It all started on a bitterly cold New Year’s Eve ages long ago. My wife and I stood on the Great Wall gazing in awe as it coiled its way like a majestic snake across snow capped mountains in the far distance. To the north of us, bleak Siberia, to the south, lush China. The wall an ever potent reminder of China’s great civilisation and the temptation she has held for horsemen from the steppes for thousands of years.
That afternoon we walked along an avenue of stone warriors shrouded in mist to reach the fabled Ming tombs set in an enchanting riverine complex. “When were these tombs completed?” we asked. “In 1421,” our guide replied. “And the Great Wall?” “This was finished in 1421 as well – it was built by the Emperor Zhu Di to protect his tomb.”
As night fell we entered the Forbidden City. As it was New Year’s Eve, the Chinese had put on a splendid display of acrobats and Tang dancers. Fireworks exploded in the cold clear brittle air above us; clowns belched fire; dragon dancers wreathed past in and out of the smoke which sheathed the Emperor’s palaces. A night to remember.
“And when was this extraordinary city built?”
“It was completed on New Year’s Day 1421.”
“Because it took 16 years to build – as did the Ming tombs.”
“Why start so many projects in 1405?”
“Because the Emperor wanted a new capital.”
“Why did he want to build one here on the edge of the steppe so near the Mongolians2
“There will be no more questions about this matter!”
As the guide could not resolve the riddle, I decided to do so myself. This is what I found.
Where the story starts:
1421 February 2nd, 1421, The Imperial Capital, Beijing
Chinese New Year’s Day 1421 was one of the most important in that illustrious country’s history. At the inauguration of the Forbidden City, leaders of the world stood in line in a biting Mongolian wind awaiting their turn to bow and kow tow to the Son of Heaven, the Third Emperor of the Ming dynasty, the Emperor on Horseback, Zhu Di.
Leaders of the world had been brought from Africa, the length and breadth of the Indian Ocean, from all of Asia, in leviathan ships which had negotiated the oceans of the world with pin-point accuracy. No Europeans leaders were present for they were insignificant.
Six hundred years ago, China was a country, which was a political, intellectual, military and economic colossus. Rulers of the world modelled themselves and their countries on China. They were dressed in Chinese silk and ate off Ming porcelain. China’s absolute dominance is epitomised by the subservience of the most powerful men in the world, the son and grandsons of the Persian emperor, Tamburlaine. At the inauguration of the Forbidden City in February 1421 their first attempts to bow to the ground before Zhu Di was not sufficiently abject. The eunuch Haji Maulana ordered them to do it again. The second time was also unsatisfactory. At the third attempt, the Emperor was satisfied.
China’s standing can be illustrated by a comparison with London that same month. February 1421 was also one of the most important days in English history. By the Treaty of Troyes the Hundred Years War was to be brought to an end. The French heiress, Katherine of Valois, would marry the great English general, King Henry V, and be crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey. When the French King died, Henry and Katherine’s children eldest child would become monarch both of France and England, uniting the two countries.
At the feast on 21st February 1421 to celebrate the coronation of Katherine as Queen of England, 600 guests ate stockfish – salt cod. Their plates were but slabs of stale bread. In Beijing, 26,000 people celebrated the inauguration of the Forbidden City with a ten-course banquet served on fabulous porcelain. Zhu Di’s favourite was clothed in sumptuous silk. Her jewels included cornelians from Persia, rubies of Ceylon, Indian diamonds and khotan jade; her perfume contained ambergris from the Pacific, myrrh from Arabia, sandalwood from the Spice Islands – its composition much like the most expensive perfumes of today. Zhu Di’s walled city was more than 1400 times the size of the walled City of London.
The disparity in learning, knowledge and literacy was equally profound. In 1405 AD Zhu Di had commissioned 2,000 experts who had worked for 12 years; they could refer to six centuries of written wisdom. At last they had completed the Yongle Dadian, a massive encyclopaedia. In Henry V’s England, printing was as yet unknown; Henry possessed six books of which three were on loan from the Nunnery of Syon House, whereas in China concubines could buy printed novels from market stalls.
