Forgotten Treasures pt 1: The Indian city of Etzanoa

“Early Native Americans created mounds along ridges in some parts of Kansas. This one, located in Rice County, shows a 160-foot serpent with a ball in its mouth.” Source: The Wichita Eagle

In 1601, conquistador Conquistador Juan de Onate set off from the Spanish colony of Nuevo Mexico in search of Quivira, the “City of Gold.” It seems wherever the Spanish went, they were always promised a city of gold, just over the next hill–a city that never materialized. The golden pueblos turned out to be adobe walls shining in the sun. Coronado trekked nearly a thousand miles into the Great Plains in search of a city where golden cups hung from the trees, before finding the small, thatched huts and cornfields of the Wichita people.

Onate had more success than Coronado–he found the Etzanoa, a city of some 12,000 to 20,000 people, located at the confluence of two rivers. He decided his expedition–which by then contained only 70 soldiers–was sorely outnumbered and decided to head home.

Europeans would not return to the area until 1724, when Etienne Bourgmont led an expedition from the French colony of Fort Orleans. Bourgmont found a city–but no Wichita. They had been driven out by the Apache, cousins of the Navajo who, upon receiving horses from the Spaniards, had become fierce raiders of the Plains. And even they were driven out, in turn, by an even fiercer tribe: the Comanche.

The French had little interest in the area, and by the time American settlers arrived, the city of Etzanoa had long-since disappeared, its entire existence reduced to obscure debate among historians and archaeologists.

Now it has been found, in Arkansas City, Kansas, (there’s a confusingly named town,) at the confluence of the Arkansas and Walnut Rivers:

Blakeslee, an anthropologist and archaeologist at Wichita State University, has found evidence of a massive town stretching across thousands of acres of bluffs and rich bottomland along two rivers. What clinched it was the discovery, by a high school kid, of a half-inch iron cannon ball.

He even found a still-functional water shrine, depicting communication with the spirit world, carved into a limestone boulder in Tami and Greg Norwood’s backyard. …

[The people of Etzanoa] and their Wichita cousins in Quivira, in Rice County, built a trade network with ancestors of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico. They strapped 50-pound packages of dried meat and hides to themselves and their pack dogs, and walked 550 miles to the Pueblos. They’d then walk back, bringing home cotton fabric, obsidian and turquoise.

They had no horses. The women and children likely helped hunt bison, Blakeslee said, forming lines and waving hide blankets while driving bison toward warriors carrying bows and arrows. “Think of the courage that took,” Blakeslee said.

They cultivated beans, maize (corn), pumpkin and squash. They slaughtered bison meat and hides on an industrial scale. The men likely scouted, walking miles a day, shadowing herds.”

According to Wikipedia:

The ancestors of the Wichita have lived in the eastern Great Plains from the Red River north to Nebraska for at least 2,000 years.[3] Early Wichita people were hunters and gatherers who gradually adopted agriculture. Farming villages began to appear about 900 CE on terraces above the Washita and South Canadian Rivers in Oklahoma. These 10th century communities cultivated maize, beans, squash, marsh elder (Iva annua), and tobacco. They also hunted deer, rabbits, turkey, and, increasingly, bison, and caught fish and collected mussels in the rivers. These villagers lived in rectangular, thatched-roof houses.[4] Archaeologists describe the Washita River Phase from 1250 to 1450, when local populations grew and villages of up to 20 houses were spaced every two or so miles along the rivers.[4] These farmers may have had contact with the Panhandle culture villages in the Oklahoma and Texas Panhandles, Farming villages along the Canadian River. The Panhandle villagers showed signs of adopting cultural characteristics of the Pueblo peoples of the Rio Grande Valley.[5]

Structures called “council circles” were excavated in prehistoric Wichita sites. Archaeological excavations have suggested they consist of a central patio surrounded by four semi-subterranean structures. The function of the council circles is unclear. Archaeologist Waldo Wedel suggested in 1967 that they may be ceremonial structures, possibly associated with solstice observations.[6] Recent analysis suggests that many non-local artifacts occur exclusively or primarily within council circles, implying the structures were occupied by political or religious leaders of Great Bend aspect peoples.[7] Other archaeologists leave open the possibility that the council circle earthen works served a defensive role.[8]

Numerous archaeological sites in central Kansas near the Great Bend of the Arkansas River share common traits and are collectively known as the “Great Bend aspect.” Radiocarbon dates from these sites range from 1450 to 1700 CE. Great Bend aspect sites are generally accepted as ancestral to the Wichita peoples described by Francisco Vásquez de Coronado and other early European explorers. The discovery of limited quantities of European artifacts, such as chain mail and iron axe heads at several Great Bend sites, suggests contact with early Spanish explorers.[9]

The centuries have not been kind to the Wichita. Decimated by war and disease, they now number only about 2,500 people:

The Wichita had a large population in the time of Coronado and Oñate. One scholar estimates their numbers at 200,000.[27] Certainly they numbered in the tens of thousands. They appeared to be much reduced by the time of the first French contacts with them in 1719, probably due in large part to epidemics of infectious disease to which they had no immunity. In 1790, it was estimated there were about 3,200 total Wichita. By 1868, the population was recorded as being 572 total Wichita. By the time of the census of 1937, there were only 100 Wichita officially left.

Today, there are 2,501 enrolled Wichitas, 1,884 of whom live in the state of Oklahoma. Enrollment in the tribe requires a minimum blood quantum of 1/32.[1]

For nearly 400 years after Columbus first landed in the Bahamas, most–if not most–of the territory in the Americas was still occupied primarily by Indians. There’s a lot of history there, much of it yet to be discovered.

There’s been a lot of controversy and animosity over the years between archaeologists and Native American tribes, but I hope for everyone’s sakes that the lost city of Etzanoa can become a monument to both.

Advertisements

In Defense of Columbus

I have, obviously, a great love for exploration, from the navigation feats of the Polynesian mariners to Armstrong and Aldrin’s first steps on the moon. Everything about these tales is incredible, from the bravery of the navigators to the fact that any of them survived the amazingly harsh conditions they encountered.

This was being passed around on FB the other day:

13925375_1009347419180339_7303719590160982869_nOh, I know the answer! I know! *waves hand wildly in the air* Pick me! PICK ME!!! *cries* oh god why don’t they ever pick me?

It’s the Taino. Yes, I knew that before he said it. Obscure ethnic groups are one of my things, bro.

Somehow I don’t think “knowing the Taino were the people Columbus encountered” actually gets me to “agreeing with this guy’s political agenda.” This guy probably has lots of nice, not-very-aware students in his classes who’ve never heard of the Taino but still think Columbus was a bad person.

Me? I’d rather study Columbus than the Taino, because Columbus discovered the New World, and they didn’t. (They didn’t discover the Old World, either.) Columbus is one of the single most important people who ever lived because his discoveries completely altered the path of human history.

To be fair, Columbus didn’t act alone–he didn’t invent or build the ships he sailed, build up a fortune and finance his endeavor, invent the compass or astrolabe, nor the printing press that allowed for the distribution of his findings. Had Columbus never lived, sooner or later, someone else would have done the same things he did. Nevertheless, Columbus lived, and he’s the guy who found the Americas.

The Taino might indeed have been the nicest, sweetest people in human history, and Columbus may have been a colossal jerk, but Columbus is still the guy who changed history.

We’ve been discussing lately the accomplishments of Vitus Bering, a Russian-employed Dane who led a massive undertaking across Siberia and got to Alaska before, as far as I can tell, the much nearer Chinese and Japanese had mapped the area. (Though the Japanese did conduct trade with the Spaniards in the Pacific and traveled with them over to Spanish-ruled Mexico back in the 1600s.) This was a tremendous undertaking, which cost a great many lives and rubles.

Nothing like the Age of Exploration happened before, and unless we explore the stars, it likely won’t again.

It is a history worth remembering.

Exploration Friday: Russian in the New World, pt. 4/4

I only approve of wearing non-cute animals
I only approve of wearing non-cute animals

When we left off last week with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Vitus Bering and his men had heroically crossed Siberia twice, spent about 10 hours in Alaska, gotten stranded over winter in the Aleutian Islands, a bunch of them (including Bering himself) died of scurvy, and finally a few of them struggled back to Moscow. The result of all this human effort and travail was a rush to kill every last sea otter for their super soft and cuddly pelts.

As usual, I’m using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.

“Without waiting for authorization from the czar, traders scurried from Kamchatka to the Commander and Aleutian Islands. They sailed in most unseaworthy craft, small and crude, built usually of green timber, without iron, and consisting merely of a log frame covered with planks that were fastened with deer thongs and wooden peg and calked with moss and tallow for lack of pitch. … the willingness and eagerness of these adventurers to sail n such crazy craft over the stormy waters off Kamchatka testifies as to the profits in promise for successful voyages. …

“they went chiefly to the Aleutian Island, and did not visit the Alaskan mainland again until 1761. Shipwrecks occurred frequently, the estimate being one out of three… This was the period of unregulated hunting, characterized by the vilest outrages against the Aleuts, who suffered almost as much damage as the sea-otters.

Mikhail Tikhanov, Aleut in Festival Dress in Alaska, 1818
Mikhail Tikhanov, Aleut in Festival Dress in Alaska, 1818

“The Aleuts were depended upon for the actual hunting. The Russians hunted occasionally by long distance rifle shooting, but it was more convenient to utilize the natives. In calm weather they went out in kayaks and harpooned the sea-otters as they came up to breathe. Storm hunting on the kelp beds was more customary. In this wild work some of the Aleuts pursued the sea-otter in kayaks while others clubbed them as they came ashore. The danger was great, both in the fragile kayaks and on the slipper rocks. …

“the women of a village were seized as hostages and held until a satisfactory number of sea-otter pelts was brought in. This device lent itself to abuse and there were outrageous wrongs. The most spectacular concerned a ship which was blown back to Kamchatka with twenty-five hostages still on board. Rather than come into port with such incriminating evidence, the Russians unceremoniously dumped these women overboard to drown.”

