1421: The Year When China Nearly Discovered America and the World

Today marks the two hundred and thirty third anniversary of the founding of the United States of America. History tells us that the America continent was discovered by Christopher Columbus on October 12, 1492. But, a nascent naval power had the ability to discover and colonize this new world some ninety years before.

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 ninety 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.
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?

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2 Responses to “1421: The Year When China Nearly Discovered America and the World”


  1. 1 Michael Martin-Smith July 11, 2009 at 9:55 am

    THis missed opportunity is not lost on today's rulers in China. Several years ago, when Yang Liwei made his spaceflght, I had a letter printed in the People's Daily, and an article in a Chinese astronomical/astronautical magazine,as well as in the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding's Journal pointing out the parallels between the seven voyages of Zheng He and the seven US successful Apollo missions.THere is now the opportunity for China to reverse their eclipse by the West due to the Ming bureaucracy's decisions, without bloodshed.We now know that Solar Power Satellites will play a key role in clean sustainable energy generation, and that the moon/Near Earth asteroids will help enormously in supplying raw materials.Had Apollo not gone the way of Zheng He, we could well not now be facing energy shortages and massive greenhouse gas emissions.Cheap access to Space( not propping up ancient industries and banks) are the way forwardChina has long memories and is very patient; we, it appears , are not. Wansui, Zhongguo!

  2. 2 Ralph Buttigieg July 12, 2009 at 11:51 am

    G'day,Michael, we don't know anysuch thing about Solar Power Satellites and I'm unaware the Chinese have any real interest in them. But the do like nukes.taRalph


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