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Descriptive Essay on China’s Exploration: Voyages of Naval Admiral Zheng He

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With the goal to establish that China was the first to discover and map the ‘New World,’ Gavin Menzies beings to “trace the voyages of [Admiral Zheng He’s] great [Chinese] treasure fleets in the ‘missing years’ from 1421 to 1423” in his book 1421.[footnoteRef:1] With the introduction of two “artifacts” of carved stone, which were erected in the Chinese cities of Chiang-us and Liu-Chia-Chang and carried inscriptions of the achievements of the Chinese naval admiral Zheng He, Menzies describes the origin of his speculation into Chinese discovery of the New World. Based on scholarly translations of these mentioned stones, there were claims that China had reached over three thousand countries spanning the world by late 1431.[footnoteRef:2] J.J.L. Duyvendak, a “great scholar of medieval China,” along with later scholars believed these claims were false and adopted an amendment that claimed China had discovered only thirty instead of three thousand countries.[footnoteRef:3] With a belief that this amendment lacked validity, Menzies began to search for evidence in support of the original translation. [1: Gavin Menzies, 1421 (London, England: Bantam Press, 2003), page 81.] [2: Ibid., p. 81-82] [3: Ibid., p. 82]

In order to find more information, Menzies turned to interpreting maps and charts that survived the Ming dynasty in conjunction with his knowledge of “winds, currents, and sea conditions” that he acquired through his time as a “young officer in the British Royal Navy aboard [the] HMS Newfoundland.”[footnoteRef:4] Menzies begins his secondhand account of the sixth voyage of Chinese naval fleets on their journey to “Calicut, the capital of Kerala in Southern India and by far the most important port in the Indian Ocean,” which was described and documented by the official historian Ma Huan who was aboard the fleet.[footnoteRef:5] Coincidentally, the Chinese treasure fleets and “a young Venetian [known as] Niccolo da Conti” both arrived in Calicut at the same time in 1421.[footnoteRef:6] Several years after placing both Conti and the Chinese treasure fleets in Calicut at the same time, Conti returned to Europe and told the story of his travels to the humanist Poggio Bracciolini as a request from Pope Eugenius when Conti sought absolution for renouncing Christianity.[footnoteRef:7] Based on da Conti’s presence in Calicut at the same time as the Chinese treasure fleets, a quote from a conversation between da Conti and his friend Castilian Pedro Tafur which accurately described the warships of the Chinese fleet, and evidence pointing to da Conti having met Ma Huan in Calicut, Menzies concludes that the Chinese fleet was indeed in Calicut in 1421.[footnoteRef:8] [4: Ibid., p. 82-83] [5: Ibid., p. 83] [6: Ibid., p. 85] [7: Ibid., p. 85] [8: Ibid., p. 85-86]

Menzies’s next step was to locate “a planisphere” drawn by a cartographer named Fra Mauro in 1459.[footnoteRef:9] Upon analyzing Fra Mauro’s map, Menzies came across a note from Mauro that described a ship which was coming from India and sailed past the Cape of Good Hope around 1420 alongside a picture of a Chinese junk.[footnoteRef:10] With this new discovery, Menzies began to question how Fra Mauro acquired this information. His answer came in the form of da Conti whom Menzies believed to have spoken to Fra Mauro after journeying aboard the Chinese treasure fleet and provided Mauro with the knowledge of the “exact shape and location of the southern tip of Africa.”[footnoteRef:11] [9: Ibid., p. 91] [10: Ibid., p. 91 ] [11: Ibid., p. 92-93]

With the knowledge that the Chinese fleet had rounded the Cape of Good Hope, Menzies turned to a “Chinese/Korean chart known colloquially as the Kangnido” and his knowledge of wind, ocean currents, and longitude calculations in order to determine the next destination of the fleet.[footnoteRef:12] Menzies was able to conclude that the southern coast and bulge of Africa depicted on the Kangnido could have only been charted by the Chinese fleet as they continued to sail north along the western coast of Africa and eventually arrived at the Cape Verde Islands. [12: Ibid., p. 96 ]

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Based on my assessment of Menzies’ arguments, I find it very unlikely that the Chinese fleet had reached the western coast of Africa due to Menzies’ unsubstantiated claims of the fleet’s speed and navigation techniques in order to establish a timeline of the sixth voyage, the assumption that the Chinese fleet was stocked with the very resources used to confirm their voyage, and circumstantial evidence supporting the role of Niccolo da Conti in transmitting geographical knowledge from China to European cartographers.

