Tag: Exploration

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

Back to Burma (Myanmar)

I traveled to Myanmar (Burma) in 1997 while I was living and working in Thailand. At the time, the country was still mostly closed to foreigners. Only select parts of the country were open. During my month ‘in-country’ (the maximum the visa allowed) I conducted research on the Burmese puppet troupes and stayed at small guesthouses for a better chance of meeting local people. Unfailingly, everyone I met was giving of their time, knowledge and their kindness.

That began my love affair with Burma. (You can read more about my travels here.)

Since then I’ve written a number of novels set in Burma, including the modern, paranormal romance Shades of Moonlight.

In April 2017 Guardbridge Books published Death By Effigy, the first in my historical Aung and Yamin Fantasy Mystery series, in which an aging puppet singer and a mischievous puppet, must solve the murder of the king of the puppets or risk the destruction of the entire troupe.

I’m pleased to announce that the second in the series, A Death In Passing, has just been released, continuing the trials and tribulations of Aung, the puppet singer, with his troublesome assistant, Yamin, as they try to solve the murder of Burma’s most powerful spirit dancer.

In all of these books I’ve attempted to be true to the country’s culture and to accurately present the wonderful nature-magic systems (with a few embellishments). Burma seems to be in my blood and I envision more novels set in this wonderful and varied country. Whether historical or modern novels, I hope to capture the country’s magic for readers.

If you’ve traveled in Burma, I’d love to hear how I did.

Inspiration and a new Short Story

Inspiration and a new Short Story

I’m pleased to announce the publication of a romance novella called ‘The Rescue’. The story is based loosely on the fact that I broke my leg in January just like Amanda did in the story. The difference was, I fell on ice, not wet wood and I never had a handsome search and rescue man come and rescue me. Sigh.

I had to walk out.

I hope you enjoy the story. Here is the blurb:

The Rescue, by Karen L. McKee

Amanda Ripper escaped a controlling husband who convinced her that she was weak and an invalid. To convince herself that it wasn’t true, she fills her life with friends and hiking and refuses to become involved with anyone again. Then she falls and breaks her leg, reigniting the specter of her old life. Can a handsome man from search and rescue to give Amanda a chance at life again?

Available on Amazon, Smashwords and Kobo.

Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Maps, Shakespeare and Melville- One Year Later

Rajasthani girls with Mendhi on their hands. (2000) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Exactly one year ago I wrote my first blog about maps and decided that I would write a series on that topic– maps, their history, the people who made them, and how maps have been used by people. I did this because maps are integral to the series of books I write in the Cartographer Universe and I wanted to understand more deeply what maps have meant to humankind.

What I’ve come to understand is that maps can be a truth, a lie and a metaphor. They can present the ‘reality’ of the physical world—the mountains and rivers and roads and cities and can inspire men to superhuman acts just to complete a map. Just as often, though they represent lies or half-truths—the imaginary island of Brasilia, the shifting landscape of Prestor John’s Kingdom or, more overtly, contorted landscapes intended to lure the unwary into towns, gold fields and department stores. And that’s a problem, because we tend to think of maps as representing the truth and we don’t  approach maps with a ‘use at your own risk’ mentality or with the realization that any map may only represent the reality that the map’s maker wishes to represent. They’ve been used this way for centuries, so that the modern-day Chinese maps which change the location of major city thoroughfares to stymie the advance of any potential invasion are only an extension of the same tradition that caused British mapmakers to make erroneous maps of the West Coast of Canada (presumably to stymie the work of Spanish spies), and the Portuguese and Dutch Kings who kept secret their routes to the spice islands.

Ship off the Portuguese Algarve, (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps are much more than simply tools to convey or obscure information. Maps are a part of our psyche so deeply engrained that the map metaphor has seeped deep into our culture. Cervantes wrote ‘Journey all over the universe in a map, without the expense and fatigue of travelling, without suffering the inconveniences of heat, cold, hunger, and thirst.’ Shakespeare wrote “In thy face I see the map of honor, truth and loyalty.”

The Camino Inca Trail to the sacred city of Machu Picchu. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

But maps themselves are not truth, but metaphors. Once, in Fra Mauro’s time, they represented the mythical extent of man’s imagination and potential. Once, they represented the adventure, the spirit of mankind in the terra incognita of the empty sections of the map. Nowadays they represent the world as governments want it to be when they represent contested borders (think the current battle over islands between Japan and China, or the oil-rich islands in the South China Sea that three countries claim). Maps are used to represent presidential aspirations, shifts in battlefields, oil pipeline routes, and enemy and friendly countries—not that these presentations are the truth, but they are one truth—the truth that the mapmaker wants us to believe.

