Category Archives: Explorers

The Silk Road


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy's Map of the "Old World" by Jacob d'Angelo.
A 15th-century copy of Ptolemy’s Map of the “Old World” by Jacob d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.d’Angelo.

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Archeologists and Historians use the term “Old World” in the context of, and to contrast with, the “New World” (North and South America). The Old World, also known as Afro-Eurasia, consists of Africa, Europe, and Asia. Most countries of the Old World in the area of the Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persian plateau, India, and China are in the temperate zone, roughly between the 45th and 25th parallels.

Herein emerged the cultural, philosophical and religious developments that produced the Western (Hellenism, “classical”), Eastern (Zoroastrian and Abrahamic) and Far Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism) religious and cultural spheres.

The Qin Empire

Qin was an ancient state in China during the Zhou dynasty. On May 7, 247 BC, Ying Zheng assumed the throne of the Qin state at age 9. Upon his ascension, Zheng became known as the King of Qin or King Zheng of Qin.

The Qin state had a large, efficient army and capable generals. They utilized the newest developments in weaponry and transportation and had a superior military power than the other six warring states. By the 3rd century BC,  the Qin state under King Zheng of Qin emerged as one of the dominant powers of the Seven Warring States.

Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.
Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of China.

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Instead of maintaining the title of king borne by the Shang and Zhou rulers, Ying Zheng created a new title of “huángdì” (emperor) for himself. This new title combined two titles – huáng of the mythical Three Sovereigns (三皇, Sān Huáng) and the dì of the legendary Five Emperors (五帝, Wŭ Dì) of Chinese prehistory.

Ying Zheng ruled from 220 to 210 BC as the First Emperor of the Qin dynasty bearing the name Qin Shi Huangdi.

After the death of Qin Shi Huang in 210 BC, the Qin empire became unstable. Though the Qin empire was short-lived, it had a great influence over Chinese history.

The Han dynasty

Within four years after the death of Qin Shi Huangdi, the Qin dynasty’s authority collapsed. In the face of rebellion, the empire fissured into 18 kingdoms. Two rebel leaders, Xiang Yu of Chu and Liu Bang of Han, engaged in a war to decide who would become the next person to exercise hegemony in China. Each of the 18 fissured kingdoms claimed allegiance to either Xiang Yu or Liu Bang. In 202 BC, Liu Bang defeated Xiang Yu at the Battle of Gaixia.

Liu Bang assumed the title “emperor” (Huangdi), known as Emperor Gaozu after his death. Thus, Emperor Gaozu found the Han dynasty, the second imperial dynasty of China. He chose Chang’an as the new capital of the reunified empire under Han.

Spanning over four centuries, the Han period was a golden age in Chinese history. To this day, China’s majority ethnic group refers to itself as the “Han people” and the Chinese script as “Han characters”.

To the north of China, the nomadic Xiongnu chieftain Modu Chanyu conquered various tribes inhabiting the eastern part of the Eurasian Steppe. Towards the end of his reign, the Xiongnu chieftain controlled Manchuria, Mongolia, and the Tarim Basin, subjugating over twenty states east of Samarkand.

Chinese merchants sold iron weapons to the Xiongnu along the northern borders. Emperor Gaozu imposed a trade embargo to stop the illicit sale of arms. Although the embargo was in place, the Xiongnu found Chinese traders willing to supply their needs. Chinese forces then mounted surprise attacks against the Xiongnu who traded at the border markets. The Xiongnu retaliated by invading what is now Shanxi province and defeated the Han forces at Baideng in 200 BC. After negotiations, the heqin (“peace marriage”) agreement in 198 BC held the leaders of the Xiongnu and the Han as equal partners in a royal marriage alliance. Yet, the Han was forced to send large amounts of items such as silk clothes, food, and wine as a tribute to the Xiongnu.

Emperor Wu of Han

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Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.
Traditional portrait of Emperor Wu of Han of the Western Han dynasty from an ancient Chinese book.

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Emperor Wu of Han (June 30, 156 BC – March 29, 87 BC), born Liu Che, was the seventh emperor of the Han dynasty of China. He reigned 54 years from 141 BC to 87 BC. His reign resulted in the vast territorial expansion. By reorganizing the  government, he developed a strong and centralized state.  He promoted Confucian doctrines. Emperor Wu, known for his religious innovations was a patron of poetic and musical arts. During his reign, cultural contact with western Eurasia increased.

As a military campaigner, Emperor Wu led Han China through its greatest expansion.  At its height, the Empire’s borders spanned from modern Kyrgyzstan in the west to Korea in the east, and to northern Vietnam in the south.

In 133 BC, Emperor Wu launched a series of massive military invasions into Xiongnu territory and captured one stronghold after another. The Chinese assault ended in 119 BC at the Battle of Mobei. The Han commanders Wei Qing (the half-brother of Emperor Wu’s favorite concubine) and Wei’s nephew, Huo Qubing expelled the Xiongnu from the Ordos Desert and Qilian Mountains and forced them to flee north of the Gobi Desert and then out of the Gobi Desert.

The Silk Road.

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Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi'an.
Statue of Zhang Qian in Shaanxi History Museum in Xi’an.

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Zhang Qian was an imperial envoy to the world outside China under Emperor Wu of Han. He played an important pioneering role in the Chinese colonization and conquest of the region now known as Xinjiang. He was the first official diplomat to bring back reliable information to the Chinese imperial court about Central Asia. This helped the Han sovereignty in territorial acquisitions and expansion into the Tarim basin of Central Asia. Today, the Chinese revered and consider Zhang Qian as a national hero for the key role he played in opening China to the world of commercial trade.

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Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)
Main routes of the Silk Road/Silk Route. Red is land route and the blue is the sea/water route. (Source: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center)

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The Han sovereignty established the vast trade network known as the Silk Road or Silk Route, which reached as far as the Mediterranean Sea. The Silk Road or connected the various regions of the Old World. Extending 4,000 miles (6,437 kilometers), the Silk Road derives its name from the lucrative trade in Chinese silk carried out by Chinese merchants along its routes during the rule of the Han dynasty.

Around 114 BC, the Central Asian sections of the Silk Road routes were expanded. The Chinese took great interest in the safety of their merchants and their products. To ensure the protection of the trade route, Emperor Wu reinforced this strategic asset by establishing five commanderies and constructing a length of fortified wall along the border of the Hexi Corridor, colonizing the area with 700,000 Chinese soldier-settlers.

The Silk Road helped  establish political and economic relations between the various nations. Besides economic trade, the Silk Road served as a major factor in the development of the civilizations of China, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, Arabia, the Horn of Africa, and Europe and carrying out cultural exchanges among the nations along its network.

The main traders during antiquity were the Chinese, Persians, Somalis, Greeks, Syrians, Romans, Armenians, Indians, and Bactrians. From the 5th to the 8th century the Sogdians joined the bandwagon. After the emergence of Islam, Arab traders became prominent users of the Silk Routes.

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The Iberian Peninsula: Part 2 – The Reconquista


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Many ousted Gothic princes and nobles took refuge in the unconquered north Asturian highlands. From there, they aimed to reconquer their lands from the Moors. This war is known as the Reconquista, the Spanish and Portuguese word for Reconquest.

Co-existence and alliances between Muslims and Christians were prevalent, so also were the frontier skirmishes and raids.

At the end of the 9th century, the ideology of a Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula started to take shape. The Christian Chronica Prophetica (883-884), a document stressing the Christian and Muslim cultural and religious divide in Iberia set a landmark by stressing the necessity to drive the Muslims out of the Iberian Peninsula. Even then, it was common for the Christian and Muslim rulers to become divided and to fight amongst themselves. Also, the mercenaries from both sides fought for whoever paid the most.

As time wore on, the idea of the Reconquista seems to have faded in the minds of the Christians. The 10th and 11th-century documents are silent on any idea of a reconquest.

By 1172, all Islamic Iberia was part of the Moroccan Berber Muslim Almohad Caliphate. Between 1146 and 1173, the Almohads wrested control of the Moorish principalities from the Almoravids and transferred the capital from Cordoba to Seville.

In the late 11th century, when staunch Muslim Jihad ideology in Al-Andalus confronted the Christians, the religious ideology of a Christian reconquest sprouted once again in the minds of the Christians and they started the Crusades. Later, military orders like the Order of Santiago, Montesa, Order of Calatrava and the Knights Templar fought in Iberia.

The Almohad Caliphate dominated Iberia until 1212. At that time, the Christian princes of Castile, Aragon, Navarre, and Portugal formed an alliance and defeated Muhammad III, “al-Nasir” (1199–1214) at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa in the Sierra Morena. Soon after, the Almohad Caliphate lost all their Moorish dominions in Iberia.  In 1236, the great Moorish city of Cordova fell to the Christians. In 1248, the Christians  conquered the city of Seville.

