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1421: The Year a Chinese Muslim Discovered America

 

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

 

http://www.islamicity.com/articles/Articles.asp?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 years."

 

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

thoroughfare.

 

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

lands.

 

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

Dynasty.

 

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

perfumes.

 

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

reign.

 

 

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

Nanjing.

 

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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