Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Menzies' maps explained

Below is a copy of a recently sent press article

Paul Kekai Manansala

Meet Menzies' real mystery map-makers

Gavin Menzies went off-course when he failed to consider Southeast Asia's influence on the age of discovery, contends researcher and sambali.blogspot.com blogger Paul Kekai Manansala.

He is referring to Menzies million-selling book, _1421: The Year China Discovered the World_, that asserts a Chinese fleet led by Admiral Zheng He circumnavigated the globe about a century before Magellan.

"Menzies' book, while filled with much easily-debunked material, makes valid and important points about the appearance of revolutionary maps in the fifteenth century.
The map revolution, in fact, started about a century earlier with the appearance of the portolan maps in the 14th century -- charts used by mariners to navigate the seas," Manansala said.

Zheng He's treasure voyages were impressive and he may well have traveled further than he is normally given credit for, Manansala notes. "Menzies' assertion that the 1420 voyage past the Cape of Good Hope, mentioned by the Venetian cartographer Fra Mauro, refers to Zheng's fleet is not without merit." The vessel involved in the voyage is described as a 'ship or junk' and the Chinese admiral was sailing in the Indian Ocean at the time.

"Menzies though has ignored in his research the influence of Southeast Asia in the appearance of new navigational charts, and in particular Southeast Asia's influence in transmitting these maps to Europe."

Spice trade

The story starts many centuries before the time of Zheng He with the establishment of the spice trade, especially the Cinnamon Route from Southeast Asia to the coast of Southern Africa.

"Trade in spices dates back to ancient times, and Muslim writers mention ships traveling back and forth between Southeast Asia and Africa after the rise of Islam. They were simply confirming what had been written centuries before by Greek authors about the same Indian Ocean trade."

Aloeswood, cinnamon, cassia and other aromatics made their way from Southeast Asia to African ports and then went north to North Africa and the Middle East, and eventually to Europe.

Manansala contends that with the rise of Islam these ancient trade routes were seriously threatened for the first time by Muslim military and economic expansion.

"Sea empires known as thalassocracies in Southeast Asia decided to take a proactive stance against the new development. They attempted to recruit other political allies to help curb Muslim influence in the Indian Ocean, and they often made their appeals on the basis of common religion."

The Southeast Asian kings involved, Manansala says, were patrons of many religions, a situation not uncommon in the region during that period. "They basically became extreme examples of realpolitik and didn't hesitate to alternately represent themselves and their kingdoms as belonging to one religion when talking to one group, but to another religion when approaching someone else."

For example, he says that when the Insular Southeast Asian thalassocracy approached the Tantric Buddhist kingdoms of Tibet and Eastern India they sent Tantric Buddhist emissaries. These emissaries brought a messianic philosophy that placed the Hijra, the date on which Muhammad and his followers fled to Medina, as the beginning of the decline of the ages.

"Basically to the spice trade empire, the loss of their trade routes may have been viewed as apocalyptic in character. To Christian Europe, the Eastern king that controlled the spice trade was known as Prester John, and the latter king portrayed himself and his empire as Nestorian Christians based in a location known to Nestorians as Dabag."

Letters of Prester John

The original Prester John was from the East Indies, but in latter times the emperor of Ethiopia is also considered as "Prester John," Manansala said. However, only the Ethiopian Prester John is usually considered historical while many Western historians dismiss Prester John of the Indies as a hoax.

"Actually, the eastern Prester John sent envoys to the Vatican and to Christian emperors and kings, just like the Negus of Ethiopia, and for many centuries. While many fradulent letters did pop up during this time, most of the hoaxes appeared in published form only. It would have been dangerous to have presented oneself at the court of a medieval Christian potentate with a faked letter."

Emissaries and correspondence from the eastern Prester John were the first part of a strategy to attract Christian kingdoms into the Indian Ocean with the aim of countering Muslim influence. Eventually this evolved into the transmission of geographical and navigational knowledge, including maps.

Prester John's first letter to Europe appeared in the 12th century, but it wasn't until centuries later after Mongol conquests enabled European voyages to the Indian Ocean that we see the start of a map revolution.