Gradually, the Christian kingdoms to the north retook control of the Iberian peninsula, and by 1300, the Moors controlled only Granada, a small region in the south of present-day Spain.

The Catholic Monarchs

“The Catholic Monarchs” (Spanish: Reyes Católicos) is the joint title used in history for Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon. They were second cousins from the House of Trastámara. Since both descended from John I of Castile, Pope Sixtus IV gave a papal dispensation for their marriage to deal with consanguinity.

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Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.
Queen Isabella I of Castile and León with her husband King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

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The marriage of 18-year-old Isabella and 17-year-old Ferdinand took place on October 19, 1469, in the city of Valladolid. This marriage helped to unite the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon under the same crown. Isabella became the Queen of Castile in 1474 and Ferdinand became the King of Aragon in 1479. Though their marriage united the two kingdoms, what later became Spain, it was still a union of two crowns rather than a unitary state. They ruled independently and their kingdoms retained part of their own regional laws and governments for the next few decades.

The Spanish Inquisition

In the twelfth century, Pope Lucius III  created the Inquisition to fight heresy in the south of what is now France and constituted it in some European kingdoms. In 1478, the Catholic Monarchs requested the assent of Pope Sixtus IV to  introduce the Inquisition to Castile. On November 1, 1478, the Pope published the Papal bull Exigit Sinceras Devotionis Affectus, to establish the Inquisition  in the Kingdom of Castile. It was later extended to all Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition targeted forced converts from Islam (Moriscos, Conversos and secret Moors) and from Judaism (Marranos, Conversos, and Crypto-Jews) who came under suspicion of either continuing to adhere to their old religion or of having fallen back into it. Thus, Spain modeled its national aspirations as the guardian of Christianity and Catholicism.

The Granada War

The Catholic Monarchs Isabella and Ferdinand set a goal to complete the Christian reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula by conquering the Moorish Sultanate and Kingdom of Granada. They launched a series of campaigns known as the Granada War. Pope Sixtus IV helped the Granada War by granting a tithe and implementing a crusade tax to invest in the war.

Two Andalusian nobles, Rodrigo Ponce de León and Diego de Merlo led the Castilian forces. The Granada War began in 1482 with the seizure on the strategic town of Alhama de Granada, in the province of Granada, about 50 km from the city of Granada.

The war proved to be a long, drawn-out campaign. The 10-year Granada War was not a continuous effort, but a series of seasonal campaigns launched in spring and broken off in winter.

In 1491, the Catholic Monarchs summoned Abu Abdallah Muhammad XII, the twenty-second and last Nasrid ruler of Granada to surrender the city of Granada, besieged by the Castilians.

After 10 years of fighting, the Granada War ended on January 2, 1492. Muhammad XII surrendered the Emirate of Granada, the city of Granada, and the Alhambra palace to the Castilian forces.

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The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.
The Capitulation of Granada by F. Pradille y Ortiz, 1882.

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Six days after the event, an eyewitness wrote a private letter to the bishop of León:

The Moorish sultan with about eighty or a hundred on horseback very well dressed went forth to kiss the hand of their Highnesses. According to the final capitulation agreement both Isabel and Ferdinand will decline the offer and the key to Granada will pass into Spanish hands without Muhammad XII having to kiss the hands of Los Reyes, as the Spanish royal couple became known. The indomitable mother of Muhammad XII insisted on sparing her son this final humiliation.

Though the Granada war was a joint project between Isabella’s Crown of Castile and Ferdinand’s Crown of Aragon, the bulk of the troops and funds came from Castile. So,  Castile annexed Granada. Apart from the presence of King Ferdinand himself, the Crown of Aragon provided naval collaboration, guns, and some financial loans.

The  traditional Spanish historiography  considers the Granada War  as the final war of the “Reconquista“.

The aftermath of the Granada War saw the end of “convivencia” (“live and let live”) between religions.

Between 1480 and 1492, the Christian Monarchs forced all Muslims and Jews to convert to Christianity or face expulsion. Many Jews and Muslims fled to North Africa and the Ottoman Empire.

The Alhambra Decree issued in January 1492 forced the Jews in the Iberian peninsula to convert to Christianity or be exiled. In 1501, all of Granada’s Muslims were obliged to either convert to Christianity, become slaves or be exiled. By 1526, this prohibition spread to the rest of Spain and the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula was complete.

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← Previous: Part 1 – Conquest by the Muslims

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 6 – Did They Reach the Americas Before Columbus?


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Did the eunuch admiral Zengh He set foot in America?

According to medieval Chinese sources the eunuch Zheng He, the favorite admiral of the Yongle Emperor, commanded six expeditions between 1405 and 1422. Again, between 1431 and 1433, at the request of the Xuande Emperor, Admiral Zheng He commanded a seventh expedition. The fleet he commanded was the largest maritime fleet in the world.

Zheng He sailed to Indonesia, India, Ceylon, Arabia, Africa and many other countries in the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean). Whether Zheng He or any of his associates set foot in the Americas is now open to debate. Nowhere in these Chinese accounts is even a hint that the 15th century Chinese made landfall in the Americas. Yet, a few modern writers conjecture that the Chinese sailed to lands as far as the Americas.

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1421, The Year China Discovered the World

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On January 1, 2002, Gavin Menzies, a British author and retired submarine lieutenant-commander,  published his controversial book titled: “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.

In his book, Menzies claims the Chinese reached America 70 years before the Iberian explorer Christopher Columbus. He says the Chinese not only discovered America first, but they also established many lost colonies in the Caribbean. He also asserts that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe.

China lost most of its historical records of the country’s explorative marine voyages during centuries of turmoil in the country. So, Gavin Menzies has cobbled together some plausible evidence supporting his controversial conjectures. He uses some suggestive and a little ridiculous grab bag of evidence. Experts in the field scoff at the theories suggested by Gavin Menzies. There is no real evidence.

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Does this map prove that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus (Harper Collins)
Does this map prove that the Chinese discovered America before Columbus (Harper Collins)

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According to Menzies, the Ibderian explorers: Ferdinand Magellan, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Vasco Núñez de Balboa, Francisco Pizarro, Pedro Álvares Cabral, Thomas Cook et al., had “discovered” lands the Chinese had already visited, and these renowned European explorers sailed with maps charted by the Chinese cartographers.

Almost all critics and historians have rejected and debunked Menzies’ theories, conjectures and assertions as grandiose and speculative re-creation of little-known voyages made by Chinese ships in the early 15th century. They have categorized Gavin Menzies as a “pseudo-historian”.

In the June 2004 issue of Journal of World History, Robert Finlay in his review  titled “How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America,” shows that Gavin Menzies’s book has no foundation.

One reviewer of Gavin Menzies’ book, Andrew, says:

There are books that break new ground with bombshell research and there are books that spellbind us with the skill of their deception. This book is the latter. Menzies takes a tremendous dump on the sensibilities of his readers, bombarding us with outrageous claims backed up with erroneous facts and arrogant speculation.

Another reviewer, Adam, has commented:

I have to say that I enjoyed reading this book, if only because it made me so angry at the gross inaccuracies and completely imaginary scenarios that the author made up. He claims to have information from anthropology, archaeology, geology, geography, history, etc, but what he really has exists only in his own mind.

On page 103, Gavin Menzies claims that on the Cape Verde Islands in the Atlantic stands a large red sandstone rock, some three meters high, with inscriptions on it. Menzies claims the Chinese carved these inscriptions in the Malayalam language, spoken by the people of Kerala in India. He says he photographed the inscriptions. But he does not provide copies of the photographs, nor line drawings of the inscriptions or translations. In fact, red sandstone is not found on the Cape Verde Islands.

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Rock of Our Lady in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde (Source: Pitt Reitmaier/bela-vista.net)
Rock of Our Lady in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde (Source: Pitt Reitmaier/bela-vista.net)

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Dr. Pitt Reitmaier, a tropical doctor at the University of Heidelberg posted the above photo of the rock Pedra da Nossa Senhora (Rock of Our Lady) he found in Ribeira do Penedo, Cape Verde. Reitmaier says:

In 1421, the year when the Great Wall was finished, China sent out a fleet of more than one hundred ships to discover the world. Reports say they crossed the Indian Ocean from Calicut to the African East Coast – what was not new for Arabo-Swahili, Indian and Chinese captains in the Middle Ages.

