A long overdue correction to history


By Fr. J.C. Pieris


Gavin Menzies, (GM) an investigative, navigational historian of the epic Chinese voyages of 1421 to 1423 has composed a brilliant brief to unfailingly prove with an abundance of circumstantial and corroborative evidence that the Chinese were the first, by decades and centuries, to circumnavigate the globe-Earth and discover practically all the continents and countries including the Arctic and the Antarctic and learn the methods of calculating the latitude, longitude and the declination of the sun. Sorry, Messrs Columbus, da Gama, Magellan and Cook you were brave and great explorers but you were only following the cartography and ‘mappae mundi’ prepared with the aid of Chinese knowledge of the oceans of the world. The Chinese had already reached, mapped and even colonized some of all the continents and countries that you told us you had ‘discovered’!

I am fortunate to read the fascinating, enlightening and captivatingly readable book by GM: "1421, the year China discovered the world" Bantam Books, pgs 650, 2002. During the reign of Emperor Zhu Di there was an incredible expansion of Chinese voyages by an enormous number of leviathan junks (ships), 800 ships including Indian and Korean ships joining in the adventure that crossed all the great oceans and reached all the countries circumnavigating the globe. They were led by Admiral Zheng He, a tall giant of a man, and his other Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing. The author says that the caravels of Columbus and da Gama would look like dinghies alongside one of the junks of Zheng He. They were so big. Natives all over the world called them floating houses. They were able to last for months in the sea. Like Noah’s Ark they carried everything, both flora and fauna, not only for their consumption but also to propagate around the world and bring back to China newly discovered flora and fauna and of course precious metals, stones and other treasures.

Before leaving China on this unique and dangerous adventure in to the unknown Zheng He erected two stone slabs carved with the legend of his voyages. In most of the places he landed for trade, provisions and the study of the heavenly bodies for navigational purposes, he erected such stone slabs. We have one in Sri Lanka. It was at Dondra Head and now at the Colombo Museum. It is in the commercial languages of the Indian Ocean in those times, Chinese, Persian and Tamil. Such stone erections were found all over the world: In Malaya at Malacca; Thailand; in India at Guli, Calicut and Cochin; in Africa at Matadi Falls (Congo); Cape Verde Islands(Janela), in South America – Santa Catarina; in New Zealand at Ruapuke Beach and South Island; in North America - Dighton Rock and McCook Point (B. Trinque) and in the American pacific coast – Sacramento Stone.

GM has meticulously put together all the evidence from exquisite Chinese porcelain found all over the coastal and even navigable interiors of the world to Chinese chicken, Chinese Rose and Chinese lacquer-making found in the antipodes to prove his theory. The Chinese junk wrecks, so many of them, mark the routes of Zheng He’s and his admirals’ voyages. But the final and incontrovertible proof of GM’s theory is the DNA tests done on the Chinese and on the local populations where evidence and wrecks were found. There was no other way some of the exclusively Chinese strains of the DNA find their way across the world unless carried there by the Chinese themselves.

I think GM has proved his point. His theory can stand up to the severest scrutiny of experts and academic historians. As a serviceman in the British navy and later as a captain of a submarine he knew his sea, seafaring and navigational needs. As a lover of ancient maps, charts and cartography he knew what he was looking for. GM has forced the world to recognize that it was the Chinese and not the Europeans who were the first discoverers of the world. The Chinese and all of us have a big debt of gratitude to GM for the thorough research and the enormous amount of work, energy and dedication he and his team had put in to the task.

Soon after Zheng He’s armada left the shores of China a string of catastrophes played havoc with the governance of Emperor Zhu Di. The Imperial Forbidden City caught fire after a lightning strike during a thunder storm and was totally reduced to ashes. His favourite concubine died of the shock. The treasury was empty because of the expensive projects of Zhu Di. People began to die of starvation and of an epidemic of an unknown disease. The palace Eunuchs who held the upper hand all this time supporting the Emperor’s projects had lost their power. Zheng He and all his admirals were Zhu Di’s eunuchs. The Mandarins, bureaucrats, who were critical of these projects, took over and the Dark Age descended on China.

When Zheng He and his admirals triumphantly returned in 1423 Emperor Zhu Di, a broken, ill and a defeated man, had lost control and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America seventy years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They had also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude three hundred years before the Europeans.

GM continues, "One of the fascinating ‘what ifs’ of history is what would have happened had lightning not struck the Forbidden City on the 9 May 1421 and so many calamities followed one after another and Emperor Zhu Di had ordered Zheng He to continue their voyages and permanently colonize Americas and Australia." Would New England be New China and New York be New Beijing? Would we be talking Chinese instead of English? Would Buddhism become the religion of the New World?

Then GM makes a poignant observation: "Instead of the cultured Chinese, instructed to treat distant people with kindness. It was the cruel, almost barbaric Christians who were the colonizers. Francisco Pizarro gained Peru from the Incas by massacring five thousand Indians in cold blood.

Da Gama in Calicut ordered his men to parade the Indian prisoners, then to hack off their hands, ears and noses …. The historian Gaspar Correa describes it thus: When all the Indians had been thus executed (sic) he ordered their feet to be tied together, as they had no hands to untie them: and in order that they should not untie them with their teeth, he ordered them to strike upon their teeth with staves, and they knocked them down their throats." To bring history closer to us we had the Jalianwallah Bagh massacre and the Wellassa massacre.

GM concludes thus: "The great admirals Zheng He, Hong Bao, Zgou Man, Zhou Wen and Yang Qing deserve to be remembered and celebrated too, for they were the first, the bravest and most daring of all. Those who followed them, no matter how great their achievements, were sailing in their wake."

The reason I wrote this piece to The Island is to share the pleasure of reading this book with others. But the more important reason was to share a question that kept popping up in my mind after reading the book. Why didn’t we Sri Lankans sitting at the centre of the Indian Ocean venture on to the high seas to dominate all trade in the Indian Ocean? We have had 100% coastal line. We had wonderful harbours like Galle and Trincomalee. We had the Indian Ocean at our feet. We had all the timber for the making of ships, coir industry, cloth weaving and wealth to invest in such projects. We had brains, too. We could make a canal 4 feet wide, drop only by six inches in 17 miles, build gigantic stupas, create Sigiriya and the sluice gate, ‘Bisokotuwa’.

Let us forget about circumnavigating the globe leaving that to giant countries like China but what blocked us from becoming the leading traders of the Indian Ocean taking goods from India, Pakistan, Arabia and the eastern coast of Africa to the far eastern countries and vice versa?

There is one thing absolutely necessary to sail the high seas – knowledge of the heavenly bodies to show the way in the stormy pathless immensity of water, astronomy. The Chinese studied astronomy to circumnavigate the globe. The Arabs studied astronomy to travel the deserts. The Europeans studied astronomy to conquer the world. But we, instead of studying astronomy, studied astrology and got bogged down in myth, fear and superstition. We remained island-bound in fear of the sea, frogs in a well. It is despairing to see even today, in the 21st century, the leaders of the country and some professionals and intellectuals exhibiting loads of strings on their wrists, amulets hanging all over, ugly big charmed rings on fingers, charmed bracelets and charmed balls for constant rubbing rushing off to meet god-men, soothsayers, astrologers and make poojas. When will we gain freedom from myth, fear, superstition and venture out in to the modern world not to conquer it but at least to be on par with the leading countries of the world?

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