Products from "The New World", Zheng He & the De Virga Map

On California Island Maps, the waterway separating the island from mainland is called Vermejo—meaning “the Vermilion Sea.” This is the name that Marco Polo gave to the Gulf of California. This is the place where Japanese merchants obtained valuable red pearls. It is also the place where Cochin merchants obtained bags of a red pigment that is known as Cochineal.

The Cochineal dye was used to print the Emperor’s seal on paper money in China.

Cochineal pigment comes from the dried bodies of Cochineal bugs. The female bug is on top. It is the source of the valuable red pigment. Don’t be frightened by the horrific size of the bug as shown in this illustration. Actually, the insect is only as large as a grain of rice. The primary habitat of the insect is the prickly-pear cactus. Prior to the 13th century, the cactus and the insects were found mainly in the region of the Sonoran Desert along the shores of the Gulf of California.

In about the year 1560, the Venetian Senate ordered the painting of a map on the wall of the Ducal Palace. The purpose of the map was to commemorate the New World voyages of Marco Polo. This map includes Marco Polo’s regions of Quivira, California, and the Vermilion Sea. Without any doubt, the Venetian Senate believed that Marco Polo had sailed to America’s West Coast in the 13th century.

This map by the Venetian cartographer, Albertin de Virga, shows Marco Polo’s “Southern Continent” southeast of Asia. The island-continent is called “Ca-paru or Great India.” The map was made between 1410 and 1414. It was not until more than a century later that Francisco Pizarro, a Spaniard, finally reached Peru. He arrived at the shores of a southern mainland that was already named “Peru.” And it was already included on Chinese, Venetian, and Portuguese maps. Western historians have given Pizarro credit for discovering Peru—even though it was already discovered and mapped by somebody else.

The island continent on the de Virga map is similar in appearance to the bulge of Peru in South America.

If we place the coastline from de Virga’s map beside the coastline of Peru—we find a very close match. Sometime before the 15th century, somebody made an accurate survey of the coast of Peru. Only the Chinese had the technology and resources to make such a map—at this remote location—prior to the 15th century.

Lands that Marco Polo explored in the 13th century can be seen on Roselli’s map of 1508. The locations of these eastern isles are similar to what we saw on the Yale Vinland Map. The southern isle (#3) is in the same position as Paru on the de Virga map. It is unquestionably intended to represent the West Coast of South America. Once more, we see a region of the New World that is already named and already on the scientific map before the Spaniards ever reached the coast of Mexico.

Admiral Zheng He finished the task of mapping the world that had been started under the auspices of the Yuan Dynasty. Whereas the maps that Marco Polo brought back to Europe showed New Lands mostly as enormous islands, the cartography that resulted from Zheng He’s mariners delineated the continuous shores of New World continents.

Zheng He’s subordinates not only mapped the coasts of Florida and South America, it seems as though they also began a program of agricultural improvements. The earliest European pioneers in West Africa, Florida, Mexico, and Peru found citrus plantations with such Oriental fruits as lemons, oranges, and pomegranates.

This is a 16th century copy of the kind of map that resulted from the worldwide expeditions of Zheng He’s subordinates. The Ming Dynasty map is called the “Shanhai Yudi Quantu.” We see the following geographical features included on this map: (1) the Gulf of St. Lawrence; (2) the Island of Florida; (3) the Greater Antilles; and (4) the new continent of South America.

Amerigo Vespucci’s map of 1505 is a copy of an earlier Portuguese chart. The Portuguese map indicated the distinctive curve of South America’s West Coast. This map presents a dilemma for Western historians because it shows the West Coast of South America more than two decades before any known European reached the coast of Peru. So how is it possible that the Portuguese already knew the approximate location of the West Coast? We can credit Zheng He’s subordinate explorers with charting the region in the early 15th century.

We can see the great similarity in the coastal outlines of South America in this comparison of the Ming map (left) and Vespucci’s map (right). Both maps derive from a more ancient prototype that has not yet been found.

Most Western theorists have assumed that Ming geographers were incapable of making accurate maps of the entire globe. The legend has endured in the West that a Jesuit named Matteo Ricci introduced the concept of global mapping to the Ming Chinese. This illustration shows Ricci’s map and his prototype map by the Dutch cartographer Abraham Ortelius in 1570.

