WHO REALLY DISCOVERED AMERICA: SPANISH CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS, CHINESE MUSLIM ADMIRAL ZHENG HE OR CENTRAL ASIAN MULIM SCHOLAR ABU RAIHAN AL-BIRUNI?
by Syarif Hidayat
Who Really First Discovered America : a Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, a Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng He in 1421 or a Central Asian Muslim scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni in 1037?
Every time the United States celebrates Columbus Day, a federal holiday annually on the second Monday of October in honor of Christopher Columbus, the question always arises: Who really discovered America? Since many textbooks and historical annals of the preceding five centuries give Christopher Columbus the credit for “discovery” of the new world, one might wonder why anyone would bother asking such a question.
An article titled “Who Discovered America? Not Christopher Columbus, That’s for Certain” published in http://voices.yahoo.com , says “One would think it quite evident who discovered America. But one would be wrong, because Christopher Columbus did not discover America, no more than he proved that the world was not flat.”
Sailing off at the behest of the king and queen of Spain to find a shorter passage to India may have been a brave thing to do, but Christopher Columbus’ voyages and “discoveries” are questioned today. Archaeology and common sense have given us alternate events that predate Christopher Columbus and that tell us that he wasn’t the first human or the first European to set foot on an American shore.
First, common sense tells us he wasn’t the first human in the Americas due to the fact that there were already “Indians” in the Americas. In fact, Christopher Columbus, after figuring out he was not in India, decided that slavery, subjugation, and religious oppression were the answer to the question of his discovery.
But before all that, before the European hordes that would descend on the native populations of North and South America due to Christopher Columbus’ discovery of a New World to colonize and exploit, others set foot on American shores. In fact, there exists cartographic evidence, according to cartographic expert Armando Cortesao, that Portuguese explorers visited the Americas and mapped the area in 1424, but other than the map itself, there is no information.
It also known that Norse explorer Leif Erikson set foot in the Americas long before 1492, according to Icelandic sagas, having pulled his Viking longboat into the shallows off modern Newfoundland, Canada. Archaeologists found remains of a Viking-type settlement in 1963. It is believed to have been extant around 1000 A.D., roughly half a century before Christopher Columbus “discovered” America.
To be clear, there were native Americans on the continent then, as well. So the “discovery” of America was still only a European discovery.
But there are many who believe seafaring peoples of the past, such as the Phoenicians, who have nautical records that stretch back to 1600 B.C., could have and did travel to the New World.
The aforementioned cartographer, Cortesao, believes that many of the islands on ancient maps, long thought to be mythological or imaginary, were actual places. Many of them, he asserts, correspond to real geographical locations, leading Cortesao and others to believe that Erikson and others were late to the game of discovering the Americas.
So who discovered America?
Certainly not Christopher Columbus. But if one disqualifies the argument of the migratory peoples that made their way to the Americas millions of years ago via water or land bridge and approaches the question from a European, African, or Asian standpoint, it can be argued that it may have been Leif Erikson and his band of Vikings. But it could have been an earlier group of brave and/or foolhardy seafarers from any number of lands, like Phoenicia.
But Columbus Day need not be about who discovered America. It can just as easily be about the man who helped popularize the idea of European expansion into the New World. But don’t expect a Native American to salute the Genoan sailor anytime soon, no matter what position he takes in the line of discoverers that made it to the Americas.
Another article titled: “Who Discovered America?” published in www.buzzle,com says “America, also known as the New World is claimed to have been discovered by many people at many times. However, one can’t say for sure who discovered America first. Therefore, it is worth going through the information given below which provides some interesting insights on the topic.”
America had often been discovered before Columbus, but it had always been hushed up. The above line by famous Irish novelist, Oscar Wilde makes an important point about discovery of America. The claims about discoveries hold less significance in today’s world where, even scientific theories of Darwin are being challenged. Questions like who discovered what might be important, only from the point of maintaining records. However, the facts and records available to us are likened to links of broken chains, used for reaching a consensus on discoveries.
Spanish Explorer Christopher Columbus
It is a commonly held belief that Christopher Columbus discovered America. This fact however, can neither be ruled out nor accepted blindly. In October, 1492, Columbus reached the shores of America when he was in search of India. There are few historians who believe that it was not America’s mainland that Columbus reached in 1492. The place was actually an island of Bahamas. Columbus returned to Spain after this voyage.