They rounded the Cape of Good Hope and went North following the African West Coast. Then (as always when discoverers come to Cape Verde) a serious storm took them to the arquipelago, presumably to Santo Antão.  And here – as in other places they visited – they left behind “carved stones” (Creole: rocha scribida) in order to give proof for their presence to later generations of discoverors.

So far the fascinating story told by submarine captain Gavin Menzies in his book 1421 The Year China Discovered the World. He diagnoses the writings on this rocha scribida as Malayalam, the language spoken to date in Kerala, southern India – and in its harbour city of Calicut, where the fleet has started from. “

Later Menzies follows the fleet to Greenland, the North Pole (he claims), the Americas, the Strait of Magellan before it crossed the pacific ocean and found back home to China.

The name Pedra da Nossa Senhora stems from the Catholic interpretations of the writings as a first document of Portuguese sailors setting foot on Santo Antao Island. The central part with the cross documents the death of a portuguese sailor.

In the footnote to his post Dr. Pitt Reitmaier says:

If you go for historical evidence, most likely you will not believe Menzie’s story. Reknown historians argue that none of his findings are new and that his way to combine the facts in a thrilling story is highly speculative and cannot stand scrutiny by scholars. e.g.: The carvings were identified as something like “Malayalam” by an employee of the Bank of India, not by any linguist or historian. Why so? India has excellent historians and linguists by the hundred!

My personal opinion goes to two extremes:

– isn’t it wonderful food for thought, sweet and sour, full of phantasy, even if wrong?

– if this is the way, submarine captains draw conclusions in their leasure time … how dangerous are they at work?”

Linguist Christopher Culver says:

“I would like to offer a perspective from my own individual profession, linguistics. Menzies writes, for example:

Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state.

The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all and is either the personal fancy of the author or some minor crank idea. The second, however, is cited to an 19th-century bit of scholarship evidentally done without appropriate field methods. He goes on to claim that Chinese sailors shipwrecked on the East Coast of the United States would have been able to communicate with locals, as these would have included Chinese who had walked over the Bering Strait. Chinese walk across to Alaska and across all North America, but end up speaking Middle Chinese, and yet leave no trace of this dialect on neighbouring Native American languages? Risible fantasy. There’s even an assertion that Navajo elders understand Chinese conversation, and an assertion that the Peruvian village name Chanchan must be Chinese because it sounds (at least to him) like “Canton”. Perhaps the silliest Peruvian connection is between Chinese “qipu” and Quechua “quipu“; Menzies seemingly doesn’t understand that “q” represents a completely different sound in each language. So, I hope that the reader with some training in linguistics can see what kind of arguments are used in the book, and beware accordingly.”

On May 7, 2015, I came across an article titled “New Evidence Ancient Chinese Explorers Landed in America Excites Experts” written by Tara MacIsaac in the Epoch Times. She wrote:

John A. Ruskamp Jr., Ed.D., reports that he has identified an outstanding, history-changing treasure hidden in plain sight. High above a walking path in Albuquerque’s Petroglyph National Monument, Ruskamp spotted petroglyphs that struck him as unusual. After consulting with experts on Native American rock writing and ancient Chinese scripts to corroborate his analysis, he has concluded that the readable message preserved by these petroglyphs was likely inscribed by a group of Chinese explorers thousands of years ago.”

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Cartouche 1 (Source -  theepochtimes.com - John Ruskamp)
Cartouche 1 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Cartouche 2 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)
Cartouche 2 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Cartouche 3
Cartouche 3 (Source: John Ruskamp/theepochtimes.com)

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Whether Zheng He’s fleet circumvented the horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope, and then sailed across the Atlantic to the Americas is speculative. More concrete evidence is necessary to convince the modern historians to rewrite history as “the Chinese reached the Americas before Christopher Columbus!“.

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← Previous: Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Zhu Zhanji, the Xuande Emperor

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The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Xuande Emperor (Born as Zhu Zhanji ), the fifth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On June 27, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor’s son Zhu Zhanji (March 16, 1399 – January 31, 1435), at the age of 26  ascended the throne of the Ming dynasty as the Xuande Emperor, the fifth Ming Emperor. His era name “Xuande” means “Proclamation of Virtue“.

The Xuande Emperor continued the liberal policies of  his father, the Hongxi Emperor.

On May 25, 1430, the Xuande Emperor issued an imperial order for the arrangement of the necessary provisions for the dispatch of Zheng He, Wang Jinghong, Li Xing, Zhu Liang, Yang Zhen, Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, Yang Qing and others on official business to the countries of the Western Ocean (Indian Ocean).

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The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)
The treasure ships of Zheng He (Source: heritageinstitute.com)

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On June 29, 1430, the emperor gave Zheng He command over a seventh and final expedition (1431 – 1433). This was the largest treasure fleet assembled, with more than 300 ships and 27,500 men.

Zheng He’s mission, this time, was to announce the new emperor’s reign to the “distant lands beyond the seas”, to revive the tributary relations promoted during the Yongle Emperor’s reign, and to conquer far-lying foreign lands and bring them into polite submission.

The mission was also, in part, an attempt to restore peace between the two trading partners of China – Malacca and Siam. The ships for this voyage were named befitting their peace mission, such as Pure Harmony, Lasting Tranquility, Kind Repose, etc.

The emperor bestowed on Zheng He the title “Sanbao Taijian“.

On January 19, 1431, Zheng He’s fleet left the shores of Longwan in Nanjing, China.

On February 3, 1431, the fleet arrived at Liujiagang.

Some courtiers of the Ming emperors were apprehensive of the expensive treasure fleets. Zheng He and his associates concerned about being vilified after their death decided to document Zheng He’s previous voyages on a stone tablet. On March 14, 1431, they erected the following [Liujiagang] inscription at the Palace of the Celestial Spouse in Liujiagang, Jiangsu:

We, Zheng He and his companions [including Admirals Hong Bao, Zhou Man, Zhou Wen, and Yang Qing], at the beginning of Zhu Di’s reign received the Imperial Commission as envoys to the barbarians. Up until now seven voyages have taken place and, each time, we have commanded several tens of thousands of government soldiers and more than a hundred oceangoing vessels. We have…reached countries of the Eastern Regions, more than thirty countries in all. We have…beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky-high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away, hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, whilst our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds, day and night continued their course, rapid like that of a star, traversing those savage waves.

On April 8, 1431, the fleet arrived at Changle, where they remained until mid-December. On the 11th month of the 6th year of the Xuande reign, they erected the Changle inscription.

Eunuch admiral Hong Bao

In the early 15th century, the Ming emperors Yongle and Xuande, sent a Chinese eunuch named Hong Bao, on overseas diplomatic missions.

In 1412, between the third and fourth voyages of Zheng He’s fleet, the Yongle Emperor sent Hong Bao as the envoy to Thailand.

In 1421, Hong Bao participated in the sixth voyage of Zheng He during which foreign envoys were transported back to their countries, as far as the kingdom of Ormus in the Persian Gulf.

Hong Bao’s name appears in the Liujiagang inscription made by Zheng He. According to the inscription, Hong Bao was one of the five Assistant Envoys.

Ma Huan (c. 1380 – 1460), was a Muslim voyager and translator. He was a Chinese who converted to Islam when he was young. He knew several classical Chinese and Buddhist texts. He learned Arabic to be able to translate.

Ma Huan accompanied Admiral Zheng He on three of his seven expeditions: 4th, 6th and the 7th, to the western oceans.

During the expeditions, Ma Huan took notes about the geography, politics, weather conditions, environment, economy, local customs, even the method of punishment meted out to criminals. After returning home after his first expedition, he began writing a book about it. The final version of his book titled Yingyai Shenglan (The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores) was ready around 1451.

The American historian Edward L. Dreyer (1940 – 2007) known for his works on the history of the Chinese Ming Empire analyzed the preserved sources about the voyages of Zheng He, in particular Ma Huan’s book. According to Dreyer, Hong Bao was the commander of one of the detached squadrons of Zheng He’s fleet during the Seventh Voyage (1431 – 1433).

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The 7th voyage of Zheng He's fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao's squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)
The 7th voyage of Zheng He’s fleet. A possible route of Hong Bao’s squadron is shown as a dashed line, based on analysis by Edward L. Dreyer. (Source: wikimedia.org)

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Hong Bao’s squadron visited Bengal after separating from the main fleet in Semudera in northern Sumatra or in Qui Nhon in Champa. From Bengal, Hong Bao’s squadron proceeded to Calicut in southern India. On December 10, 1432, the main fleet came straight from Semudera across the Bay of Bengal.

