Zheng HeBy: Siu-Leung Lee, PhD March 16, 2002
[The following information on Zheng He was a research I did using the official history of Ming dynasty, written in Qing dynasty. Some of the figures were corrected for the measurement standard used in Ming dynasty. The dating was also corrected. The flagship was actually bigger than reported in other sources. In each trip, there were actually not one flagship but at least 62! The whole fleet was more than 300 ships and more than 28,000 people.]
The British submarine engineer and historian Gavin Menzies gave an astounding seminar on March 15, 2002 to the Royal Geographical Society in London, with evidence to support his theory that Zheng He, the Chinese navigator in Ming dynasty, beat Columbus by more than 70 years in discovering America.
Using evidence from maps drawn dated before Columbus' trip that clearly showed America, and astronomical maps traced back to Zheng He's time, Menzies is confident that the Zheng He should be honored as the first discoverer of America.
I have translated directly from the official Ming History some of the background information to share with the readers. Some of the dates and dimensions of the ships reported by other sources are slightly different.
Zheng He (1371-1435 AD), an eunuch in Ming dynasty, built a total of 1622 ships and made at least 7 major excursions between 1405 AD and 1430 AD, reaching Somalia and probably Europe (France, Holland and Portugal). In each trip, he led a troop of 27,800 people on more than 300 ships. In each trip, 62 major ships of this fleet were employed, each about 475 ft long and 193 ft wide, holding 1000 people per ship, dwarfing Columbus' Santa Maria (75 ft x 25 ft) more than 6-fold.
The countries and territories covered and recorded in the official Ming history includes Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, Philippines, Ceylon, Bangladesh, India, Yemen, Arabia, Somalia, Mogadishu. As a clear demonstration of his travel to Africa, among the souvenirs he brought back to China were the giraffes and lions, indigenous animals of Africa.
The official history also mentioned "Franca" (which was the territory to describe today's France and Portugal) and Holland. The Hollanders were described as tall people with red hair and beard, long nose, and deep eye sockets. If he did meet with the Europeans in their native countries, then the only way would be to navigate around the Cape of Good Hope before the Suez Canal was a throughway.
Menzies indicates that he has found sunken ships of Zheng He's fleet in the Carribeans, but he refuses to disclose the location until he publishes his book.
Unfortunately, Zheng He's magnificent accomplishment was later targeted by other courtiers as wasteful. Most of his records were destroyed and building of ships with more than 3 masts were considered crimes punishable by death. So, a large part of his excursion (which might include the America part) has no reports.
In Africa near Kenya today, there are tribes that are clearly Asian-looking. They also consider themselves as the descendants of Zheng He's crew.
References :News about Gavin Menzies's presentation at the Royal Geographical Society (March 15, 2002):
http://abc.net.au/news/newsitems/s506044.htm (ABC's report)
Background on Zheng He:
Official Ming History - 6 volumes 4128pp plus 317pp index. (in Chinese)
This is the authoritative 25 Histories of China compiled by the imperial courtiers.