Wikipedia has an interesting account of the far-reaching effects of this coercion:

Google maps would not give me driving directions for the route from the Aleutians to San Nicolas Island
Google maps would not give me driving directions for the route from the Aleutians to San Nicolas Island

There was high demand for the furs that the Aleut provided from hunting. In 1811, in order to obtain more of the commercially valuable otter pelts, a party of Aleut hunters traveled to the coastal island of San Nicolas, near the Alta California-Baja California border. The locally resident Nicoleño nation sought a payment from the Aleut hunters for the large number of otters being killed in the area. Disagreement arose, turning violent; in the ensuing battle, the Aleut killed nearly all the Nicoleño men. Together with high fatalities from European diseases, the Nicoleños suffered so much from the loss of their men that by 1853, only one living Nicoleña person remained. (See Juana Maria, The Lone Woman of San Nicolas, also known as Karana)

Back to Caughey: “By the middle 1760’s the Aleuts were aroused by these repeated atrocities to measures of retaliation. They met treachery with deceit and murder with assassination, and Russian blood flowed to atone for the slaughters of the Aleuts. This new sort of disturbance brought the region to the attention of the czar… A governor was sent out for the express purpose regulating this fur trade. … The Aleuts received but meager protection, and the czar’s revenues were not augmented to the extent anticipated. But during the period of government regulation there as an expansion of Russian fur hunting to Alaska proper. Kodiak was settled in 1783, and Shelikoff advanced to the Sitka neighborhood soon after.

“Toward the end of the century government regulation was abandoned in favor of control through a trading company modeled after those  of the English. … Under the company conditions did improve. Missions were but slightly encouraged, but the natives received some safeguarding for the very practical reason that their perpetuation was vital to the continued profits of the fur trade.”

Saint Peter the Aleut
Saint Peter the Aleut

EvX: See my post on Kabloona, Religion and the Far Reaches of the World for more on Russian Orthodox missionaries to the Alaskan natives. Wikipedia notes:

After the arrival of Russian Orthodox missionaries in the late 18th century, many Aleuts became Christian. Of the numerous Russian Orthodox congregations in Alaska, most are majority Alaska Native in ethnicity. One of the earliest Christian martyrs in North America was Saint Peter the Aleut.

Continuing with Caughey, “Following an uprising of the natives, [Baranof] reestablished Sitka in 1803 and made it the capital of Russian America. Shipbuilding was one of his principal innovations; some fourteen vessels being launched in Alaska during his regime, 1799 to 1818. …

“Russian America’s insecurity was well revealed during the course of the inspection by Nikolai Rezanof in 1805-1806. … He found Sitka threatened with starvation because one of the supply ships from Siberia had not arrived. Scurvy had broken out, causing several deaths, and no prospect of securing supplies was apparent. He gave temporary respite by purchasing the American ship Juno with its cargo of supplies, but to develop a permanent source of supplies for Russian Alaska he decided to make a voyage to Spanish California. …

“Rezanof soon discovered that Spanish law forbade any traffic with foreigners and that the California official were not inclined to countenance trade with him. A battle of wits ensued in which he endeavored to conceal the dire straits at Sitka, …

EvX: Rezanof got engaged to the daughter of the Spanish commander of San Francisco, who convinced her father to convince the governor to let Rezanof trade for a shipload of food for the Russian colony. Rezanof set off for Moscow to report back to the Czar, but died on the way. His fiance, ever faithful, became a nun and waited thirty-five years for news of his fate.

“Besides the cargo of supplies, Rezanof carried to Alaska a very enthusiastic description of California. … Three years later [Kuskoff] returned to poach twelve hundred sea-otter skins from San Francisco Bay and to purchase from the natives enough land for a post. The price was “three blankets, two axes, three hoes, and a miscellaneous assortment of beads.”

“Kuskoff came again in 1812 with one hundred Russians and eighty Aleuts and established Fort Ross, a short distance north of Bodega Bay. … Agriculture and stock raising flourished. Eventually two hundred cows were milked, and butter and cheese could be sent to Sitka. …. Fort Ross served as headquarters for Russian fur hunting as far south as the Santa Barbara Channel.

The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert
The reconstructed Russian Orthodox chapel at Fort Ross, CA, photo by Introvert

“With the practical extermination of the sea-otter, Fort Ross’ value waned. …in 1841, the Russian American Fur Company was quite willing to dispose of the fort and its furnishings to Captain Johann Sutter, marking the termination of Russian control south of Alaska.”

EvX: The Russian presence in America, especially south of Sitka, was never more than a thread, thinly stretched, but it had a significant impact on the lives of the natives (and otters) they encountered. According to Wikipedia:

Prior to major influence from outside, there were approximately 25,000 Aleuts on the archipelago. Foreign diseases, harsh treatment and disruption of traditional society soon reduced the population to less than one-tenth this number. The 1910 Census count showed 1,491 Aleuts. In the 2000 Census, 11,941 people identified as being Aleut; nearly 17,000 said Aleuts were among their ancestors.[9] Alaskans generally recognize that the Russian occupation, while the colonists were limited in number, resulted in few full-blooded Aleuts today. Full-blooded Aleuts still exist and are growing in number, and there are also people who may be part Russian or other descent but solely identify as Aleut.

In 1942, during World War II, Japanese forces occupied Attu and Kiska Islands in the western Aleutians. They later transported captive Attu Islanders to Hokkaidō, where they were held as prisoners of war. The United States government evacuated hundreds more Aleuts from the western chain and the Pribilofs during WWII, placing them in internment camps in southeast Alaska, where many died. The Aleut Restitution Act of 1988 was an attempt by Congress to compensate the survivors.

It is often amazing just how small–on the grand scale–these first movements to reach around the globe really were. Even now, only 12 men have ever stepped foot on the moon.

It’s also amazing that anyone at all managed to survive in the Aleutian islands.

Exploration Friday: Russia in the New World, pt 3

Welcome back. Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Parts one and two are here.) When we left off, Vitus Bering and his crew had struggled (twice!) across the expanse of Siberia, built a boat, and set out in a futile quest to fin Joao-da-Gama-Land, which doesn’t even have its own Wikipedia page. Bering’s quest, however, does:

The Great Northern Expedition … was one of the largest organised exploration enterprises in history, resulting in mapping of the most of the Arctic coast of Siberia and some parts of the North America coastline, greatly reducing the “white areas” on the maps. The endeavour was initially conceived by Russian EmperorPeter I the Great and implemented in practice by Russian Empresses Anna and Elizabeth. …

With over 3,000 people directly and indirectly involved, the Second Kamchatka expedition was one of the largest expedition projects in history. The total cost of the undertaking, completely financed by the Russian state, reached the estimated sum of 1.5 million rubles, an enormous amount for the period. This corresponded to one sixth of the income of the Russian state for year 1724.[1]

“Shortly after they foreswore hopes of finding this mythical continent, a storm gave Chirikoff [commander of Bering’s second vessel] excuse to separate from the St. Peter. He sailed east and sighted land on July 15th, apparently just off Latuya Bay. … Chirikoff brought the St. Paul as close to shore as he dared. He saw timid natives in two canoes, but they refused to come near. His only alternative was to sail for Kamchatka. On the way he skirted the Aleutian Islands, anchoring at one of them on September 9th These natives were almost as timid as those seen along the mainland, though they did bring some skins of fresh water. Scarcity of water and supplies and the sickness of most of the men necessitated returning to Avatcha, whee anchor was dropped on October 10th.

1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering's second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands
1966 Soviet postage stamp commemorating Bering’s second voyage and the discovery of the Commander Islands

“Bering, in the meantime, had wasted time and energy in additional search for Chirikoff and for Gama Land. Then he set his course northeast and then north, sighting land on the fifteenth or sixteenth of July in the vicinity of Mt. St. Elias. One day was spent taking on fresh water at a nearby island, while Steller the naturalist made a hurried study of botanical and zoological specimens and deduced what he could of the human inhabitants by examining a shellheap,the remains of a fire with bones scattered about, and an abandoned habitation. The general irritability of the entire group showed itself int he cross purposes of Steller and Bering. The naturalist had the better of the repartee, remarking “that this long and expensive expedition had been planned in order to fetch American water to Asia, and that ten hours of exploration corresponded to the ten years of preparation,” but the commander had his way and the return voyage was begun forthwith.

“Wet and stormy weather with the winds usually contrary slowed their westward passage. They spent forty days going from Kayak to the Shumagin Islands. Over Steller’s protest the boat crew loaded brackish water here, though good was available, and consequently the scurvy became more virulent. Beyond the Shumagin Islands the weather was still worse, with veering and uncertain winds, interspersed with wild storms from the west. According to their reckonings they were almost to Avatcha when land was sighted early in November.”

800px-a_new_and_accvrat_map_of_the_worldEvX: Note that this voyage, begun in 1741, occurred before John Harrison perfected his Marine Chronometer in 1761, and so Bering and his men had no accurate way to measure their longitude at sea. “Reckoning” here is likely dead reckoning–that is, an estimation based on speed and direction. This is a very difficult way to reckon your position across hundreds or thousands of miles of stormy ocean with any accuracy, as many a drowned sailor has learned.

“For some time Bering had been so ill that he was not actually in command. He urged that they struggle on to Avatcha, but the other officers and the men insisted upon putting in at this bay, convinced that they could sail or walk to Avatcha after the sick had recuperated. …

“A short foray inland convinced Steller that this was an island and not Kamchatka,…. Not all of the scurvy victims improved, and by January 8th, thirty lives had been lost including that of the commander.

“Bering Island, on which they were wintering, was quite bleak and dismal. … in the spring they attacked with zest the task of constructing a smaller vessel out of the wreckage of the St. Peter. … with prayers to St. Peter the forty foot craft was launched on August 8th, and five days later the forty-six survivors embarked. …

“They sighted the Kamchatkan shore after three days’ sail, but contrary winds delayed them another ten days in reaching Avatcha. their arrival was the occasion for great rejoicings, and the icon of St. Peter in the church at Petropavlovsk was adorned with silver by some of the saved men. It has been insinuated, however, that those who had given Bering’s men up for lost and had appropriated their belongings were not so elated over their return. …

“the Russian government kept the reports of his explorations secret, and as late as 1750 a scholarly paper was read before the Academy at Paris to prove that he had not reached America. Not until considerably later did extravagant admirers come to call him a “Russian Columbus.” But an immediate sensation was created by the make-shift fur clothing worn by the returned castaways. Chinese merchants at Kamchatka offered what seemed fabulous prices for these sea-otter pelts, initiating thus an interest in this fur trade. For a century thenceforth the sea-otter was to be the magnet attracting Europeans to the North Pacific.”