The Portolan maps

In the early fourteenth century, a Venetian named Marino Sanuto submitted a book entitled "Secretum Fidelium Crucis" to the Pope outlining a plan for a crusade to capture the Indian Ocean trade routes. In this book was contained a world map by Pietro Vesconte, whose mariner's charts are the oldest surviving examples of portolan map-making.

"The historian Joseph Needham in his massive work on Chinese science has suggested that the portolan chart came as part of a package along with the magnetic compass, sand clock, stern rudder, zig-zag tables known as marteloio and other nautical inventions. The Chinese do appear to have invented many of these technologies but that doesn't mean they were necessarily the ones that transmitted them elsewhere. And the Chinese never used portolan marine charts."

The portolan is distinguished from modern maps, with their orderly grid arrangement of longitude and latitude, by a hodgepodge of crisscrossing directions known as rhumb lines. The rhumb lines radiate from circular wind compasses dispersed at various locations on the chart. They were the first European maps widely used as mariner's charts.

"Wind compasses were used by indigenous navigators in both Insular Southeast Asia and the Pacific in a manner similar to rhumb sailing using portolans. They were used by Pacific islanders -- the Melanesians, Micronesians and Polynesians -- to explore and settle the Pacific. In both Southeast Asia and the Pacific, wind compasses have survived until modern times."

Needham had suggested that Chinese maps showing directional instructions in text form near map destinations later involved into rhumb lines.

But were mariner's charts marked with rhumb lines ever used in the East? According to Manansala, such maps were mentioned and at least one with rhumb lines occurs in a 16th century Portuguese account.

"Marco Polo twice mentions the use of mariner's charts in the Indian Ocean in his famous travel journal. Marco Polo was a contemporary of Sanuto and Vesconte -- the two people linked with the earliest portolan maps."

When Portuguese explorers began plying the waters of the Indian Ocean nearly two centuries after Polo's account, they came upon a few important indigenous mariner's charts.

"Three charts encountered by the early Portuguese were deemed worthy of mention. One each from India and Brunei or Buru in the East Indies had rectangular grid systems similar to modern maps. The other was from a Javanese pilot written in the Javanese language which was covered with rhumb lines," Manansala said.

Some years after the Javanese world map was discovered by the Portuguese pilot Francisco Rodrigues, he notes, an exceptional portolan map of the world was presented by the Turkish cartographer Piri Reis to Sultan Selim I in Cairo. According to Reis, his new chart was constructed using many different maps including "four new Portuguese maps drawn using the geometric methods of the Indies and China."

The borrowed "geometric methods" mentioned by Reis would include, according to Manansala, the rhumb lines as shown on the Javanese chart.

Maps drawn mainly for foreigners?

Pilots in Southeast Asia during that time did not normally use charts as they had more ancient methods that were effective and not so costly, Manansala avers. "It's possible that some of these maps were drawn specifically to present to Europeans and others they wanted to attract to the region."

"When the British cartographer Alexander Dalrymple came to chart these regions centuries later for the British crown, he encountered suddenly many maps, and informants willing to draw maps. This occurs though after voyager after voyager before him reported that local pilots in the region used neither chart or compass. So, basically it was only during the periods when the Portuguese, and later the British, first appeared on the scene looking for assistance that we see these indigenous maps crawl out of the woodwork."

"Unfortunately, the lack of practical map use in the region may be why none of the early Insular Southeast Asian charts have survived into the present. The map discovered by Francisco Rodrigues, though, can be partially reconstructed using the book of rutters, or sailing directions, written by Rodrigues."

When the Portuguese first began their explorations on the sea, they apparently uncovered some hidden and very revealing maps. These charts mentioned by Antonio Galvão in the 16th century form part of the basis of Menzies claims on the circumnavigation of Zheng He.

Some scholars have claimed that Galvão's account of a world map in the possession of Dom Pedro, the brother of Prince Henry the Navigator, is confirmed by an official document of King Alfonso V of Portugal.

