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1421 ~ THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED AMERICA by Gavin Menzies narrated by Simon Vance

How utterly fascinating it was to read about a long-forgotten Ming Emperor of China, who, in 1421, sent off a flotilla of 800? 900? huge ships, built of teak, their red square sails making them ride in front of the wind.

A Chinese junk (sailing ship) with its fully battened sails. Source iStock.

Their mission was to journey to the ends of the earth, to bring all the peoples of the earth together in One Glorious Confucian Harmony – and pay tribute to the Emperor of China.

Accordingly, these fleets of ships sailed to India, Africa, South America, Antartica, North America, Greenland, the Arctic Circle, Norway, and Siberia, before finally returning in around 1423. The only place they didn’t go was Europe, which was perhaps fortunate as they would most probably have faced torture and execution for not being Christian. (Think “Game of Thrones” to get an idea of what living in 1400s Europe was like.)

But life is full of ironies. Instead of being rewarded for their amazing feats, especially given that these square rigged ships could only ride IN FRONT OF the wind (NOT tack into in, as ships with triangular sails can do) they were met with a cold silence, their stupendous deeds obliterated by the powers-that-be who had overthrown the old emperor, and trampled his ambitions into dust.

Accordingly, author Gavin Menzies had to be extremely resourceful and persistent to find traces of these voyages, and piece together what must have happened using his skills as a Naval Submarine Commander to work out which way they must have traveled to all these various places.

This volume is full of amusing anecdotes. My favorite was about the Columbus brothers, Christopher (the explorer) and his younger brother Bartholomew (who was a cartographer.) Starting in the mid-15th century, around 20 or 30 years after the Chinese ships sailed the world, the Portuguese decided to find the shortest route to China, mainly because the Silk Road had been shut down due to political instability in the East. (The great city of Constantinople – now known as Istanbul – was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.) And so the Columbus brothers were employed by the government of Portugal to aid in this enterprise.

Portrait of a Man, said to be Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) painted by Sebastiano del Piombo in 1519, thirteen years after Columbus’ death. Source: Wikipedia.
Bartholomew Columbus (1461-1515), Christopher Columbus’ younger brother, the cartographer (map-maker.) His position at the Portuguese court made it easy for him to steal a Chinese map. This image is taken from “Narrative and critical history of America, Volume 2” by Justin Winsor. Source: Wikipedia.

I do not know what happened next, but there was some kind of falling out between the Columbus brothers and the King of Portugal. In any event, the brothers left in disgust for the Court of Spain, but not before Bartholomew Columbus stole a copy of one of the maps made by the Chinese during their voyages of 1421-1423. This map had come to Portugal almost certainly through Venice, probably from a merchant named Niccolò di Conti (not sure of spelling, as I experience this as an audiobook). The Portuguese, who had been doing their own explorations under Prince Henry the Navigator (1394-1460) realized immediately how important this map was, and kept it a secret from the rest of Europe, especially from the King and Queen of Spain (their natural competitors for the sea route to China.)

But somehow, Bartholomew Columbus managed to slip away to Spain with his brother AND the stolen map. By this time, both brothers were broke, and looking for an aristocratic patron. Their previous attempts to woo the monarchs of Spain to their cause had not been successful because Ferdinand and Isabella had been too busy driving both the Jews and the Moors out of Spain (an operation of Ethnic Cleansing usually referred to as the Reconquista.)

But now, it was 1492, Granada had just been subjugated, and the monarchs were now free to turn their attention elsewhere. And so Bartholomew Columbus decided to go in for a little forgery, to convince the Spanish monarchs that the shortest way to China from Portugal was to the West (rather than the East.) In order to do this, he drew an entirely fictitious piece of land which made it seem impossible to get to China via the Eastern route, and then the brothers subtracted 6,000 miles from the circumference of the earth (neatly getting rid of the Pacific Ocean.)

“The Return of Christopher Columbus” painted by Eugene Delacroix in 1839, shows Columbus standing on the steps leading up to the thrones of Spain, while Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon look on. Source: Wikipedia.

The Spanish monarchs, not knowing any better as they had no knowledge of the Chinese maps which the Portuguese kept as a closely guarded secret, agreed to the Columbus brothers’ fraudulent request and funded their voyage to China. And so Columbus sailed the Ocean Blue in Fourteen Hundred and Ninety-Two.

When he returned, he claimed he had been to India, thus giving Native Americans their unwanted name. But it turns out that Columbus must have known exactly what he was doing, because he was following the stolen map his brother had given him. For (according to his logs) when his sailors complained and threatened to mutiny due to their fear of sailing off into the complete unknown (and possibly falling off the side of the earth) Columbus told them that he knew the way, because he had seen it marked on a map.

Indeed he had, for the Chinese had been there before him. Five stars.

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