Throughout this chapter, Menzies refers to his personal “knowledge and skills [he] had acquired over many years experience as a navigator” in the British Royal Navy in order to support some of his claims.[footnoteRef:13] One such example is when Menzies states that the Chinese fleet must have travelled at an “average speed of 4.8 knots” despite providing concrete evidence to support this claim.[footnoteRef:14] This estimated average speed along with knowledge of water currents around the bulge of northern Africa allowed Menzies to correct the Kangnido map for longitude errors made by the Chinese fleet and create an image that strikingly resembled modern Africa. With Menzies’s claims being solely based upon his own knowledge of sea navigation, it is impossible to know with certainty that the Chinese fleet was traveling at the exact same speed and direction reported by Menzies. Most importantly, if the conditions of travel varied from those asserted by Menzies, then the timeline for the Chinese fleet’s voyage would fall apart entirely. [13: Ibid., p. 81-82] [14: Ibid., p. 99]

Another crucial part of Menzies’ argument revolves around a series of carved stones that were erected by the Chinese fleet to symbolize their discovery of a new location. Menzies states that the creation of these carved stones was possible because the fleet carried “interpreters fluent in seventeen different Indian and African languages” as well as people skilled in masonry.[footnoteRef:15] Menzies neglects to provide supporting evidence for these claims, and if the crew did not contain interpreters and masons then these carved stones provide no insight into the locations visited by the Chinese fleet. [15: Ibid., p. 102]

Niccolo da Conti plays a vital role in Menzies’ argument because he is described as the sole transportation method by which geographical knowledge acquired by the Chinese reached the West. Menzies utilizes a quote by a friend of Conti named Castilian Pedro Tafur which supposedly describes characteristics that could only be attributed to the Chinese ships, but there is never evidence that connects these ships to Calicut or the fleet of Admiral Zheng He. Along with this lack of connection between Tafur’s description of vessels and the Chinese treasure fleet, Menzies also takes for granted that Conti was in fact in Calicut when the fleet anchored in 1421. Menzies goes even further by claiming “that da Conti met Ma Huan in Calicut, for he described scenes almost identical to those Ma Huan recounted.”[footnoteRef:16] Based on these far-fetched presumptions, Menzies becomes convinced that Conti had actually boarded one of the Chinese vessels for their voyages and then gave all of his discoveries to Fra Mauro, aiding him in his creation of a planisphere in 1459. With only circumstantial evidence, it is equally likely that Conti never had interactions with a Chinese fleet in which case Menzies provides no explanation for how Chinese geographical knowledge was given to the West. [16: Ibid., p. 86]

Due to the unsubstantiated claims and circumstantial evidence provided by Menzies, I find it extremely unlikely that a Chinese fleet reached the western coast of Africa and would eventually explore and map the New World before European explorers.

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Descriptive Essay on China’s Exploration: Voyages of Naval Admiral Zheng He. (2022, September 27). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/descriptive-essay-on-chinas-exploration-voyages-of-naval-admiral-zheng-he/
“Descriptive Essay on China’s Exploration: Voyages of Naval Admiral Zheng He.” Edubirdie, 27 Sept. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/descriptive-essay-on-chinas-exploration-voyages-of-naval-admiral-zheng-he/
Descriptive Essay on China’s Exploration: Voyages of Naval Admiral Zheng He. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/descriptive-essay-on-chinas-exploration-voyages-of-naval-admiral-zheng-he/> [Accessed 1 Feb. 2023].
Descriptive Essay on China’s Exploration: Voyages of Naval Admiral Zheng He [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Sept 27 [cited 2023 Feb 1]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/descriptive-essay-on-chinas-exploration-voyages-of-naval-admiral-zheng-he/
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