England had no knowledge of the heavens. Chinese astronomers every evening charted over 1,000 stars traversing the night sky. they had predicted and noted the return of Halley’s Comet on every pass since the year 200 BC.
In June 1421 England’s King Henry would ferry his army of 5,000 archers to France in a few fishing smacks which could only carry 100 men and could only make the journey in daylight within sight of land. That same June, Zhu Di’s army of 28,000 men landed in East Africa. The Chinese cavalry was armed with every sort of gunpowder weapon. A contest between China and all the world’s navies combined would have resembled that between a shark and a sprat. Yet a century and a half later, England, not China, was to rule the seas.
The Chinese emperor commissioned 1,700 ships when he seized power in 1403. So much wood was required he had to pillage Vietnam’s and Annam’s forests of teak – which was to have disastrous consequences for China. China’s fleet in 1421 was awesome – more than 1,000 ships. The largest, those which were to set sail in March 1421, were up to 150 metres long – almost the length of a Polaris submarine and three times her beam.
The junks were built in sections like the internal sections of a bamboo pole. The hull built of transverse planks of teak was double-hulled – if the outer planks were punctured by ice or coral, water would be retained by the inner. One or two compartments could be flooded without the ship sinking. They were semi-articulated, each of 16 sections joined to the next by a ring of brass bolts. The captains were eunuchs, their penis and testicles severed at puberty. The penis was cut to a stump, causing needless pain, infection and urinary discharge. After castration they put on weight – Admiral Zheng He weighed over 120 kilos and stood over two metres tall.
Up to 1,000 sailors, for the most part criminals, crewed each ship. Each ship had 60 to 80 cabins with sun decks and verandas for foreign potentates to use as they were carried between their home countries and China. Concubines, Tanka girls, served them – concubines were highly thought of with an important role to play. They took great trouble to satisfy their clients – books on sexual technique were widely available, as were sex aids and aphrodisiacs.
Water, grain and horse ships accompanied the fleet. Seawater was desalinated, using paraffin wax. Beans were grown in tubs, their shoots provided Vitamins B and C; otters were kept in flooded holds to herd fish into nets. Pigs were kept in sties and dogs bred for food.
The ships were protected by mortars, cannon and fragmentation weapons. The armada could sail the oceans of the world for months at a time in all weathers 24 hours each day. They used the star Polaris in the northern hemisphere to give true north and latitude. Their limitations were that they had to sail before the wind and had no star in the Southern hemisphere equivalent to Polaris. As we shall discover, the Chinese Emperor ordered the admirals to determine the precise position of the Southern Cross and Canopus to enable the ships to navigate accurately in the southern hemisphere.
On 3rd March 1421 the Emperor’s signal to his three fleets set them on their way:
By the time the great voyages were ordered by the Emperor Zhu Di, China had more than five centuries’ experience of intercontinental trade. Tang fleets had reached Africa and Australia. Kangaroos indigenous to Australia were found in the Chinese Emperor’s Zoo, as were African giraffes and Indian elephants.
The five voyages since 1403 had become progressively more adventurous. On the second, the fleets separated at Malacca, the forward base. By the third, the forward base was moved further west to Calicut. On the fourth, independent fleets sailed from Calicut to the Persian Gulf, India and Africa. The fifth voyage brought leaders of the world to Beijing.
The tribute system meant China always gave more expensive gifts than she received. Thus countries were always indebted to China. The arrival of the great junks heralded costly offering of tribute to China.
At the time of the sixth voyage it was an era of massive self-confidence. China was Chinese again. Zhu Di had expelled the last of the Mongols. Leaders of the known world had been dazzled by the inauguration of the Forbidden City and the fabulous pageants which attended it.