EvX: And cue the fur rush.

Book on a Friday: the Russian Exploration of America (pt. 2)

Welcome! Today we are continuing with Caughey’s History of the Pacific Coast, Chapter XI: Russian America. (Part one is here.) We left off with the death of Yermak and defeat of his Cossack warriors at the hands of Kutchum Khan’s Tartar forces on the banks of the Irtysh, Siberia.

800px-ob_watershedAs usual, quotes are in “” rather than blockquotes.

“Tartar hostility checked southward expansion, but the rivers invited progress toward the north, while their interlocking tributaries facilitated eastward advance. In common with other frontiers this one advanced irregularly rather than phalanx-like. Around Lake Baikal, for example, Buriat resistance was so stubborn that progress was greatly retarded and Irkutsk was not founded until 1651. In the meantime an ostrog had been built on the Lena in 1632, and traders had pushed on to the waters of the Pacific at Okhotsk in 1639, to the Amur by 1643, and to the Anaduir by 1649. The Kamchatka peninsula was reached in 1650, but the hostility of the natives delayed its occupation for half a century. …

russia-far-eastern-region-map-1“The waves of the North Pacific wafted to Kamchatka some intimations of America: trunks of tall firs and other trees not to be found on the bleak Siberian coast, an occasional dugout canoe, whales with strange harpoon heads imbedded in their back. Land-birds came from the east and went away again. Among the Chukchi in the Anaduir district were a few peculiar women, wearing walrus ivory lip-plugs and speaking a foreign tongue.”

EvX: I believe the “Anaduir” district is now the Anadyrsky District. The Chukchi people live in one of the world’s coldest environments, and traditionally lived similarly to other arctic peoples, like the Sami (Lapps):

aleutsandrelativesdna eskimoandneighborsdnaThe Chukchi are traditionally divided into the Maritime Chukchi, who had settled homes on the coast and lived primarily from sea mammal hunting, and the Reindeer Chukchi, who lived as nomads in the inland tundra region, migrating seasonally with their herds of reindeer. The Russian name “Chukchi” is derived from the Chukchi word Chauchu (“rich in reindeer”), which was used by the ‘Reindeer Chukchi’ to distinguish themselves from the ‘Maritime Chukchi,’ called Anqallyt (“the sea people”).

The Chukchi of far north eastern Russia are closely related to the Eskimo people of Alaska. Their neighbors, like the Selkups and Evens, are more closely related to the Aleutian people.

Back to Caughey:

“Cartographers, in the meantime, exercised their speculative faculties in plotting an island of continental proportions in the North Pacific. They called it Terra de Jeso or Gama Land, and according to popular belief, it was rich in gold and silver. A companion idea, that of the Strait of Anian, caught the fancy of Peter the Great and impelled him, as one of his last official act, to send out an expedition in search of the Northeast Passage. From several who volunteered the czar selected Bering, a Danish sailor who had enlisted in the Russian navy in 1704 and had risen rapidly from the ranks because of his bravery, excellent seamanship, and experience in the East and West Indies.

mysterious, non-existent blob-land
Go explore the mysterious blob-land near Kamchatka!

“Peter’s instructions to Bering were to go to Kamchatka, to build one or two boats, to sail north to determine whether or not America was connected to Asia, to sail to some European settlement in America  or to speak to a European ship in those waters, to make a landing, to draw up an account and prepare a chart, and to bring them back to St. Petersburg.”

EvX: Wikipedia has nothing on specifically “Terra de Jeso” or “Gama Land,” but it does mention “Joao-da-Gama-Land,” which is clearly the same thing, on the page about Bering’s expeditions. Joao-da-Gama-Land, however, does not have its own page. (Go forth, my friends, and make one!)

Peter’s directions were much easier given than filled:

“The overland journey to Kamchatka was itself a stupendous task. Leaving St. Petersburg at the end of January, 1725, Bering traveled to Tobolsk, down the Irtysh, up the Ob, across a long portage to the Yenisei, and up the Tunguska and Ilima to Ilimsk where he had to tie up for the winter on September 29th. the next season’s journey began with a descent of the Lena to Yakutsk. Her Bering divided his force into several groups, the largest of which went overland by pack train to Okhotsk. Cold set in earlier than usual and all the horses were lost, and because they did not reach Okhotsk in time to provide food for their cattle, he had to butcher them. … The division under Spanberg had greater difficulty. These men attempted a part water route. When their boats froze in, they struggled on with hand sledges, often with no other provender than the carcases of Bering’s horses. Relief parties came back to their assistance early in 1727, but by no means all of the men or materials arrived at Okhotsk even then.

“During the winter Bering had built a boat…. he transported his party across the Okhotsk Sea to the mouth of the Bolshaya River on the inner side of the Kamchatka peninsula. But when ascent of this stream proved impossible for the small boats built for the purpose, sledges were resorted to for crossing of the peninsula. …

“For his stupendous achievement in crossing Russia and Siberia and constructing and equipping the St. Gabriel at Kamchatka, Being has received just encomiums of praise. But in connection with his voyage to Icy Cape he has been stigmatized as a common ship captain, devoid of the explorer’s instinct, and unfit to lead a scientific expedition into the Arctic. He went far enough to assure himself that Asia and America were not connected, but not far enough to acquire convincing proof. It was left for Captain Cook a half century later to clarify the question of the width of Bering Strait and for Baron Wrangell a century later to prove positively that the continents are separate.

“Four more winters passed before Bering reached St. Petersburg to make his report. The Empress was favorably impressed and ordered a second expedition to carry out the rest of the original instructions. This time Bering attacked the task with appreciably diminished enthusiasm…

“Not until 1741 could the actual voyage begin. On june 4th of that year the two vessels Bering had built at Okhotsk sailed from Petropavlovsk, Chirkoff and seventy-five men on the St. Paul, Bering with an identical number on the St. Peter. Their plan was to sail southeast to 46 degrees where they expected to find Gama Land, then to turn northeast to America, north to 66 degrees, the latitude of Icy Cape, then due west to determine the width of Bering Strait.”

To be continued…

Anthropology Friday: Travels into Bokhara, pt. 2/3

16445980Today we are continuing with Alexander Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara. Oddly, the volume I am reading ends with his arrival in Lahore, which is quite a distance from Bokhara. His actual expedition to Bokhara must be in a different volume; I’ll let you know next week if I find it.

As usual, I am using “” instead of block quotes for readability and trying to correct for any mistakes in the scanning, but unfamiliar words (chiefly ethnonyms) make this difficult.

“The population chiefly consists of the pastoral tribe of Katha, or Jun, who are so called from their living an erratic life, “Jun” having that signification: few of them are found at any distance from the rivers but in the rainy season. They have immense herds of buffaloes and camels, from the milk of which they derive sustenance; hardly cultivating the soil, though some tolerable fields of tobacco, raised by irrigation, may be seen near their habitations.”

EvX: The text here says “Kattia,” but this is most likely a transcription error, as “h” is often turned into “ti,” and I haven’t found any evidence of a “Kattia” tribe, but Kathia is a last name found among Gujarati and Punjabi peoples.

Scene in Kathawar: Travelers and Escort
Scene in Kathawar: Travelers and Escort

“They are a tall and handsome race, which may be attributed to a rule among them, prohibiting marriages before their females attain the age of twenty years: they believe that the children of an early union, so common among every other Indian tribe, are puny and unhealthy. These Katha are a predatory and warlike race: few of them are free from scars and wounds. They extend from the banks of the Hydaspes across the deserts to Delhi, and are the aborigines of this country.”

EvX: Wikipedia claims:

The Kathia are a Muslim tribe classified as Rajput, who claim descent from Parmara Rajputs, found in Punjab, Pakistan. According to the Census of India 1931, their male population numbered about 200,000. …

According to their traditions, the Kathia are descended from the legendary Rajah Karan of the Mahabharat.Originally they resided in Bikaner, whence they migrated and founded the state of Kathiawar, which takes its name from the Kathia tribe, and is in modern day Gujerat State of India. From there they went to Sirsa and then Bahawalpur. In this migration, they were accompanied by a few families of the Baghela tribe. Next they crossed over to Kabula stream and went on to Daira Dinpanah. From this place they spread over to Kamalia. The Kathia, like other Neeli Bar tribes were pastoralist.

Gold coin of Diodotus, Bactrian Empire, c. 245 BC. The Greek inscription reads: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΔΙΟΔΟΤΟΥ – "(of) King Diodotus".
Gold coin of Diodotus, Bactrian Empire, c. 245 BC. The Greek inscription reads: ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΔΙΟΔΟΤΟΥ – “(of) King Diodotus”.

“At Shorcote I had the good fortune to procure a variety of coins, which I long believed to be Hindoo; but my surmise regarding the antiquity of the spot received a strong and satisfactory confirmation through the intelligence of the able secretary to the Asiatic Society of Bengal, — Mr. James Prinsep. That gentlemen discovered it to be a Bactrian coin, resembling that of an Appolodotus, and shaped like a Menander, — two coins of the Bactrian monarchs, found by Colonel J. Tod, and engraved in the transactions of the Royal Asiatic Society. The Greek word Bazileos may be read; and I had, therefore, to congratulate myself on having, in my journey to the Hydaspes, found the first Grecian relic in the Punjab. …”

Map of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom circa 180 BC
Map of the Greco-Bactrian Kingdom, circa 180 BC

EvX: Wikipedia notes:

The Greco-Bactrian Kingdom was – along with the Indo-Greek Kingdom – the easternmost part of the Hellenistic world, covering Bactria and Sogdiana in Central Asia from 250 to 125 BC. It was centered on the north of present-day Afghanistan. The expansion of the Greco-Bactrians into present-day northern India and Pakistan from 180 BC established the Indo-Greek Kingdom, which was to last until around 10 AD.[1][2][3]

Dugong
Dugong–bolun?