The claim that Ricci’s map served as the model for the Shanhai Yudi Quantu Map is erroneous. A comparison of an ancient Shanhai Jing Map (top, left) with the Shanhai Yudi Quantu (top, right) shows that both Chinese maps follow similar cartographic traditions. Neither map has much in common with the Jesuit model as seen in the lower example from Matteo Ricci. So we can rule out the theory that Ming geographers were dependent upon the Jesuits for their knowledge about the nature of the world.

The efforts of Zheng He’s surveyors in Florida can be seen on a map that Andrea Bianco compiled for Portugal in the year 1436. According to Western historians, the first European to reach Florida was Ponce de Leon. He arrived in 1513—seeking a fountain of youth. Once more, we see a somewhat humorous situation in which a latecomer from Spain claimed to discover a new land that was already on the map.

One of Zheng He’s most important achievements was the development of agricultural resources. He picked as a maritime staple the New World grain that was known to the Ming Chinese as “gemlike sorghum” or “Imperial wheat.” The grain is known in America by the names of maize or corn. Maize is shown as a row of corn plants in a Han Dynasty tomb carving (as seen on the left). It has been dated to the year 107 of the Current Era. A similar portrayal of the distinctive plant (shown on the right) was included in a Ming Dynasty book of foods and medicinal plants.

This stone carving from a Hindu temple shows a goddess holding an ear of corn or maize. It was carved during the 12th century. An ecologist at Nehru University, Jaweed Ashraf, notes that maize was used in ancient India as a medicinal plant. It was not until the arrival of Zheng He’s logistics experts in the 15th century that Hindu farmers began planting vast fields of maize along the Malabar Coast. Hindu farmers subsequently harvested enormous quantities of maize for export. The grain was dried, crushed, sacked, and sold to the mariners as a convenient food.

Western historians face a conundrum when it comes to explaining the maps that led Columbus to New World shores. The facts just don’t fit the mythology. Everybody agrees that Columbus used maps to find his way across the Atlantic Ocean. The cumulative evidence indicates that the Spanish mariner relied upon navigational charts that the Portuguese had derived from Zheng He’s worldwide geographical survey.

For three centuries, European cartographers honored the heritage of Asian voyagers along the West Coast of America. A 16th century map by Cornelius de Jode shows Tartar or Mongol tents and immigrants along the Alaska Coast and in Central Canada.

A map by Jodocus Hondius in the 17th century shows a Japanese junk sailing along the West Coast of North America.

Maps by French and English cartographers in the 18th century typically showed the New World location of the legendary Chinese Land of Fu Sang. It was often placed in the region of British Columbia along with a notation saying that this was the location of a land that was known to the Chinese.

Everything changed in the late 1700s. Following the voyages of Captain James Cook and George Vancouver, the British Government decided to stake their claim to the region of the Pacific Northwest. It was certainly not in the interests of colonial investors to admit that the Chinese held a prior claim to the region. Subsequently, cartographers systematically eliminated any mention of the Asian heritage of New World exploration and commerce from all their maps.

This Yuan Dynasty map shows the Eastern Hemisphere of the globe from Africa to the Coast of Asia. It is the kind of map that would have served as a cartographic foundation for the Indian Ocean voyages of Admiral Zheng He. The map includes the New Lands of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands. Called the “Pantect Map,” it was included among a group of documents that were passed along as heirlooms to the descendants of a friend of Marco Polo.

A map of South Africa from the Yuan Dynasty is shown on the left. It served as a prototype for a Japanese map in the early 15th century—as shown on the right. The Japanese map is called the Kangnido. It represents the kind of cartographic information that the Japanese gained from Chinese diplomats by joining in the Ming world assembly and commercial alliance. Knowledge of New World cartography helped the Japanese to establish regular commercial contact with native traders in the Aleutian Islands and Alaska.

       Zheng’s He’s explorers produced maps that changed the course of history. The Portuguese acquired Chinese maps through the efforts of Prince Pedro, Niccolo da Conti, Pero de Covilha, and other agents operating in the Far East. Western historians have erred in the past by assuming that only Europeans were capable of maritime exploration to New Lands across the seas.

Indeed, we must credit Zheng He, the Yuan Chinese, Marco Polo, and the Portuguese for paving the way to New World discovery. Zheng He’s cartographic legacy cannot be denied: he arranged the New World continents for the first time on the scientific map. All subsequent European explorers and cartographers built upon that vital foundation of knowledge.