The Silk Road had been reopened all the way to Persia. China’s industrial system had been revitalised. Forward bases had been opened around the Indian Ocean. The way was clear for Zhu Di’s greatest gamble yet – all the world was to be brought into Confucian harmony.
Four fleets left China for Malacca – 107 ships in all. There they provisioned and sailed on to Calicut – we have Ma Huan’s diaries describing their majestic voyage. At Calicut, Zheng He, the Commander in Chief, returned home via South East Asia, reaching China in November 1421. By now his four rear admirals, GÉ Yang Cheng, GÉ Zhou Man, GÉ Hong Bao and Admiral Zhou Wen, had years of experience commanding fleets in the earlier expeditions. These three admirals sailed in company across the Indian Ocean up the west coast of Africa to Santo Antao in the Cape Verde islands. (proof will shortly follow). They sailed in the equatorial current for the Caribbean where the fleets separated.
Zhou Wen sailed northwest for America, losing nine ships off Puerto Rico in a hurricane. He took survivors aboard and landed them on Cuba and Rhode Island. Columbus and Verazzano, the first Europeans to reach the Americas, met their descendants. The Chinese thus settled in America 72 years before Columbus set sail. Zhou Wen circumnavigated Greenland in a quest for the North Pole. He certainly got within 250 miles and could have reached the Pole – the Chinese claim he did. Further analysis of the composition of the iron rivets found by Fritzhof Nansen may confirm whether or not he reached the Pole. He returned via the Kara, Laptev and Chukchoi Seas and the Bering Straits to China.
Meantime, at the approaches to the Caribbean, the fleets of Zhou Man and Hong Bao turned southwest for South America. They made landfall at the Orinoco delta before heading south for the Falklands. They spent six months surveying the coast of Patagonia before passing through the straits subsequently named after Magellan.
Once in the Pacific, the two fleets again separated, Zhou Man took the Humboldt and south equatorial current up the west coast of Peru across the Pacific via the Maquesas and Tuomoto archipelagos, Fiji and Norfolk Island before making landfall in Australia just north of Newcastle. Here he built a garrison before sailing south to Campbell Island where he lost one ship. On the way back, many further junks were lost in New Zealand and four on the Australian coast.
This time he made landfall at Brisbane. The fleet anchored in the harbour of Gympie where they mined antimony and gold before setting sail northwards, one squadron passing inside and the other outside the Barrier Reef – 250 years before Captain Cook. They landed in Arnhem Land where they took their horses ashore to mine lead and uranium.
The fleet under Hong Bao whom we left in the Straits of Magellan turned southwards for the South Pole. They reached South Graham Land and claim to have reached the South Pole – I am doubtful, even with horses. They skirted the Weddel Sea, landing on Restiuelen Island then continued with the roaring forties to Western Australia where they made land fall just south of Bunbury. Three junks were lost in South and West Australia. They returned via the Indian Ocean and South China Sea where another three junks were lost.
Slide: on 3rd March 1421, 107 ships set sail from China.
By 22nd October 1423, just five had returned.
The admiral had a memorial erected, which was inscribed: “The countries beyond the horizon and at the ends of the earth have all become subjects, the most western of the western and the most northern of the northern countries, however far away they may be. We have visited 3000 countries large and small.” I believe they did, for they charted 17,000 islands and reefs.
Proof: the fleet last appeared in Chinese records off South Africa where they are shown on the Mao Kun chart sailing south at 6.25 knots. Allowing for spending seven days in each port (average length of time) and sailing at 4.8 knots (average speed of seven voyages) they would have arrived off the South African coast by June 1421. Two of the three
fleets returned in October 1423. Where did they go in the “missing” 28 months? During this time at 4.8 knots they could have sailed more than 100,000 nautical miles, equivalent to four times round the world.