“Among the inhabitants of the river itself, a creature called “bolun” was the most remarkable. We saw several of them in the mouth of the Ravee, which were of a black colour, and rolled like the porpoise. The natives class this fish with the alligator, and say it has four small paws, and a long snout like a pig. Its habits do not lead it on shore, and it lives on small fish. The large alligator is unknown here ; but the long-nosed reptile called “ghuryal” abounds. There is said to be a singular creature, called ‘* thundwa,” in this river, which is described as of the turtle species, and to have a string in its mouth, by which it can entangle a man, or even an elephant. It is mentioned in the Shasters as having seized the elephant of a god.

gharial
gharial

EvX: I’ve found nothing so far on this “bolun,” but I suspect it may have been a dugong, a relative of the manatee, which lives in coastal waters throughout the Indian Ocean including western India (though not, currently, off the coast of Pakistan.) Gharials, at least, are well-documented.

“It was a source of no small amusement to watch the love of gossip among the natives of our suite. We had a reporter sent purposely from the Court, who daily despatched an account of our employment and rides: the news-writer of Mooltan followed us from that city, and every day transmitted a Gazette. I had also letters from the news-writer at Lahore, giving me a precis of local news, and asking for a morceau in return. Our Dewan corresponded with the Chevaliers Ventura and Allard; and I was somewhat surprized to receive answers to many of my enquiries regarding the country from the former gentleman, to whom their subject had been communicated without my knowledge. Nothing, however, could exceed the politeness of all the people towards us, and the ready and happy manner they acceded to our wishes made us careful to wish for any thing.”

EvX: Wikipedia defines “Dewan“:

The originally Persian title of dewan (also quite commonly known as Diwan; also spelled -van) has, at various points in Islamic history, designated a powerful government official, minister or ruler. … The word is Persian in origin, and was loaned into Arabic. The original meaning was “bundle (of written sheets)”, hence “book”, especially “book of accounts,” and hence “office of accounts,” “custom house,” “council chamber”. The meaning divan “long, cushioned seat” is due to such seats having been found along the walls in Middle Eastern council chambers.[1]

The Great Bath of Mohenjo-daro
Mohenjo-daro, an IVC city laid out similarly to Harappa

“About fifty miles eastward of Toolumba, I passed inland [number transcribed incorrectly] miles to examine the ruins of an ancient city, called Harapa. The remains are extensive, and the place, which has been built of brick, is about three miles in circumference. There is a ruined citadel on the river side of the town; but otherwise Harapa is a perfect chaos, and has not an entire building ; the bricks have been removed to build a small place of the old name hard by. Tradition fixes the fall of Harapa at the same period as Shorkote (1300 years ago), …”

Wikipedia, again:

[Harappa] is believed to have had as many as 23,500 residents and occupied about 150 hectares (370 acres) with clay sculptured houses at its greatest extent during the Mature Harappan phase (2600–1900 BC), which is considered large for its time.[2][3] Per archaeological convention of naming a previously unknown civilization by its first excavated site, the Indus Valley Civilization is also called the Harappan Civilization.

(See also my post on the Indus Valley Civilization.)

I’m going to pause here, but I’ll leave you with a preview for next week:

The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh, Lahore, houses the funerary urns of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 - 1839).
The Samadhi of Ranjit Singh, Lahore, houses the funerary urns of the Sikh ruler Maharaja Ranjit Singh (1780 – 1839).

Sikhs got pretty buildings. I hear they have nice food, too.

Anthropology Friday: Travels into Bokhara (pt.1/3)

16445980In search of something new and different (but actually old,) and not set practically within shouting range of the previous two books, I decided on a whim to pick up Capt. Alexander Burnes’s Travels into Bokhara: Being an account of a Journey from India to Cabool, Tartary and Persia. Also, narrative of a Voyage on the Indus from the Sea to Lahore, published in 1834. According to Wikipedia:

At the age of sixteen, Alexander joined the army of the East India Company and while serving in India, he learned Hindi and Persian, and obtained an appointment as interpreter at Surat in 1822. Transferred to Kutch in 1826 as assistant to the political agent, he took an interest in the history and geography of north-western India and the adjacent countries, which had not yet been thoroughly explored by the British, then he went to Afghanistan. …

His proposal in 1829 to undertake a journey of exploration through the valley of the Indus River was approved and in 1831 his and Henry Pottinger‘s surveys of the Indus river would prepare the way for a future assault on the Sind to clear a path towards Central Asia.[3] In the same year he arrived in Lahore with a present of horses from King William IV to MaharajaRanjit Singh. The British claimed that the horses would not survive the overland journey, so they were allowed to transport the horses up the Indus and used the opportunity to secretly survey the river. In the following years, in company with Mohan Lal, his travels continued through Afghanistan across the Hindu Kush to Bukhara (in what is modern Uzbekistan) and Persia.

The narrative[4] which he published on his visit to England in 1834 added immensely to contemporary knowledge of these countries, and was one of the most popular books of the time.

The book reads like excerpts from Burnes’s personal journal, edited for interest. It is sorely in need of illustrations (or at least, the version on the internet does; perhaps the original had some that weren’t uploaded,) so I’m going to try to add some. It’s been difficult picking which parts to excerpt, so I make no guarantees that I’ve picked the best or most important bits. As usual, I am using “” instead of blockquotes for readability.

Map of "Hindoostan" from the 1830s
Map of “Hindoostan” from the 1830s. Cutch–now Kutch–is part of the modern district of Gujarat; on the map it is the pink bit on the north-west coast, just south of the main mouths of the Indus.

“Among the timid navigators of the East, the Ability of mariner of Cutch is truly adventurous; he voyages to Arabia, the Red Sea, and the coast of Zanguebar in Africa, bravely stretching out on the ocean after quitting his native shore. The “moallim” or pilot determines his position by an altitude at noon or by the stars at night, with a rude quadrant. Coarse charts depict to him the bearings of his destination, and, by long-tried seamanship, he weathers, in an undecked boat with a huge lateen sail, the dangers and tornadoes of the Indian Ocean. This use of the quadrant was taught by a native of Cutch, who made a voyage to Holland in the middle of last century, and returned, “in a green old age,” to enlighten his country with the arts and sciences of Europe. … For a trifling reward, a Cutch mariner will put to sea in the rainy season, and the adventurous feeling is encouraged by the Hindoo merchants of Mandivee, an enterprising and speculating body of men. …

Ruined Shiva Temple from Kera, Kutch
Ruined Shiva Temple from Kera, Kutch

“There are many spots on [the river’s] banks hallowed in the estimation of the people. Cotasir and Narainseer are places of pilgrimage to the Hindoo, and stand upon it and the western promontory of Cutch. Opposite them lies the cupola of Rao Kanoje, beneath which there rests a saint, revered by the Mahommedans. To defraud this personage of frankincense, grain, oil, and money, in navigating the Koree, would entail, it is superstitiously believed, certain shipwreck. In the reverence we recognise the dangers and fear of the mariner. There is a great contrast between the shores of Sinde and Cutch; the one is flat and depressed, nearly to a level with the sea, while the hills of Cutch rise in wild and volcanic cones, which meet the eye long after the coast has faded from the view.”

EvX: This is one of those places where ethnonymic shift makes my work difficult. You try Googling “Cotasir” or “Rao Kanoje” and see if you find any information about these places.

“Rao” appears to be a noble title, and I have found a “Rao Khengarji” who was the “first Rao of Cutch,” but Wikipedia has no pictures. So I have picked a picture of a ruined Hindu temple from the area that might be relevant.

Jadeja Chief in Kutch attire, 1838
Jadeja Chief in Kutch attire, 1838

Burnes then quotes from Quintus Curtius on the surprising tides:

“About the third hour, the ocean, according to a regular alternation, began to flow in furiously, driving back the river. The river, at first, resisted; then impressed with a new force, rushed upwards with more impetuosity than torrents descend a precipitous channel. The mass on board, unacquainted with the nature of the tide, saw only prodigies and symbols of the wrath of the gods. Ever and anon the sea swelled; and on plains, recently dry, descended a diffused flood. The vessels lifted from their stations, and the whole fleet dispersed; those who had debarked, in terror and astonishment at the calamity, ran from all quarters towards the ships. … Vessels dash together, and oars are by turns snatched away, to impel other galleys. A spectator would not imagine a fleet carrying the same army; but hostile navies commencing a battle. * * * * Now the tide had inundated all the fields skirting the river, only tops of knolls rising above it like little islands ; to these, from the evacuated ships, the majority swam in consternation. The dispersed fleet was partly riding in deep water, where the land was depressed into dells; and partly resting on shoals, where the tide had covered elevated ground; suddenly breaks on the Macedonians a new alarm more vivid than the former. The sea began to ebb; the deluge, with a violent drain, to retreat into the fritli,* disclosing tracts just before deeply buried. Unbayed, the ships pitched some upon their prows, others upon their sides.”

Deshalji II, Rao of Kutch, 1819-1860
Deshalji II, Rao of Kutch, 1819-1860

*EvX: fritli is likely a word that was incorrectly rendered when the book was digitized–I suspect it means “froth”.

“The fields were strewed with baggage, arms, loose planks, and fragments of oars. The soldiers scarcely believed what they suffered and witnessed. Shipwrecks on dry land, the sea in a river. Nor yet ended their unhappiness; for ignorant that the speedy return of the tide would set their ships afloat, they predicted to themselves famine and death.”

EvX: At any rate, they try to get permission to head up the river, but are turned back.

“…here our civilities ended. By the way we were met by several “dingies” full of armed men, and at night were hailed by one of them, to know how many troops we had on board. We replied, that we had not even a musket. “The evil is done,” rejoined a rude Belooche soldier, “you have seen our country; but we have four thousand men ready for action!” To this vain-glorious observation succeeded torrents of abuse; and when we reached the mouth of the river, the party fired their matchlocks over us…”

“On the 10th of February we again set sail for Sinde; but at midnight, on the 14th, were overtaken by a fearful tempest, which scattered our little fleet. Two of the vessels were dismasted; we lost our small boat, split our sails, sprung a leak; and, after being buffeted about for some days by the fury of the winds and waves, succeeded in getting an observation of the sun, which enabled us to steer our course, and finally conducted us in safety to Sinde. One of the other four boats alone followed us. …”

EvX: After much negotiation, (including being told that the river is only a few feet deep,) Burnes is finally allowed to take his boats up the Indus. Burnes complains about the duplicitousness of the Ameer of Sind, who was afraid that Burnes was essentially a spy and would use information he gathered about the Indus to help the British invade–which is, of course, exactly what happened. Even if the Ameer was impolite, he was also correct.

