Zheng’s flag ship next to the Santa Maria.
Columbus set off in 1492 in three ships, the Santa Maria of approximately 90 feet, the Pinta, between 60 to 80 feet and the Niňa of 60 feet, the best that Spain had to offer at this time. As history confirms, Columbus set off, not really knowing where he was going, arrived and certainly didn’t know where he was, and came back, not knowing where he’d been.
Let us not be too harsh on the man. This was an age of church-controlled exploration and in the Europe of those days nothing happened without the blessing of the church. Indeed, Columbus was interviewed by no less a personage than Tomás de Torquemada, a prominent figure in the infamous Inquisition that was taking place in Spain at that time, to ensure that he was undertaking this expedition for all the right reasons.
Those reasons, Columbus assured Torquemada, were in keeping with the aims of the Catholic Church. To spread the word of God to the heathens, find a shorter, safer trading route to the Indies, and, if they found any gold along the way, so much the better.
The voyages of Columbus are well documented and there is no need to repeat the details here, other than to say that there is a faction that suggested that Columbus, instead of being hailed as a great explorer, should be classified as a genocidal maniac ultimately responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of natives.
Interestingly Columbus was reported to have used a map originally drawn by a cartographer who sailed with the Eunuch Admiral, Zheng He, and this brings us on to the next point.
About 70 years earlier another explorer set sail with the express purpose of opening up new trade for his country. There was no ulterior motive of spreading religion to the heathen or making them change their life styles to suit his own, his quest was purely and simply trade.
Zheng He’s fleet consisted of over 300 ships and his flagship, while reports vary, was supposed to have been about 400 feet in length. Interestingly, an archeological dig in Southern China in a location believed to have been a shipbuilding area discovered a tiller post some 30 feet in length. It is estimated that the vessel that carried it was in excess of 300 feet.
Zheng He’s flagship carried nine masts and her mainsail was of such size that it took one hour to set. His armada set sail self reliant with supply and treasure ships, and a sizable detachment of marines. His expedition was well planned, well organized and well executed. Zheng He’s fame and exploits, like those of Columbus are also well documented up to the point where it is believed that he rounded the Cape of Good Hope, sailed up the Atlantic and discovered America.
As exciting as this may sound it has never, and will probably never, be confirmed. It does however, open up an interesting scenario.
Just supposing, as Zheng He’s fleet sailed up the Atlantic a space, time warp continuum brought Columbus’s fleet in direct contact with that of Zheng He’s. Let us try to imagine what might transpire as the very latest in Spanish maritime technology comes into contact with that of China.
The crew members of the Santa Maria, when confronted with Zheng He’s flagship might well have thrown themselves to their knees and implored God to save them from this heathen behemoth.
And on Zheng He’s ship his executive officer might well have said, “Ah Sir, look, Spanish boat people. Should we offer them assistance?”
The epilogue, of course, is that the Ming emperors turned their backs on the seas and left Zheng He literally and figuratively high and dry, while the seafaring nations of Europe went on to conquer the world.
Of course this never really happened. But, just supposing……..