My own discoveries started by accident. When completing my book, 1421, two years ago, I came cross the Zuane Pizzigano chart of 1424. This shows two hitherto unknown islands in the Western Atlantic:
Satanazes and Antilia
I exchanged about 100 letters with Professor Carol Urness, the Curator of the James Ford Bell Library of the University of Minnesota, custodian of the chart. A year ago Professor Urness had been convinced the islands were Guadaloupe. and Puerto Rico. Final confirmation came with the translation of the words con y mana which mean “Volcano erupts here”. This is shown where La Soufriere and l’Echelle are on Guadaloupe. The Smithsonian confirmed the volcanoes did indeed erupt then but not in the previous centuries nor for a further two centuries afterwards. To have drawn them erupting, someone must have been in the Caribbean before 1424 – i.e. 70 years before Columbus.
Further research showed:
The Caribbean, Florida and Pacific Coast of America all drawn before the first Europeans got there. The Waldseemueller also shows the Siberian coast to the Bering Straits 300 years before the Russians first charted it.
I then searched for other charts to see if other continents had been similarly drawn:
Australia, Africa, South America.
So the whole world was drawn before the first European voyages of discovery.
Not only was the whole world charted but whoever did so had got longitude correct to within 30 miles as shown on the Cantino of Africa’s east coast.
My first thought on seeing the Pizzigano was that it was drawn by the Portuguese. Professor Camillo do Santos kindly introduced me to the Keeper of the State Archives in the Torre de Tomba, Lisbon. then I found that, far from discovering the islands in the Atlantic, Prince Henry the Navigator had despatched caravels to find the islands shown on a Master Chart of the World which his brother, Dom Pedro, had brought back to Lisbon in 1428.
As Antonio Galvao wrote:
“…Dom Peter, the King of Portugal’s eldest sonne, was a great traveller … [in 1428] he came home by Italie, taking Rome and Venice in his way from where he brought a map of the world which had all the parts of the world and earth described. The Strait of Magellan was called in it ‘the dragon’s taile’; the Cape of Bona Spencia, the forefront of Afrike and so forth…”
So my next port of call was Venice from whence Dom Pedro had brought the map. There Dr Ilenya Schiavon kindly assisted my research on the State Archives in the Monastery of San Paolo. This revealed that Dom Pedro had sent an intermediary, a friar by the name of Dom Alberto Sarteano, to interview a merchant named Nicolo da Conti. Nicolo claimed to have left Venice in 1419 for Alexandria, where be became an Islamic merchant. He could then travel southwards (Christians were then forbidden to travel south of Cairo). He reached Calicut on the Malabar coast of India in 1421 – by an amazing coincidence just as the Chinese fleet was arriving on their passage through the Indian Ocean. Nicolo accurately described the Chinese junks and claimed to have sailed in one from India to Australia and thence to China with his wife.
So I returned to Venice again, this time to see Dr Piero Falchetta, Curator of the Map Library in the Marciana Museum. One lovely morning we met Piero who took me up to his office “where you will see something interesting” he told me.
To my amazement, there was a map of the world dated 1459 drawn by a monk, Father Mauro. As large as life was the Cape of Good Hope. “That must be wrong,” I exclaimed. “Cabral and Dias did not get there for another 30 years”. Piero smiled and pointed out Fra Mauro had drawn Chinese junks on his map – huge ships exactly like Zheng He’s, the same “landing ship bows”. Fra Mauro had attached notes which said that in about 1420 a ship or junk from India sailed across the Indian ocean non-stop, rounded the Cape and passed into the Atlantic. They sailed for 40 days through the Islas Verdes, thence west then southwest to the obscured islands. After 110 days they returned to the Cape. In another note Fra Mauro justifies his remarks by noting his authority – a merchant of good standing who has travelled in those parts. Almost all historians agree that this merchant was Nicolo da Conti.
So did Nicolo da Conti travel aboard a Chinese junk from India to Australia via the Isles Verdes and obscured islands? From the Cape to the Cape Verde Islands is before the wind all the way. Da Gama at 5.5 knots took 33 days; the Chinese at 4.8 knots would have taken the 40 days Fra Maura/Nicolo da Conti said. I was able to establish winds and tides in the South Atlantic and predict the Chinese junks would have approached the Cape Verde Islands from the northeast
Santo Antao would have been the first island they sighted.
