Did Chinese Mariners Land on Australian Shores Before Europeans?


Gavin Menzies, the former British submariner, and author of 1421: The Year That China Discovered The World1 is visiting Warrnambool (located in the Australian state of Victoria) in September this year [2005] to test his startling theory against a resolution of the mystery of the Mahogany Ship.

A fascinating contest between maritime mystery theories is now being proposed.

Since he published, Menzies has maintained a website (www.1421.tv) to present evidence he believes confirms his thesis that China discovered and mapped parts of the world long before the Europeans. Worldwide, about 13,000 contributors have assisted him so far.

So what are the prospects that Warrnambool’s Mahogany Ship will turn out to be the remains of a Chinese junk? Is it an artefact of a stupendous effort by an early Chinese Ming dynasty government to map the world under the leadership of the mighty eunuch Admiral Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho, 1371-1435)?

During 2004, two sets of wood samples possibly from the Warrnambool wreck were sent for examination to China, where interest rises in Zheng He’s career. Test results are not yet known.

If these test samples are from the wreck, four possibilities arise:

1. The wreck was a lighter of odd construction, about 50-100 tons; built for sealing/whaling work;

2. She was of origins yet unguessed (but not a vessel used by escaping convicts);

3. A lost Portuguese caravel, one of Cristovao de Mendonca’s ships of 1521-1522, as suggested by the Australian writer, Gordon McIntyre, in his book The Secret Discovery of Australia: Portuguese Ventures 200 Years Before Captain Cook (1977);

4. A large Chinese junk, as suggested by Menzies.

Though often searched for, the Mahogany Ship remains a reclusive wreck. It remained unseen for the entire 20th century! The issues will be re-explored by a Mahogany Ship Committee Symposium to be held at Warrnambool Entertainment Centre on 24-25 September this year, with Menzies attending.2

Menzies’s website carries news that a film based on 1421 is soon to be produced. Will Australian waters be shown? Menzies in 1421 is adamant that Chinese shipping made multiple landfalls at Australian locations, long before Europeans.

What happens for Australians when we backdate a mystery that is both Local-In-Its-Own-Right, and part of a controversy now raging worldwide? If we let it, the controversy fuelled by the 1421 website could rage Australia-wide. But it isn’t just Australia, it’s Australasia. New Zealand researchers are remaining defensive and sceptical of Menzies’ claims, partly as he challenges their views on the origins and traditions of the Maoris.

After considerable publicity on these claimed ancient connections between China and Australia, fascinating new perspectives unfold for world mapping history.

Menzies’ 1421 website cites the following Australian locations for claimed Chinese influence (given here in no particular order and not all included):

Visits to the south-western, eastern and northern coasts. To around Warrnambool (a wrecked junk). To the Perth area, about Darwin. Any DNA evidence provided by Aboriginal people from Darwin and Fraser Island, Broome, the Perth area, the Gunditjmara Aboriginals of Southern Victoria/South Australia will prove fascinating. There are claims that maps have been drawn depicting Australian river systems (e.g., the 1474 Map of Toscanelli), derived from Chinese information.

The Chinese mounted observation platforms west of the Blue Mountains, and at Penrith, Gympie, Atherton and along the northern coasts. Erected a stone building at Tin Can Bay, Gympie. The brumby horses of Fraser Island possibly originated in Tajikistan?

Other notes have been made of Chinese pheasants on Rottnest Island, WA. King Island (a wrecked junk). Tasmania’s Storm Bay. Byron Bay (remains of a 40-foot-high Chinese rudder?) An artefact at Wollongong dated about 1410 CE. Along the South Australian coast. The Far West of Central Queensland. Arnhem Land. Lady Elliot Island at the southern end of the Great Barrier Reef. Trepang Bay. Palmer River area (goldfields). Menzies asks: are Australia’s feral pigs of Chinese origin?

By now some 8,000+ reviews of Menzies’ book have appeared. The best précis is still the arresting publisher’s blurb to the paperback edition.

On 8 March 1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China. The ships, some nearly five hundred feet long, were under the command of Emperor Zhu Di’s loyal eunuch admirals. Their orders were ‘to proceed all the way to the end of the earth’. The voyage would last for two years and by the time the fleet returned, China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. And so the great ships were left to rot, and the records of their journey destroyed.

And with them, the knowledge that the Chinese had circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan, reached America seventy years before Columbus, and Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook.

The result of fifteen years research, 1421 is Gavin Menzies’ enthralling account of this remarkable journey, of his discoveries and the persuasive evidence to support them: ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy, surviving accounts of Chinese explorers and later European navigators as well as the traces the fleet left behind.

