History's Lesser Known Explorers

You know the Darwin's, the Christopher Columbus's, the Sir Edmund Hillary's......but what about that other guy.

William Dampier: A Pirate Who Saw It All

In 1907, an argument broke out in East Coker, England, over a proposed memorial to an underappreciated 17th-century explorer, William Dampier. The accomplished native son had circled the globe three times, recorded the unique wildlife of the Galapagos about 150 years before Darwin, and visited Australia 80 years before Cook. He enriched English with over 1,000 new words--including avocado, barbecue, and sea lion.

But some residents could not get beyond one salient fact: Dampier was a pirate. "They thought of him as a bloodthirsty cutthroat," says Diana Preston, coauthor with her husband, Michael, of A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, a biography of Dampier due out in April. Dampier was slighted again, and the memorial was limited to a small brass plaque.

The son of a tenant farmer, Dampier went to sea in the 1670s, eventually joining a crew of buccaneers. Over the next 40 years, he wandered from the Galapagos to Vietnam, raiding Spanish ships and settlements. But he was also a child of the Enlightenment. As he traveled, he recorded his observations in journals he preserved in bamboo. Dampier drew on them to write three travelogues, beginning with A New Voyage Around the World in 1697. His books became bestsellers while impressing the Royal Society with their scientific rigor. He published the first account of Australia's aborigines and the first English description of the zebra, the breadfruit, and the effects of marijuana.

His writings galvanized generations of scientists, writers, and explorers. Based on his observations in the Galapagos, he coined the term "subspecies," inspiring Darwin. His maps of winds and currents aided Cook and Nelson. Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe studied his colorful travel narratives. And, during an unhappy stint in the British Navy, he returned with the first botanical specimens from Australia. He was a better explorer than pirate, failing to pull off any really lucrative raids. But Dampier, who died in 1715, was driven as much by curiosity as by a desire for wealth. "He reminded us," Diana Preston says, "of the first backpacker." 

Zheng He:  The  Chinese Columbus

In the graceful East Asian reading room at the Library of Congress, one can view a 21-foot-long map--a series of coastlines and Chinese place names traced in black ink on thin, almost translucent paper. This is the Wu Bei Zhi, a copy of the actual map used by Zheng He, the famed 15th-century Chinese explorer who made seven voyages from Asia to Africa at the height of Chinese maritime dominance.

Zheng He (pronounced jung huh) was a skilled commander who may have stood nearly 7 feet tall. He was also a eunuch and a devout Muslim--in short, an unlikely commander of the largest maritime expedition the world had ever seen: 28,000 people sailing on 300 ships. It was a fleet whose size and grandeur would not be matched until World War I. Zheng He himself rode in the jewel of the fleet, an enormous hardwood treasure ship filled with porcelain, silks, books, musical instruments--the finest material and cultural exports China had to offer. The ship boasted nine masts and 12 enormous red sails and measured some 400 feet--about the size of a small aircraft carrier. For comparison's sake, when Christopher Columbus sailed to America nearly a century later, his three ships held 90 men each, and the longest of them was the 85-foot Santa Maria.

But while Columbus and other European explorers are celebrated in every American child's history books, Zheng He remains relatively uncelebrated even in his home country. After his last expedition, in 1433, the Chinese ruling class went through a major philosophical shift, gradually turning inward to deal with famine, plague, and military threats. Confucian court officials closed down ports, forbade sea voyages of almost any kind, and systematically suppressed all traces of the Zheng He journeys. "China never even claimed that Zheng He was a great explorer," says Chi Wang, head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.

Yet here in the West a sort of Zheng He craze is going on. It's attributable largely to the 2002 bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered America, in which British writer Gavin Menzies claims to have irrefutable evidence that Zheng He's fleet didn't turn back after reaching the east coast of Africa as previously believed. Menzies argues that the fleet actually continued around the Cape of Good Hope, discovered the Americas some 70 years before Columbus, and went on to circumnavigate the world, 100 years before Magellan. The fleet probably had the seamanship and resources to complete such a voyage. Menzies's scholarship has been attacked by academics, but if book sales are any indication, the theory has struck a nerve.

How did a Muslim eunuch come to command such a powerful force and accomplish these feats at sea? Zheng He was one of thousands of Muslims living in a surprisingly diverse China of six centuries ago. Both his grandfather and father were known as hajji, meaning that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca, a journey that Zheng also later completed.  In 1381, when Zheng He was 10 years old, the imperial Army attacked his province, an isolated area on China's lawless southwestern border that was a hideout for outlaws from the ousted Mongol regime. Zheng's father was killed in the fighting. As was the custom in times of war, young male children of the enemy were castrated. (Survivors of the brutal procedure were sometimes handed their preserved genitals in a jar, which they would keep with them throughout their lives in the hope that after burial they would be made whole in the afterlife.)

Zheng's castration had historical reverberations. As a eunuch, he was taken as a servant into the household of his enemy, Zhu Di, the emperor's fourth son. Though robbed of a family, he was well cared for and educated--in fact, given advantages that he probably never would have received otherwise.  Though the custom of castration seems bizarre today, eunuchs were actually a powerful force in the society of imperial China. Part of their power came from their intimate access to powerful women and their children. Child eunuchs often grew up with future princes and emperors. Indeed, eunuchs garnered so much wealth and political influence from their close contact with royal families that commoners sometimes had their sons castrated in the hopes of improving the family lot.