Before leaving Calicut, Hong Bao sent seven of his personnel, including Ma Huan, to Mecca and Medina aboard a native Indian ship sailing to Jeddah. Hong Bao appointed Ma Huan as emissary to Mecca.

While the main fleet left Calicut towards the kingdom of Ormus, Hong Bao’s squadron went from Calicut to various destinations on the west side of the Arabian Sea in southern Arabia and Horn of Africa, including Aden and Mogadishu.

Archaeologists have found Chinese porcelains made during the Tang dynasty (618–907) in Kenyan villages. These are  believed to have been brought over by Zheng He’s fleet during the 15th century ocean voyages. According to a local oral tradition, 20 shipwrecked Chinese sailors, part of Zheng’s fleet, washed up on shore there hundreds of years ago. They converted to Islam and married local women.

An article titled “China’s Great Armada, Admiral Zheng He” written by Frank Viviano appeared in the July 2005 issue of National Geographic.  Viviano  described that on Pate Island, fragments of ceramic articles of Chinese origin had been found around Lamu. The administrative officer of the local Swahili history museum claimed they were of Chinese origin, from Zheng He’s voyage.

Viviano wrote that the eyes of the Pate people resembled the Chinese. The ancestors of the Pate people were said to be from indigenous women who married shipwrecked Chinese sailors of the Ming period. Famao and Wei were some of the names among them which were of Chinese origin. The ancient Chinese sailors had named two places on Pate as “Old Shanga,” and “New Shanga”.

A local guide who claimed descent from the Chinese showed Frank Viviano graves of Chinese sailors layered with coral. They were almost identical to Chinese Ming dynasty tombs, complete with “half-moon domes” and “terraced entries”.

 Death of Zheng He

On the return voyage, Zheng He became very ill. According to one theory, he died in 1433, shortly after the seventh voyage. Some believe that he died and was buried in Calicut. But there is a second conjecture that Zheng He continued being the defender of Nanjing and died in 1435.

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Zheng He's tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)
Zheng He’s tomb in Nanjing (Author: Peter Pang)

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In 1985, a namesake Muslim-style tombwas built in Nanjing on the site of an earlier horseshoe-shape grave. The tombcontains his clothes and headgear as his bodywas buried at sea.In June 2010, Wang Zhigao, the Chief of Archaeology Department at Nanjing Museum announced that a Ming Dynasty grave recently found near Zutang Mountain in the Jiangning District of Nanjing was identified as that of Hong Bao and not of Zheng He as surmised earlier.
Cult of Zheng He
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)
The Sam Po Kong Temple in Malacca. (Author: Gisling)

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Zheng He became the object of cult veneration among the Chinese diaspora in Southeast Asia. The influence he had over Asian culture was so strong that he is still considered a god by Indonesian Chinese. They have built temples to honor him in Jakarta, Cirebon, Surabaya, and Semarang. The temples of this cult known after either of his names, Cheng Hoon or Sam Po and are peculiar to overseas Chinese.

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Next →  Part 6 – Did They Reach the Americas Before Columbus?

← Previous: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Traditional accounts of Zheng He’s voyages describe a great fleet of massive  wooden ships, the largest sail-powered wooden vessels in human history.

The Yongle Emperor planted vast orchards of tung trees (Vernicia fordii), to extract oil for preparing caulk to seal his huge Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ships.

Conjecture about the size of ships of Zheng He’s fleet

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A full size replica of Zheng He's treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)
A full size replica of Zheng He’s treasure ship at the site of the shipyard where original ship was built in Nanjing (Alamy) (Source: telegraph.co.uk)

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According to some writers, the first expedition launched in 1405 consisted of a fleet of 317 ships including 62 treasure ships with a total strength of 27,800 men. If the accounts are factual, the fleet included:

  • Nine-masted, mammoth “Treasure ships” (Bǎo Chuán) about 417 feet (127 metres) long and 171 feet (52 metres) wide, with four decks, capable of accommodating more than 500 passengers, as well as a huge amount of cargo. They were used by the commander of the fleet and his deputies;
  • Eight-masted, Equine ships (Mǎ Chuán) about 338 feet (103 metres) long and 138 feet (42 metres) wide, to carry horses, tribute goods, and repair material for the fleet;
  • Seven-masted, Supply ships (Liáng Chuán), about 256 feet (78 metres) long and 115 feet (35 metres) wide, to contain staple for the crew;
  • Five-masted, Fuchuan warships (Fú Chuán), about 160 feet (50 metres) long;
  • Eight-oared, Patrol boats (Zuò Chuán), about 121 feet (37 metres) long;
  • Water tankers (Shuǐ Chuán), with one month’s supply of fresh water.

Aboard the ships were navigators, explorers, sailors, doctors, workers, and soldiers along with the translator and diarist Gong Zhen who accompanied Zheng He on all his seven voyages to the western ocean until 1433.

Six more expeditions took place, from 1407 to 1433, with fleets of comparable size.

The Italian merchant traveler Marco Polo and the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta, have both described multi-masted ships carrying 500 to 1,000 passengers in their travel accounts.

Niccolò Da Conti, a contemporary of Zheng He, was also an eyewitness of ships in Southeast Asia, claiming to have seen five-masted junks weighing about 2,000 tons.

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Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus' Santa Maria (1492).
Replica of Chinese Bǎo Chuán (宝船) treasures ship of early 14th century vs Columbus’ Santa Maria (1492).

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Some writers claim that the treasure ships were immense, floating cities as long as 600 feet. They also claim that  a single deck of a single vessel in the fleet that set sail under Zheng He could have held  all the ships of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama combined.

Some modern scholars consider these descriptions of ships a bit exaggerated. They estimate that Zheng He’s treasure ships were 390–408 feet (118.9–124.4 metres) long and 160–166 feet (48.8–50.6 metres) wide while others place them as small as 200–250 feet (61.0–76.2 metres) in length, which would make them smaller than the equine, supply, and troop ships in the fleet.

One explanation for the apparent inefficient size of these colossal ships was that the large treasure ships were just used by the Yongle Emperor and his imperial bureaucrats to travel on the navigable calm waters of the Yangtze river.

Some detractors even claim that Zheng He, a court eunuch, would not have had the privilege in rank to command the large treasure ships, seaworthy or not.

In May 1421, the Yongle Emperor issued an order suspending Zheng He’s maritime expeditions, on account of their enormous expenditure. However, the order did not affect the sixth voyage (1421 – 1422) of Zheng He.

On August 12, 1424, the Yongle Emperor died while Zheng He was on an official mission to Palembang after his sixth voyage.

The Yongle Emperor had left China in political and economic chaos.

Zhu Gaochi , the Hongxi Emperor

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The Hongxi  Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)
The Hongxi Emperor (Born as Zhu Gaochi), the fourth Ming Emperor of China. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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On September 7, 1424, the Yongle Emperor’s son Zhu Gaochi (August 16, 1378 – May 29, 1425), ascended the Ming dynasty throne as the Hongxi Emperor.

Prominent Confucian tutors taught Zhu Gaochi. He often acted as regent in Beijing or Nanjing during the Yongle Emperor’s northern military campaigns.

On ascending the throne, the Hongxi Emperor restored disgraced Confucian officials, such as Emperor Yongle’s minister of revenue Xia Yanji, imprisoned since 1421. He reorganized the administration and gave high ranks to his close advisors.

During the Hongxi Emperor’s reign shrinking funds, foreign aggressions, and above all the Confucian aversion towards trade and prosperity caused the abrupt abandonment of shipbuilding by the Chinese.

In September 1424, the Hongxi Emperor, on the advice of his close advisors, canceled Zheng He’s maritime expeditions once and for all.  The emperor left the  great ships to rot at their moorings or burned them down. He ordered the destruction of the records of the expeditions.

Now, the only concrete evidence of the seafaring expeditions we can glean from are available only in the folklore, artifacts, porcelains, and statues found at various islands and ports in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.

The Hongxi Emperor abolished frontier trade of tea for horses as well as missions for gold and pearls to Yunnan and Vietnam.

China plummeted into isolation.

The Hongxi Emperor appointed Zheng He as Defender of Nanjing, the empire’s southern capital. In that post, Zheng He was responsible for completing the construction of the Porcelain Tower of Nanjing  begun by the Yongle Emperor..

On May 29, 1425, the Hongxi Emperor died of a heart attack.

Though Hongxi’s reign was short, he made reforms of lasting improvements in China.

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Next →  Part 5 – Zheng He’s Seventh Voyage

← Previous: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 3 – The Seven Voyages of Zheng He


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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The eunuch admiral Zheng He

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Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.
Zheng He, the Ming eunuch commander-in-chief.

