The Snake gets out his spade

Did a 15th century Chinese sailor really map the world? What will archeologists make of the Volvo Ocean Race in 700 years time?

Wednesday February 1st 2006, Author: The Snake, Location: United Kingdom
Two weeks ago, at a press conference in Beijing, a previously unknown map of the world, dated 1763, was revealed publicly for the first time. The map - it is claimed - is a direct copy of an earlier document from 1418 and supports the notion of Chinese sailors discovering America 72 years before Columbus and circumnavigating the globe over a century earlier than Magellan’s expedition. Response to this extraordinary claim has been divided: serious historians have dismissed both the map and the ‘evidence’ of Chinese exploration as poorly researched and unconvincing pseudo-science. Likewise, the international press have been thoroughly underwhelmed by the ‘smoke and mirrors’ surrounding this map. However, members of the public who habitually believe the Ark of the Covenant lies beneath the White House lawn or that Elvis and Big Foot frequently sip skinny latte at their local Starbucks, will continue to suspend disbelief for the sake of a titillating yarn and gorge themselves on this risible hoax.

Two characters occupy a central place in this fantasy: the talented Chinese admiral, Zheng He (1371-1433), and a retired Royal Navy submarine commander, Gavin Menzies (1937-). Zheng He’s existance is not in doubt: nor are his 15th century voyages with a fleet of massive junks sailing from China, across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa, the Persian Gulf and the South Asia Seas collecting treasures and curiosities for his sponsor, the Ming Emperor, Zhu Di. These adventures are perhaps doubly remarkable for a man who underwent castration before entering imperial service.

Sadly, though, the brave admiral’s reputation became severely compromised in 2004 with the publication of 1421:The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies’. The book bestows the eunuch admiral with the original - relatively accurate - mapping of the entire globe, the discovery of North and South America, Greenland, Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand and the world’s first circumnavigation. A tantalising idea, but a voyage that is unsupported by any existing records in China. How could contemporary evidence of such momentous events be entirely lost in a little under six centuries?

This mystery and the erroneous ‘evidence’ in Menzies’ book are easily debunked, but the affair does raise one question pertinent to readers of TheDailySail: Could anyone in the 27th century be persuaded that a fully crewed, round-the-world race with stopovers - the current Volvo Ocean Race (VOR), for example - actually existed and successfully completed a circumnavigation? Commentators in the yachting press and on many sailing websites seem intent upon burying the VOR, removing the event from modern records and effectively scrubbing the race from history. The criticism is seldom constructive and focuses on the event’s alleged lack of safety, its planning, financing, the potential endangerment of crews, etc., etc., with a dose of gleeful Farr-bashing thrown in. Many of these eloquent sceptics are clearly well endowed with opinions, but short on personally logged, offshore racing miles: hardly a hanging offence, but, nonetheless, a significant deficiency. A fundamental grasp of the many motives and incentives - emotional and/or financial - that send volunteer-sailors offshore in unstable boats is beyond the intellectual orbit of most mortal mariners. The deep-ocean blend of terror, ecstasy, endurance, team work, fierce self-reliance, furtive self-abuse, mind numbing monotony, toxic feet and a permanently damp backside is unique and intoxicating…..and that’s just the stop-overs. A further, exceedingly dull debate surrounding the VOR that causes manifest confusion and guesswork regards corporate commitment to yachting and that mysterious beast, ‘sponsor fulfilment’: twin conundrums that will not be addressed in this column. Those who are busy preparing a grave for the race should be aware that the VOR is far greater than the sum of all its parts and will survive this invective as it has done countless times before.

Should a cataclysmic meteor-strike, nuclear holocaust or natural catastrophe within the next 600 years destroy the world’s written and cyber-records, it is certain that evidence of the 2005-06 VOR will exist for future generations. Accordingly, a few untrustworthy examples and theories follow. First, though, it is vital to confront the Menzies issue. Academic brainiacs have been swift to rubbish the ‘science’ presented in Menzies’ book and the new map is treated with a similar disdain. Rather than providing a long list of the work’s inconstancies, its insane speculation and the pure bunkum on offer within the pages, a few hand-picked examples will assist readers of TheDailySail should they choose to debate this topic:

There is copious evidence of a Chinese expedition to North America in the ‘Word According To Menzies’. Exhibit #1 is Rhode Island’s, Newport Tower: a structure that is clearly of Chinese origin as it looks a bit like the type of lighthouse built in China a long time ago…um….er….sort of. Problems with this hypothesis arise when the controversial that the tower had Viking origins caused an intensive archaeological survey during the 1950s. It was found that debris beneath the foundations of the tower (pottery, nails, clay tobacco pipes, buttons and, possibly, the occasional Pilgrim wino) could be dated to the English settlement of Newport in 1639. To confirm this time-scale, radiocarbon dating of the tower’s lime and mortar bonding placed construction in 1665.