Revised and updated with new material – including evidence of an entire Chinese fleet wrecked on New Zealand’s South Island – for this paperback edition, 1421 is a brilliant, epoch-making work of historical detection that radically alters our understanding of world exploration and rewrites history itself.

Updates arose for Menzies’ claims in 2004, some lodged on his website. As to mention of “an entire Chinese fleet wrecked on New Zealand’s South Island”, possibly by a tsunami after a comet strike (October 1422), it is so far apparent that New Zealand researchers remain unconvinced by Menzies’ treatment.

When the Chinese premier Hu Jintao spoke to the Australian Parliament on 24 October 2003, he alluded to age-old contacts between China and Australia, coming surprisingly close to dignifying Menzies’ views on Admiral Zheng He’s career. An indication of China’s rising interest in Zheng He.

But there is a downside to the 1421 story. Menzies notes that when the surviving ships of the 1421 fleet returned home having exercised curiosities as they had, a regime change meant the information gathered was suppressed, even destroyed, in the interests of Imperial reclusiveness.

If so, then the Confucian officials responsible, motivated by ideology, can be blamed for one of the single greatest acts of intellectual vandalism in world history, best comparable perhaps to the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. But the truth of any such destruction is also not yet fully established.

There is also, says Menzies, the matter of the 1421-1423 fleet being of 107 ships, though only a handful returned home. There is no way to assess the success of Chinese efforts to preserve, collate and interpret newly-gathered information.

If the Warrnambool relic was manned by sailors of the great Chinese fleets of 1421-1423, then they evidently solved millennia-old problems of world navigation and mapping – how to derive both latitude and longitude – and a fascinating Antarctic-Australian scenario unfolds…

Stunning New Chinese Theory

Menzies’ reasons for seeing the Chinese as interested in both the North and South Poles on the same great expedition has much to do with a stupendous, dazzling idea, at the astronomical heart of 1421.

If Menzies is correct, the great Chinese fleets of 1421-1423 were to verify new hypotheses about astronomy and geography. If so, a scintillating set of ideas had begun to fascinate the top levels of Imperial Chinese society, the Heavenly Throne itself.

The heavens are stable, the world is round beneath them, and the world’s circumference is known. The Chinese mariners spoke thus (as it were): We know that Polaris, the Pole Star, the Chinese Celestial Pole, fixes the locality of the North Pole, which our lodestone-compasses point to. Our astronomers can predict both lunar and solar eclipses and draw interesting conclusions.

We (the Chinese mariners) also know from our methods of measuring time how roughly to fix latitude. But we do not know longitude. However, if the world is round, the South Pole should be symmetrically opposite the North Pole. If we can find a useful set of both geographic and astronomical fixing points, with reference to both Polaris and Beijing, plus the South Pole (and the Malacca Straits, actually), then we can more accurately establish where the lands and peoples of the world are!

It’s a brilliant idea, easily enough outlined on paper. Did the Chinese government actually send out great fleets to explore such hypotheses? Importantly, European expansionism would often look to the fabled East, “to Cathay”. But obviously, being themselves “the East”, the Chinese looked west, south, and further east.

As I read 1421, these are Menzies’ reasons for seeing the Chinese as interested in both the North and South poles on the same great expedition. Exploring not just “the world”, but exploring also a dazzling astronomical idea – an idea to which Columbus, looking for “China”, was a latecomer.

1421 tells us that as a maritime-expansionist, the early Ming emperor Zhu Di (d. 1424) had a personal interest in astronomy. His people already had 2,000 years experience with astronomy. Zhu Di renewed the nightly practice of recording the stars, partly as he desired to improve navigation and expand maritime activity to exact tribute for his Imperial coffers.

The Emperor wished his mariners to locate new territories more correctly, and wanted Beijing’s great new observatory to become a major reference point (as the Greenwich Meridian and Mean Time later became for Britain).

Menzies cites the 17th century Wu Pei Chi, “a set of sailing instructions” detailing latitudes, star positions, and bearings. Chinese astronomy calculated latitude by the Pole Star, Polaris, above the North Pole, and also relied on lunar observations. (The Portuguese by 1474 used the Sun and the Equator as their reference points.)

Here is a grand difference, with basic reference points being the North Pole, not the Equator. By their sixth great set of voyages, the Chinese still had few clues on establishing longitude, which for Europeans – firstly the Portuguese – was Equator-based. The Chinese already knew they made great errors in longitude, problems found as they coursed the Indian Ocean as far west as East Africa before 1421.

Zheng He’s fleet sailing from March 1421 split into squadrons under different admirals, each charged with examining a different part of the world. Admiral Hong Bao’s ships supposedly cruised from the Antarctic to south-western Australia (then north for Sumatra/Malacca Straits), and also east along the southern Australian coast (to the Warrnambool area?).

