The eunuch Columbus

By Steve Sailer
web posted June 1996

The world still noisily debates 1492: did Europe do more for America or to America? For a fresh perspective on the legacy of Columbus we could do worse than examine the life and curiously fleeting impact of the little remembered sailor who probably had a better claim than Columbus to being the greatest admiral of the 15th century: the Chinese eunuch Cheng Ho.

Cheng Ho's seven voyages (1405 - 1433) dwarfed Columbus' four in distance and grandeur. His 444 foot, nine-masted flagship far surpassed in length the Nina, the Pinta and the Santa Maria tethered end to end. Cheng's splendid flotillas of several hundred junks could safely venture the nearly 10,000 miles to Zanzibar off the southeast coast of Africa thanks to Chinese inventions like the compass, the rudder and watertight internal compartments.

As the Emperor's ambassador, Cheng established diplomatic relations with three dozen kingdoms around the China Sea and Indian Ocean. In contrast, Columbus made only tenuous contact with a single advanced culture, the Maya, and his relations with weaker tribes were hardly diplomatic.

Today's anti-imperialists should prefer the Grand Eunuch's kinder, gentler expeditions. While the Iberians were first probing West Africa for gold, slaves, and supply bases, Cheng's formidable fleet was touring East Africa, seeking not plunder but giraffes.

Contemporary opinion blames Columbus' seamen for ravaging the New World's natives with smallpox and bringing syphilis back to Europe. Fewer epidemics, however, followed the Chinese landfalls, since Cheng never left the Afro-Eurasian Old World. And we can be confident Cheng did not spread any exotic venereal diseases personally.

Modern multiculturalists should embrace Cheng. If China had been less committed to meritocracy and testing, he could have been an affirmative action quadruple threat: Ethnicity (probably Arab), Religion (Moslem), Sexual Orientation (or lack thereof) and Family Background (presumably poor -- few rich families would have asked of a son the sacrifice required to serve the Imperial Household without distraction from the Imperial Harem). Of more direct appeal to our professional multiculturalists, Cheng was not only sensitive to diversity, he subsidized it. In religiously divided Ceylon, for example, he erected a three sided monument with sacred carvings in Persian, Chinese and Tamil, seemingly like the Rosetta Stone. As historian Daniel Boorstin noted in The Discoverers, however, the three inscriptions differ radically in meaning. With the genial theological open-mindedness of a New York City mayoral candidate, each side praises only the god appropriate for that language -- Allah, Buddha or Vishnu -- and proclaims Cheng's lavish (but impartial) donations to the followers of each.

The motives of Columbus' harder-headed followers, the Conquistadors, were brutally direct: God, Gold, and Glory. To use today's favorite pejorative, they were driven by greed. They strike us as a sort of seagoing cross between Mike Milken and Mike Tyson. Their lusts seem innumerable: gold, spices, tobacco, chocolate and sugar; estates to steal, forests to fell, slaves to drive, concubines to bed and sons to sire; unwary wildlife to slaughter, virgin worlds to discover, immortal souls to save, and everlasting fame to win.

Cheng, in contrast, sailed to trumpet the Ming Dynasty's abstinence from greed, its immunity to the outside world's temptations (except for giraffes and plaudits). Strange as it may seem to Westerners, Cheng typically gave more than he took. In exchange for his munificent gifts, he mainly asked from his hosts a ritual tribute conceding China's cultural superiority. Not surprisingly, most barbarian monarchs assented as quickly as a Pepsi-drinking Olympic gold medalist offered a Coke endorsement deal. The more refined the host, the more prized his testimonial. Therefore, Cheng bypassed primitive tribes that would have been simple to enslave. Even the giraffe craze illustrated the Middle Kingdom's solipsistic self-absorption. Giraffes resemble the legendary ch'ilin, a kind of Chinese unicorn. When the Emperor ruled justly, the surplus energy of the cosmos was believed to manifest itself in wondrous creations like dragons and ch'ilins. Giraffes were thus a credit to China, not Africa.

So, why is the Eunuch Columbus so neglected today? Because the Grand Treasure Fleets ultimately proved as sterile as Cheng Ho, while the European explorations were fertile not in spite of, but because of their rapacity.

The Great Withdrawal of 1433 cut short Cheng's exorbitant excursions. The scholar bureaucrats, arguing that the truly cultivated need no acclaim from barbarians to be certain of their own superiority, outmaneuvered the ill-bred eunuchs and outlawed overseas travel. The Chinese, the world's technological leaders, turned inward to ruminate upon their celestial heritage, sitting out the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. After centuries of stagnation, the Opium War (1839-1842) opened China to British drug pushers, launching 150 years of degradation, chaos, and tyranny. Today, finally, the breakneck industrial growth of outposts like Taiwan and Singapore and of mainland provinces mercifully far from Beijing foretells what the supremely innovative and enterprising Chinese people will accomplish when at last freed from the dead hand of history.

Would history have been kinder if 15th Century China's motives had been less ineffable, more covetous, more criminal, in summary, more European? What if instead of making a Grand Tour of the Old World, Cheng had thrust south to colonize what could have been China's New World: Australia? What could a populous Sino-Australia have contributed? Its high culture would have been less exquisite, but with a continent's resources to exploit, "New China" would have pioneered in heavy industry and big business. Six thousand miles removed from the Forbidden Palace, Sino-Australia would have had to develop local control (potentially leading to representative government and personal liberties). While Old China drifted into the talons of foreign predators and home-grown war lords, New China would have continued to grow in wealth, strength, and independence. In Old China, ultimately, a besieged but still defiant statesman, a Chinese Churchill, might have called for a day of deliverance when "the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old." And, like his European counterpart, he might have lived to see his vindication.

We may never resolve whether Europe did more for or to America. But, at the end of a century in which the United States prevailed over Prussian militarism, Aryan Nazism and Soviet Communism, the tragedy of Cheng Ho demonstrates that we should honor Columbus for what America did for Europe: save Europe from itself.

Steve Sailer ( is a Chicago businessman and writer. © 1996 Steve Sailer.

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