The year 1421 could have been a pivotal year in world history and would make a magnificent point of divergence in many an alternate history novel. 1421 could have been the year when Ming dynasty China could have set into motion a series of events that would have led the Chinese to discovery the Americas some seventy years before Christopher Columbus, circumnavigate the globe and transform Imperial China from merely a regional power into a major naval superpower of global extent on which the Sun would never have set. Instead China chose to abrogate its appointment with destiny and retreated into a long period of isolationism. The conquest of the world and control of the oceans were left to the countries of a Europe just awaking from a long period of intellectual slumber. Eventually the new emerging maritime powers of Europe found their way to the shores of the Dragon’s lair and were in due course to carve the carcass of this impotent giant between themselves.
The story of the voyages of Zheng He is a wonderful and cautionary tale of lost opportunity and “might have beens” in the annuals of global history. Zheng He was the admiral of seven major ocean expeditions, that were to voyage as far as Indonesia, India, the Middle-east, the east coast of Africa and as far as Arabia. These voyages took place over the course of the first three decades of the Fifteenth Century (1405-1433). Zheng He’s fleet consisted of three hundred ships and a crew of twenty-eight thousand men. The ships of this majestic fleet dwarfed the exploratory vessels of Portugal, Spain and England during all the Great Age of European Exploration of the latter part of the Fifteenth Century and well into the Seventeenth Century.
|Map from Gavin Menzies’ 2002 book “1421: The Year China Discovered the World ”This map purports to show the voyages of several Chinese exploration fleets around 1421.|
|The Actual Known Voyages of Zheng He|
There is no real evidence to support Gavin Menzies thesis that Zheng He's fleet went on to round the Cape of Good Hope to then enter the Atlantic Ocean and eventually discover and settle the Americas. And neither is there any compelling evidence that the fleet circumnavigated the world.
In fact, Gavin Menzies should have aptly named his book “1421: The Year When China Nearly Discovered America and the World and Nearly Became a World Power”
China had the technology and the navigational skills to accomplish these feats and become a major global power. But, China did not. Why not? The simple answer to that question is that Imperial China chose not to.
When Emperor Yongle died in 1424, factions within the imperial court who opposed the expeditions won the day. Eventually the emergent European powers seized the opportunities afforded to them by engaging in maritime exploration and trade. China eventually fell prey to their domination and was dominated and colonized by them.
The moral of this tale is a simple one- If you do not seize a golden opportunity for success others will. When a great power makes the decision to turn away from a new frontier, it does not mean that that frontier has closed. It only means that other powers will exploit the wealth that lies in wait to be had.
As we enter the second act of the Space Age will the United States heed this lesson of history and establish a new “Celestial Empire” and reap the benefits of the vast treasure troves of the mineral and energy wealth that awaits us out amongst the stars. Or will we leave this golden opportunity to others in our stead?
1421: The Year When China Discovered America?
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