North American Exhibit #2 concerns the doughnut-shaped, stone anchors discovered off the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Southern California. Chinese sailors have used this type of anchor since the first junk was launched, so, naturally, this confirms Zheng He’s arrival on the West Coast. Or does it? Between 1973-75, around 20 of these anchors were located and geological investigation soon proved they were made from local stone. Coupled with the knowledge that 19th century, Chinese fishermen worked the Californian coast in traditional junks, utilising their doughnut anchors as net weights and moorings, further diminishes the Menzies fable. It is also curious that armed with supposed knowledge of the area, the Chinese map of 1418 depicts California as an island: a common mistake among 17th century mapmakers.

Exhibit #3 for North America involves the DNA testing of Native Americans. It appears that Chinese sailors from Zheng He’s voyage created a favourable impression upon the country’s custodians…..200 years before the American Indian princess, Pocahontas, fell for an English scumbag. Disappointingly, there is no evidence of any DNA tests to support Menzies’ claim.

The twaddle within 1421:The Year China Discovered America continues in an unstoppable, flood. Linguistic links between Peru, Greenland and China are proposed as supporting evidence for direct, Chinese contact in the 15th century. Two absurd examples illustrate this insanity:

From Peru: Inca = Yin Ka (people who live in ‘Yin’, meaning China)

From Greenland: Inuit = Yin Uit (people originating from ‘Yin’, meaning China)

Both of these interpretations work on an instantaneous, sub-human level, but the reality is less rewarding. Language scholars have pointed out that Menzies (who is unable to read Chinese) has overlooked that absence of the word ‘Yin’ in any modern, or ancient, Chinese dialect. Furthermore, the roots of the second part of the two phrases - ‘ka’ and ‘uit’ - merit no explanation from the venerable author.

The nonsense continues with spurious claims of textual carvings in the Cape Verde Islands and alleged evidence of 15th century, junk relics in New Zealand (verified by unnamed, local experts). It is obvious, then, that Menzies can join the list of successful, very rich, purveyors of pseudoscience: Erich von Däniken (aliens building Stonehenge, erecting statues on Easter Island, landing their spaceships on the Nazca Lines in Peru and possibly constructing the larger Wal Mart retail outlets in their spare time), L Ron Hubbard (the atrocious Dianetics philosophy and pay-as-you-go Church of Scientology) and Barry Manilow (“Ber-muda Tri-an-gle”). Impressed by these inspirational, modern seers, The Snake has vowed to follow the path of pseudoscience and its potential VOR applications:

Post apocalyptic archaeologists digging around Melbourne in the 27th century will discover irrefutable proof of the 2005-06 VOR. Excavation of 21st century soil pits in the city’s waterfront area will reveal an assortment of curious VOR artefacts: discarded titanium rams nestling amongst long, cylindrical cardboard tubes that are presumed to have once been wrapped with rolls of some ancient, lightweight, boat building material. Erudite scientists at the dig will scratch their heads and boggle at the huge deposits of lead filings bearing flecks of fluorescent orange paint scattered throughout the pit and may eventually conclude that they are waste material from a vessel’s appendage. Their linguistically gifted colleagues will work themselves into a frenzy of excitement upon discovering timeworn scrolls covered in a cryptic, complex and long-dead language known as ‘Press Release’. After years spent deciphering this script, scholars will continue to dispute the true nature and purpose of the VOR for many generations. Meanwhile, slightly further inland, a grave site is unearthed containing the perfectly preserved bodies of hydraulic engineers, boat designers and PR drones, all mummified in epoxy cocoons: an extraordinary revelation confirming the continuation of ritual sacrifice into the second millennium.

Thousands of miles to the east, Brazilian DNA specialists stumble across a lost tribe in the Amazonian rain forest. Bewildered by some baffling, tribal behaviour patterns (notably, rowing their canoes at each other very fast while yelling something that sounds not entirely unlike “STARBOARD!”), the scientific team take hair and saliva samples for analysis. Then (you guessed it) genetic material found in the Melbourne soil pit provides an identical DNA match to the simple, carefree, boat-obsessed, tribesmen of the Amazon. In a matter of months, a best selling novel and film are released featuring the heart-wrenching tale of a lonely VOR sailor seeking comfort and solace from the raging ocean in the arms of an innocent, dusky….yattah, yattah, yattah, blah, blah, etc., etc.

Finally, the most enduring verbal and written traditions often spring from folklore and myth: stories that are often configured as a warning, a mystery, a moral tale and - in some cases - form the basis of a religion. Whether the ‘Big Three’ faiths will endure to the 27th century is conjecture, but there is a chance that fresh theology will unfold. Could the legends and archaeological testimony of the VOR provide a tempting, righteous alternative? Relics sprinkled all over the globe; remote pockets of humanity with a shared genetic code practising identical, bizarre rituals; a fearless, floating priesthood roaming the planet…….it all sounds vaguely familiar and horribly plausible. All hail the titanium ram!

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