The Island Of Seven Cities:
Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered North America
By Paul Chiasson
Random House Canada,
376 pages, $34.95
Where did the Olmec come from, with their highly sophisticated culture? How is it possible that the Penutia languages of California share 10,000 cognates with the Ob-Ugrian languages of Siberia? Did Chinese monks build cairns on Haida Gwaii? To even consider these questions is heresy in some circles.
Paul Chiasson, a Toronto-based architect suffering from HIV, was visiting his Acadian parents in Cape Breton when he discovered the ruins of a mysterious road leading to the mountaintop at Cape Dauphin. The road was clearly the work of sophisticated stone-carvers, yet nothing was known about it. Portuguese, French and English records made no mention of such a road; locals hadn't a clue.
Chiasson's curiosity was ignited. His research took him to the earliest maps, records and correspondence, where he found references to the legendary Island of Seven Cities in the North Atlantic. This island, which appears on more than one pre-Columbian chart, bore a striking resemblance to Cape Breton; and its co-ordinates, when discovered and identified by John Cabot, matched those of the Chiasson's home-place perfectly.
So who built the road, and why? While fighting a losing battle with his disease, Chiasson mounted a major campaign to solve the mystery. In the end, he was drawn back to Mi'kmaq culture and legends, particularly to the figure of Kluscap, the mythical hero from away who arrives by ship, lives among the people imparting wisdom, and then sails off. Early records suggest that the Mi'kmaq were quite distinct from other tribes, not only in dress but also, and especially, in their possession of the remnants of a rudimentary written language, which resembles Chinese script.
Chiasson's eventual discoveries coincided with access to a new medical cocktail that checked the advance of his disease and restored his vigour. Repeated trips up the mountain revealed a much more extensive network of roads and building sites than he had imagined. If this is, indeed, a verifiable site, then Chiasson may have provided a Chinese equivalent of L'Anse aux Meadows, the burial site in Newfoundland that proved, once and for all, that the Norse sagas were accurate, that Vikings had visited and settled in North America.
Four years ago, I reviewed in these pages Gavin Menzies's 1421, suggesting that his at times farfetched speculations about the long voyages and global mapping of the eunuch admiral Zheng He and his super-fleet might yet prove fact. Who could have imagined that such proof might be forthcoming from a remote island in the North Atlantic?
Menzies appears in the closing chapters. Having invited Chiasson to present his ideas at a conference in Washington, Menzies arrived shortly thereafter in Cape Breton, accompanied by amateur archeologist Cedric Bell. Both men were astonished by what they found, and convinced that the Chinese tenure on the island was prompted by the discovery of gold.
Chiasson's adventure is sometimes a hard slog for the reader, as there is little relief in the first half of the book from the relentless sleuthing among maps and manuscripts, turning up nothing. What carries the story for me is not only the courage and persistence of the narrator, afflicted with a curiosity almost as serious as his disease, but also a gradual unfolding of the history of one very small and colourful corner of Canada. Cape Breton, which I have associated with Henry St. Clair, the Earl of Orkney and the Venetian explorer Antonio Zen, now assumes an even larger shape in my imagination.
If you're the sedentary type who has difficulty imagining Europeans travelling the Silk Road and settling in the Taklimakan Desert, you'll probably find it a stretch to accept that the Chinese had a colony in the North Atlantic. Cheer up, there are a lot of doubting Thomases out there. But for some, the ocean is a superhighway, not a barrier; for others, it's a conveyor belt. These archeologists are open to new ideas, to the possibility that old hypotheses, such as the Bering Land Bridge and Ice-free Corridor theory, are no longer adequate to explain the peopling of the Americas.
My own research took me to Kabul in pursuit of a fifth-century Afghan monk named Huishen, who is reported in the records of the Liang dynasty to have sailed from China to the Americas in 458 AD, returning to tell his story to court historians in Jingzhou in 499, a thousand years before Columbus. Much of the familiar evidence Menzies and Chiasson offer in support of their theses argues for earlier, and repeated, Asian contact. The Chinese admiral was, at best, a latecomer to the Americas, the last in a long string of Asian visitors.
The Island of Seven Cities adds fuel to Menzies's thesis, and should make it easier for people to imagine earlier voyages. After all, sailing around the Cape of Good Hope and then into the North Atlantic seems more perilous and less likely than gunk-holing in a leisurely fashion along an adjacent Pacific coastline. Chiasson's book is more important than its predecessor, both as a challenge to the isolationist hegemony, which wants the early Americas to have been free of all foreign influence, and as a model of how research might be conducted and documented.
Most important, the Nova Scotia government must take immediate steps to protect the Cape Dauphin site, so we can see to what extent it offers up incontrovertible proof of Chinese contact. Meanwhile, Paul Chiasson, heretic, should be nominated for the Order of Canada.
Gary Geddes is the author of Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things: An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas. He is working on a book about the collapse of the Second Narrows Bridge in Vancouver.
Readers can find the first chapter of The Island of Seven Cities today on our website, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/bookclub.