In this day and age when maps are no longer produced by a person hunched over vellum and ink, we must remember that many things influence the mapmaker’s pen. Everything from politics, funding sources and the publishing company’s allegiances represent what is filtered onto the page. Which brings me to my final conclusion about maps and the truth. They have always been creatures of the imagination and not of the truth, no matter that they grew out of scientific endeavors, but now that purpose of inciting the imagination is being used with more strategic purpose than ever before. Can we trust maps? No.

As Herman Melville stated so well:

It is not down on any map; true places never are.

Porto boats at dawn , Porto, Portugal. (2005) Photo (c) Karen L. Abrahamson
The Past, the Future and Map Wars

The Past, the Future and Map Wars

Dhow off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’ve written about how maps created belief systems in the people of old. In ancient days, stories and maps of Prestor John led people to Asia and Africa in search of his kingdom. Mariners believed that the Indian Ocean was a huge inland sea surrounded by Africa that swept down and around to join with Asia. When North America was discovered, maps of the mythical Northwest Passage, led explorers to seek the real passage. But maps do more than that. Maps are sources of propaganda and maps are sources of conflict. You see maps, their systems, omissions and scale (as examples) are often used to take forward propaganda or a dominant world view. They have been used this way close to home in Canada.

For example, for many years maps of Lake Superior were left largely blank, because people believed the lake was very deep. But the truth was that fishermen didn’t want their secret ‘fishing shoals’ mapped for others to find. It was only after military vessels went missing (not to mention the Edmund Fitzgerald) that in 1930 that the Canadian Hydrological survey confirmed that there is a mountain rising in the middle of Lake Superior creating a large shoal. This shoal had been known to American fishermen, but no one had ‘told’ because the area was a magnet for fish.

Recent visitors. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps as propaganda were used extensively in the settling of Canada. The Dominion of Canada turned surveyors maps of soil and rivers into grid maps that were then artistically enhanced with pastoral images of farms and young golden-haired women clad in white dresses. Atlases of Canada were created and sent to Europe and America in hopes of encouraging immigration. The art was focused on meeting the pastoral desires of the Europeans and in particular the British. Slightly different art work was used for maps sent to America. It didn’t matter that the images didn’t reflect the prairie landscape (The images were more of Ontario). It was the dream of the pastoral lifestyle that drew the immigrants that Canada needed.

These same maps with their grid lines were sources of conflict because they established expectations about how people would inhabit the landscape. The grids were set out in sections six miles by six miles, based on latitude and longitude, regardless of the lakes or waterways they crossed. As I mentioned in a previous blog (here) the Metis found the grid pattern foreign because they settled land based on long strips of land that swept back from water courses and that allowed everyone access to water. But immigrant groups from Eastern Europe also had challenges with the grid pattern. They were familiar with more communal, village styles of land allotment, where the land was marked off from the village in a manner more appropriate to communal living. As a result these groups (the Mennonite, Doukhobors, and Hutterites) subverted the grid style by purchasing the land, but then subdividing it according to what worked for them.

Kayaking the coast of British Columbia (1996) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps were also used as propaganda by commercial entities such as the railroads. Canada’s two railways, Canadian Northern (CN) and Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) battled for ridership through their maps. Maps were developed that left out or diminished the competitor’s railway. For example, CN created a triangle route map between Edmonton, Jasper National Park and Vancouver that played with scale. In this map CN’s journey through scenic Jasper was presented in large scale so that the route through Jasper leaves little room for any other details, while the rest of British Columbia was presented in small scale that didn’t allow CPR’s rail lines to even exist—according to the map. The interesting thing about this map is that no one then, or even today, notices the scale issues with the map—we accept what the map presents as reality.

So while maps are supposed to be presentations of reality, the big question the map reader has to ask themselves is whose reality (or wishful thinking) are they reading. Sometimes it is helpful to step back from the map and ask what does this map tell up about the people who developed (or paid for) it? Or what was going on at the time it was made? Or Why was this map even made? I think of my local community developers who, like the Dominion of Canada with their maps, are presenting the paved-over reality they would like to have made. The question is whether this is the map of the future we want, or whether, like the Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors, we can  subvert it to a better reality.

