Those Savage Waves | Zheng He & the Ming Treasure Fleet

We have traversed more than one hundred thousand li of immense waterscapes and have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set our 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 in their course as a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare.

— Fifteenth-century inscription at Changle, China, attributed to Zheng He —

“Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492.” This well-known rhyme is taught to most American children when they first read about the European voyages of discovery that brought Western culture to the New World. Names like Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de Leon, and Vasco da Gama are familiar to most Americans, for their journeys across the Atlantic paved the way for the European colonization of the New World and, subsequently, the founding of the United States of America. Since the 15th Century, historians have credited these men with discovering the continents of North and South America. But is this the truth?

In 2006, evidence surfaced in China that may revolutionize the historiography of Europe’s “Age of Discovery.” A map reproduction made in 1763 with an original date of 1415 showed the world as a globe and detailed the geography of every continent on Earth; it seemed to indicate that Chinese treasure expeditions dating to the Ming Dynasty may have sailed across the Pacific Ocean and explored the coastlines of both North and South America. A book by the British historian Gavin Menzies called 1421: The Year China Discovered America put forth the theory that a Chinese admiral named Zheng He had actually sailed around Cape Horn and reached the east coast of what is today the United States of America. The map, now in private hands, remains controversial but does seem to bolster the claims made by Mr. Menzies. Historians and anthropologists remain divided on the map’s authenticity, but there is strong evidence to suggest that Admiral Zheng may have reached the New World.

An Unlikely Admiral

Zheng He was born in 1371 in Yunnan in the Himalayan foothills to a Muslim family of Persian ancestry. His father served in the Mongol Empire’s government until Zheng was ten years old, when the Chinese invaded Yunnan and ousted the ruling Mongols. Zheng’s father was killed, and Zheng was castrated and made a servant of the fourth son of the Jianwen Emperor, Zhu Di. Zheng and his master grew close and spent a great deal of time together fighting the Mongols north of Beijing. In 1402, Zhu Di seized the Chinese throne and became the Yongle Emperor, and Zheng was made the director of palace servants (similar to a modern-day presidential chief of staff). When the Yongle Emperor ordered the construction of a fleet of 3,500 ships for his navy, Zheng was placed in command of the new fleet despite having no experience at sea.

From 1405 to 1433, the Ming Dynasty’s treasure fleets sailed seven voyages across the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some of these ships were massive by the standards of the day—Zheng He’s flagship was nearly four hundred feet long and 170 feet wide; they carried nine masts and a crew of five hundred sailors and soldiers. Historians initially scoffed at such records, deeming them wild exaggerations—after all, the best European vessels of the time (such as Christopher Columbus’ galleon Santa Maria measured only 85 feet in length). This changed in 1962, when a massive rudder was discovered in the mud of the Yangtzee River dockyards which was capable of steering a vessel at least six hundred feet long; it was dated to the early 15th Century, the time of the Ming treasure fleet’s expeditions.

Admiral Zheng’s ships brought treasures from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East back to Beijing and made the Yongle Emperor rich beyond his wildest dreams. The first voyage in 1405 took the fleet south through the Malacca Straits into the Indian Ocean, and they rounded India’s southern tip before returning home the following year. The voyages continued every few years until the Yongle Emperor’s death in 1424. The new ruler, the Hongxi Emperor’ continued to fund Zheng’s voyages for a further six years, and in all the admiral led seven treasure expeditions to lands far beyond the borders of China. The Chinese did not plant colonies in the lands they reached like the European explorers, and while their missions were peaceful they were prepared to use force to protect themselves. On several occasions, Zheng He’s ships engaged pirates in battle and were victorious in each encounter.

In 1430, the Hongxi Emperor ordered the treasure expeditions put to an end, largely due to their cost, and the seventh voyage would be the last. When the fleet returned home, the emperor ordered the ships to be demolished, as well as the dockyards where they had been constructed. According to official Chinese sources, Zheng He died in 1433 near the end of his last voyage and was buried at sea. Zheng He was honored by his people and in other countries across southern Asia. His tomb in Nanking lies empty, a monument to this great but controversial man.

Did Zheng He Discover the New World?

Zheng He’s voyages as far as the Red Sea and the Cape of Good Hope are part of the historical record, but Gavin Menzies and other historians believe that the Ming treasure fleets also reached the New World (perhaps even as far as the east coast of the United States and Canada). The man who discovered the map referenced at the beginning of this podcast detailed his findings in a letter to Mr. Menzies and addressed some criticisms of its authenticity by Sinologists and cultural anthropologists. Most academic historians reject Mr. Menzies’ assertion and insist that Zheng He never reached the New World. (One British expert on the Age of Discovery referred to Menzies as “either a charlatan or a cretin.”) In 2008, six years after his first book was published and the controversy began, Menzies published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, doubling down on his beliefs in Chinese superiority to the Europeans. As the book’s title indicates, Mr. Menzies believes that a Chinese delegation arrived in Italy in 1434 with knowledge of the wider world, and that this information led to the European Renaissance that ended the medieval Dark Ages.