A tomb at Makli Hills necropolis, Thatta, built in 1559. Wikipedia claims Thatta's nickname is "The city of silence."
A tomb at Makli Hills necropolis, Thatta, built in 1559. Wikipedia claims Thatta’s nickname is “The city of silence.”

“A week’s stay was agreeably spent in examining Tatta and the objects of curiosity which surround it. The city stands at a distance of three miles from the Indus. It is celebrated in the history of the East. Its commercial prosperity passed away with the empire of Delhi, and its ruin has been completed since it fell under the iron despotism of the present rulers of Sinde. It does not contain a population of 15,000 souls; and of the houses scattered about its ruins, one half are destitute of inhabitants. It is said, that the dissentions between the last and present dynasties, which led to Sinde being overrun by the Afghans, terrified the merchants of the city, who fled the country at that time, and have had no encouragement to return. Of the weavers of “loongees” (a kind of silk and cotton manufacture), for which this place was once so famous, but 125 families remain. There are not forty merchants in the city. …

Indus Valley engraving of a boat
Indus Valley engraving of a boat

“On our return, we saw much of the people, who were disposed from the first to treat us more kindly than the government. Their notions regarding us were strange: some asked us why we allowed dogs to clean our hands after a meal, and if we indiscriminately ate cats and mice, as well as pigs. They complained much of their rulers, and the ruinous and oppressive system of taxation to which they were subjected, as it deterred them from cultivating any considerable portion of land. Immense tracts of the richest soil lie in a state of nature, between Tatta and the sea, overgrown with tamarisk shrubs, which attain, in some places, the height of twenty feet, and, threading into one another, form impervious thickets. At other places, we passed extensive plains of hard-caked clay, with remains of ditches and aqueducts, now neglected. …

More recent picture of Indus River boat
More recent picture of a boat on the Indus River

“The boats of the Indus are not unlike China junks, very capacious, but most unwieldy. They are floating houses; and with ourselves we transported the boatmen, their wives and families, kids and fowls. When there is no wind, they are pulled up against the stream, by ropes attached to the mast-head, at the rate of a mile and a half an hour; but with a breeze, they set a large square-sail, and advance double the distance. …

“A Syud stood on the water’s edge, and gazed with astonishment. He turned to his companion as we passed, and, in the hearing of one of our party, said, “Alas! Sinde is now gone, since the English have seen the river, which is the road to its conquest.” If such an event do happen, I am certain that the body of the people will hail the happy day; but it will be an evil one for the Syuds, …

“I followed up the interview by sending the government presents which I had brought for his Highness: they consisted of various articles of European manufacture, — a gun, a brace of pistols, a gold watch, two telescopes, a clock, some English shawls and cloths, with two pair of elegant cut glass candlesticks and shades. Some Persian works beautifully lithographed in Bombay, and a map of the World and Hindoostan, in Persian characters, completed the gift. …

“Meer Nusseer Khan, the son of the Ameer, presented me with a handsome Damascus sword, which had a scabbard of red velvet ornamented with gold; his father sent me a purse of fifteen hundred rupees, with an apology, that he had not a blade mounted as he desired, and begged I would accept the value of one. After all the inconvenience to which we had been subjected, we hardly expected such a reception at Hydrabad. …

It turns out that there are two Hyderabads, one in the middle of India and one in Sindh, Pakistan. This is a photograph of the correct Hyderabad, from the 1800s
It turns out that there are two Hyderabads, one in the middle of India and one in Sindh, Pakistan. This is a photograph of the correct Hyderabad, from the 1800s

“On the capital itself, I can add little to the Hydrabad accounts which are already on record. It does not contain a population of twenty thousand souls, who live in houses, or rather huts, built of mud. The residence of the chief himself is a comfortless miserable dwelling. The fort, as well as the town, stands on a rocky hillock; and the former is a mere shell, partly surrounded by a ditch, about ten feet wide and eight deep, over which there is a wooden bridge. The walls are about twenty-five feet high, built of brick, and fast going to decay. Hydrabad is a place of no strength, and might readily be captured by escalade. In the centre of the fort there is a massive tower, unconnected with the works,
which overlooks the surrounding country. Here are deposited a great portion of the riches of Sinde. …

Shrine of Lal ShahBaz, lit up for the anniversary of his death
Shrine of Lal ShahBaz, lit up for the anniversary of his death

“Sehwun has considerable celebrity and sanctity from the tomb of a holy saint of Khorasan, by name Lal Shah Baz, who was interred here about 600 years ago. The shrine stands in the centre of the town, and rests under a lofty dome at one end of a quadrangular building, which is handsomely ornamented by blue painted slabs, like Dutch tiles, that give it a rich appearance. A cloth of gold, with two other successive palls of red silk, are suspended over the sepulchre, and on the walls which surround it are inscribed in large Arabic letters the praises of the deceased, and extracts from the Koran. Ostrich eggs, peacocks’ feathers, beads, flowers, &c. complete the furniture of this holy spot; and pigeons, the emblems of peace, are encouraged to perch on the cloths which shade the remains of departed virtue.

“The miracles of Lal Shah Baz are endless, if you believe the people. The Indus is subject to his commands, and no vessel dares to pass his shrine without making a propitiatory offering at his tomb. Thousands of pilgrims flock to the consecrated spot, and the monarchs of Cabool and India have often visited the sanctuary. The drums which proclaim the majesty of the saint are a gift from the renowned persecutor Alla-o-deen, who reigned a. d. 1212; and the gate, which is of silver, attests the homage and devotion of a deceased Ameer of Sinde. The needy are daily supplied with food from the charity of the stranger; but the universal bounty has corrupted the manners of the inhabitants, who are a worthless and indolent set of men.

“The Hindoo joins with the Mahommedan in his veneration of the saint, and artfully insinuates “Lal” to be a Hindoo name, and that the Mahommedans have associated with the faith of their prophet the god of an infidel creed. …

“We halted four days at Sehwun. The climate was most sultry and oppressive: the thermo-
meter stood at 112°, and did not fall below 100° at midnight, owing to scorching winds from the west, where the country is bleak and mountainous. …”

EvX: If I lived somewhere that was still 100 degrees out past midnight, I think I’d be “worthless and indolent,” too.

Seriously, I think the “people move around more in cooler climates because they aren’t going to die of heat exhaustion” theory of civilization has a lot going for it. I don’t know how humans are supposed to do anything useful in extreme heat.

“With the better orders of society we had frequent intercourse and conversation. … They were full of enquiries regarding our customs. Our Khyrpoor friend, Mahomed Gohur, was particularly horrified at our arrangements for getting a wife, and begged me in future to let my beard grow. … I delighted to hear him sing the praises of the soldiers of Sinde, who, he said, differed from all the world in thinking it an honour to fight on foot. The feelings of pity which some of the people displayed for us were amusing: they were shocked to hear that we cleaned our teeth with hogs’ bristles. I was frequently asked to lay aside the English saddle, which they considered quite unworthy, and worse than a seat on the bare back of the horse. …

Major ethnic groups of Pakistan in 1980
Major ethnic groups of Pakistan in 1980

“The Beloochees are a particularly savage race of people, but they are brave barbarians. From childhood they are brought up in arms; and I have seen some of the sons of chiefs who had not attained the age of four or five years strutting about with a shield and a sword of small size, given by the parents to instil into them, at that early period, the relish for war.

“This tribe composes but a small portion of the Sindian population; and while they are execrated by the peaceable classes of the community for their imperious conduct, they, on the other hand, hate the princes by whom they are governed. It would be difficult to conceive a more unpopular rule, with all classes of their subjects, than that of the Ameers of Sinde: nor is the feeling disguised ; many a fervent hope did we hear expressed, in every part of the country, that we were the forerunners of conquest, the advance-guard of a conquering army.

“The persons of the Ameers are secure from danger by the number of slaves which they entertain around their persons. These people are called “Khaskelees,” and enjoy the confidence of their masters, with a considerable share of power : they are hereditary slaves, and a distinct class of the community, who marry only among themselves. …”

EvX: so far I haven’t been able to find anything else on the “Khaskelees,” but apparently Pakistan, India, Haiti, and Mauritania rank very high in numbers/percentage of the population currently enslaved.

“The ladies were more curious than their husbands. They wear ear-rings of large dimensions, with turquoises suspended or fixed to them; for these stones are of little value in the vicinity of Khorasan. Among the women, I should note the Syudanees, or Bebees, the female descendants of Mahommed: they go about veiled, or rather with a long white robe thrown over their entire body, having netted orifices before the eyes and mouth. They are all beggars, and very vociferous in their demands for alms: one set of them, (for they go about in troops,) when they found I did not readily meet their demands, produced a written paper from the shrine of Lal ShahBaz, at Sehwun, to hasten my charity! Father Manrique, in his journey by the Indus some centuries ago, complains “of the frail fair ones” who molested him by the way.

Jewish-Indian (known as Bene-israel) family in Bombay, late 1800s or early 1900s.
Jewish-Indian (known as Bene-israel) family in Bombay, late 1800s or early 1900s.

“… some of the principal merchants of Bhawulpoor, who had followed the Khan. The intelligence of these people, and extent of their travels, surprised me. Most of them had traversed the kingdom of Cabool, and visited Balkli and Bokhara: some had been as far as Astracan; and they used the names of these towns with a familiarity as if they had been in India. They had met Russian merchants at Bokhara, but assured me that they never came to the eastward of that city. The intervening countries they represented as perfectly safe, and bestowed the highest commendations on Dost Mahommed, of Cabool, and the Uzbeks, who encouraged commercial communication. These merchants are chiefly Hindoos, whose disposition peculiarly adapts them for the patient and painstaking vocation of a foreign merchant. Some of them are Jews, who retain the marks of their nation in all countries and places. …”

EvX: According to Wikipedia:

The history of Jews in Pakistan dates at least as far back as 1839.[1][2] Various estimates suggest that there were about 1,000 Jews living in Karachi at the beginning of the twentieth century, mostly Bene Israel Jews from Maharashtra, India.[3] A substantial community lived in Rawalpindi.[1] A smaller community of Jews also lived in Peshawar. The Bene Israel Jews of India were concentrated in Karachi.[4] According to Bene Israel human rights lawyer, Levi M. Sankar, there are no indigenous Jews remaining in Pakistan.