Mapmakers, Spies and the Alaska Highway

Mapmakers, Spies and the Alaska Highway

Cabin on the Kane Lake Road, B.C. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Last week I wrote about characters in the Canadian Cartographic past. I thought I’d continue that theme this week with an illustration of how mapping is not the objective scientific pursuit we all think it to be. Instead, mapping is an exercise influenced by politics, exploitation of resources, culture and religion. Hubris comes into play in there somewhere, too. Mapmakers influence perception through their use of scale, their level of detail and even just by what they choose to put on the map. Determining which maps are actually made is perhaps the penultimate influence on public perception.

One of the most memorable Canadian mapping ‘junkets’ involved an American millionaire by the name of Charles C. Bedaux.

In 1934 Beadaux, then living in France, initiated the Bedaux Sub-Arctic Expedition, that planned to use specially built tractors and horses to traverse, map and cut a road from Edmonton, Alberta, through northern British Columbia to the Pacific Ocean. The 1,800 kilometer route was to go through Fort St. John, Redfern Lake, Sifton Pass and Telegraph Creek. While the media reported that Bedaux claimed the expedition was purely scientific, there were other rumors abounding.

Woodland trail, Yukon, Canada (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In any event, this strange expedition left Edmonton with a crew of 43 people including Bedaux’s wife, her Spanish maid, and an Italian Countess to tend to Bedaux, along with the usual accoutrements of pate de fois gras, champagne and a gamekeeper. Oh yes, and a movie cameraman to record the adventure. This was not your usual surveying venture, but along with this cavalcade of oddities, were a topnotch group of scientists and surveyors. Poor sods.

Immediately after leaving Edmonton they were caught in rainstorms that slowed their progress and caught them in muskeg, even though Bedaux’s vehicles had extra wheels that were to lift them over the worst obstacles. Bedaux had brought everything with him from French cook pans, lock and tackle to lift the tractors over vertical terrain, and claw-foot bathtubs. All the equipment literally weighed  ton.

As the expedition progressed, the situation worsened. The tractors’s problems didn’t get any better and had they to be pulled out by some of the expedition’s 100 pack horses. When even this didn’t help them make better progress, he determined to start divesting himself of equipment. Not the bathtubs and champagne of course, but scientific equipment like the surveyor’s theodolite. The situation became more bizarre as Bedaux railroaded the surveyor’s assistant into becoming his houseboy, and demanded the other scientists become actors in staged moviemaking involving forest fires and staged stampedes of the horses.

Old water mill in the countryside near Besoncon, France (2004) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Finally, after 14,00 kilometers, Bedaux abandoned the expedition over 400 kilometers from Telegraph Creek. Bedaux returned to France, but the meticulous maps and drawings prepared by the surveyor of the venture, one Frank Swannell, went on eight years later, to lead to the building of the Alaska Highway which followed Bedaux’s route north from Fort St. John.

And Bedaux, well his fate wasn’t quite so memorable. You see one of the rumors about Bedaux was that his venture was really a testing ground for German military transport trucks in alpine conditions. During World War II Bedaux hitched his star to the Third Reich and acted as go-between between the Germans and the Vichy French. It is suggested that he passed information to the Germans, and in 1943 he was captured in North Africa by the Americans. He was brought back to America and charged with trading with the enemy, but in 1944 he overdosed on barbiturates and died.

Thus ended another bit of Canadian cartographic history. But one wonders. Maybe we have the Germans to thank for the Alaska Highway.



The Character of Canadian Cartographers

The Character of Canadian Cartographers

Alpine flowers, the Kane Lakes, B.C. (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

In many of my map posts I’ve written of the unusual people who led the map making ventures, whether mystical Frau Mauro of Venice, the ancient Chinese voyager General Zheng He, or the dedicated native British East India Company surveyors who surveyed the Himalayas. Of course Europe and Britain and America have their own cartographic heroes, so I thought I’d take a few moments to mention a couple of religious cartographers who played a huge role in mapping Canada.

Jesuit Father Frencesco Bressani came to New France (Lower Canada) in 1641 as a missionary and with the express plan to measure astronomical eclipses in order to calculate longitude. At age 32, only a few years in-country, he was captured by Iroquois just outside Trois-Rivieres and was tortured, burned, beaten and mutilated for two months. Somehow he survived and was ransomed to the Dutch and returned to France. Regardless of his ordeal, he came back to New France the next year for four years before returning to Italy where, in 1657 he published his map, the Novae Franciae Accurata Delineatro.