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Zheng He (1371 – 1433) also romanized as Cheng Ho was born Ma He. He was the second son of a Hui Muslim parents from Kunyang in Yunnan. He had four sisters and one older brother. Though born a Muslim, the Liujiagang and Changle inscriptions suggest that Zheng He’s devotion to Tianfei, the patron goddess of sailors and seafarers, was the dominant faith to which he adhered.

Ma He’s father had the surname Ma and the title hajji that suggests that he had made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Ma He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and knew Arabic.

In 1381, Ma Hajji died at age 39 during the hostilities between the Ming armies and Mongol forces in Yunnan. It is not clear whether he died while helping the Mongol army or was just caught in the onslaught of battle. Ming soldiers took his son, the 10-year-old Ma He, as a prisoner. After castration, they forced him to serve in the household of the 21-year-old Zhu Di, the Prince of Yan. There, Ma He, was known as Ma Sanbao and received a proper education.

Amid the continuing struggle against the Mongols, to consolidate his own power, Zhu Di eliminated rivals such as the successful general Lan Yu.

Ma Sanbao spent his early life as a soldier on the northern frontier. He often participated in Zhu Di’s military campaigns against the Mongols. On March 2, 1390, Ma Sanbao accompanied Zhu Di and commanded his first expedition. It was a great victory since the Mongol leader Naghachu surrendered. From then on, Zheng He became a trusted adviser to the prince.

Zhu Di promoted Ma Sanbao as the Grand Director (Taijian) of the Directorate of Palace Servants.

On February 11, 1404, the Yongle Emperor conferred the surname “Zheng” to Ma Sanbao, for distinguishing himself by defending the city reservoir Zhenglunba against the imperial forces during the Siege of Beiping of 1399, and also for distinguishing himself during the 1402 campaign to capture the capital Nanjing. Zheng He served in the highest posts, as Grand Director and later as Chief Envoy during his sea voyages..

The Chinese may have been sailing to Arabia, East Africa, and Egypt since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907) or earlier.

Desiring to expand Chinese influence throughout the known world, the Yongle Emperor sponsored the great and long-term expeditions under the command of his eunuch admiral Zheng He and his associates Wang Jinghong, Hong Bao, and others.

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Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty's fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)
Zheng He commanded the Ming dynasty’s fleet of immense trading vessels on expeditions ranging as far as Africa. (Source: Michael Yamashita/ngm.nationalgeographic.com)

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According to medieval Chinese sources, Zheng He commanded seven expeditions between 1405 and 1433 that resulted in contact with foreign cultures. He sailed to Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Arabia, Africa and many other countries.

Under Zheng He’s direction, the Chinese ships loaded with silk and porcelain plied the South China Seas and the Indian Ocean.

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A Chinese Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).
A Chinese Ming Dynasty ( blue-and-white porcelain dish from the reign of the Yongle Emperor (1402-1424 AD).

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Zheng He’s fleet sailed to Japan, Ryukyu, and many locations in South-East Asia, trading and collecting tribute in the eastern Pacific and Indian Oceans. They traded gemstones, coral, pepper, and the cobalt used in the splendid porcelains for which the Ming dynasty would become known.

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Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He's fleet
Map of the routes of the voyages of Zheng He’s fleet

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The Chinese fleet reached major trade centers of Asia: Thevan Thurai (Dondra Head), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Hormuz, Aden and Malindi in north-eastern Africa.

 The seven voyages of Zheng He
VOYAGE PERIOD REGIONS ALONG THE WAY
1st voyage 1405–1407 ChampaJavaPalembang,Malacca, Aru, Samudera, Lambri, Ceylon, KollamCochin,
Calicut.
2nd voyage 1407–1409 Champa, Java, Siam, Cochin, Ceylon, Calicut.
3rd voyage 1409–1411 Champa, Java, Malacca, Samudera, Ceylon,
Kollam, Cochin, Calicut, Siam, Lambri, Korkai
Ganbali (possibly Coimbatore), Puttanpur.
4th voyage 1413–1415 Champa, Kelantan, Pahang, Java, Palembang,
Malacca, Semudera, Lambri, Ceylon, Cochin,
Calicut, Korkai, Hormuz, MaldivesMogadishu,
Barawa, MalindiAdenMuscat, Dhofar.
5th voyage 1417–1419 Ryukyu, Champa, Pahang, Java, Malacca,
Samudera, Lambri, Bengal, Ceylon, Sharwayn,
Cochin, Calicut, Hormuz, Maldives, Mogadishu,
Barawa, Malindi, Aden.
6th voyage 1421–1422 Champa, Bengal, Ceylon, Calicut, Cochin,
Maldives, Hormuz, Djofar, Aden, Mogadishu,
Barawa.
7th voyage 1431–1433 Champa, Java, Palembang, Malacca, Samudera,
Andaman and Nicobar Islands,  Bengal, Ceylon,  Calicut, Hormuz,  Aden,  Ganbali, Bengal,
Laccadive and Maldive Islands,  Djofar,  Lasa,  Aden, Mecca,  Mogadishu, Barawa.

In the early 15th century, China became the world’s premier maritime power.

The increase in Chinese sea trade also made piracy lucrative on these seas. The Japanese pirates harassed the whole of southeastern China.

Zheng He‘s feud with King Vira Alakeshwara of Ceylon.

Zheng He brought back to China many trophies and envoys from many kingdoms. During all his seven voyages, Zheng He landed in Ceylon.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, he visited Tevanthurai or Dondra Head (Tamil: தேவன்துறை), a cape on the extreme southern tip of Ceylon. There, Zheng He erected a trilingual stone tablet written in Chinese, Persian and Tamil. The tablet recorded the offerings he made to Buddha, Allah and Hindu gods. The Chinese Admiral also prayed to the thousand Hindu deity statues оf stone аnd bronze and to the primary deity, god Tenavarai Nayanar at the Tenavaram temple, іn Tevanthurai (or Dondra Head). He invoked the blessings of the deities for a peaceful world built on trade.

In 1405, when Zheng He landed in Ceylon during his first voyage, Vira Alakeshwara’s army confronted and plundered his expedition.

Four years later, in 1409, during his third voyage, Zheng He came to Ceylon with an army. King Vira Alakeshwara (Tamil: வீர அழகேஸ்வரர்) of Kotte confronted the Chinese forces. The Chinese retaliated. They captured King Vira Alakeshwara, his queen, his family and kinsmen.

Zheng He then returned to China he brought along with him the captive King Vira Alakeshwara, his family and kinsmen. He wanted Vira Alakeshwara to apologize to the Yongle Emperor for offenses against the Chinese mission.

In 1411, the Yongle Emperor released King Vira Alakeshwara et al.

On the night after King Vira Alakeshwara returned to his capital Kotte in Ceylon his enemies murdered him.

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Next →  Part 4 – Zheng He’s fleet 

← Previous: Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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15th Century Chinese Mariners: Part 1 – The Hongwu Emperor


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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In the 14th and 15th century, the three major cultural realms: China, Christendom and the Islamic World, dominated the maritime activities around Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the China Seas.

The Arabs and other groups adhering to the Islamic faith, while on pilgrimage to Mecca or in trade undertook extensive voyages on the sea from the coasts of Africa across the Indian Ocean to China, north, east, and northwest and vice versa.

At that time there would have been definitely a lot of interactions between China and the Arab World. Did they share geographical information and maritime know-how? What were the maritime endeavors of the Chinese? What circumstances hindered the Chinese from circumnavigating Africa or sailing into the Atlantic?

According to a few pseudo-historians the Chinese landed in North America in 1421, long before Christopher Columbus. Even if it is true, then 420 odd years before the Chinese, Leif Erikson an Icelandic explorer and his crew had already set their feet in North America. (Read my three-part article: “Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America …“)

To know whether the Chinese set foot in North America in 1421 long before the Iberians, let us skim through the history of China in the 14th and 15th century.

The Hongwu Emperor (born as  Zhu Yuanzhang)

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The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty.
The Hongwu Emperor (born as Zhu Yuanzhang), founder of the Ming Dynasty. (Source: ming-yiguan.com)

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The Hongwu Emperor (October 21, 1328 – June 24, 1398), also known by his given name Zhu Yuanzhang and his temple name Ming Taizu, was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China.

Zhu Yuanzhang was born to poor peasants in a village in Zhongli, present day Fengyang, Anhui Province. The region was then ruled by the Yuan dynasty, the empire established by Kublai Khan, the leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan. Zhu had seven older siblings. As they did not have enough food to support the whole family, his parents gave away several children.

When Zhu was 16, the Yangtze River broke its banks and flooded the lands where his family lived. Then, a plague killed his entire family. He and one of his brothers survived.