Again, professional historians denounced these claims as pseudohistory, but Menzies continues to defend his work. Without taking sides in this historiographical debate, let us briefly examine the evidence presented by both parties. Citing the letter previously referenced about the 1763 map, Mr. Menzies redefines a number of Chinese terms used to describe geographical features. For example, the terms “Western Oceans” and “Eastern Oceans,” which originated during the Song Dynasty of 960-1127 AD, referred to the Indian and Pacific oceans, respectively. However, by examining the descriptions of both geography and peoples encountered by Zheng He during his voyages, Menzies and others believe that the descriptive terms “Western” and “Eastern” were inconsistently applied to various bodies of water. At different points in Chinese history, both the Indian Ocean (which lies to the west of China) and the North Atlantic Ocean (which lies to the east of China) are called “Western Seas.” Zheng He’s own recorded notes during his voyage also refer to the Pacific as a “Western Sea.” Accounts of the voyages also reference the discovery of a race whose skin was “black-red, and the feathers are wrapped around their heads and waists,” (perhaps describing Native Americans), and they speak of cities “built with huge stones” and whose inhabitants practice human sacrifice (possibly a reference to the Inca Empire of Peru). These are just a few of the many pieces of evidence Menzies points at to boost his theory that Zheng He discovered the New World.

The most academic (and objective) criticism of Gavin Menzies comes from the historian Robert Finlay, Professor of History at the University of Arkansas, in an article published in the Journal of World History entitled “How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America.” Dr. Finlay’s argument against Mr. Menzies is that the book 1421 fails to provide any proof that, first, the voyages to the New World ever took place and, second, that the Yongle Emperor had a “grand plan” to create a worldwide Chinese empire.

These are accurate criticisms, as Menzies simply asserts that the evidence he has found is merely a reinterpretation of traditionally-accepted views rather than new evidence being brought to light through rigorous academic study. Findlay further insists that Menzies’ setting up a website where his followers can send him more evidence they find points to the fact that the British historian’s “reckless manner of dealing with evidence” proved he was making it all up “without a shred of proof.”

Whether or not Admiral Zheng He actually reached the New World is probably not a question which can ever be answered definitively for either side. Like most historical debates, one must examine the weight of evidence and then draw their own conclusions. But before we close out this discussion, let us briefly look at what might have happened had Zheng He’s voyage actually led to the founding of Chinese colonies in the New World, or even sustained cultural contact and exchange with its peoples.

A Chinese North America

If, as Gavin Menzies claims, Zheng He had reached the New World in 1421, he would have done so 71 years earlier than Christopher Columbus. This head start would have led to a transformation of the North American cultural and political landscape by the time of the Italian explorer’s voyage and the beginnings of Spanish imperialism in Latin America. If Chinese colonies had been established, it is possible that Columbus would have believed (incorrectly) that he had indeed reached the lands of the “Great Khan,” which was his original goal. If the Chinese had merely engaged in cultural and technological exchanges with the Native Americans —as they did with the peoples of India, Arabia, and the east coast of Africa—the natives might have been better prepared to repel the Spanish invasions of conquistadores like Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortez. Moving forward in time, the English settlers at Roanoke, Jamestown and Plymouth might have dealt with a mature Chinese civilization on the east coast of the United States rather than the fragmented tribal societies of the Native Americans.

Colonization and expansion would have been far more difficult, and it is certainly plausible to conclude that the culture of early America would have been a blend of Chinese and Native American, rather than European and native. Drifting more deeply into a “what-if” scenario, consider what might have happened had the Europeans tried to force their way onto the continents of North and South America, where the Chinese had established either cultural or political foundations. The Europeans would have still brought their modern firepower and diseases, but China had discovered gunpowder centuries earlier. Might this have led to a realization in Beijing that this blend of saltpeter and sulphur was more useful as a weapon than for fireworks? Is it possible that China would have begun to evolve along a path similar to that of the Europeans had their culture clashed with the West in the New World? If that had been the case, the history of the 19th Century would have been wildly different. History records that when the Europeans began their imperial conquests of the East after the Napoleonic Wars, their opponents lacked even the most basic weaponry to fight them off. Had there been prolonged cultural contact between the lands of Europe and East Asia, it is possible that China and its neighbors like Japan and India might have risen in might alongside the European imperial powers of Great Britain and France. This would totally rewrite the entire history of the last two centuries, and even the best historians likely could not predict where our world would be today.

Of course, counterfactual history is just that—contrary to facts. It is an amusing exercise for students of history, but it is hardly an academic pursuit. Nevertheless, it is interesting to consider how the course of human history would have shifted had just a single event been changed. Popular and academic historians have often questioned what might have happened had Adolf Hitler been assassinated, or if the Confederacy had won the American Civil War.

Entire books have been written on these counterfactual subjects, and they are often both insightful and interesting reads. In the world of academic history, “what-if” scenarios are usually derided as useless wastes of time, but they do provide some insight into the events of the past, and especially the importance of the men and women who shape these events.

The story of Zheng He is one of great trials and triumphs, a man who rose from humble beginnings to serve his emperor and his people. His exploits are not well-known outside China and the circles of academic historians. Nevertheless, his story is a fascinating one, and had his voyage taken place (which is questionable) and his people followed up on his discoveries (which they did not), the history of the United States of America and the world would have shifted dramatically and, perhaps, permanently.