Magellan or Zheng He?

In our August 8 post we mentioned the international Circumnavigators Club. I didn’t mention Michael Palin will be recipient of the Club’s esteemed Magellan Award in April 2009.

Speaking of Magellan, someone just asked, “You’ve been on the seven seas often, how do you respond to the claims that Zheng He, the fourteen-century mariner from China, circumnavigated before Magellan?”

Well I am no expert on maritime history, and there is a lot of material out there on this subject, but according to Gavin Menzies’s book “1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered the World”, the answer is “yes”. Six years ago I wrote an article on this topic for the Circumnavigators Club LOG. Menzies is a retired submarine commander in the British navy. He says Zheng He circumnavigated the world in colossal “treasure ships”. His claims are controversial but the book is worth reading.

The Chinese used the brilliant star, Canopus, to chart their course in the year 1421. It’s also claimed the Mappa Mundi (which were possibly made by the Chinese mariners and chartmakers) were used by Magellan and other navigators.

So, were the Chinese first? Were they also in the Americas? Gavin Menzies says they were there before Columbus.

During my travels in South America in the 1960’s I met a Peruvian archaeologist in Cuzco, en route to Machu Picchu. He wondered how Chinese coins he’d discovered had found their way up in the Peruvian Andes. You know, those square ones with the hole in the middle.

On another topic, but staying with the theme of navigation, when I was a young boy, my grandfather told me this rarely heard story. It is about a meeting between Queen Isabella of Spain and Columbus, and took place at the Alhambra in Granada. We know Columbus appeared before the King and Queen of Spain to plead for financial backing for his expedition to the Indies.

Isabella asked Columbus how he could be so sure land and riches were awaiting Spain in faraway places?

In response Columbus presented her with an egg. He asked the Queen to try placing the egg on the table, without it rolling over. The Queen dutifully tried a few times but to no avail. The egg of course simply rolled over. Then Columbus took the egg, and with a simple but firm gesture, made it stand perfectly upright.

Isabella was astonished. “How is that possible?” exclaimed the Queen. “Simple, Your Majesty”, replied Columbus. “It’s a hard boiled egg!”

I just learned the intrepid Gavin Menzies has published a new book, again creating more controversy: “1434: The Year a Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance”. I’m going to get it from the library. After all, as Charlie Chan used to say, “Human mind like parachute, works best when open!”