Destitute Zhu Yuanzhang became a novice monk at the local Buddhist monastery in Huangjue Temple. After a short time, the monastery ran short of funds and food, and Zhu had to leave.

For the next few years, Zhu Yuanzhang led the life of a wandering mendicant. After about three years, he returned to the Huangjue Temple monastery and stayed there for the next five years. The monks taught him to read and write.

In 1352, the monastery where Zhu Yuanzhang lived was  destroyed during a local rebellion against the Mongolian Yuan Dynasty.

Zhu joined one of the many insurgent groups that had risen in rebellion. His rise through the ranks was rapid, and he became a commander. Later, Zhu Yuanzhang’s rebel group joined the Red Turbans, a millenarian sect related to the White Lotus Society, and one that followed cultural and religious traditions of Buddhism, Zoroastrianism and other religions.

Soon, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged as a leader of the rebels struggling to overthrow the Yuan Dynasty. He and the Red Turbans conquered the whole of China. They endeavored to reunite the country.

In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang’s army conquered the city of Nanjing. Later, during his reign, Nanjing became the capital of the Ming Dynasty. Zhu Yuanzhang became famous for good governance. The city of Nanjing attracted people fleeing from many lawless regions in China. Over the next decade,  the population of Nanjing increased tenfold.

In the meantime, internal factions fighting for control weakened the Yuan government. It made little effort to retake the Yangtze River valley that played a large role in the history, culture and economy of China. By 1358, different rebel groups took over central and southern China. The Red Turbans also split up.

Around 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang became the leader of a small faction called “Ming”. A larger faction, under Chen Youliang, controlled the center of the Yangtze River valley.

Zhu Yuanzhang was able to attract many wise and talented people into his service. One of them, a hermit named Zhu Sheng advised him:

Build high walls, stock up rations, and don’t be too quick to call yourself a king.

Another, Jiao Yu, was an artillery officer who later compiled a military treatise outlining the weapons using various types of gunpowder. Another person,  Liu Bowen, became one of Zhu’s key advisors. In later years, Jiao Yu and Liu Bowen edited the military-technological treatise titled Huolongjing (Fire Dragon Manual).

Starting from 1360, Zhu Yuanzhang and Chen Youliang fought a long lasting war for supremacy over the former Red Turban territory. Zhu defeated Chen’s larger navy. A month later, Chen died in battle. After that, Zhu Yuanzhang did not take part in any battles in  person. He remained in Nanjing from where he directed his generals to go on campaigns.

In 1367, Zhu’s forces defeated Zh.ang Shicheng’s Kingdom of Dazhou. This victory granted Zhu’s Ming government authority over the lands north and south of the Yangtze River.

Soon, the other major warlords surrendered to Zhu.

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The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)
The grand ceremony of first Ming emperor Zhu Yuanzhang ascending to the throne exhibited at the Wax Sculpture Palace of Ming Emperors in Changping, Beijing. (Source: ebeijing.gov.cn)

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On January 20, 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang proclaimed himself Emperor of the Ming Dynasty in Nanjing. He adopted the name “Hongwu” meaning “vastly martial” as his era. He pledged that his dynasty would drive away the Mongols and restore the Han Chinese rule  in China.

Ming armies headed north to attack territories that were still under the Yuan Dynasty’s rule. In September 1368, the Mongols gave up their capital city of Khanbaliq (modern Beijing) and the rest of northern China and retreated to Mongolia..

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Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)
Map of the Ming Empire (Source: globalsecurity.org)

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In 1381, the Ming army captured the last Yuan-controlled province of Yunnan and China became unified under the Ming Dynasty’s rule.

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Next →  Part 2 – The Yongle Emperor

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Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America: Part 3 – America Honors Leif Erikson


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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On October 9, 1825, the ship Restauration came into the New York Harbor with immigrants from Stavanger, Norway. It was the first organized official immigration of Norwegians to America.

Stories of Leif Erikson’s journey to Helluland (Baffin Island), Markland (Labrador coast) and Vinland (areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence) in North America later helped the Nordic immigrants to the United States to identify themselves with pride with the great explorer of the new found land.

New England region of the Northeastern United States consists of the six states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In the nineteenth century, the theory that Leif Erikson and his men visited New England gained popularity. Many believed that Cape Cod in Massachusetts could have been the Vinland of the Viking sagas.

Statue of Lief Erikson at Common Wealth Avenue, Boston (Source: wrightimages.com)
Statue of Lief Erikson at Common Wealth Avenue, Boston (Source: wrightimages.com)

In 1887, the first statue of Leif Erikson created by the American sculptor and poet Anne Whitney was erected on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts. It was followed by the erection of another statue of Leif Erikson in Milwaukee by Anne Whitney.

New England in the Northeastern United States consists of the six states of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Vermont. In the nineteenth century, the theory that Leif Ericson and his men visited New England gained popularity. Many believed that Cape Cod in Massachusetts could have been the Vinland of the Viking sagas.

Norumbega Tower,  Weston, Massachusetts.

The Norumbega Tower, Weston, Massachusetts.

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In 1889, Eben Norton Horsford, a Harvard Chemistry professor, erected the Norumbega Tower in Weston, Massachusetts at the confluence of Stony Brook and the Charles River.  He built it to mark the supposed location of Fort Norumbega, a Norse fort and city. The tower is approximately 38 feet tall, composed of mortared field stones with a spiral stone staircase.

Horsford believed that the Algonquin word ‘Norumbega’, means the general region that is now coastal New England. Convinced that the word “Norumbega” was derived from “Norvega” meaning Norway, he believed Norumbega was Vinland.

In 1901, the city of Chicago erected the statue of Leif Erikson that was commissioned for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

In 1925, during the centenary celebration of the first official immigration of Norwegians in America, President Calvin Coolidge told a crowd of 100,000 people at the Minnesota State Fair that Leif Erikson had indeed been the first European to discover America.to America,

Replica of Leif Erikson’s Viking ship in Duluth

Visitors to the Leif Erikson Park and Rose Garden in Duluth, a seaport city in the State of Minnesota, USA, can view the replica of a Viking ship built in 1926 in Norway by local boat builder Christian Overlier for Captain Gerhard Folgero. It is not an exact replica of a Viking craft, but a representation of the same class and style of boat likely used by Leif Erikson himself.

The ship on display is a 42-foot wooden fembøring vessel patterned after the traditional Norwegian working craft constructed of fir or pine. Medieval Norse adventurers, explorers, traders, and fisherfolk used this type of crafts. Architects consider the dragon’s head and tailpiece fitted on the ship to be masterpieces.

Captain Folgero and his crew sailed the fembøring vessel from Bergen, Norway, to the coast of Labrador and beyond, following much of Leif Erikson’s original sea route. From Labrador, they reached Boston, covering in all 6,700 miles in 50 days. During their voyage, they faced hurricane-like winds, icebergs, and fog.

From Boston, they sailed on to Duluth to take part in a national convention of Norwegian emigrants invited by the Norwegian-American immigrant and businessman H.H. Borgen.

The crew landed in Duluth on June 23, 1927.

Bert Enger, a Norwegian immigrant and West End furniture dealer along with the wife of his late business partner, Emil Olson, purchased the Norwegian boat and presented it to the city of Duluth. The ship placed on display in Duluth’s Lake Park was later named Leif Erikson Park. The boat was once considered Duluth’s second-largest tourist attraction after the Aerial Lift Bridge.

In 1929, the Wisconsin Legislature passed a bill to make October 9 “Leif Erikson Day”.

A few have speculated that Norsemen may have penetrated as far as Minnesota, either down from Hudson Bay or going west through the Great Lakes. Some researchers suggest that the Mandan Indians showed evidence of being culturally influenced by pre-Columbian explorers from Europe. A Runestone with carvings of a Scandanavian nature was discovered near Kensington, Minnesota, dating to approximately 1030.

Statue of Leif Erikcson near the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Statue of Leif Erikcson near the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.

On October 9, 1949, a statue of Leif was erected near the State Capitol in St. Paul, Minnesota.

In 1964, the United States Congress authorized and requested the president to proclaim October 9, of each year as “Leif Erikson Day”.

U.S. commemorative stamp issued 9 October 1968, Leif Erikson Day.
U.S. commemorative stamp issued 9 October 1968, Leif Erikson Day.commemorative stamp issued 9 October 1968, Leif Erikson Day.

On October 9, 1968, Leif Erikson Day, the United States issued a commemorative stamp to honor Leif Erikson, the first Viking colonizer of North America.

