Did Chinese beat Columbus to America?: Author describes 1400s Asian settlement on Cape Breton
Edmonton Journal
Page: B1 / Culture

Byline: Marc Horton

EDMONTON - Step aside, Columbus. Excuse me, Giovanni Caboto. Back off, Jacques Cartier.

Make way for an unnamed Chinese explorer who just might have beaten Columbus to the New World by decades. He sailed a huge, Ming Dynasty treasure ship, five times longer and more than 10 times taller than the Santa Maria, the ship in which Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Paul Chiasson, an architect, author and Cape Bretoner, also argues that in the 1400s, the Chinese built a thriving and self-sustaining settlement of more than 1,000 people on his home island. It lasted until political dynastic upheavals summoned everyone home and put an end to Chinese exploration.

How else can you explain the stone walls and the wide, paved roads that wind through the woods on Cape Dauphin on Cape Breton Island, he asks in his book, The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America (Random House, 376 pp., $34.95)? And what of the mysterious platforms there?

What other explanation is there for the strange similarities in dress between the Chinese and the First Nations Mi'kmaq of Cape Breton? The Chinese characters that resemble the writing of the Mi'kmaq, the only North American tribe to possess such a skill? The Mi'kmaq legends that speak of a people who arrived before the Europeans?

Chiasson, who has taught architecture at Yale and the University of Toronto, put aside his former profession in favour of pursuing provocative historical investigation that may have led to one of the greatest archeological discoveries ever made.

Not surprisingly, the book, due for release next week, has upset traditional historians who dismiss Chiasson's theories as so much fantasy.

For his part, however, he's sticking to his guns and his interpretation of the walls, cut stones and platforms he discovered while hiking up a mountainside on Cape Breton Island almost four years ago.

His excitement over his discovery is clear both in the pages of his book and in his voice during an interview in which he shared his theories of Chinese settlement on North America's eastern shores.

He clearly recalls the summer day when he climbed Cape Dauphin and came upon the walls, road and cut stones that have taken over his life since then.

The climb itself was difficult -- Chiasson admits to fatigue from a drug regimen that's was barely keeping his HIV in check at the time -- but once he reached the summit and the lost city he was captivated.

"It was just so amazing, and as an architect I wanted to know who built that road and those walls and why," he says.

Clearly, not everyone agrees with his theory.

"Historians and scholars have been quick with responses that say what I'm proposing could not have happened, but those responses came without them having read the book," Chiasson says.

He predicts that naysayers will have a more difficult time dismissing his findings once they see his research, the ancient maps he combined with modern aerial photographs and the observations made in letters and other documents by early European settlers. And then there are the studies of ocean currents that show, he insists, that Chinese sailors could have made it to the west coast of Africa and then to North America.

"Once you read the book, you see I'm not making anything up. All I'm doing is tying together all the facts that have existed over the centuries."

The next step is some serious -- and seriously expensive -- archeological work, combined with DNA studies of the Mi'kmaq that might prove a connection between them and the Chinese.

"There has always been the issue of Chinese blood in native Americans but from a much earlier date in their history. With new sensitive DNA testing, it's now possible to discover when the crossover occurred. It's going to become like CSI Cape Breton down there."

But why is there no historical evidence from the Chinese side of the equation? If they discovered new lands, why was it not celebrated and recorded in detail in their history?

"China was going through a drastic change in the 1400s," Chiasson argues. "They were overspending their budget and there was a strong anti-maritime party that came into power."

The anti-maritimers destroyed all records of exploration, burned the ocean-going vessels and made it illegal to construct ships capable of long journeys, he says. The Chinese covered up what had happened, both by legislation against any further exploration and by "editing their history, little by little and in tiny steps, which suppressed the stories of their discoveries."

Chiasson welcomes, however, the skepticism of his critics both in North America and in China.

"I wouldn't have it any other way," he says. "I want people to ask the hard questions on this."

He admits that he still has sleepless nights where he wonders if his theory is correct.

"I wake up every morning full of doubt and with sweaty palms, and then I go over my maps and my research, and everything consistently points in this direction."

His willingness to reveal his health condition was an integral part of the story, he says.

"It's not the main part of the story at all and it wasn't an easy decision, but I thought it was important. I'm feeling great now, and it's important for people to know that AIDS can be controllable, that it can be a disease just like diabetes.

"No one wants to talk about their health, but we need to remove the social stigma from this disease."

Published: 07.05.2006