Since “Travels into Bokhara” was published in 1834, I think this needs to be revised.Given the trade routes, I think it likely that Jews have been in the area of modern day Pakistan since sometime around the rise and fall of the Persian Empire.

I’m going to stop here for now. See you next Friday.

Maps, maps, maps (pt. 2/2: Australia)

Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543
Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543

Yes, the answer to Tuesday’s final query is that the Dieppe maps, (including Guillaume Brouscon’s,) show a great big landmass almost exactly where Australia actually is, a good 50 or 60 years before the first documented European sighting. (By Dutch navigator Willem Janszoon, in 1606.)

800px-Australia_discoveries_by_Europeans_before_1813_enThere’s this funny gap in human knowledge of Australia. 50,000 years ago, humans equipped with little more than sharp rocks and pointy sticks managed to get to Australia and make themselves home. Then, for the next 49,500 or so years, everyone else forgot that it was there. (Aside from a few lost souls from India who washed up, IIRC, abut 10,000 years ago.) (It looks like the southern coast of Australia wasn’t even explored [by sea,] until 1801.)

Even China, an organized polity with excellent record-keeping, ship-making, and map-making skills going back centuries, does not show Australia on its maps (at least not on any map I’ve found,) until 1602.

1602 is still before 1606, but we will discuss these Chinese maps in a minute.

Portugal had a policy, in the 1500s, of treating its nautical maps as official state secrets. French spies, therefore, went and bribed Portuguese map-makers into sharing their secrets, the results of which are probably the Dieppe maps, due to their many Portuguese and French labels, indicating French cartographers working off Portuguese originals.

All of which raises the question of WHO was exploring Australia in the early 1500s. Was it the Portuguese? If so, they’ve done an excellent job (a few bribed cartographers aside,) in keeping it secret. Unlike the fabled Viking settlement in Vinland, we have yet to discover any hard evidence, such as Portuguese DNA or artifacts in Australia, that would confirm an early Portuguese presence.

The “Australia” landmass on the Dieppe maps is labeled “Jave la Grande.” Wikipedia claims that this name comes from Marco Polo:

“As explained by Sir Henry Yule, the editor of an English edition of Marco Polo’s travels: “Some geographers of the 16th century, following the old editions which carried the travellers south-east of Java to the land of Boeach (or Locac), introduced in their maps a continent in that situation”.[3]”

Behaim's Erdapfel globe, 1492
Behaim’s Erdapfel globe, 1492

The problem with this explanation is that in the two and a half centuries of map-making between the publication of Marco Polo’s adventures and the drawing of the Dieppe maps, no one stuck in a giant continental blob of land south of Indonesia, labeled “Jave la Grande” nor anything else. Jave la Grand does show up on some of these maps, but as a quite ordinary island about where you’d expect it. EG, the Erdapfel globe of 1492 (too early to include Columbus’s discoveries, which weren’t known until 1493, but definitely disproving the idea that people in Columbus’s day thought the world was flat.)

I find it highly unlikely that the Dieppe cartographers suddenly decided to turn “Jave la Grande” into a great big landmass in a spot where no prior European maps had ever shown land, and happened, totally by accident, to position it where there actually is a continent.

The Erdpafel's depiction of the Pacific, including Java Major
The Erdpafel’s depiction of the Pacific, including Java Major (aka Java la Grande)

It seems far more likely that they were working off charts that happened to show a large landmass in this spot, and needing a name for it, they chose the closest thing they could find in Marco Polo’s account. (I would not worry about the location being slightly off, due to these maps predating our ability to find longitude at sea by over a hundred years.)

That leaves the question of how Australia got on the charts. Just as the French got their information from the Portuguese, the Portuguese may have gotten their information, in turn, from someone else, like the Chinese, Indonesians, or Islamic mariners.

The Wikipedia page on Islamic geography is inadequate for me to draw any conclusions from it.

Japanese copy of Matteo Ricci's Kunyu Wanguo Quantu world map
Japanese copy of Matteo Ricci’s Kunyu Wanguo Quantu world map

As I mentioned earlier, the first Chinese maps (that I know of) to show Australia are from 1602, after the Dieppe maps. The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu were created by Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit missionary. The Kunyu Wanguo Quantu combines, for the first time, the geographic knowledge of Europe and China.

Sancai Tuhui World Map
Sancai Tuhui World Map, the Shanhai Yudi Quantu, of 1609

Ricci got to China by hopping aboard a Portuguese vessel, which dropped him off at their colony in Goa. From there he traveled to Macau, and then to Beijing and the Forbidden City (though he never met the Emperor.) So I think it highly likely that Ricci had access to (or knowledge of) Portuguese maps/discoveries, or the Dieppe maps themselves. I suspect that Ricci’s knowledge of Australia did not come from Chinese sources, because the Chinese world map Shanhai Yudi Quantu, (1609,) though inspired by Ricci’s work, does not show Australia.

The Indonesians are another potential source. I don’t know anything about the history of Indonesian map-making, but the Wikipedia page on the prehistory of Australia intriguingly informs us:

…the people living along the northern coastline of Australia, in the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Gulf of Carpentaria and Cape York had encounters with various visitors for many thousands of years. People and traded goods moved freely between Australia and New Guinea up to and even after the eventual flooding of the land bridge by rising sea levels …

Indonesian “Bajau” fishermen from the Spice Islands (e.g. Banda) have fished off the coast of Australia for hundreds of years. Macassan traders from Sulawesi regularly visited the coast of northern Australia to fish for trepang, an edible sea cucumber to trade with the Chinese since at least the early 18th century. Tamil sea-farers also had knowledge of Australia and Polynesia before European contact.[37] …

The myths of the people of Arnhem Land have preserved accounts of the trepang-catching, rice-growing Baijini people, who, according to the myths, were in Australia in the earliest times, before the Macassans. …

In 1944, a small number of copper coins with Arabic inscriptions were discovered on a beach in Jensen Bay on Marchinbar Island, part of the Wessel Islands of the Northern Territory. These coins were later identified as from the Kilwa Sultanate of east Africa. Only one such coin had ever previously been found outside east Africa (unearthed during an excavation in Oman).

Ruysch Map
Ruysch Map

So it is possible that the accounts of any of these folks could have made it onto local maps, and made their way from there to the Portuguese and the Dieppe maps (though I will note that if the Macassans got there in the 18th century, that is after the Dieppe maps, but I don’t know how exact that date is.)

There is, however, a potentially more mundane explanation for this odd landmass: it could just be South America. To European mapmakers of the late 14 and early 1500s, it was not at all clear that Columbus had discovered the edge of a new continent, rather than some islands off the coast of Asia–hence Ruysch’s 1507 map that show Massachusetts merging into China.

Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland
Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland

In the days before mariners could easily check their longitude at sea, the location of various islands could only be estimated by calculating the direction and speed the ship that had reached them had been going, eg, “Three days’ sail to the West.” This meant that islands could appear in different spots on different maps, which sometimes resulted in islands getting duplicated in maps created by compiling several earlier charts. Iceland, for example, shows up twice on this map:

I think it possible, therefore, that the Dieppe map makers had before them one map which showed the coast of Brazil as an island near Indonesia, and a second map showed it as part of a continent in between Europe and Asia, and simply recorded both on their combined map. Personally, I think the shape of Jave la Grande looks more like South America than Australia, but perhaps if I could read thee maps or examine them in more detail, I would revise that assessment.

Beatus T-O style Map showing the antipodes, 1050
Beatus T-O style Map showing the antipodes on the far right, AD 1050

This would be a case of the Dieppe map makers getting lucky, not unheard of phenomenon. Medieval Europeans believed, for example, in a mythical “fourth continent” located on the other side of the world, called fanciful names like “the antipodes” (“the backwards feet,” a reference to the amusing idea that people on the other side of the world are standing upside down relative to oneself–again, proof that Europeans well before Columbus knew the Earth is round;) or less fancifully, “terra australis,” “southern land.” Since the Bible commands Christ’s disciples to spread his Gospel to “the four corners of the Earth,” Medieval mapmakers, faced with only 3 continents, figured there had to be a fourth. But since philosophical opinions conflicted regarding this fourth continent, it was not always included on maps.

The European age of exploration pushed the borders of this fourth continent increasingly southward, as the vast expanse of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans were found not to harbor it, until it was restricted to the area south of South America. But here folks got lucky, and spotted an actual continent right where their maps said there ought to be one. Likewise, when Australia first showed up on European maps, it was supposed to be a northern promontory of this most southerly land, and so depicted. Thus the name “Terra Australis” came to be inscribed on this territory.

So we are still left with a mystery: did someone actually map Australia before the Dutch, or did the Dieppe map makers just get lucky?

 

Maps Maps Maps: A short history (pt 1/2)

Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland
Mercator map of 1595 showing Hy-Brasil and an extra Iceland

Old maps are full of curiosities, like completely mythical islands (eg, Hy-Brasil,) land masses radically out of place or duplicated, and massive changes in scale from one side to the other.

Historical map-makers had three main problems: 1. They couldn’t measure longitude, 2. Their maps were often based on compilations of lots of maps from many different sources, often resulting in confusion, and 3. Some groups were more wiling to share their maps than others. (For example, there are lots of questions about what exactly the Portuguese knew in the 14 and 1500s, like rumors that Portuguese fishermen were secretly hauling in cod off the coast of Massachusetts–more on the Portuguese later.)

c5933People generally made good maps of their local areas fairly early on–the Chinese have some excellent early early maps, for example. But beyond the immediate and local, maps quickly became less detailed and more stylized, as in this “T-O” style medieval map, which obviously is not even trying to be accurate, but to express a theologic point.