At the South Pole, the only direction to follow is north. This is why some of the 1421 fleet ships were ordered to venture to Antarctica. They first moved south from the tip of South America.

Menzies says the way the South Magnetic Pole varies would have given the Chinese problems with their north-pointing lodestones, However, they had determined to try to get a fix on Canopus, to at least try to get under Crucis Alpha, the leading star of the Southern Cross.

Their intent was to compare latitudes between Polaris (in the North) and Canopus (in the South). If they could measure the elapsing of time and the speed of their own movements, which they could, any findable astronomical fix would at least verify their views on latitude. Then, only the further problems remained of establishing longitude.

Menzies notes there are no necessary connection(s) between Chinese thought, clocks, and calculation of longitude, since longitude can be established without clocks/chronometers (as Cook used).

The Chinese measured time by lengths of the Sun’s shadow, but this varies with latitude. Still, they knew how to predict eclipses solar and lunar, knew that such events had to be visible from everywhere on Earth. Using techniques derived from this knowledge, they could roughly estimate longitude.

Establishing Canopus well enough, Admiral Hong Bao sailing north-east from a cruise near the South Shetland Islands of Antarctica, next sailed for about 52 degrees 40 degrees south, as far as he could go across the landless Southern Ocean, luckily to Heard Island, the Kergeluen Islands. And then if his ships hit the Roaring Forties (which belt the southern latitudes, with which they’d have been unfamiliar) they’d be heading north-east yet again for south-western Australia, but be no longer able to sail further south.

Menzies’ theory suggests that Admiral Hong Bao from south-west Australia sent a ship east to cruise the Southern coast of Australia, which foundered off Warrnambool.

Mapping History & Mysteries in Conflict

Here we have a conflict of mysteries, because Gordon McIntyre in his book The Secret Discovery of Australia claims the Mahogany Ship is a Portuguese relic. Are Australians merely the meat in the sandwich here? It’s a contest between The Chinese versus The Portuguese, as moderated today on Gavin Menzies’ website.

Controversy is not new to Australian maritime history (more than 6500 shipwrecks have littered the long coastlines of Australia).

To explain some mapping history briefly… Until 1770, when Cook used a chronometer as he mapped the east coast of Australia testing “modern methods”, Australia’s general shape was only guessed at, differently, somewhat south-east of the Indonesian archipelago by the Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch and French. The English did the best they could with maps from those countries.

Each European exploring nation might have used a different name and shape for a guessed-at landmass of the Southern Hemisphere: “Terra Australis Incognita”, “Java-la-Grande”, or “the Great Southland”, which might be depicted anything up to 800 miles or so east or west of its actual location. Also unknown were the actual shapes of our neighbours, New Guinea, New Zealand and Antarctica. The Dutch with their “New Holland” were better mapmakers – for Western Australia, that is.

These matters should be stressed since mapping history can quickly become very muddy and complicated. Across centuries, few if any cartographic arguments from any direction at all can remain free of speculation.

Worse, there was an old European belief that from the southern half of western South America there stretched west to an unknown extent an amazing land called “Beach”. Indeed, one old map depicts “Beach” stretching south-east from somewhat south of Darwin.

Facts were so few that a mapmaker could easily have depicted “Beach” (perhaps a giant archipelago?) as stretching from south-east of the Malacca Straits between Malaya and Sumatra (the Spice Islands region), right across the Pacific to near the Straits of Magellan.

Whereas, from today’s satellite photography we know the Pacific region as a yawning absence of landmass. Thus, depending on the nationality of an explorer, “Australia” was visualised differently – often confusingly.

Views that the Mahogany Ship is a Portuguese relic have long circulated via McIntyre’s book, The Secret Discovery of Australia, a book demanding close reading. Ironically, part of McIntyre’s theory relies on “a giant wave” possibly throwing one of Mendonca’s ships onto sand dunes near Warrnambool, say 1521-1522.

The Australian reader of 1421 finds two competing theories about the same mystery relic, both involving “a giant wave” that left behind a wreck.

For Menzies, a comet strike in the Tasman Sea, somewhat west of Stewart Island, south of New Zealand’s south island, produced a tsunami which wrecked yet another squadron of Chinese explorer-ships, October 1422.

As with Menzies’ list of Chinese mysteries, McIntyre’s evidence lists Portuguese artefacts found in Australia, all of which still beggar explanation.

So oddly enough, both Menzies and McIntyre wish to argue that a “huge wave” can be part-explanation for the location of the so-called Mahogany Ship. As well, both argue that ship remains to be found in New Zealand will prove connected to the Warrnambool mystery.