"The problem with Menzies claim is that the Galvão maps are dated to 1408 and 1428 and could not have been delivered to Dom Pedro by Nicolo de Conti as claimed by Menzies. De Conti was still traveling in Asia in 1428 according to all accounts," Manansala said.

He believes the maps may have actually been Templar charts that they obtained through Prester John before the Templar order was destroyed in the early 14th century. The Templars are closely associated with Prester John in medieval literature.

"There was a group known in Muslim writings as the Sayabiga, who are believed to have come from Insular Southeast Asia. Many of the Sayabiga became Shi'ites in the Middel Eastern region, and I think it is through them that Prester John of the Indies made contact with the Templars. Some Sayabiga may have penetrated into order of Assassins who were known to have direct relations with the Templars."

"When the Templar order was banned, many Templars along with their possessions took refuge in Cistercian monasteries. The 1408 map mentioned by Galvão was found in the archives of the Alcobaza, a Cistercian abbey where they also discovered a copy of the Templar oath."

In Portugal, the local Templars were found free of guilt after the banning of the order and the group was renamed the Order of Christ, which inherited all the Templar possessions. Later, the monarchy of Portugal was invested with the Grand Mastery of the Order of Christ, and Prince Henry the Navigator himself became a Grand Master. Dom Pedro, Henry's brother who discovered the other Galvão map in Italy was also a member of the Order of Christ.

New view of the world

The maps mentioned by Galvão were said to show a world much different than that of previous European maps.

The Cape of Good Hope was shown as passable, and even the Strait of Magellan in the "New World" was supposedly displayed a century before Magellan. "Up until that time, Europeans did not believe one could pass into the Indian Ocean by sea."

However, in the East, the Mongol Atlas and the still-surviving Kangnido Map from Korea do show a very accurate and passable continent of Africa. They don't display anything though that would correspond to the "Western hemisphere."

The first Asian map to show something from the Western hemisphere was the afore-mentioned Javanese map of Francisco Rodrigues. Alfonso de Albuquerque said the Javanese map 'was the finest thing he had ever seen' and apparently the chart contained much information unfamiliar to the Portuguese in 1512.

"Many scholars have interpreted the Javanese map as an example of how the news of European discoveries was penetrating even to far-off Java, but the chart might instead explain the earlier mysterious Galvão charts," Manansala said. "Those charts were said to contain navigational information for sailing the Indies, that is, they were mariner's charts, just like the Javanese map. They may have been marked with rhumb lines like the Javanese chart."

The 1428 map of Dom Pedro may have helped encourage the early Portuguese navigations, but those voyates proceeded only with extreme caution. The maps were dusty and disconnected from reality according to Manansala. The Portuguese apparently interpreted notes on Prester John as relating to Ethiopia rather than the Indies.

It was not until a European witness returned from traveling in the Indian Ocean had confirmed this earlier information that the most daring voyages occured. This European witness was Nicolo de Conti.

"After de Conti returned to Europe you began to see maps and globes appearing reguarly showing the Western Hemisphere. This information probably did not come out of nowhere. Fra Mauro mentions a journey by a ship or junk from the Indies through the Cape of Good Hope around 1420. Supposedly that voyage covered a total of 32,000 kilometers. There probably were other similar journeys around the same time, if not well before."

One of the key pieces of evidence used by Menzies to prove that Zheng He sailed around the world is a stash of artifacts known as metates and manos found in a ship wreck off the coast of the southern Philippines. Menzies claims the metates and manos were exclusive to the Americas.

"Menzies' critics often respond that metates and manos were also found in very ancient Paleolithic and Neolithic China, but these arguments are really out-of-sync. The appearance of these artifacts in the Pandanan wreck is very unusual and definitely worthy of investigation. As evidence, they are really the only hard artifacts that Menzies offers presumbly from the New World but located in the Old World."

The location of the Pandanan wreck is telling according to Manansala because it was near his suggested base of operations of Prester John during the Ming dynasty.

"Yes, Prester John was still active at that time and Nicolo de Conti claimed not only to have met him but that he was married to a woman of that country by the king! During the Ming dynasty, Prester John kingdom was known as Lusung, from which we get the name of the modern island of Luzon in the Philippines."