Since early sailors did not usually strike out over long stretches of open water, but headed to nearby ports or islands a few days’ sail away, I suspect that most early sea charts put a great deal of effort into describing the relevant rocky shoals to avoid and safe harbors to take advantage of, and not so much effort into describing the broad curve of continental coastlines.

While latitude can be fairly easily measured by simply measuring the height of the North Star in degrees (if you are at the equator, the North Star will lie on the horizon; if you are at 45 degrees north, the North Star will be 45 degrees high in the sky;  if you are at the North Pole, the North Star will be directly above you, or 90 degrees. If you can’t find the North Star, you’re south of the equator.) (Wyrd Smythe explains in more detail if you are confused.)

But there is no easy, low-tech way to determine longitude, your east-west position on the Earth’s surface. Longitude is not a huge deal when island-hopping short distances, but it becomes a huge deal once you’re undertaking multi-week trans-Atlantic or trans-Pacific voyages, where a storm can suddenly blow you days off course and you end up crashing into rocks you didn’t know were there. For example, in 1707, four British Navy warships were pushed off course by storms off the coast of England and crashed into the Isles of Scilly. 1,550 sailors drowned, prompting the British government to offer a 20,000 pound prize for anyone who could figure out a way to accurately determine longitude at sea.

recreation of Ptolemy's world map
Recreation of Ptolemy’s world map

The lack of knowledge and inability to make good measurements rendered even the best early maps of the world objectively terrible.

Here we have a reconstruction of Ptolemey’s world map, based on the geographical knowledge of AD 150, and Al Idrisi’s map drawn for Roger II of Sicily in 1154. Idrisi did a good job depicting Sicily, but nearby Italy is a complete mess, and he duplicates Ptolemy’s mistake of essentially depicting India as a big island (actually, probably confusion between the size of India vs. the size of Sri Lanka,) and Ptolemy’s complete confusion about the angle of Africa’s east coast.

Tabula Rogeriana, created by Al-Idrisi
Tabula Rogeriana, created by Al-Idrisi

Al Idrisi did know about the Pacific ocean and the east Coast of China, which Ptolemy did not, but his geography of Denmark and Britain are worse than Ptolemy’s, despite having been based in Europe while working.The lack of advancement in geographic knowledge available in the Mediterranean over 1,000 years is striking (though I would not be surprised to find out that folks were working with much better maps of local currents and shoals in their areas than their ancestors had been using in Ptolemy’s time.)

Gangnido map
Gangnido map

On the other side of the world, Chinese and Korean maps show a similar pattern. The Gangnido (aka Kangnido,) map of 1402, created in Korea, shows Korea, China, the Arabian Peninsula, and Africa. I think India is very slightly projecting from the lower-left side of the China blob, with Sri Lanka a bit more properly sized than on Ptolemy’s map.

The Gangnido map is based on an earlier Chinese map, the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu of 1398, which is very similar, but might have the Malay Peninsula.

Now, you might be thinking, as I did, that “Africa” and “Arabia” look a lot like India on this map. Wikipedia assures us that they aren’t and offers this explanation, especially since it is difficult for us non-Koreans to read the map: 300px-KangnidoPoliticalDetails

But the total lack of a Malay peninsula is really confusing, as I assume anyone traveling from China to India would be quite are of this enormous detour in their way. It’s like drawing a map of Europe and leaving off Spain.

These maps show the difficulties of trying to compile one map out of many, as your maps may use vastly different scales. The Gangnido and Da Ming Hun Yi Tu maps combine information compiled from Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Mongolian (the Mongol empire collected maps from all of its conquered nations,) and Islamic sources, eg, the voyages of Ibn Battuta.

I have noticed that no matter which explorer of south Asia we are talking about, whether Ibn Battuta, Marco Polo, Zheng He, or the Polynesians, none of them seem to have made it to Australia.

Neither do any of these early (1400s or before) maps seem to show Australia–in other words, the Chinese (and Koreans) were drawing recognizable maps of Africa and Europe before Australia.

Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543
Guillaume Brouscon world map, 1543

European portolan charts appeared, seemingly ex nihilo, in the 13th century. The portolans used compass directions plus sailing directions to estimate distances between map points, thus producing a revolution in map accuracy. The compass roses are drawn directly onto the map for navigational convenience, as on this “Dieppe map” by Guillaume Brouscon, 1543.

It is getting late, so I am going to have to continue this on Thursday, when we will discuss the Dieppe maps in some depth. But let me know if you catch the most curious thing about them. ;)

 

 

The big six civilizations (part 5: China, Treasure Ships, and Eunuchs)

ff23e2c73822050c646f06efd7503a4b

I doubt I need to tell you that China was one of the first six major, basically independent civilizations to emerge in world history, but it was surprisingly late compared to the others.

Anyway, this post is going to only briefly look at the Erlitou, as I assume you are already fairly familiar with Chinese culture, and instead focus on the voyages of the Treasure Ships. And eunuchs.

The Erlitou culture appeared on the Li river around 1900 BC. The largest city, also called Erlitou, may have been home to 18,000-30,000 people, before the capital got moved and most of the folks moved away. They may have been the somewhat mythical Xia dynasty, but there isn’t enugh evidence, yet, to prove the association either way.

The Erlitou people had pottery, (and potters’ wheels,) could smelt bronze, were making silk, and raising domesticated plants and animals such as wheat, rice, millet, pigs, and goats. (Rice was originally domesticated in south Asia, but had spread by this point to China.) I believe they also had some form of proto-writing.

They weren’t the first folks in the area–they succeeded the Longshan culture, which had small farming villages and probably morphed into the Erlitou–but they appear to be the first large polity.

Now that’s all well and good, but the interesting stuff came later.

The many helpful comments back on my post, the Hikikomori Nations, pointed me to the naval journeys of Zheng He, who commanded the Chinese navy, battled pirates, and sailed to Indonesia, India, and Africa back in 1405-1433.

Then, almost as suddenly as these “Treasure Voyages” had begun, they ended. Wikipedia explains why:

The treasure voyages were commanded and overseen by the eunuch establishment whose political influence was heavily dependent on imperial favor. However, within Ming China’s imperial state system, the civil government were the primary political opponents of the eunuchs and the opposing faction against the expeditions. Around the end of the maritime voyages, the civil government gained the upper hand within the state bureaucracy, while the eunuchs gradually fell out of favor after the death of the Yongle Emperor.

This left me scratching my head. Eunuchs were a political block in early 15th century China?

The Wikipedia page on Eunuchs helpfully explains:

In China, castration included removal of the penis as well as the testicles. …

From ancient times until the Sui Dynasty, castration was both a traditional punishment … and a means of gaining employment in the Imperial service. Certain eunuchs gained immense power that occasionally superseded that of even the Grand Secretaries. Zheng He, who lived during the Ming Dynasty, is an example of such a eunuch. Self-castration was a common practice, although it was not always performed completely, which led to its being made illegal.

It is said that the justification for the employment of eunuchs as high-ranking civil servants was that, since they were incapable of having children, they would not be tempted to seize power and start a dynasty.

*Mind boggles.*

Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left
Sun Yaoting, right, and his biographer, left

The last Imperial eunuch, Sun Yaoting, died in December 1996.

Here’s an Australian article about poor Sun:

For centuries in China, the only men from outside the imperial family who were allowed into the Forbidden City’s private quarters were castrated ones. …

Sun’s impoverished family set him on this painful, risky path in hopes that he might one day be able to crush a bullying village landlord who stole their fields and burnt their house.

His desperate father performed the castration on the bed of their mud-walled home, with no anaesthetic and only oil-soaked paper as a bandage. A goose quill was inserted in Sun’s urethra to prevent it getting blocked as the wound healed.

He was unconscious for three days and could barely move for two months. When he finally rose from his bed, history played the first of a series of cruel tricks on him – he discovered the emperor he hoped to serve had abdicated several weeks earlier.

Sun was eight years old at the time.

The young ex-emperor was eventually allowed to stay in the palace and Sun had risen to become an attendant to the empress when the imperial family were unceremoniously booted out of the Forbidden City, ending centuries of tradition and Sun’s dreams.

“He was castrated, then the emperor abdicated. He made it into the Forbidden City then Pu Yi was evicted. He followed him north and then the puppet regime collapsed. He felt life had played a joke at his expense,” Jia said.

If you’re curious, Yinghua Jia wrote a whole book about Sun’s life, The Last Eunuch of China. (It has 4.5 stars.)

You know, growing up, I heard fairly frequently about Chinese foot-binding (done to women) and harems (in various countries.) There was a fairly frequent intellectual subcurrent of “historical cultures were mean to women.” NO ONE EVER MENTIONED THE EUNUCHS.

Okay, carrying on: so there were apparently enough men whose parents had thought it a good idea to lop of their genitals in order to get them a job that they constituted an opinion-making polity within the Chinese government, and got into conflicts with the Confucian scholars, who I assume hadn’t been horrifically mutilated by their parents.

The Treasure Voyages were thought up by the Eunuchs, and the admiral of the Treasure Fleet, Zheng He, was a eunuch:

Zheng He (1371–1433 or 1435), often spelled Cheng Ho in English, was a Hui court eunuch, mariner, explorer, diplomat, and fleet admiral during China‘s early Ming dynasty. Born Ma He, Zheng commanded expeditionary voyages to Southeast Asia, South Asia, Western Asia, and East Africa from 1405 to 1433. …

As a favorite of the Yongle Emperor, whose usurpation he assisted, he rose to the top of the imperial hierarchy and served as commander of the southern capital Nanjing (the capital was later moved to Beijing by the Yongle Emperor). …

Zheng He was born into a Muslim family.[7][10][11]

He was a great-great-great-grandson of Sayyid Ajjal Shams al-Din Omar, a Persian who served in the administration of the Mongol Empire and was the governor of Yunnan during the early Yuan dynasty.[14][15] His great-grandfather was named Bayan and may have been stationed at a Mongol garrison in Yunnan.[7] His grandfather carried the title hajji.[1][16] His father had the surname Ma and the title hajji.[1][7][16] The title suggests that they had made the pilgrimage to Mecca.[1][7][16] It also suggests that Zheng He may have had Mongol and Arab ancestry and that he could speak Arabic.[17]

Zheng He had a distinguished career in the army before becoming head of the Chinese navy.