The odds against either “huge wave” proposition being satisfactorily provable seem long.

Yet another major claim made in McIntyre’s book is that Capt. James Cook did not actually discover the eastern Australian coast, he simply verified older Portuguese mapping, and corrected its rather odd projection, after which the real shape of Australia fell naturally into place.

If Menzies’ 1421 theory can be verified regarding Australian locations, then it will suggest the Portuguese used even earlier Chinese mapping as they struggled to understand the geography of Australia. Cook will then owe an extra debt to Chinese mariners.

Of course, this would be widely regarded as heresy in Australasia.

Interest surges. During 2004, fresh attempts were made from Melbourne to establish more facts on the Mahogany Ship. Wood samples have been sent to China for examination, and Chinese media outlets have been enthusiastically reporting.

Unfortunately, Gordon McIntyre died in May 2004, so he will never know how his conundrums are solved. But we will.

Duel Over The Evidence

At Warrnambool, the book 1421 risks gaining or losing a strong plank of evidence. If many people take this over-seriously, what will be the outcome for McIntyre’s theory about Mendonca’s lost Portuguese caravel?

What is occurring is a duel between theories produced by two passionate writers and mariners/astronomers, Menzies and McIntyre. Who will win?

There is, however, nothing new about interest in China’s eunuch Admiral Zheng He, who was a Muslim. Two writers preceding Menzies in print are Louise Levathes and Nicholas Kristof. Levathes once worked for National Geographic magazine; Kristof has been Tokyo bureau chief for the New York Times. (Menzies, incidentally, does not read Chinese, Levathes does.)

Levathes’s book is a sedate, scholarly treatment tracing the routes of Zheng He’s ships to South-East Asia, to India, to Arabian ports, and to the East African coast, but not as far as Menzies’ ships sailed.

For any partisans of China’s maritime extraordinaire, Levathe’s remains a perfectly contenting book.3

Menzies “has not, unfortunately, discovered anything new”, Levathes has been quoted as saying. A former visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Chinese and American Studies in China, Levathes has faulted Menzies for ignoring original sources that detail the voyages of the treasure fleets, but make no mention of the Americas.

The theory behind 1421 is bold, imaginative, daring and arresting. Menzies’ writing does move beyond what scholarship has ever been able to provide (and a third edition is eagerly awaited).

Still, 1421 provides too few clues as to why Europeans, with or without the aid of borrowed Chinese findings, took so long to solve the problem of locating Australia accurately and usefully, from 1521 – Mendonca’s time – to Cook’s in 1770.

Always remaining will be the mundane suggestion that the Mahogany Ship is merely an oddly-constructed lighter built for local sealing/whaling work around Port Fairy.

In the nineteenth century, most mariners who after 1836 saw parts of the wreck agreed she was decidedly oddly-built. No one suggested any remains of a possible Chinese junk. The wreck possibly derives from something built by European men largely ignorant of ship construction, somewhat before 1836.

Kristof’s view is that Zheng He made history, but he did not change history.4Zheng He and his men explored a variety of places, but it is still contentious that all the locations claimed by Menzies were followed up usefully by the Chinese government or large-scale traders.

If we want to discuss the history of exploration in any consistent way, as it relates to Australia, then the present writer thinks the achievements of Zheng He and his men will have to be put into a category built for them alone.

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1. Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered The World, London: Bantam Press 2003, ISBN: 0553815229, paperback edition.
2. The Mahogany Ship Committee will hold a symposium “Silent Seas and Shifting Sands – Evidence for the very early maritime exploration of Australia and New Zealand and examination of recent searches for wrecks in the region”, at the Warrnambool Entertainment Centre on 24-25 September, 2005. Interested parties should contact the Warrnambool Visitor Information Centre on 1800 637 725 or see www.warrnamboolinfo.com.au
3. Louise Levathes, When China Ruled The Seas, The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne,1405-1433, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994
4. Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, China Wakes: The Struggle for the Soul of a Rising Power, 1999.

DAN BYRNES is a writer and webmaster based in Armidale, NSW, Australia, where he manages a suite of more than 350 pages on the Internet. He is an internationally published poet and journalist, with some short stories published. Dan has an abiding interest in maritime history and has international email on related topics. His massive treatment of convict transportation from Britain to North America and Australia is located atwww.danbyrnes.com.au/blackheath/. One of his websites, Lost Worlds, maintains an interest in the nexus “between religion and history”. His newest website is on music-in-history. He can be contacted via email at dan@danbyrnes.com.au.

The above article appeared in New Dawn No. 90 (May-June 2005).

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