Later on in 1497, Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian explorer claimed to have discovered America. Martin Waldseemuller was the first to name this huge land mass as America. However, one cannot say for sure that Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci were the first to discover this huge continent. The Chinese claim that they discovered America long before the voyages undertaken by Europeans sailors. So who really discovered America? Let us find more on the topic through details about voyages taken by people other than Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci.
Interesting Facts on Christopher Columbus
No matter what the consequences of finding the New World were, it is important that we should know more about Christopher Columbus and his attempts to find the New World. Christopher Columbus was born in c. 1435 in Genoa, Italy. He took great interest in subjects like geography, astronomy and cosmology. In those days, sailors were not able to take their ships into deeper seas because of lack of proper navigation tools.
Developments in the field of navigation tools proved to be of great use in undertaking long trips into oceans. The Astrolabe was one such tool which helped in finding the sun’s altitude and the ship’s distance from the equator. These developments encouraged sailors to go for longer voyages that could not be undertaken earlier. Columbus reached what he believed the New World (actually the island of San Salvador) on October 12, 1492. However, discovery of this island was only the first step in the process of finding the New World.
If we set the question of discovery of America aside for sometime, it can be said that Columbus took the world into a new age of colonialism. His discovery encouraged many people to take voyages to the Americas. The events of Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci reaching this new continent offered traders with many opportunities which in turn brought economic prosperity to Europe. The resources and vast land mass of America remained unexplored till that time; therefore, the discovery by Columbus marked the beginning of a new era. The New World, as America is often referred to, was inhabited by Red Indians before the arrival of European settlers. Eventually, Europeans took over the land and started their own rule.
If we go by commonly accepted beliefs, Christopher Columbus can be credited for the discovery of America. Earlier, one had to rely on certain, specific sources of information about discoveries. However, interaction between different cultures and societies of the world have led to the discovery of many hidden truths and facts that were just hushed up till date. Therefore, the question who discovered America first, might raise a few more questions that might require us to uncover facts and truths which remain buried under thick layers of time.
Discovery of America before Christopher Columbus
Many people had reached the continent of America before Columbus. People from Asia reached America thousands of years before Columbus and became its inhabitants.
Norse expeditions to America had begun long before 1492 AD i.e. in 986 AD. These expeditions were initiated by Bjarni Herjolfsson. It is speculated that Herjolfsson started off from Iceland and headed towards Greenland. He lost his way in a storm, after which his ship drifted southwards. Herjolfsson accidentally came across a shore with low-lying hills covered in vegetation. However, he was more interested in finding his way back to Greenland than exploring this place. Leif Ericsson who had read Bjarni Herjolfsson’s official report of the voyage decided to find the New World. Ericsson is said to have reached what is today’s L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada with his crew of 35.
In 1963, remains of a viking-type settlement were found by archaeologists in Canada. These remains are believed to be 1000 years old. This provides a strong evidence in support of claims that America was found by Norse explorers before Columbus. Most expeditions prior to the times of Christopher Columbus were not documented properly. The absence of any runic inscriptions in North America raises doubts about claims of Norse explorers. However, it is said that these explorers merely recounted their voyages and were not used to documenting them.
As per some records, Chinese Admiral Zheng was the first to discover America. However, these claims are not taken into consideration because none of Admiral Zheng’s voyages went beyond the Indian Ocean. The records of Asian explorers reaching the shores of North America in 499 BC have been found in documents dated 629 AD. A Buddhist monk from China named Hai-Shen is said to have reached North America. Hai-Shen reached a fabled land of Fu-Sang upon traveling to the east.
Interestingly, the land of Fu-Sang described by Hai-Shen greatly resembles North America. Although these records are not considered as concrete evidence, they have opened a new window of opportunity for historians who are looking for the true discoverer of America. There are few other discoveries which support the claim that Asians reached America before Columbus. For example, Japanese swords were found in Alaska and Chinese coins were recovered from British Columbia.