This map, considered the rarest of Canadian maps, not only shows Native territory, but is most valued for its many illustrations. These give an astounding view of Native life as well as vivid drawings of the martyrdom of many missionaries, including being slashed with glowing bark, being placed in boiling water and being cut up alive. Dangerous work, cartography.  Of course the map comes with controversy. Was Bressani even able to draw, when his own letters indicate that his hands were so badly mutilated that he could no longer do mass properly? (One hand had only one finger left.) Historians believe the map was drawn by one Giovanni Frederico Pesca, in Italian engraver, working on Bressani’s insightful information.

Kane Lakes, (2012) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The Jesuits like Bressani were responsible for much of the early mapping of Canada, but in the 1800’s the missions and religious mapping was assumed by the Religious Institute of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. This order was founded in 1816 in Paris with the motto that meant Right to the ends of the Earth! and they lived up to this when they established their first mission in Canada in 1841 with a focus on Canada’s north along the Mackenzie River Valley. Long-bearded and black robed, the Oblate fathers became well known to the Natives, but none more so than Father Emile Petitot.

Petitot came to the Mackenzie River in 1862 only two weeks after he was ordained. He stayed for twelve years, most of the time travelling with Native companions through the uncharted north from Great Slave Lake to the Arctic Ocean and between the Mackenzie and Laird rivers. He made detailed observations of the Native communities, down to the condition of their teeth and the level of stammerers in specific populations. He learned much of the Native means of living including the guiding marks they placed on river channels to show which were open and which were dead ends. He made maps that set out geographic data of the interior of the northern basin, and discovered the Riviere a Ronciere-Le Noury—a river that geographers denied existed for eighty years, until aerial photography proved Petitot was right.

Quebec churchyard. (2005) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Petitot’s maps made him something of a celebrity in Paris, Ottawa and London, but he was also watched closely by his superiors. Historians describe Petitot as something of an absent-minded dreamer who longed for long voyages, but who also was apt to freeze his fingers because he’d forget to wear his mittens. As well, his missionary duties went something by the wayside. He spoke native dialects fluently and was accepted by the Native groups he met, but he had some unfortunate predilections towards young native men and was excommunicated at one point. Mental illness also plagued him. He variously predicted the end of the world,  proclaimed his superior had murdered Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and could become erratic and violent. During these dark spells he would be tied down and placed under guard to stop him from running naked in the snow. It was not until 1882 that he was quietly placed in a Montreal mental hospital after which he returned to France for good.

Petitot’s departure ushered in an era where the religious orders were no longer so prominent in Canadian cartography. But their memory lives on in the ranks of Canada’s memorable cartographers: the devout, the brave, the mad.



Clothing Might Make the Man, but Maps Make the Country

Clothing Might Make the Man, but Maps Make the Country

Path along the Yukon River. The quiet places like this are the ones lost in rampant development. (2010) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I thought I’d throw a little light on my home and native land in honor of Canada’s 145th birthday on July 1st.

Maps give shape to countries, both real and imagined. I’ve written previously of the long search for St. Brendan’s Island in the Atlantic and how the need to establish Prestor John’s country influenced the maps of Asia and Africa. But beyond creating imaginary countries and geography, there are three real ways that maps can help build a nation and all of these have been used to build Canada. Maps can:

1. Help the populace visualize the their nation and understand their borders;

2. Take a geographic area and turn it into a political abstraction such as the Canadian state, and

3. Mediate relationships between states and their population and can act as a means of ‘erasing’ certain populations from the national and political psyche.

Old Ranch, Yukon River (2009) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps have performed these roles for Canada since before the country was actually born. An example of the first comes from the period when the French and the English were still making their claims on North America. In the early 18th century, between 1713 and 1756, the French and English were engaged in a continuing dispute over what was English and what was French territory. This led to what might be called a war of maps, or at least a war of propaganda perpetuated through maps, with English maps having the audacity to present the French territory as a small area confined between the Ottawa and Saguenay Rivers in present-day Quebec, while the rest of North America – areas that had largely been mapped by French explorers – was claimed to be English. Oddly enough in the fight over what was French and what was English some of the battles, such as the argument over what was ‘Acadia’ (French) and what was ‘Nova Scotia’ (English) both sides presented maps prepared by their opponent. The trouble was, so much erroneous information was included in so many maps, you could pretty much support either argument.

