Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Who discovered America?

A map supporting claims that the Chinese admiral Zheng He reached the New World in the early 15th century is obviously a hoax

By Simon Jenkins  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

We all know that a lie goes halfway round the world while truth is putting on its boots. But what if the lie goes the whole way? What if it claims to circumnavigate the globe?

Purported evidence that the Chinese admiral Zheng He (鄭和) sailed his great fleet of junks round the world a century before Columbus, Da Gama and Magellan came out the other week. An 18th-century copy of a map dated 1418 has emerged from a Shanghai bookshop, depicting North and South America, Australia and Antarctica. The map was bought by a Chinese lawyer, Liu Gang (劉鋼), and was reportedly to go on display tomorrow in London's Maritime Museum. (The museum denies all knowledge of it.)

The map challenges the customary Euro-centric version of global discovery and can thus rely on a weight of political correctness in support. It appears to stake China's claim to have "discovered" America first.

This comes as a surprise to those of us who know for a fact that America was discovered by Prince Madoc ab Owain Gwynedd in 1170. He landed at Mobile, Alabama, on the orders of the family druid and asserted Wales' claim to King Arthur's North Atlantic empire. Making his way across country, he settled west of the Mississippi, where the Mandan tribe were encountered in the 18th century, fair skinned and speaking a dialect of Welsh.

Unfortunately, Madoc's arrival had been forestalled by St Brendan in the seventh century. He sailed to America in a leather-bound coracle, as Tim Severin proved in 1977. The survivors of this trip remain pickled in a downtown Boston saloon to this day.

Brendan and Madoc were followed by a Scottish knight templar, Henry Sinclair, seeking refuge from the suppression of his order in 1398. He and his freemasons escaped with assorted treasures and holy grails to settle in Nova Scotia with the Micmac Indians (clearly a tribe of Hiberno-Scots ancestry). Sinclair's masonic star, or "la merika," duly gave its name to the continent and merits a Da Vinci saga all of its own.

The only blot on this glory is that everyone knows America got its name from Glamorgan's Richard ap Meurig (Amerik), a wealthy sponsor of John Cabot's search for the north-west passage in the 1490s.

It is amazing that all these chaps never bumped into each other. Sailors tend to chat, and nothing obsesses them so much as maps.

Zheng's giant ships -- some 122m long, five times the size of Columbus' -- would surely have left a chopstick or two in Manhattan.

They would have left more than a kung fu parlor in downtown LA. As for Zheng He's dubious British cheerleader, the author Gavin Menzies, how can he explain a detailed Chinese map of America appearing three years before his hero discovered the place, as he claims, in 1421?

The Chinese map is plainly a hoax. It not only shows North and South America as massive continents, which no sailor could possibly have known. It accurately depicts Alaska, the curve of central America and the Yucatan peninsula, not to mention the Mississippi and St Lawrence rivers. It shows Australia and the land mass of Antarctica beneath it, and New Zealand as two islands.

Even normally chauvinistic Chinese scholars have rubbished the find. They pointed out last week that the cartographic portrayal of the Earth as two circles on a flat sheet is European. The most obvious "mistake," showing California as an island, is clearly borrowed from mistakes made in 17th-century European maps.

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