There we located a large free-standing stone at Janela near a stream rushing down the Cova volcano into the sea. I should say at this stage that the Chinese erected a string of carved stones along their track from China – seven in all in Malaysia, Sumatra, Ceylon, India and West Africa. They were invariably inscribed in languages the Chinese thought local people would understand (17 interpreters sailed in Zheng He’s fleet) – that is in Tamil, Farsi and Arabic as well as in Chinese. We managed to photograph and computer enhance enough of the underlying script to identify it as Malayalam, the mediaeval language of Calicut from whence the Chinese fleet had sailed. Fra Mauro and Nicolo da Conti appear to be vindicated as a ship or junk from India had reached the Islas Verdes.
My next task was to locate the “obscured islands”. Fra Mauro mentions two months’ sailing to first the west then southwest from the Cape Verde islands. At 4.8 knots, this route, which would be before wind and current all the way, would take the junk to the region of the Falkland Islands or Tiera de Fuego How can we narrow the search? Is there a chart which describes South America published before Magellan set sail?
There is – the Piri Reis. The Piri Reis shows Patagonia with startling accuracy – bays, rivers and the whole coastline from Cabo Blanco to the Straits of Magellan. Animals – huemils, guanacos and mountain lions are placed just where they are found today. Even the monster, the mylodon, is drawn and described just where Darwin found its skeleton four centuries later. Knowing we are looking at Patagonia, the mountains to the west of the chart can only be the Andes – and to have drawn them the surveyor must have been in the Pacific – he must have preceded Magellan, for the Piri Reis was drawn long before Magellan set sail. Knowing the scale of Patagonia, we can say with certainty the islands to the south are the South Shetlands – drawn 400 years before Europeans reached them, Such vast distances are covered – from Peru to the Antarctic – that many ships if not fleets must have been involved to have charted such a huge area with such accuracy.
The Piri Reis poses a mystery. China’s purpose was to bring peoples into Confucian harmony and into the Chinese tribute system. Yet southern Patagonia and the Falklands had little to offer but naked giants and cabbages. The mystery deepened when I discovered all the lines drawn from prominent capes in Patagonia centre on a bay beneath Mount Adams, a mountain in the western Falklands. For months I was completely baffled. Then one sleepless night I wondered if that bay had some celestial significance – would Chinese star charts help?
The Wu Pei Chih, was the Chinese fleet’s sailing directions. It contains star charts – but they are not dated. Without dates, star charts are useless for the earth “wobbles” as well as changing its position on its ecliptic round the sun. Can we date the star charts?
Here we have a staggering piece of luck. One part of the star charts shows the position of Polaris on the voyage from Ceylon to north Sumatra. By chance, this course is due east on a latitude of 60 north. This means that Polaris today would be at 60 elevation. However, on Wu Pei Chih it is shown at 1 chih, i.e. 20 20’ above the horizon. This means Polaris’s position differs by 30 40’ from where it is today. Polaris shifts 10 every 175 years, so we can date the star chart as being made in 1430 plus or minus 20 years.
We are now home and dry, for Space.com Canada Inc. have produced a computer program called Starry Nights. This can be set up for any position on the globe and any day of the year for the past 2000 years. We can now set up Starry Night (thanks to Dr Robert Massey of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich ) for the Falklands at 620 west 520 south for late December 1421 when the Chinese should have arrived there. What do we find? – Canopus is at 900 elevation – right above us.
Canopus is a yellow-white super giant pumping out 1000 times the power of the sun – the brightest star in the southern hemisphere. Because it is so far south and its position is so near the Southern Cross, it can be used to determine latitude. To the Chinese, it had great significance, for it symbolised the Emperor’s position on earth – it is circumpolar below 680 south. Determining its elevation had long been a top priority, as the following account in the Chiu Thang Shu makes clear:
“[an expedition was sent to the] south east to observe Canopus (Lao Jen) at high altitudes and all the stars still further south [Southern Cross] which although large and brilliant and numerous had never in former times been named and charted. They were all observed to about 200 from the South Celestial Pole [viz 700 ]. This is the region where the astronomers of old considered was always hidden and invisible below the horizon.”