John Cabot’s Voyages
John Cabot (c. 1450-1499), the Italian born Giovanni Caboto, is one of the earliest explorers to have reached the shores of America. Although he was an Italian and lived in Venice till 1488, Cabot left for England in search of opportunities to become an explorer. It is said that he was inspired by voyages undertaken by Bartholomew Diaz. In May, 1497 John Cabot and his crew, under the commission of England’s King Henry VII, left Bristol with a ship called Matthew. He is said to have reached North America on 24th June, 1497 and returned to Bristol on 6th August, 1497.
The details of the second voyage undertaken by Cabot in May, 1498 remain shrouded in mystery. This is because there is difference of opinion among historians on how John Cabot’s second voyage ended. Cabot started off from Bristol with 5 ships and a crew of 300. One of the 5 ships was diverted to Ireland because of some problems in its functioning. There is no clarity on what happened in the later part of the voyage.
Chinese Muslim Admiral Zheng He
Sheila Musaji* in her article titled “Did Chinese Muslims discover America before Columbus?” published in http://theamericanmuslim.org writes “Robert Spencer posted an article CAIR refuses to explain its claim that Muslims discovered America. He says:
This is a consistent pattern: Islamic supremacist spokesmen in the U.S. regularly make unsupported claims and then refuse to back them up. The most egregious example of this is the regularly-repeated Big Lie that counter-jihadists quote the Qur’an out of context, ignore or deny its peaceful passages, and generally misrepresent Islamic teaching—the element that is lacking every time such claims are made is an interpretation of the Qur’an’s violent passages, and an explanation of their “context,” that renders them benign.”
He then posts a story from the Daily Caller, a news source of about the same integrity as those you see at the supermarket checkout. That Daily Caller article claimed that:
“There are historical accounts according to which the Muslims preceded Columbus, who is said to have discovered the U.S.,” claimed Nihad Awad, the co-founder of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
“Some documents and accounts indicate that Muslim seafarers were the first to reach the U.S., [so] the bottom line is that Islam played a part in the establishment and development of the U.S.,” Awad told the Saudi interviewer, in an interview in a New York studio.
CAIR did not respond to The Daily Caller’s request for an explanation of Awad’s comments, which were recorded by the Middle East Media Research Institute.
No one is required to respond and provide an explanation. Especially, when they are simply stating facts known to anyone with any knowledge at all about history. Nihad Awad said that “some documents and accounts” make this claim. And, that is indisputable. You might dispute the claim itself, but not that such claims exist.
Admiral Zheng He May Have Landed in America Before Columbus
On Columbus Day in 2012, a FaceBook site “Don’t Hate, Educate” posted a brief article Who discovered America?. They note:
In 1421, more than half a century before Columbus, a Chinese Muslim Admiral named “Zheng He” landed on American shores. He’s the same great navigator who was celebrated in the opening ceremony of Beijing Olympics on 8 August, 2008.
The British submarine engineer and historian Gavin Menzies gave an astounding seminar on March 15, 2002 to the Royal Geographical Society in London, with evidence proving that Zheng He, a Chinese Muslim navigator in the Ming dynasty, beat Columbus by more than 70 years in discovering America. Imagine 6 centuries ago, a mighty armada of Zheng He’s ships crossing the China Sea, venturing west to Ceylon, Arabia and East Africa with giant 9-masted junks escorted by dozens of smaller ships.
The crew alone totaled more than 27,000 sailors and soldiers on 317 ships. They set sail in 7 great expeditions from 1405-1433. Zheng He’s flag ship was 400 feet long, much larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria which was only 85 feet lon. The Muslim Heritage site is also a very rich resource for researchers and educators on Muslim contributions to human civilization in every field imaginable: mathematics, agriculture, military science, nature, medicine, economy, geography, philosophy, art, social sciences and a lot more…check it out:
I found this fascinating, and did a little more digging. I discovered a NY Times article Did Chinese beat out Columbus? which discussed new discoveries that added weight to the argument made by Gavin Mendies in his book about Zheng He “1421: The Year China Discovered America” The NYT article says:
“1421: The Year China Sailed the World,” in Singapore in a special tent near the Esplanade (until Sept. 11), is primarily a celebration of Admiral Zheng He’s seven maritime expeditions between 1405 and 1423. With a fleet of 317 ships and 28,000 men, Zheng He is generally acknowledged as one of the great naval explorers, but how far he actually went remains a matter of dispute.