Snake fence along the Kane Lake Road, British Columbia, (2006) Photo(c) Karen Abrahamson

Maps also played a role in defining the border between Canada and United States. Dr. John Mitchell created A Map of the British and French Dominions in North America in 1755 and this was a pivotal map used by both of the fledgling countries in determining their borders. A Virginian, Mitchell became interested in maps as a result of concern over the French encroachment on territories the English had ambitions on. He began to collect information from travelers and publicly available maps, and compiled one of the first maps of North America. He wanted to expose the scale of the French Threat (they had been all the way down the Mississippi and far into the west by this point) to the British public and the colonies. Although his first map was crude, it showed enough promise he was commissioned to create something better by the Lords Commission on Trade and Plantations and was given access to the growing store of maps and charts coming from the new world.

The resulting maps showed a credible presentation of the boundaries of Upper Canada and, when the 1783 boundary negotiations between the United States and Britain began, the map helped to settle that the boundary would bisect the Great Lakes and then continue west. But that didn’t set the boundaries at the 49th parallel. It was another map, created by Jean Palairet, that erroneously showed the 49th parallel as the ‘agreed upon’ boundaries between French America and the Hudson’s Bay company. Although the French had never agreed to the boundary, the strength of a map presenting that fiction led the two countries to accept the 49th as their boundary in reality.

Two years after confederation, the fledgling Canada’s mapmaking had its first brush with making a culture disappear. In 1869, when the government sent surveyors into the prairies to prepare them for settlers, they were charged with measuring off the land, just as their American counterparts had done south of the border. They sought to mark off the land in one mile blocks, but when they came to the “hay privilege” lands of one Andre Nault, they were stopped by a group of Metis led by Louis Riel. You see, these descendents of marriages between native women and French explorers had established their own culture and place on the prairies. They had found that, in the arid landscape, the best way to divide the lands was using long strip land claims that flowed naturally back from each river or stream and thus allowed everyone access to irrigation. They viewed the government surveyors’ placement of each square mile on a map, as effectively wiping out their way of life. We know what happened—the Metis rebelled and Louis Riel was hanged and went down in history as an enemy of Canada. The Metis, like many First Nations people, were left as disenfranchised members of our country.

Small fishing lake in the B.C. Interior. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson.

All of which shows how maps can be used to create or subdue a country—in this case mine. Happy Birthday, Canada. Let’s hope our maps of the future are a little more kind.


Andean Civilizations: A Map of a Different Color

Andean Civilizations: A Map of a Different Color

Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Off to the fields, Pumamarka (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

When I think of maps I imagine back to when the first human made their first finger marks in mud to share a game trail, or a watering hole or an especially good berry bush. Surely that must have been the earliest form of map. Of course none of those primeval drawings exist, and so I’ve found myself writing a about the western development of maps over the ages and have tried to give a sense of the European tradition and the contributions of Arab and Chinese explorers and cartographers. This is the easy stuff to research and write about because the maps these cultures used were set down in a manner we are trained to see. Maps, to most of us, are a visual representation, usually on a flat medium like paper, that presents the relationship of one place to another. But other cultures have had other ways of presenting their landscapes, case in point are the great civilizations of the South American Andes.

What most of us think of as the Inca are actually a series of overlapping civilizations that rose and fell in the various livable areas of Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Columbia and Chile. After the very effective conquest of South American by the Spanish, not much remains of any Inca records and to date no maps (as we define them) have ever been found. But did these cultures simply not have maps or did they represent their landscapes in a different way?

Anthropologists and Cartographers say that formal mapmaking tends to occur within highly organized, bureaucratic societies as a form of discourse. The conditions necessary for mapmaking include: demands for agriculture, private property, long distance trade, militarism, and tribute relationships, amongst others, all of which are attributes of the various Andean societies.

Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Women at Ollantaytambo market (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Anthropologists studying the various ancient cultures have begun to realize that westerners probably won’t recognize Andean maps until we start to see them through Andean eyes. The structure of maps aren’t only determined by geography, but also by social organization, cultural conventions and human perception. In the Inca worldview, the cosmos was built on a quartered circle, based on the way they viewed the Milky Way divide the heavens. They viewed their world that way as well, with the lands they ruled broken into four distinct quarters.