Zheng He grew up strong and intelligent, apparently impressing his young master, Zhu Di. In short order he went from houseboy to right-hand man, plotting strategies with the prince and riding next to him in battle. He later assisted Zhu Di in a brilliant and bloody coup to usurp the throne. When Zhu Di became the third Ming emperor of China in 1402, he soon named his loyal eunuch and friend admiral and commander in chief of the huge treasure fleet.  The admiral's ships sailed to many lands in Southeast Asia, where the admiral not only collected cultural observations but also used his influence and military strength to manipulate regimes. Although China was a lone superpower at the time, with the military force to crush almost any opposition, the foreign policy of 15th-century China was oddly modern. Unlike other warlike invaders and colonizers, the Chinese preferred trade sanctions. Trade-friendly regimes were rewarded, while fractious states were undermined--not through direct confrontation but through aid to enemy states. Siam and Sumatra, for example, which were growing powerful, were subdued when China decided to recognize Malacca, an upstart city-state in Siamese (modern Thai) territory. Standing between Siam and Sumatra, Malacca became the precursor to present-day Malaysia.

"The Chinese had no desire to establish colonies," says Louise Levathes, author of When China Ruled the Seas. "Their focus was trade--acquiring things the empire needed, such as medicinal herbs and incense, hardwoods, pepper, precious stones, African ivory, Arabian horses for the imperial cavalry," she says. "They clearly knew about Europe from Arab traders but thought that the wool and wine, all they heard Europe had to offer, were not very interesting."  Zheng's fleet made seven voyages in all, and the commander probably died near Calicut, in present-day India, at about age 62. Upon returning to China, Zheng's crew found that the expeditions, rather than being celebrated as heroic, were slandered by the Confucian court officials as indulgent adventures that wasted the country's resources. Zheng He's trip logs were "lost" by officials seeking to suppress further overseas travels.  In many respects, Zheng He stood at a pivotal point in world history, according to many scholars of the colonial period. Had his magnificent fleets been maintained and had China not turned inward and willingly lost its vast scientific and military advantage, Europeans most likely could not have taken over the spice trade and subjugated the Asian and African continents. And had China had the interest, it could have colonized Australia and the Americas before the Europeans.

That, of course, is an alternative history that didn't happen. Although there is compelling evidence that the Chinese reached Australia and South America before Cook and Columbus, contact probably occurred centuries before Zheng He set sail. Zheng He's greatest legacy is the vast diaspora of Chinese entrepreneurs who, with Zheng He as inspiration, broke with imperial edicts and the classical Confucian custom of staying near home and ancestry to seek out lives of commerce in foreign lands. The trickle of deserting sailors from the fleet opened a floodgate of emigration that continues to this day: Ethnic Chinese still dominate the economies of many Southeast Asian countries. In Indonesia, Zheng He is revered as a local god; thousands visit a temple dedicated to him every year. Even in Africa, there are many who claim Chinese heritage. Indeed, some believe they are descendants of Zheng He's shipwrecked sailors.  Today, more than 34 million Chinese live overseas in 140 countries, spreading over all the known lands depicted in the 21-foot scroll map, the Wu Bei Zhi, and beyond. A beguiling passage on a 1432 stone tablet erected by Zheng He survives in Fujian province, a maritime area that has provided much of the Chinese diaspora. It reads: "We . . . have beheld in the ocean huge waves like mountains rising sky high, and we have set eyes on barbarian regions far away hidden in a blue transparency of light vapors, while our sails, loftily unfurled like clouds day and night, continued their course [as rapidly as] a star, traversing those savage waves as if we were treading a public thoroughfare."

Rabban Sauma:  Marco Polo in Reverse.  Mongolian Christian tries to drive Islam out of Iraq in 1200.

In the spring of 1288 a curious throng packed the Vatican to celebrate Easter and glimpse a visitor from the far side of the world. Rabban Sauma, a Mongolian Christian, had braved a 7,000-mile trek from Beijing. But when he received the Eucharist from the pope, he broke down and sobbed. The crowd's loud amens shook the church.

Sauma was the Mongol Empire's first envoy to Europe, just 50 years after Mongol armies were repulsed at the gates of Vienna. Much of his diaries have survived, giving a unique perspective on the West. "Sauma is a reverse Marco Polo," says Morris Rossabi of the City University of New York, author of Voyager from Xanadu: Rabban Sauma and the First Journey from China to the West. And while Polo set out to find trading opportunities, Sauma aimed to forge an alliance to drive the Muslims from the Middle East. It was "an extraordinary example of early geopolitics," says Rossabi.

Sauma's mission began as a pilgrimage. Born near Beijing, he was a cleric in the Nestorian Church--now a small sect in Iran and Iraq but then flourishing in China. In 1275, in his 50s, Sauma and a disciple felt the call of the Holy Land. They left for Jerusalem without meeting Marco Polo, who reached the Beijing court of Kublai Khan, the Mongol ruler, about the same time.  Sauma's party crossed the Taklimakan Desert in western China on camels--"a toilsome and fatiguing journey of two months," he wrote. The trip from China to the Middle East took four years in all. But fighting near Jerusalem kept him from visiting, and he lingered in Baghdad.  In 1287 Iran's Mongolian ruler tapped Sauma to lobby Europe's kings for help in conquering the Middle East. Sauma shared mass with Edward I of England, visited King Philip IV in Paris, and stayed at the Vatican. His descriptions of Italy still resonate: It "resembled paradise; its winter was not [too] cold, and its summer not [too] hot. Green foliage is found therein all the year round."

Yet he failed to broker a deal between Europe and the Mongols and returned to Baghdad, where he died in 1294. "If Sauma had been successful, history would have been very different," says Jack Weatherford of Macalester College. "Europe would have ruled Jerusalem and Egypt, and they would not have sailed around looking for a new trade route," he says. In other words, no Vasco da Gama, no Columbus--and a world as strange to us as Europe appeared to Sauma.