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← Previous: Part 2 – Leif Erikson

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Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America: Part 2 – Leif Erikson


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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 Bjarni Herjólfsson

The “Saga of the Greenlanders” (“Grænlendinga saga” in modern Icelandic tells that in the summer of 986, Bjarni Herjólfsson, a Norse explorer sailed to Iceland as usual, to visit his parents. Since his father had migrated to Greenland with Erik the Red, Bjarni with his crew set off to find him.

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Bjarni Herjólfsson (Source: ru.warriors.wikia.com)
Bjarni Herjólfsson (Source: ru.warriors.wikia.com)

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In the 10th century, they had no map or devices such as compasses to guide them. Neither Bjarni nor any of his crew members had been to Greenland before. A storm blew them off course. Bjarni and his crew saw a piece of land covered with trees and mountains. The land looked hospitable. They were not sure whether it was Greenland. Although his crew begged him to, Bjarni refused to stop and explore the new lands. He was much eager to reach Greenland to see his parents.

So, Bjarni Herjólfsson was the first European to have made landfall there and see North America beyond Greenland.

After regaining his course, and arriving in Greenland, Bjarni reported seeing the low-lying hills covered with forests some distance farther to the west. But at the time no one seems to have shown interest. Later, word spread of the lands to the west, which Bjarni Herjólfsson had seen.

As they lacked timber, Greenlanders took a special interest in what Bjarni described. They became allured by the wooded coastline Bjarni had seen. It created a great intrigue throughout the Nordic Empire. Though Bjarni was celebrated by the Greenlanders, King Eric chided him for not exploring that land mass.

 Leif Erikson

In 999, Leif Erikson, the son of Greenland leader Erik Thorvaldsson (Old Norse: Eiríkr Þorvaldsson), also known as Erik the Red (Old Norse: Eiríkr hinn rauði), travelled from Greenland to Norway.

Leif Erikson ((Source - pixgood.com)
Leif Erikson ((Source – pixgood.com)

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Blown off course to the Hebrides and staying there for much of the summer with his crew, Leif arrived in Norway. He became a hirdman of King Olaf Tryggvason. He converted to Christianity from Norse paganism and took on the mission of introducing the new religion to Greenland.

Leif Erikson, having heard the story of Bjarni Herjólfsson, approached Bjarni and purchased the ship he had used for his voyage.

The Saga of Erik the Red says Leif Erikson hired a crew of 35 men. He planned to take his father, Erik the Red along with him in his expedition, however, Erik fell off his horse on the way to the ship, and this was taken as a bad omen and stayed at home. Leif with his crew set out towards the land Bjarni had described. He retraced Bjarni’s route in reverse.

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Map shows the route Leif Erikson took to reach Vinland
Map shows the route Leif Erikson took to reach Vinland

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They first went up the West Coast of Greenland and then crossed the Davis Strait and landed first in a rocky and desolate place which he named Helluland (“the land of the flat stones”), possibly Baffin Island.

Then, they went down south and found a forest area which amazed them because there were no trees in Greenland. They named the region Markland (“Wood Land”), possibly Labrador coast.

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The Viking expedition led by Leif Eriksson lands on Vinland (Source: kids.britannica.com)
The Viking expedition led by Leif Eriksson lands on Vinland (Source: kids.britannica.com)

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After two more days at sea, they landed in a luscious place. Relative to Greenland, the weather was mild. Salmon was aplenty in the streams. They named the region Vinland (“land of pastures”).

During one of these explorations, they found the land was full of vines and grapes. Leif and his crew built a small settlement, which later visitors from Greenland called Leifsbúðir (Leif’s Booths).

The earliest record of the name “Winland” is in chapter 39 of Adam of Bremen’s “Descriptio insularum Aquilonis” (“Description of the Northern Islands”) written c. 1075. Adam implies that the name contains Old Norse “vín” (Latin “vinum” meaning “wine”):

Praeterea unam adhuc insulam recitavit a multis in eo repertam occeano, quae dicitur Winland, eo quod ibi vites sponte nascantur, vinum optimum ferentes.

“In addition, the island discovered by many in one of the seas, which is called Winland, from the fact that the spontaneous growth of grapevines, produced the best wine.”

This etymology retained in the 13th-century Saga of the Greenlanders, provides a circumstantial account of the discovery of Vinland, and named from the vínber, i.e. “wine berry,” a term for grapes or currants (black or red), found there.

Archaeological evidences suggest that Vinland may have been the areas around the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the world’s largest estuary, and the outlet of the North American Great Lakes via the Saint Lawrence River into the Atlantic Ocean.

Leif Erikson formed two groups: one to remain at the camp, and the other to explore the lands.

After having spent the winter in Vinland, Leif Erikson returned to the family estate of Brattahlíð in Greenland in the spring of 1000 with a cargo of grapes and timber.

In Greenland, he started preaching Christianity. His father, Erik Thorvaldsson reacted with anger to the suggestion that he should abandon his religion –  Norse paganism.

Replica of Tjodhilde's Church, was built in Brattahlið (Source: greenland.com)

Replica of Tjodhilde’s Church that was built in Brattahlið (Source: greenland.com)

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His mother became a Christian and built a church called Thorhild’s Church (actually a small chapel) in Brattahlið.

At odds with both wife and eldest son Leif, Erik attempted a sail to Leif’s Vinland with his youngest son Thorstein. They failed to reach Newfoundland, but the doughty Eric said, “We were more cheerful when we put out of the fjord in the summer; but at least we are still alive, and it might have been worse.”

Erik the Red is last mentioned in the sagas in 1005.

Leif Erickson is last mentioned alive in 1019. By 1025, he installed one of his sons, Thorkell as the chieftain of Eriksfjord (Eiríksfjǫrðr).

None of the sagas mentions Leif Erickson’s death. He must have died in Greenland. Nothing further is known about his family beyond the succession of Thorkell as chieftain.

In the early 1960s, Norwegian explorer Helge Ingstad and his wife, archaeologist Anne Stine Ingstad, identified a Norse settlement located at the northern tip of Newfoundland. They suggested that this site, known as L’Anse aux Meadows, is Leif’s settlement of Leifsbúðir, the first known attempt at founding a settlement by Europeans on the mainland of the Americas.

Leif Erikson had opened the way to America. Vikings ships plied from Greenland to these “new lands” (Newfoundland) during the following years.

According to Brattahlíð lore, Thorvaldur, the brother of Leif Erikson set sail to further explore Vinland. The natives of Vinland, called Skrælings (“stunted”) by the Norse because of their small size, attacked Thorvaldur and his crew. Thorvaldur received a fatal wound and his men buried him in Vinland and returned to Greenland.

According to the “Saga of the Greenlanders,” Leif Erikson’s younger brother Thorstein set sail for Vinland along with his wife Gudrid Thorbjarnardóttir (Guðríður Þorbjarnardóttir) to retrieve his brother Thorvaldur’s body. Losing their way at sea they had to return. At the close of the first week of winter, they landed at Lysufiord, where Thorstein fell ill and died.

After her husband’s death, Gudrid returned to Brattahlíð. She married a merchant named Thorfinn Karlsefni, “a man of good family and good means” and “a merchant of good repute.” After their marriage, at Gudrid’s insistence, the couple set sail to Vinland with a group of sixty men, five women, and various livestock in an attempt to settle down in the camp that Leif Erickson had built some years earlier. They spent three years in Vinland.

In Vínland, Gudrid bore a son, the first European reported to be born in the Western Hemisphere. They named him Snorri Thorfinnsson,

Harassed by the natives, Thorfinn and Gudrid returned with their son to Greenland, where Thorfinn Karlsefni died.

After that, the hostile indigenous people of Vinland thwarted the many attempts by settlers from Greenland and Iceland to found a colony there. The stories of the various Viking expeditions survived in the collective memory of the descendants of those who returned by the 13th century from the North American coast to settle once again in Greenland and Iceland.

The Norse settlements in coastal North America were small. They did not develop into permanent colonies. While voyages, such as to collect timber, are likely to have occurred for some time, there is no evidence of enduring Norse settlements on mainland North America.

Leif Erikson has the honor of being the first European to open the way to America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus.

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Next → Part 3 – America Honors Leif Erikson

← Previous: Part 1-  Erik the Red

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Vikings, the First Colonizers of North America: Part 1 – Erik the Red


Myself

By T.V. Antony Raj

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For eons, the Americas were a pristine no man’s land.  Around 12,000 BC, humans first stepped onto the North American continent. But who were they?

The Clovis people
 Beringia Land Bridge. This animation illustrates the flooding of the Bering Land Bridge over the last 18,000. (Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Beringia Land Bridge. This animation illustrates the flooding of the Bering Land Bridge over the last 18,000. (Source: US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

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Approximately 14,000 years ago, humans walked across the Bering Strait from Siberia into Alaska. They were the Clovis people.

