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Chinese Columbus

Christopher Columbus was merely a latecomer. The descendants of the Vikings have known this for quite some time. But now the entire world is about to learn much more about the Chinese Columbus. Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim eunuch, served under several powerful Chinese emperors. Undoubtedly China's greatest maritime explorer, he has been almost unknown in the West.

That, too, is about to change.

At a March meeting of the Royal Geographic Society, a quiet, unassuming retired British naval officer and historian named Gavin Menzies presented stunning evidence that Zheng and his Chinese fleet not only discovered America 72 years before Columbus, but also circumnavigated the world much earlier than Portugal's Ferdinand Magellan.

Menzies' book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World draws on 14 years of research in more than 100 countries Zheng appears to have visited. Menzies uses maps from pre-Columban times and astronomical maps dating from Zheng's era to build his case. An expanded American edition will be published in January.

A stone inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse at Chiang-su and Liu Shia-Chang -- dated 1431 -- says: "We, Zheng He and his companions, at the beginning of Zhu Di's reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have...reached countries of the Western Regions, more than three thousand countries in all. We have...beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapours, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves."

The whole fleet for Zheng's expedition to the Western lands consisted of more than 300 ships manned by over 28,000 people. In the seven major expeditions Admiral Zheng made over three decades, he built a total of 1,622 ships. Each of the 62 flag ships of the expeditionary fleet were roughly 475 feet long and 193 feet wide, holding a crew of 1,000. Columbus' flagship Santa Maria was 75 feet by 25 feet.

The Official Ming History (6 volumes 4,128 pages and a 317-page index) mentions visits to Java, Sumatra, Vietnam, Siam, Cambodia, the Philippines, Ceylon (where the Chinese made an apparent "regime change"), Yemen, India, Bangladesh, Arabia, Somalia, and mention of "Franca" -- the Chinese name for France and Portugal -- and Holland.

1421: The Year China Discovered the World was published to extraordinary interest. Television rights for a planned documentary of Commander Menzies' expedition to retrace Zheng's voyages went for an estimated 3 million pounds. Menzies received a hero's welcome in Nanjing, where he was the guest of the general secretary of the Communist Party at a conference of 69 Chinese academics.

According to Commander Menzies' research, Admiral Zheng's fleet split up into several groups and various ships went to Arabia, the Cape of Good Hope, the Carribbean, South America, the South Pacific, Australia and the west coast of North America.

Menzies has backing to build a replica of Zheng's flagship junk. He will return to China in December to lay out his plan to drain the great docks at Nanjing -- departure point for the immense fleet of 450-foot teak-and-mahogany junks which set sail in 1421 to encounter the world. Once the junk is built, Menzies plans to leave from those docks on a global voyage in Zheng's historic wake. The crew will live and eat the in the fashion of the admiral's sailors, and plans to return to China before the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

China in 1421 was the most refined, most splendid and most scientifically advanced civilization in the entire world. But following those extraordinary voyages, the heir to Zheng's imperial masters turned his back on the sea and suspended Chinese naval expeditions abroad. China then turned inward with disastrous results for herself and the world.

The heart-broken Zheng was appointed garrison commander in Nanjing, and given the sad task of disbanding his sailors and soldiers. His high stature earned the old Muslim commander one last expedition in the winter of 1431. He visited Mecca and once again travelled to the states of Southeast Asia, India, the Persian Gulf, East Africa and the Red Sea. But he returned to die in relative obscurity.

Menzies' book is a corking good read and should delight all professional and armchair sailors and sea historians with exciting narratives of places Menzies has travelled in the sea paths of the great Chinese admiral. His many maps, both modern and ancient, are equally wonderful.

And here are his last words for an ancient hero:

"Zheng He's tomb on Bull's Head Hill in the west of Jiangsu province is... neglected, weed-choked and covered in grafitti, and his museum has been closed for lack of interest. These great men must have their reward in heaven."