The Inca also had to map unusual terrain, from the coastal deserts and river oasis, up through the highlands to the alte-plano and Andes mountains and down again into the Amazon basin. Trade and tribute came those long distances, and north and south from Ecuador to Chile. Over those distict terrains there were distinctions of crop and animals at each of the different elevations. So, for an ancient Andean, among the things they needed to represent, were the different elevations, the different foods, and the waters that made life possible across these sometimes inhospitable terrains, as well as capturing the four quarters of the world and social relations.

Market Scene, Chivay. Note the Inca rock that shows terracing and irrigation techniques. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson
Market Scene, Chivay. Note the Inca rock that shows terracing and irrigation techniques. (2011) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

The resulting landscape representations convey things like ownership and elevation. Ancient weavings show the long narrow fields of produce separated by clan-assigned canals. Pottery shows spatial designs that encode critical social structures, and still other sculptures, such as Chieftain Vessels correspond to Andean landscapes with the head of the figure as the summit, the shoulders as central mountain slopes, the lower hips as the coastal plains where mountain rivers diverge on fields. Still other sculptures show realistic representations of the terraced fields and irrigation systems that make up areas of central highland valleys.

So while we might say the Inca made no maps, it doesn’t mean that they didn’t represent their landscape. The difference is that the Inca ‘maps’ were often three dimensional and layered with meaning, both in terms of the landscape, ownership and familial relationships, and the relationship of the landscape to their ancestors, the spirits and the cosmos.



The Star Raft: They came from the rising sun (part 2)

The Star Raft: They came from the rising sun (part 2)

Two weeks ago I wrote about the evidence showing contact between China and Africa long before the Portuguese sailed around the tip of Africa and into the Indian Ocean. More evidence of this appears from maps found in Korea and dating back to 1402 that show the WEST coast of Africa as far north as the Orange River, one of the longest rivers in Africa, which forms the international boundary between modern day South Africa and Namibia. This same map places Africa immediately opposite Indonesia with a string of small islands in between, suggesting that whoever drew the map, didn’t get there via India and the Gulf and down the African coast, but instead by sailing across the Indian Ocean. Records suggest some of these Chinese travelers came by way of a Star Raft. So who were these sailors and what is a Star Raft an how does this have relevance today?

Unlike later generations of Chinese dynasties, the Tang dynasty (A.D. 618-907) was outward looking and venturesome. This continued with the Southern Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1279)who had lost half their territory to the Tartar hordes of the north. To make up for their property losses, they looked to oversees trade to fill their coffers and China became, for the first time, a maritime nation.

The ships they built had five or six decks, and carried a year’s supply of grain, herds of pigs and jars of fermenting wine. They carried the world’s most advanced seafaring technology in magnetic compasses, water-tight bulkheads, advanced rudder systems, sounding lines, and a sail designed for steering into the wind that could have allowed them to travel into the trade winds that had deterred the Arab seamen. By the end of the twelfth century they were on the edge of the western Indian Ocean and had appeared in the Gulf and off Yemen.

Old woman and Brazier and Xi'an Temple (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

While many of these huge boats went no farther than India to trade, accounts from those few who went further also made their way back to China and described the port towns and the people they met. They describe the sources of ivory and rhinoceros horn, of frankincense, ambergris and a red gum resin called ‘dragon’s blood’ as a series of villages down the East African coast. News also came of the landscape and the African wildlife, including the marvelous creature called a camel-ox with a hide like a leopard’s, the hooves of a cow, no hump but a neck nine feet long perched above a body ten feet tall.

The contact between Africa and China continued, including embassies of African traders to the Chinese court. Proof of this comes both from Chinese records and from the diaries of Ibn Battuta, the many travelled Arab who wrote of meeting a man from Mogadishu who had been in China.

With the fall of the Song Dynasty and the coming of the Mongol hordes, the naval trade reduced, but the rise of the Ming Dynasty (A.D. 1368-1644) saw the creation of a huge maritime fleet that in 1414 sailed into the western Indian Ocean led by General Zheng He, Grand Eunuch of the Three Treasures. (See my short story here.) Zheng He was the Chinese Columbus, but the Chinese ships topped Columbus’s ships in every way. While Columbus sailed with three ships with single decks, Zheng He sailed with sixty-two galleons that each outweighed Columbus’s ships three to one. While Columbus had about 100 men, Zheng He had 868 civil officers, 93 commanders and 26,800 soldiers plus numerous others.