Not only had the Chinese achieved their aim but they had chosen a position 520 40’ south 620 west, 1800 west of Beijing – exactly half the world away. The significance will become apparent when we consider how the Chinese eliminated longitude error.
We can now go back to Starry Nights to see what else the Chinese would have observed when directly underneath Canopus. This shows the two leading stars of the Southern Cross – Crucis Alpha and Gamma – in line, pointing due south to the South Pole.
To get to the South Pole all they had to do was steer towards them, We have independent confirmation that this is precisely what they did from four sources
The first is five separate Chinese records which claim that they did indeed reach the South Pole. The second comes from Ludovico de Varthema’s account of the time: “In 1506 a young Italian nobleman, Ludovico de Vavethema, was told a strange tale. His companions, two Chinese Christians and an East Indian navigator, told him sailors from the [Chinese] side of Java had sailed by the Southern Cross to regions where it was very cold and the days were only four hours long.
The third confirmation is the Piri Reis itself which shows the cartographer in a ship trying to sail due south from the Straits of Magellan but being blocked by ice and having to edge round it until it reached the South Shetlands and Graham Land.
The fourth comes once again from the cartography of the South Shetlands on the Piri Reis. This shows the south western islands, in particular horseshoe-shaped Deception Island and the mountains of Livingston Island very accurately surveyed. The Chinese must have bathed in the hot lagoons of Deception Island, for a note on the Piri Reis says “here it is hot”: it is indeed, being volcanic – today’s cruise liners let their passengers bathe in the lagoon – in the Antarctic! From the precise cartography one can determine within a couple of miles where the junk anchored, 620 49’ N, 600 38 W. What does Starry Nights for January 1422 show in this position – Crucis Alpha, the leading star in the Southern Cross at 900 elevation! The Chinese may now determine the position of the South Pole, eliminate magnetic variation and determine latitude in the southern hemisphere. Further confirmation will come later.
A century later, Magellan used the Chinese information to pass through the straits which bear his name. The first European explorers found Asiatic hens in Patagonia – these cannot fly and are not found in the Americas but are unique to South East Asia. Similarly, the first Europeans to China found maize which is unique to the Americas and can only be propagated by man. Chinese records say Zheng He’s fleets brought back maize which they called “very large ears of grain”.
The Piri Reis shows ice in the Weddel Sea, sea leopards sprawled on it and the South Sandwich islands, so we can reasonably assume the Chinese reached there. Then what?
As ever, they must sail before the wind – here the roaring forties which hurtle them eastwards. Kerguelen at 520 40’ south (Canopus’s declination) appears on the Chinese Mao Kun map of 1423, so they must have reached here. From there, the wind and current would again drive them to the east, then northeast – almost certainly they would have hit the southwest coast of Australia which – indeed- is shown in the Jean Rotz chart drawn 200 years before Abel Tasman got there. Wrecks of huge mahogany ships are found on that coast – Europeans of that era did not build ships of mahogany.
So I say the Warnambool and Perth wrecks are treasure ships. This is corroborated by Aboriginal legends on the nearly coast which say yellow people settled amongst them. The Chinese therefore settled Australia before the Europeans did. They arrived in Australia having sailed from India to South America, as Nicolo da Conti claimed.
Shortly before Christmas last year my book was ready in draft. Thanks to help from the High Commissioners of Australia and New Zealand the Ambassadors of Portugal and Chile, it was sent to appropriate experts and museums and libraries across the world. Since then, evidence has poured in. We now have evidence of thousands of artefacts found in the wake of the Chinese fleet.
A synopsis will be handed to you. I shall be happy to answer any questions you may have.