It is generally accepted (based on Ming dynasty records) that Zheng He died in 1433 at Calicut in India during the return leg of the seventh voyage and was buried in Calicut or at sea,[48] although some theories, based on artifacts associated with him and believed to be from later than 1433, posit that he died shortly after that voyage in 1434[48] or early 1435.[49]

A tomb was built for Zheng He in Nanjing. This is usually believed to be a cenotaph containing his clothes and headgear as his body was buried at sea or in Calicut, but other theories exist as to whether Zheng He was buried in Nanjing, and if so, where. In 1985, a Muslim-style tomb was built on the site of the earlier horseshoe-shape grave.[50] He adopted the eldest son of his elder brother, who was awarded a hereditary officer rank in the imperial guard.

The voyages of Zheng He
The voyages of Zheng He

As for the Treasure Fleet itself:

The grand project resulted in seven far-reaching ocean voyages to the coastal territories and islands in and around the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, and beyond. … The first three voyages reached up to Calicut on India’s southwestern coast, while the fourth voyage went as far as Hormuz in the Persian Gulf. Afterwards, the fleet made voyages farther away to the Arabian Peninsula and East Africa.

While the voyages did result in better maps, they weren’t exploratory, like Columbus’s–the Chinese were already well aware that India and Africa existed before they set out:

Chinese seafaring merchants and diplomats of the medieval Tang Dynasty (618—907) and Song Dynasty (960—1279) often sailed into the Indian Ocean after visiting ports in South East Asia. Chinese sailors would travel to Malaya, India, Sri Lanka, into the Persian Gulf and up the Euphrates River in modern-day Iraq, to the Arabian peninsula and into the Red Sea, stopping to trade goods in Ethiopia and Egypt (as Chinese porcelain was highly valued in old Fustat, Cairo).[11] Jia Dan wrote Route between Guangzhou and the Barbarian Sea during the late 8th century that documented foreign communications, the book was lost, but the Xin Tangshu retained some of his passages about the three sea-routes linking China to East Africa.[12] Jia Dan also wrote about tall lighthouse minarets in the Persian Gulf, which were confirmed a century later by Ali al-Masudi and al-Muqaddasi.[13] Beyond the initial work of Jia Dan, other Chinese writers accurately described Africa from the 9th century onwards; For example, Duan Chengshi wrote in 863 of the slave trade, ivory trade, and ambergris trade of Berbera, Somalia.[14] Seaports in China such as Guangzhou and Quanzhou – the most cosmopolitan urban centers in the medieval world – hosted thousands of foreign travelers and permanent settlers. Chinese junk ships were even described by the Moroccan geographer Al-Idrisi in his Geography of 1154, along with the usual goods they traded and carried aboard their vessels.[15]

Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He's voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia
Giraffe brought back on one of Zheng He’s voyages, a gift to the Emperor from Somalia

Nor was trade the main point, because Chinese merchants were already doing plenty of trade. Rather:

The Chinese expeditionary fleet was heavily militarized and carried great amounts of treasures, which served to project Chinese power and wealth to the known world. They brought back many foreign ambassadors whose kings and rulers were willing to declare themselves tributaries of China. During the course of the voyages, they destroyed Chen Zuyi‘s pirate fleet at Palembang, conquered the Sinhalese Kotte kingdom of King Alekeshvara, and defeated the forces of the Semudera pretender Sekandar in northern Sumatra.

There is some debate about exactly how big the Treasure Ships were, but the general consensus appears to be that they were some of (if not the) biggest in the world at the time, and carried about 27,000 people. (Total, not per boat.)

Due to bad record keeping (more on this later,) there is some debate (or spirited fantasy) about where, exactly, Zheng He (and other Chinese admirals) sailed:

He is best known for his controversial book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, in which he asserts that the fleets of Chinese Admiral Zheng He visited the Americas prior to European explorer Christopher Columbus in 1492, and that the same fleet circumnavigated the globe a century before the expedition of Ferdinand Magellan. …

Menzies states in the introduction that the book is an attempt to answer the question:

On some early European world maps, it appears that someone had charted and surveyed lands supposedly unknown to the Europeans. Who could have charted and surveyed these lands before they were ‘discovered’?

In the book, Menzies concludes that only China had the time, money, manpower and leadership to send such expeditions and then sets out to prove that the Chinese visited lands unknown in either China or Europe. He claims that from 1421 to 1423, during the Ming dynasty of China under the Yongle Emperor, the fleets of Admiral Zheng He, commanded by the captains Zhou Wen, Zhou Man, Yang Qing, and Hong Bao, discovered Australia, New Zealand, the Americas, Antarctica, and the Northeast Passage; circumnavigated Greenland, tried to reach the North and South Poles, and circumnavigated the world before Ferdinand Magellan.

Unfortunately, it looks like Menzies massively over-reached and doesn’t provide much proof, as many of his reviewers point out.

Our original question that started this whole quest was whether the Chinese discovered Australia (or New Zealand) before the Europeans. (And not Taiwanese-descended Polynesians, who obviously got to NZ first.)

According to Mega-Tsunamis, Chinese Junks, and Port Philip Bay (a very speculative article linked in the comments on the original post):

In 1450 AD, the catastrophic comet Mahuika descended upon the coast of New Zealand. Reputed to be twenty-six times as bright as the Sun, it discharged electrically and shattered Admiral Zhou Man’s Chinese fleet of some sixty ships. The fleet supported a thriving Chinese colony of Han, Tang and Song, mining gold, jade and antimony in New Zealand. The comet’s screaming noise blew out the sailors’ eardrums; they received horrific burns. …

These facts are recorded in the meticulous fifteenth century records of Chinese ambassador Zheng He. Historian Gavin Menzies claims that over nine hundred ships failed to return to China from Pacific expeditions in that tragic year.

I don’t know how much of this comes directly from Menzies’ work vs. other peoples’ speculations, but since Zheng He died in 1433 (or maybe 1435, at the latest,) I don’t think he was writing very much about comets in 1450. Further, I find it unlikely that Admiral Zhou Man was commanding a fleet of Chinese ships in 1450, given that the last Treasure Voyages ended in 1433, after which official Chinese sentiment turned against the voyages and the ships were left to rot in their docks. Wikipedia notes:

In the Ming court, the civil officials were the faction who were against the voyages.[143][156][168] In contrast, the eunuch establishment stood at the head of the fleet and the expeditions.[140][141][156][168] The civil officials condemned the expeditions as extravagant and wasteful.[168][169] Traditionally, they were political opponents of the eunuch establishment,[140][156][168] but also to the military establishments who crewed the fleet.[156] … On cultural grounds, the hostility came forth due to the trade and acquisition of strange foreign goods which stood in contrast to their Confucian ideologies.[171][172][168][169] The undertaking of these expeditions only remained possible as long as the eunuchs maintained imperial favor.[141][173]

The Hongxi Emperor was fiercely against the treasure voyages throughout his reign.[80] After the advice of Xia Yuanji, he ordered the cessation of the treasure voyages on 7 September 1424, the day of his accession to the throne.[93]

After 1433, the civil officials succeeded in halting subsequent maritime expeditions.[170] The ships were left to rot, while their lumber was sold for fuel in Nanjing.[170] The mariners were reassigned to load grain on barges of the Grand Canal and to build the emperor’s mausoleum.[170] After the voyages, subsequent Ming emperors would reject the Yongle Emperor’s policy of bringing the maritime trade into the structure of the tributary system.[140]

It also looks like there was some effort to suppress or destroy records of the voyages, (leaving ample room for folks like Menzies to speculate on what might be missing,) so that future leaders wouldn’t get the wrong idea and try to recreate them.

Further:

From 1405 to 1433, large fleets commanded by Admiral Zheng He—under the auspices of the Yongle Emperor of the Ming Dynastytraveled to the Indian Ocean seven times. This attempt did not lead China to global expansion, as the Confucian bureaucracy under the next emperor reversed the policy of open exploration and by 1500, it became a capital offence to build a seagoing junk with more than two masts.[16] Chinese merchants became content trading with already existing tributary states nearby and abroad. To them, traveling far east into the Pacific Ocean represented entering a broad wasteland of water with uncertain benefits of trade.

While trade continued, official support and imperial navies did not, largely justified by the Haijin doctrine, which banned maritime shipping in 1371 and enforced to varying degrees over the years:

In the second month of the first year (1661) of Kangxi, the Qing court issued an imperial decree: The sea shore inhabitants will be ordered to move inland 50 li, to curb their links with the Taiwan rebels under Koxinga. Soldiers then moved in and set up the boundary: in just three days, all houses were razed to the ground and all inhabitants evacuated. … Warnings were placed on notice boards stating that “Anyone who dares to step over the border line shall be beheaded!” “Persons found a few paces over the border line, shall be beheaded instantly.”

This is, however, well after the time period we are discussing. It looks like the main reason the Treasure Voyages were canceled (aside from eunuchs vs. Confucian conflicts) is that the Mongols became a problem (the Mongols were frequently a problem, after all,) and China had to devote its energies to defending its land borders rather than sailing about the ocean.

Perhaps the best evidence either way would be maps:

Gangnido map
Gangnido map
Selden Map
Selden Map
page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands
A page from the Mao Kun map, showing the South China Sea with Paracel and Spratly Islands

These are the maps I’ve found so far, none of which show Australia or New Zealand. The Mao Kun map is supposed to be based of Zheng He’s maps, and is divided into 40 pages, showing the coasts of China, India, east Africa, etc.

The Seldon Map, from the early 1600s, while very good, does not show Australia, and the Gangnido map (and its later, updated copies,) which people think may show the Arabian peninsula, Africa, the Mediterranean, and part of Europe on its left side, (but strangely, the Malay Peninsula and India were smooshed together into the left-hand side of the big China blob, according to the Wikipedia talk page.)

At any rate, it looks like Australia and New Zealand didn’t make it onto the maps until much later–if they were known to the Chinese, they were probably regarded as unimportant due to lack of valuable trade goods or political states to trade ambassadors with.

I find the difference between the official Chinese reaction to the Treasure Voyages and the European reaction to Columbus’s discoveries remarkable.