Book Alert / The Island of Seven Cities

The Island of Seven Cities -- Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered America by Paul Chiasson, St. Martin's Press '06, $25.95, 376 pages, ISBN #0-312-36186-6. Index, bibliography, source notes, b&w images sprinkled through text.

This is a deeply perplexing book. Not that its content is offputting, quite the contrary. What puzzles me is that this tightly-reasoned, engagingly-written book about some of the first settlements in North America hasn't been better received. Its reviews have been confined to some relatively minor Canadian and American newspapers, although Library Journal did give it a starred review. But meanwhile, this book about an important subject, published by a name publisher, languishes in 165,000th place on Amazon seven  months after publication.

Rudyard Kipling's old adage, "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" may explain it best. For the Western mindset can accept that the British or the French or the Portuguese may have set foot first on a particular North American site, but the Chinese? Heaven forfend! 

Paul Chiasson is a Yale-educated architect who never set out to write a book about how the Chinese discovered America. Born and raised on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia, he happened to be walking on some of its high terrain in 2002 when he happened upon some wide roads with stone sides along his path. Further on, he saw evidence that a large barracks-type structure had occupied the land, although everything was quite overgrown by weeds.

Love of his home place set the author to trying to discover which settlers were responsible for these ruins, reference to which appeared on a map of Christopher Columbus in the 1490s. Knowing that Columbus is given credit for discovering America, Chiasson's research took him forward in time, to study each successive exploration by foreigners, hoping to link the British, French or Portuguese with the apparent settlement he had found. Each time, he came up empty.

A much admired aboriginal people on Cape Breton are the Mi'kmaq's, whose language, customs, dress and culture inexplicably reflect Chinese (or at least Asian) influence. They were a nomadic people, who lacked the inclination or resources to have built the settlements suggested by the author's research. But as he put hundreds of pieces together, Chiasson was led to the inescapable conclusion that Chinese explorers had landed and settled Cape Breton some 70 years before Columbus.

How could that be, wondered the author until he began to study Chinese history and discovered that its 15th century navy rivaled any in the West and that trade and exploration were high priority activities during the Ming Dynasty. And while China was located halfway around the world, consider that its ships could cross the southern tip of Africa and catch the northbound Gulf Stream, which made sailing immeasurably faster, until they reached Cape Breton, where the Gulf Stream collides with a southbound cold current, which sends it sharply eastward towards Europe.

Along the way, Chiasson came upon the work of a retired submarine commander, Gavin Menzies, who has written 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Unlike Chiasson, whose writing is precise and surgical, academics have scorned Menzies for making sweeping generalizations and unsupported claims. By accepting Menzies's blurb on his front cover, Chiasson may have branded himself at least in the eyes of the academy.

But, all in all, History Wire has found The Island of Seven Cities to be one of the most engaging books we've read all year and certainly deserving of a larger audience. Regrettably the title oversells the book -- it derives from explorers' notations in the era of Columbus, and no one can ever hope to discover even one city, as we know it, on Cape Breton. Yet this doesn't change the conclusion that Chinese explorers probably did spend time in North America well before Columbus and long enough to impart its culture and language to indigenous people there.

Winding through Chiasson's narrative is the reality that, at the time he first discovered possible settlements on his home island, he had suffered for several years from HIV-AIDS. As time progressed, his disease went into remission, then erupted again as one drug regimen after another sent him on a medical roller-coaster ride, as he raced to finish his manuscript while his strength permitted. His book signs off  in mid-2005, with his condition seemingly under control. We wish him well.


Published: 27.12.2006