Did Chinese admiral Zheng He discover America before Columbus and Vasco da Gama? I think he could. but more important, read how Zheng He’s travels can lead to a major conflict today…
During my visit to Malaysia I walked into a rememberance stone in the world heritage city center of Melaka and read about the visit of Zheng He in 1405. This visit was a first of seven voyages which he made between 1405 and 1430. He visited not only the countries of South East Asia, but went well beyond that: India, Sri Lanka, the Arabian peninsula and the east coast of Africa. Till so far the official reading.
Not much later I found the Cheng Ho museum which turned out to be a wonderful museum about the life and times of Zheng He. His fleet is build at scale in a diorama and then you start to think how impressive this must have been. The admiral build his biggest Treasure Ships measuring 120 meters long and over 50 meters wide each. Compare Columbus 30 by 10 meters ships. Columbus sailed out – 70 years later – with 3 small ships. Zheng He with close to 200 ships.
Now the Chinese emperor was not in a conquering mood, lucky world. They sailed to all the kings and sultans to show off their power and increase trade. Some researchers think have found prove that parts of the fleet sailed around Africa and hit the American continent. Direct prove has not yet been found, but one of the first appearences of Asia and parts of South America show up in 15 century maps in Italy (see Fra Mauro map) and Turkey (see the Piri Reis maps) and it could be very well possible that early travelers from Venice to the east might have encountered Chinese treasure ships and copied their sea charts. It is still indirect proof, but seems more reasonable then prehistoric Atlantis blah blah.
I bought myself a few books about this in the west so unknown explorer to enrich my collection of obscure history and cartography memorabilia , well hidden in a vault somewhere in Holland.
Today China expresses that “Chinese activities in the South China Sea date back over 2000 years ago” with China being “the first country to discover, name, explore and exploit the resources of the South China Sea islands and the first to continuously exercise sovereign powers over them.” For instance, Chinese sources claim that maps of the South China Sea islands were published throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties, including in navigational charts drawn up by China’s fifteen-century admiral and explorer Zheng He. (source)
And so Zheng He is back in today’s politics, not only because of the South China sea rising conflict, but also as an example of China’s modern day silk road initiative called: One Belt One Road, where China is increasing its influence over the Eurasian world to build airports, railroads and seaports to connect China’s industrial areas over land and sea. For many poor countries a great opportunity, for the sceptic west another thread of the upcoming eastern powers.
As long as they handle in the spirit of Zheng He – collaborative with win-win trade benefits – it would be fine with me.