But unlike Columbus, who was a man of exploration, Zheng He led a Star Raft – an expedition planned to bring the ‘star-like radiance of the imperial ambassador’ and to win allegiance of distant people for the Chinese emperor. Yes, goods were traded during these voyages, but the symbolism of the exchange was unique to the Chinese. They believed that their trading partners were paying homage to the Chinese sovereign of the world. So unlike Columbus. the Chinese venture was based in looking inward – bringing the homage of other places to the center of the world.

Inside a modern Xi'an Temple (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Which makes me wonder about the state of the world’s economy today as China’s economic engine begins to overtake that of the United States. Are we watching a modern-day version of the Star Raft as western companies and governments seek their trade accords with the new China?



They Came From the Rising Sun

They Came From the Rising Sun

A Portuguese ship off the Algarve. Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

I’ve spent much of this blog writing about the great European mapmaking tradition and the exploration that went with it, but long before European Kings considered funding a certain wild venture to reach India and China by sailing west across the Atlantic, and long before Vasco de Gama sailed round the Cape of Africa and into the Indian Ocean, the Chinese were venturing westward, too. They sailed from Canton and through the Malay straight and into the Indian Ocean. They mapped it, too.

Chinese records indicate that trade between China and Africa began as early as the Han Dynasty (202 BC to AD 220). Two of Africa’s most powerful nations of the time, Kush and Axum had trade relationships through intermediaries. In Kush the remains of ancient pottery and bronze utensils indicate that they may have been copying the styles of the Chinese goods being brought to its ports by Arab traders. Axum may have been the source of the rhinoceros horn, ivory and tortoise shell that Roman traders took to China in AD166.

But this was trade by intermediary, not face to face trade. The first trade by Chinese with African is thought to have occurred not much later, but it probably didn’t occur on African shores. Accounts of ancient travelers indicate that in places like Ceylon merchants and sailors from as far afield as China, Persia, Homerite countries and Adulis (an African port city) came together to trade. One Chinese trader, Fa Xian, stayed in Ceylon for two years before returning home to write his accounts of the people he met.

Dhow off Zanzibar Island (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

During the time of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) records show that a Chinese did set foot on African soil. Du Huan, was a Chinese military officer who was captured by the Arabs during conflicts near Samarkand. After spending twelve years in the Abbasid Empire, he reappeared and wrote a record of his travels. Of the bits of that memoir that have been preserved over the ages, he speaks of travelling south over a great desert to the land of the black people, where there was little grain and no vegetation and malaria was endemic. Researchers today think this was probably modern-day Eritrea.

A Chinese junk from the 1270s was discovered in Guangzhou harbor in 1974 with cargo such as tortoiseshell, frankincense and ambergris that strongly suggest trade with Africa. Between 800 and 1400 Chinese goods were also making their way to Africa so that Chinese porcelain became common as decorations on houses and mosques and broken porcelain still apparently litters East African beaches. Chinese coins from the Tang Dynasty (the kind with the square hole in the middle) have been found along the coast and on islands like the Bajun and Zanzibar.

Chinese tower, Xi'an, China (1998) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course, the Chinese travelers to these distant shores in these early days weren’t representatives of the Chinese dynasties. No they were merchants and traders. Most of these went as far as India and no farther and were content to trade with the middlemen who brought goods from Africa. But a few travelled further and the routes were known in the Kingdom of Heaven. In the ninth century the Tang Prime Minister and geographer, Jia Dan, knew of the sailing routes that gave 90 days from Canton to Arabia and 20 days for a further voyage southwest to a country called Sanlan.

Cyclist on the western Zanzibar beach. (1994) Photo (c) Karen Abrahamson

Of course, if the Chinese were anything like the later Portuguese, this information could have come from Arab sailors as a result of the government confiscating all maps from visiting sailors, but a map compiled between 1311 and 1320 by the Chinese cartographer Zhu Siben clearly shows the triangular southwest pointing African continent at a time when the western world thought that Africa didn’t end, but instead the landmass continued on eastward before joining the mainland again and enclosing the Indian Ocean as a great inland sea.

Just think of what this map suggests: The Chinese were there first. If they had kept going, they could have discovered Europe long before the Europeans ‘discovered’ the route to China.



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