Plain Sailing

The Discovery of the Sea

by J.H. Parry
Dial, 302 pp., $20.00

England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620

by David Beers Quinn
Knopf, 497 pp., $15.00

The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages 1492-1616

by Samuel Eliot Morison
Oxford University Press, 758 pp., $17.50

Undreamed Shores: England’s Wasted Empire in America

by Michael Foss
Scribner’s, 186 pp., $10.00 (to be published Spring, 1975)

In 1405 a Chinese fleet of sixty-three vessels, carrying “tens of thousands” of men, showed the flag all over the northern Indian Ocean, including the entrances to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea and the Somali coast. At least six similar expeditions followed in the succeeding twenty-eight years—years in which the first painful and tentative Portuguese exploration of the West African coast began. The Chinese fleets were vastly greater than any commanded by Columbus, Vasco da Gama, or Magellan. “Probably the most reliable ships in the world, and probably also the biggest were Chinese,” Professor Parry tells us. Chinese sailors were at least the equals of Europeans in technical proficiency. They were using the mariner’s compass a century earlier than European navigators. Chinese charts were not inferior to those of Europe in the early fifteenth century, and covered vastly greater areas.

Yet it was Europeans who opened up the sea route between Europe and the Indian Ocean, and between South America and the Far East. Why? Professor Parry, whose fascinating and superbly illustrated book poses this tantalizing question, attributes European primacy to a Chinese political decision to withdraw from the Indian Ocean. The consequence of this decision was “a slowing down of Chinese development of hydrography and navigation at a time when European skill and knowledge in these arts was entering on a period of very rapid progress.” Professor Parry is no Chinese expert, so it is perhaps unfair to complain that this is to answer one question with another. Why did the Ming dynasty take this political decision? Which rival forces inside China supported isolation, and which supported expansion? On what grounds? The similar problems of China’s failure to have a scientific or an industrial revolution are being explored in Joseph Needham’s monumental Science and Civilization in China. “China had far more attraction for Europe than Europe could possibly have for educated Chinese,” Professor Parry tells us, and this probably remained true for another half millennium. One day we shall perhaps know why.

Meanwhile the Chinese retreat left the Indian Ocean to Arab seamen, also no mean performers. They too used the magnetic compass in the fifteenth century, and were unimpressed by Magellan’s heavy and slow ships when they appeared in Eastern waters. The Arabs could have circumnavigated Africa, and perhaps had the technical skills to cross the Pacific if the idea had occurred to them. In this case the answer may lie in the political disunity of the Arab and Muslim peoples, which prevented the emergence of states strong enough to support the effort necessary for continuous exploration and conquest. But again the ultimate reasons for the disunity remain to be explained.

If Professor Parry is better at raising these vast questions than at answering them, nevertheless within his own sphere of expertise he is very good indeed. He is an old hand at writing books which combine sound scholarship with easy exposition—even though there are times when this reader would …

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