With original artifacts, videos and interactive exhibits, “1421” aims to take visitors through Zheng He’s life story, setting the historical and economic context of his voyages. Against this factual background, Menzies’s theories are presented, along with new evidence, mainly maps, backing his claims.
The exhibition starts in Hunnan (China) in 1382, with a narrative space giving some background on Zheng He’s youth. Zheng, a Chinese Muslim, was captured as a child in wartime by the Ming army and made a eunuch to serve at court. He became a scholar and a trusted adviser to the third Ming emperor, Zhu Di, who sent him on a mission to “proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas.” …”
So, Admiral Zheng is at least one Muslim that might have sailed to America before Columbus. The portrait above of Admiral Zheng He is from a Sydney Morning Herald article about a documentary on his life.
This is not the first time that Spencer, and his partner in hate, Pamela Geller have objected to any suggestion that Muslims might have been here either before Columbus, or even at a very early date.
According to Sheila Musaji, in the article Moriscos, Marranos, Columbus, and Islamophobes, I discussed many such “historical accounts”. In that article I noted that “There are many theories about Norse (Leif Erickson), Irish (St. Brendan), Chinese, Phoenician, African, Arab, Japanese, etc. groups having reached North or South America prior to Columbus. None of these claims can be proven absolutely, and some have more evidence than others to be considered as possibilities. There is certainly no supremacism involved in believing that any of these might be true.” The full article contains many links to sources.
Muslims, the Irish, Norsemen (Vikings), Africans, Japanese, all sorts of people may have landed before Columbus. So what! Perhaps, over time we will discover hard evidence that proves some or all of these possibilities to be true or false. Many Norwegians think Leif Erickson was the first “European to set foot on American soil in 1001”. Perhaps they are correct.
The only thing we know for certain is that the Native Americans/First Nations were already here.
Central Asian Muslim scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni
A Staff Writer of Illumemagazine in an article titled “Was a Muslim scholar the first to discover America?” says “For centuries, the world has given Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus to be the man who discover the Americas (never mind the people who already lived there). However, new research shows that Central Asian Muslim scholar Abu Raihan al-Biruni discovered the continent centuries before Columbus. This theory was proposed in around 1037, by which point al-Biruni would have been 70 years old, and perhaps too old to travel it himself.
Writing in History Today, S. Frederick Starr says al-Biruni, born in what is modern-day Uzbekistan was the first person to officially suggest that a landmass existed Europe and Asia. Al-Biruni’s expertise on geography and mapping led him to conclude that Europe, Africa and Asia, only accounted for two-fifths of the world.
Starr writes that al-Biruni’s knowledge of both Middle-Eastern and Indian languages, as well as being trained in mathematics, astronomy, mineralogy, geography, cartography, geometry and trigonometry under great scholars like Ahmad al-Farghani, gave him deep insight into the sciences of various fields and civilizations. Al-Biruni also mapped the latitudinal and longitudinal locations of various cities in central Asia, India, the Middle-East and the Mediterranean.
Al-Biruni was one of the most important figures in developing Greek science. The work of al-Biruni’s teacher al-Farghani, is thought to be the basis for Columbus’s own explorations. Al-Biruni also provided an estimation of the earth’s circumference, only off by 10.44 miles from modern measurements.
There is certainly no supremacism involved in believing that any of these might be true:
Muslims, the Irish, Norsemen (Vikings), Africans, Japanese, all sorts of people may have landed before Columbus. So what! Perhaps, over time we will discover hard evidence that proves some or all of these possibilities to be true or false. The only thing we know for certain right now is that the Native Americans/First Nations were already there (in American continent). (HSH)
*Sheila Musaji is the founding editor of The American Muslim (TAM). Sheila received the Council on American-Islamic Relations 2007 Islamic Community Service Award for Journalism, and the Loonwatch Anti-Loons of 2011: Profiles in Courage Award for her work in fighting Islamophobia. Sheila was selected for inclusion in the 2012 edition of The Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims published since 2009 by the Royal Islamic Strategic Studies Centre in Amman, Jordan. Biography You can follow her on twitter @sheilamusaji (https://twitter.com/SheilaMusaji)