The Clovis culture is a prehistoric Paleo-Indian culture, named after distinct stone tools found at sites near Clovis, New Mexico, in the 1920s and 1930s. This culture appears at the end of the last glacial period,  roughly  around 13,200.

The Clovis people spent the next few thousand years migrating from Alaska to the south and east across North America, and then into South America.

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Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa, These are from the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist collection.
Clovis points from the Rummells-Maske Site, 13CD15, Cedar County, Iowa, These are from the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist collection.

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The manufacture of “Clovis points” and distinctive bone and ivory tools characterize the culture of the Clovis people. They are the ancestors of most of the indigenous cultures of the Americas: the Folsom tradition, Gainey, Suwannee-Simpson, Plainview-Goshen, Cumberland, and Redstone.

At the same time as the Clovis people began leaving behind tools, human bones and other evidence of their presence in the northwest, humans were leaving similar items along the New England coastline in the Northeastern United States. It puzzled the historians. They wondered how the Clovis people could trek from both Alaska and New England at the same time?

The answer – two different cultures discovered America: one crossing the frozen Bering Strait, on foot; and the other traveling from Europe to America’s east coast by boat.

Gunnbjørn Ulfsson

Gunnbjørn Ulfsson (circa 10th century), also known as Gunnbjørn Ulf-Krakuson, a Norwegian, was the first European to sight North America. Blown off course while sailing from Norway to Iceland, GunnbjørnUlfsson and his crew sighted islands which he called “Gunnbjarnarsker”  (Gunnbjörn’s Skerries) lying close off the coast of Greenland. They did not land on any of those islands. However, Gunnbjørn reported this find.

The exact date of this event is not recorded in the Nordic sagas. Various sources cite dates ranging from 876 to 932, but these must remain little more than guesses, but the early 10th century is more likely than earlier.

Around 978, Snaebjörn Galti (c. 910 – 978) made the first purposeful visit to Gunnbjørn’s islands. According to records from the time, this first Norse attempt to colonize Greenland ended in disaster.

Historians consider Eric the Red, the Viking rover, who soon followed Galti’s attempt, as the first permanent European settler in Greenland.

Eric the Red

According to medieval and Icelandic sagas Erik Thorvaldsson (Eiríkr Þorvaldsson) was born in the Jaeren district of Rogaland in Norway around 950.

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Erik the Red, the fierce red-haired Viking discovered Greenland about AD 982. (Source: lookandlearn.com)
Erik the Red, the fierce red-haired Viking discovered Greenland about AD 982. (Source: lookandlearn.com)

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He is best known as Erik the Red (Eiríkr hinn rauði). The appellation “the Red” most likely refers to the color of his hair and beard and perhaps also because of his fiery temper.

Erik’s father Thorvald Asvaldsson (Þorvald Ásvaldsson) was banished from Norway for manslaughter. Thorvald sailed West from Norway with his family and settled in Hornstrandir in northwestern Iceland, 175 miles away from Greenland.

Erik married Thorhild (Thjóðhildr), daughter of Jorund Atlisson, and as part of her dowry received land at Eriksstadir in Haukadal where he built a farm.

Around the year 980, the thralls (serfs or slaves) of Erik caused a landslide on the neighboring farm belonging to Valthjof. The landslide buried the home of Valthjof along with him and his family. Eyiolf the Foul, a kinsman of Valthjof in turn killed the thralls. Eric retaliated by killing Eyjolf and Holmgang-Hrafn. Eyjolf’s kinsmen demanded the banishment of Erik from Haukadal.

The Vikings cherished the ornamental beams which were symbols of Viking authority and had religious, mystical, and political significance known as the setstokkr. Erik had inherited his setstokkr which his father had brought with him from Norway. After giving this setstokkr to his friend Thorgest (Þórgestr) to look after, Erik and Thorhild moved to the isle of Öxney off the western Icelandic coast.

After building his new house, Erik went back to Haukadal to get his setstokkr. Thorgest refused to give them back. An infuriated Erik went to Breidabolstad and stole Thorgest’s own setstokkr instead.

Thorgest gave chase. Erik prepared an ambush. In the ensuing skirmish, Erik slew both sons of Thorgest and a few other men.

Thorgest approached the court.

In 981, the thing (Þing), assembly of Thorness resolved the dispute. Erik was banished from both Iceland and Norway, for three years.

Colonizing Greenland

Erik the Red had heard about the “Greater Ireland” settlements in Greenland, a small, unprotected Irish settlement in Greenland.

In the spring of 981 he traveled westward in his 100-foot-long ship. It was not a romantic voyage with the urge to discover new lands. It was rather a typical Viking voyage of plunder.

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An illustration by Carl Rasmussen of Erik the Red on a Viking longboat as he and his men from Norway first land on what became Greenland in 982 AD (MansellGetty Images)
An illustration by Carl Rasmussen of Erik the Red on a Viking longboat as he and his men from Norway first land on what became Greenland in 982 AD (MansellGetty Images)

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Erik’s party landed near Julianehåb. They arrived too late to reap the reward, for the Irish settlers had already left and mere arctic desolation greeted them.

They spent the first winter on the island of Eiriksey. In spring, he proceeded to Eriksfjord (Eiríksfjǫrðr). They spent the second winter in Eiriksholmar, close to Hvarfsgnipa.

According to the Saga of Erik the Red, Erik spent his three years of exile exploring this land. In the last summer, they explored as far north as Snaefell and into Hrafnsfjord. They even crossed the Davis Strait and reached Baffin Island, then abundant with game.

Erik was much impressed with the resources he found in the land. He was convinced that the new land was better adapted than Iceland for raising stock.

In 985, Erik returned to Iceland after the expiry of his exile period. He wanted to found a colony in the new land he had found. He knew that the success of any settlement in the new land would need the support of as many people as possible.

Erik had great powers of persuasion. He was always boasting and praising the new land he had returned from. To lure potential settlers, Erik on purpose called the land “Greenland” which was a more appealing name than “Iceland”. Many Vikings, especially those living on impoverished lands in Iceland and those that had been victims of a recent famine became convinced that Greenland held great opportunity.

The following year Erik set out from Iceland leading a fleet of 25 ships on course for Greenland. On board were around 500 men and women, various livestock, provisions and gear required to found the settlement in Greenland.

Of the 25 ships only 14 made it to the eastern shore of Greenland – of the other 11, some sank while others turned back to Iceland.

Each sea-captain claimed a fjord to which he gave his name.

Erik the Red and his wife Thorhild took the best fjord. They called it Eriksfjord (Eiríksfjǫrðr). They built the farm Brattahlið near its head (in present-day Qassiarsuk). Here, Erik lived like a Jarl (lord) with his wife and four children: Leif Erikson, Thorvald (Þorvaldr) Eiriksson, Thorstein (Þorsteinn) Eiriksson, and an illegitimate daughter, Freydis Eiríkssdóttir.

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A farm house in Greenland (Source: bestof.fjordnorway.com)
A farm-house in Greenland (Source: bestof.fjordnorway.com)

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Along one side of Eriksfjord was much good pasture. The farm Brattahlið lay on one of the most fertile plains in Greenland. Another large green valley lay behind it.

Erik the Red held the title of the paramount chieftain of Greenland and became both much respected, and wealthy.

Both the Eastern Settlement (the area around present-day Qaqortoq, formerly Julianehåb) and the Western Settlement (around Nuuk or Godthåb, the capital and largest city of Greenland) were presumably established soon.

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The Eastern Settlement, Greenland (Source: archaeology.about.com)
The Eastern Settlement, Greenland (Source: archaeology.about.com)

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The Eastern Settlement was about 300 miles south of the Western Settlement. Located near the mouth of Eiriksfjord in the area of Qaqortog, the Eastern Settlement had about 200 farmsteads and supporting facilities.

During the summers, when the weather favored travel, each fjord-based settlement would send an army of men to hunt in Iss Vagr above the Arctic Circle. They hunted  food and other valuable commodities such as seals, Walrus tusks and meat from beached whales. In these expeditions, they first met the Inuit people or Skræling.

The settlement flourished, growing to 5000 inhabitants spread over a considerable area along Eriksfjord and neighboring fjords. Groups of people escaping overcrowding in Iceland migrated to Greenland.

In 1002, a group of immigrants brought with it an epidemic that ravaged the colony, killing many of its leading citizens, including Erik the Red.

The Norse colony in Greenland lasted for almost 500 years.

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Next → Part 2 – Leif Erikson

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