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History Without Facts

Did China reach Cape Breton before Columbus sailed? It's a tempting thought

By Crawford Kilian 26 Oct 2006 |

Crawford Kilian's next book will be Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy. It will not mention 1421 or The Island of Seven Cities.

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  • The Island of the Seven Cities
  • Paul Chiasson
  • St. Martin's Press (2006)

Some of us are pushovers for alternative history. The routine, school-approved versions of events seem boring; they argue that we live in a thoroughly determined and necessary state of affairs.

Sometimes, though, a scholar offers evidence that we've missed something crucial, and we lovers of alternative history are eager to accept the new version of events.

I succumbed to my first historical heresy as a teenager when I ran across Thor Heyerdahl's American Indians in the Pacific. This was the scholarly follow-up to his best-selling book, Kon-Tiki, wherein he tried to prove that South Americans had sailed to Polynesia. In the follow-up, he argued that the South Americans had been only the first wave; those settlers had then been conquered by natives from the British Columbia coast, who had carried their culture all the way to New Zealand.

Later scholarship has pretty well demolished Heyerdahl. Yes, South Americans probably did get to Polynesia. Maybe some early British Columbians made it to Hawaii. But the vast majority of Polynesians appear to have come from Southeast Asia.

Still, some early wanderers did go farther than we once imagined. Australia was settled 40,000 years ago by people with considerable boatbuilding technology and sailing skills. The Vikings really did reach Newfoundland a thousand years ago. Madagascar was settled not from Africa but from Indonesia.

So in 2002, when Gavin Menzies published 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, his argument drew a strong welcome -- not only in the West, but in China itself. Last spring, a Canadian, Paul Chiasson, offered a kind of corroboration in his new book, The Island of Seven Cities, which claims that 15th-century Chinese built an impressive community on Cape Breton Island.

Sailing with Zheng He

The foundation of this new heresy is solid historical fact: Early in the 15th century, the Chinese Muslim admiral Zheng He led several enormous expeditions into Southeast Asia, India, and the east coast of Africa. The fleets returned with trade goods and even giraffes. Then domestic politics led to the destruction of the fleet (rather like the scrapping of the Avro Arrow), and China's long withdrawal from the world.

Menzies, a former British submarine commander, claims that Zheng He and his captains went a lot farther than Zanzibar -- that they rounded Cape Horn, crossed the Atlantic to South America, and then made their way clear to Greenland. Some Chinese ships may even have returned to China via the Arctic Sea, while others visited the Antarctic.

Meanwhile, says Menzies, other Chinese eventually returned to China by crossing the Pacific -- perhaps after visiting the B.C. coast.

1421 is certainly an entertaining book, with surprising news about mysterious sunken ships off the Australian coast and the presence of Chinese domestic poultry in the pre-Columbian Americas. It offers countless historical factoids about ancient civilizations, ocean currents, and Chinese DNA in the Americas.

The mysterious road on Cape Dauphin

Chiasson's book appears to give support to Menzies. An architect born in Cape Breton, Chiasson describes how he revisited the island and discovered a mysterious road on Cape Dauphin. Trying to find who built it, Chiasson explored the history of Cape Breton Island -- the early Portuguese and Basque fishing industries, the French colonists, the British -- and found none of them could have built the road.

Like Menzies, Chiasson supplies a fascinating short history of his subject, and he's a good writer. We follow his detective work, including his discovery of what appears to be a ruined settlement at the end of the road. After reading 1421, he links up with Menzies, who strongly endorses Cape Dauphin as the proof that Cape Breton is the legendary Island of Seven Cities mentioned by pre-Columbian Europeans.

This is quite a shift for Menzies, whose own book makes a strong case for Puerto Rico as the Island of Seven Cities -- and Chiasson for some reason doesn't even mention this.

Nor does he explain why his research didn't take him to the government of Nova Scotia, where he might have found useful information on the origins of the road. Instead he went ahead and published his book, which received numerous reviews.

Menzies had already attracted many opponents. While he and his supporters run a website promoting his thesis, others post evidence against it. The opponents promptly included evidence against Chiasson as well.

There, a forestry engineer named Andrew Hannam recently posted a detailed demolition of Chiasson's evidence. Chiasson claimed his road appears on a 1929 aerial photo of Cape Dauphin; Hannam says the photo is from 1953. A year earlier, a forest fire required the bulldozing of the road through the wooded mountain that forms Cape Dauphin. Another fire, in 1968, burned a wooded area and left a clearing that Chiasson claims is a Chinese townsite.

Chiasson has replied that the 1952 firefighters only cleared the original Chinese road, but Hannam has clearly won the debate.

Menzies, meanwhile, continues to promote Zheng He as a global circumnavigator and colonizer. Chinese historians have endorsed his theories, and a new edition of 1421 is promised.

If so, I hope it doesn't repeat the howlers about British Columbia in the first edition. According to Menzies, the Squamish Indians live on Vancouver Island and speak a language with lots of Chinese words in it. But Bill Poser, a University of Pennsylvania linguist, refutes this claim in a 2004 critique.

No Cape Breton Chinese

Well, we're stuck once again with the history given us by the historians and the archaeologists, not the gorgeous fantasies of the romantics. No Chinese in Cape Breton Island; no British Columbians colonizing Polynesia; no Atlantis drowned somewhere in the mid-Atlantic. Maybe not even any real hobbits on Flores Island in Indonesia.

I admit I'm disappointed that Menzies and Chiasson are wrong. But I'm more angered than disappointed, because their pseudoscience has cast a pall over the subject.

The Chinese certainly did reach East Africa, and perhaps they reached Australia and North America as well. Maybe their shipwrecks lie in San Francisco Bay and off Australia, as Menzies claims.

But what serious archaeologist would risk his reputation now to search for real evidence? Menzies and Chiasson have effectively closed off research into China's maritime history. The scraps of fact in their books are buried in a jumble of errors. And we are all the poorer for it.  [Tyee]