, caves, and temples were
named after him.

However, a new Ming emperor had come to the throne.
His scholar-officials criticized Zheng's achievements,
complaining about their great expense. China was now
fighting another barbarian enemy on its western
borders and needed to devote its resources to that
struggle. When a court favorite wanted to continue
Zheng He's voyages, he was turned down. To make sure,
the court officials destroyed the logs that Zheng He
had kept. We know about his voyages only from the
pillar and some accounts that his crewmembers wrote.

Thus, China abandoned its overseas voyages. It was a
fateful decision, for just at that time, Portugal was
beginning to send its ships down the west coast of
Africa. In the centuries that followed, European
explorers would sail to all parts of the world. They
would establish colonies in Africa, America, and
finally in the nations of East Asia. China would
suffer because it had turned its back on exploration.
Zheng He had started the process that might have led
the Middle Kingdom to greater glory Unfortunately the
rulers of the Ming Dynasty refused to follow his lead.

Zheng He died in the tenth year of the reign of the
Ming emperor Xuande (1435) and was buried in the
southern outskirts of Bull's Head Hill (Niushou) in

In 1985, during the 580th anniversary of Zheng He's
voyage, his tomb was restored. The new tomb was built
on the site of the original tomb in Nanjing and
reconstructed according to the customs of Islamic
teachings, as Zheng He was a Muslim.

At the entrance to the tomb is a Ming-style structure,
which houses the memorial hall. Inside are paintings
of the man himself and his navigation maps. To get to
the tomb, there are newly laid stone platforms and
steps. The stairway consists of 28 stone steps divided
into four sections with each section having seven
steps. This represents Zheng He's seven journeys to
the West. The Arabic words "Allah (God) is great" are
inscribed on top of the tomb.


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