They came in peace: If I am correct that the Chinese beat Columbus, they would have engaged in a method of settlement very different from that of the plundering Europeans.
Citizen Special

This story began four years ago on the side of a mountain along one of the farthest edges of Eastern Canada. On the coast of Cape Breton Island, on a wilderness cape jutting out into the Atlantic with ocean on three sides, I found an old road that appeared strangely out of place and far too well made. In certain sections there were the remains of low stone walls lining its sides. Parts of the road were still in relatively good condition but it was old, very old. At first, I thought it was French. The French had built the fortress city of Louisbourg down the coast and I had played among its ruins as a child.

After several years of research that resulted in a recently published book, The Island of Seven Cities, I have arrived at the very odd conclusion that the road, and the extensive ruins to which it leads, appear in specific and unusual ways to be Chinese. At this stage in the project all I can suggest is that the site seems to be a pre-Columbus Chinese settlement that was deserted before John Cabot's voyage of discovery in 1497, then lost to wilderness and misunderstanding over the last five centuries.

PHOTO CREDIT: Aaron Harris, The Canadian Press

Author Paul Chiasson, photographed in Toronto, aroused controversy with his book, The Island of Seven Cities, in which he suggests the Chinese landed and settled in Cape Breton long before Christopher Columbus arrived in North America.

I am as surprised as anyone at finding ancient Chinese ruins on Cape Breton Island. As can be imagined, the story is not without some controversy. In a recent newspaper article, it was suggested that I should be awarded the Order of Canada. Naysayers have demanded that my publisher reclassify the book as fiction. Journalists have received complaints that interviewing me was a disservice to honest reporting. Such is the range of strong emotions.

Suggesting that the Chinese landed, settled, and thrived along this coast before the coming of Europeans does appear to be an act of heresy, or at least a foolhardy one. But the ruins exist, and they appear in very direct ways to be the type of settlement built by the Chinese for centuries. The architecture, the location and the construction methods all point toward a Chinese source -- and away from a European one.

The settlement of Cape Breton Island is one of the best-documented histories in the New World. Support for the Chinese theory can be found even in early European reports, maps, observations, and letters. The island was still being referred to as Tartary in the mid-1500s, after the European "discovery" of the Americas.

While the book has been in the stores in Canada and the United States for weeks, I have been busy attempting to arrange financing for further work on the site. To those who have read the book and are wondering, we should have an archeological team in place this summer.

In the many talks and interviews I've given since the book came out, I am often asked the same series of questions: So what? What does this mean? Is it at even important? People often mention L'Anse aux Meadows, the Viking site in northern Newfoundland. Its discovery has made little difference to our view of North American history, and the majority of people still believe that Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Trusted history is a very difficult thing to change -- as it should be. However, if these ruins on Cape Breton Island turn out to have been the site of a major Chinese settlement, one that flourished well before Columbus, Cabot and the coming of Europeans, the impact will be enormous.

How much the ordinary view of our history will change is impossible to know. But I have a strong sense that the long-term impact of this discovery will have less to do with which currents the Chinese used to explore the oceans or the size of their ships and more to do with the manner in which they came here.

The Chinese appear to have come in peace. The European history of encounter with the New World is different. Europe plundered.

That the Chinese could have made this voyage and maintained a settlement on the far side of the world is clear after even the briefest reading of the historical sources. By 1400 they had the technical knowledge, the cartographic skill, and the navigational ability to sail, map, and successfully settle anywhere they wanted. They were importing giraffes from east Africa for the pleasure of the emperor.

The Chinese also had a method of settlement that worked. They approached it with an ethical philosophy -- a way of doing things and of working together -- that made them able to live in relative harmony while under difficult conditions on distant shores. They prospered.

In ancient Chinese history, indeed all Chinese history before the last century, one thing is clear: government officials in the Chinese civil service were rigorously trained and examined for their position through a state university system. This highly educated class of government officials was responsible for the daily workings of every aspect of Chinese life. Central to their training were the writings of Confucius and his collection of wise sayings called The Analects. At its most fundamental level, these Confucian analects give rules for behaviour that allow, at least in an ideal world, for the greatest good to the greatest number. Every civil servant in China could quote Confucius chapter and verse.

It was under the Confucian system of ethics that civil society in China was governed and practised, and so Confucius is critical to the understanding of Chinese culture, particularly to how the Chinese would have acted as overseas settlers. If the Chinese came to live on the coast of Cape Breton Island, the community leaders of those settlements would have been some of the best and the brightest of their generation. In China, that education meant Confucian philosophy.

We're used to thinking of "first contact" with North America's native cultures being one of European conquest. But if the Chinese were here first, what traces did they leave of their Confucian ethic?

I began studying the Mi'kmaq, the indigenous people who lived the Maritime region before any foreign settlers. The Mi'kmaq told the first Europeans on these shores that there had been visitors before them, a people who had lived among the Mi'kmaq, taught them, helped them, and then left just before Europeans arrived.

The people who came before the Europeans are remembered with respect and gratitude. That memory weaves its way through many Mi'kmaq legends. If it is the Chinese who are referred to in that memory, the manner in which they came and lived in Cape Breton begins to answer, in part at least, the question of this discovery's importance.

Not only are there extensive ruins to suggest that the Chinese came and left, but there are numerous elements of Mi'kmaq culture that bear witness to the Chinese influence, from their burial methods to the patterns on the clothes they wore. If my theory is correct, the remarkable element of this new-found piece of history is that the Mi'kmaq honoured their visitors' memory. That is the importance of these ruins. The Chinese settled here in a much different manner from the Europeans who came after them.

Confucius had something to say about most ways of behaving in public. He wrote the original Golden Rule several hundred years before the Christian version. He addressed fundamental issues of right and good behaviour among families and neighbours, in the community, and toward leaders. His wisdom was grounded in good sense and mutual respect, and he was very clear in his directions. He stressed the importance of specific principles. Things like, "Dwell at home in humility. Conduct your business in reverence. And in your dealings with others, be faithful. Even if you go east or north to live among wild tribes, these are things you must never disregard."

That is direct and to the point. And every bureaucrat, everyone who made any decisions at any level in Chinese government, would have studied this precept, and hundreds of precepts like them. Imagine being surrounded by a people who were schooled in the day-to-day practice of such ethics.

That is why these ruins are important. The Chinese came in peace. Mutual respect, "even among wild tribes," was fundamental to their behaviour. It was a manner of settlement in the New World completely unlike the traditional history we have come to trust. How difficult it is to imagine that there could have been a different way. Imagine.

Paul Chiasson is author of The Island of Seven Cities.
© The Ottawa Citizen 2006

Published: 07.06.2006