January 16, 2003

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if 1492 really wasn't a date we needed to remember? By most accounts, that was the year of the discovery of America. History has taught us that Christopher Columbus discovered (stumbled across) America in 1492 as he was searching for a sea route to the lucrative trade markets of Asia.

While it may be too early simply to erase this date from our memory (it may be the final question on Who Want's to be a Millionaire) a recent book is offering some proof that our great nation may have been discovered more than 70 years earlier by Chinese explorers and treasure hunters. Author Gavin Menzies, a former British naval officer, has released a book entitled "1421: The Year China Discovered America". The book got it's start during the author's wedding anniversary celebration, a trip to China. His interest in the history of the country grew from there and during his beginning research he reportedly discovered charts and maps that depicted bits and pieces of North America nearly a century before Columbus had earned his place in history.

The following is an excerpt taken from the book's web page:

"…On the 8th of March, 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, huge junks nearly five hundred feet long and built from the finest teak, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was 'to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas' and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. The journey would last over two years and circle the globe.

When they returned Zhu Di lost control and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America seventy years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They had also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude three hundred years before the Europeans…"

I may be jumping the gun here and must insert the disclaimer that I have not read this book (yet - I ordered it as soon as I heard about it). The research is receiving mixed reviews, so please don't assume that because it was discussed in an editorial in the Memphis Democrat that it is a 100-percent proven fact. I'd hate to have the one and only Scotland County player to make it onto the trivia game show, lose because they answered the Double Jeopardy question by saying America was discovered in 1421 by the Chinese.

But I'm a history buff. I earned a history minor degree in college - which basically means I read a lot of books about the past. Then I realized I wasn't going to get rich by knowing a lot about the Roman Empire and the Wild West so I got a journalism degree. Now I've learned I'm not going to get rich writing for a little weekly newspaper. Anyway, when I started hearing about this book, it was easy for me to combine my two passions together and create this little piece. Besides all I'm saying is What if? I'll let you know what I really think after I read the book.

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