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Travel A Century Ago…Ancient Map At Core Of New Debate

Fred Karste Wrote Home With A Travelogue From The Caribbean

February 22, 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Sheboygan Press. All rights reserved.

Subscribers to the local paper were regaled 100 years ago this week with the yarns of a homegrown travel writer.

A century ago, America's status as a world power was a very new thing, established only six years earlier with a swift U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). As a result, Sheboygan County readers already enamored of accounts of faraway places grew even hungrier for such fare.

So it was that the Feb. 26, 1904 Sheboygan Telegram published its first of several installments from Sheboyganite Fred Karste, whose accounts provide a glimpse of what travel was like a century ago.

His first dispatch began by declaring, "Although away from home for ten days this is the first chance to write, because there was nothing to write about before. ...

"[I] left Chicago on Feb. 4 at 12:30 p.m. to be in New York the next morning at 9:30 a.m. But it was 2:30 p.m. when we arrived there, five hours behind time, which delay was occasioned by a hot box one hour out of Chicago, that compelled a stop every few stations to apply lots of cold water and tallow. ...

"[Our excursion yacht] has her full quota, 205 passengers in all, but not a single high toned person in the lot. They all seemed to belong to the middle class entirely, mostly business men with their wives, children only two, hence every one enjoyed the trip so far."

After arriving in San Juan, Puerto Rico, "[W]e took a carriage and visited the Forts El Morro and San Cristobal, both of which still show the effects of the American guns, after which we trotted over the streets and took a trolley ride to Rio Piedres, some 15 miles from the city; it is not necessary to describe the city as that has been done so often through the war news."

Several days later, Karste continued with another dispatch that reported, "Next morning found us at Fort of Spain Trinidad. ... We stopped ... to get permission to proceed to La Brea Point to visit Pitch Lake ... Its surface is black instead of green or blue and what distinguishes it still more from other lakes is that you can walk on its surface. This little spot furnishes the Asphalt for nearly all the world as there is only one more such a spot, and that is found in Venezuela. ...

"[A]fter say 6 inches being taken off today, tomorrow the lake is even again and no sign left that there was anything taken off the day before; it has been worked now for 40 years in the lake still remains as found."

Ancient Map At Core Of New Debate


March 15, 2004
Copyright © 2004
St. Paul Pioneer Press. All rights reserved.

Carol Urness stood over the 580-year-old map and pondered an ancient mystery.

Spread out before her was one of the prize holdings of a rare map collection at the University of Minnesota: a navigational chart hand-painted on a piece of animal skin in 1424 by Venetian cartographer Zuane Pizzigano. Urness swept her hand from the coastline of Europe westward across the Atlantic to a cluster of mysterious islands on what was then the far side of the world known to European explorers.

"There's been a lot of scholarship done on these islands," said Urness, curator emeritus at the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota. "The trouble is we don't know whether they represent actual lands or mythical lands."

Now a best-selling book claims to have solved the mystery, and the Pizzigano map has become the most talked-about item in the 25,000-piece collection of the Bell Library.

In the book "1421: The Year China Discovered America," British author Gavin Menzies cites the chart as evidence that Chinese explorers reached the Americas 70 years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. The book claims that fleets of Chinese junks commanded by the eunuch admirals of Emperor Zhu Di explored and mapped the globe decades before their European counterparts.

Menzies, a retired submarine commander from the Royal Navy, said he began his quest after stumbling upon the Pizzigano chart.

"The wintry plains of Minnesota started me on my research," he wrote. "It was not necessarily the first place you would think of to discover a document with such profound implications, but the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota has a remarkable collection of early maps and charts, and one in particular had attracted my attention."

The Pizzigano chart shows a cluster of four islands on the far side of the Atlantic with the names Satanazes, Antilia, Saya and Ymana. Menzies pondered a question that already had perplexed generations of scholars: What were these islands?

He concluded that Antilia and Satanazes were the Caribbean islands Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. But who had surveyed them? After all, the map was produced 70 years before Columbus' first voyage to the Americas.

Menzies embarked on a multiyear research project that arrived at a radical conclusion: Chinese treasure fleets made voyages in the early 15th century to North and South America, Greenland, Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand. Menzies believes that Confucian court officials destroyed the records of these voyages when China turned inward and isolated itself from the outside world.

Yet he asserts that some of the map information found its way to Europe, where it guided explorers such as Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Magellan and Cook.

"They all knew they were following in the footsteps of others," he wrote, "for they were carrying copies of the Chinese maps with them when they set off on their own journeys into the 'unknown.' "

The book has made best-seller lists and been published in 15 languages in 63 countries. Yet it also has drawn criticism and some historians have faulted the book for making grandiose claims on limited evidence.

"Menzies has yet to make a compelling case," wrote John Noble Wilford in the New York Times Book Review.

"To lump together all the assorted findings, most of undetermined dates and provenance, and argue that much of this exploration was accomplished in one sweep is an incredible stretch."

The furor brought unaccustomed attention to where the search began: the James Ford Bell Library. The staff has received inquiries from around the world and television crews from Japan and England have come seeking interviews and footage of the Pizzigano map.

"His theory is just one theory in a sea of theories," said assistant curator Susan Stekel Rippley. "It's just the one that's been very heavily marketed and hit the best-seller list. That doesn't necessarily give it more weight."

The James Ford Bell Library is tucked away on the fourth floor of the Wilson Library on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota. Visitors step into rarefied atmosphere that looks more like the study of a manor house with antique European furniture, carved wood panels, fireplace and chandelier.

The nucleus of the library was the private collection of James Ford Bell, founder of General Mills and former university regent who donated 600 books and an endowment in 1953. Today the collection contains 2,500 maps, 2,500 manuscripts and 20,000 rare books produced between 1400 and 1800 focusing on European exploration and trade.

The holdings include a collection of portolan charts, a class of navigational maps of the Mediterranean and Atlantic produced between 1300 and 1500. Only about 100 portolan charts survive worldwide, three of them at the Bell Library.

Urness, the curator emeritus, stood over a table with the three vellum portolan charts spread out before her. They included the 1424 chart created by Pizzigano, a Venetian serving the Portuguese; a 1466 chart by Petrus Roselli of Majorca; and a 1489 chart by Albino de Canepa of Genoa. She said the three maps are among only 17 surviving portolan charts showing the cluster of mysterious islands west of Europe.

"Some people think it's Newfoundland, Florida or Formosa," Urness said. "You can make arguments. But we don't have enough to really be certain."

Urness said Menzies did not actually visit the Bell Library, but did his research by correspondence and by studying a reproduction of the map. Urness said she was impressed by the author's initial research on the islands but startled by his subsequent claims about China.

Although she read an early draft and is thanked in the acknowledgments, Urness does not endorse the more spectacular claims of "1421" and expresses amazement at the publicity it has generated. She voices skepticism about such claims as Chinese explorers sailing huge ships through the ice of the Northeast Passage.

"It made a lot of academics uneasy because it cuts across everything, Chinese history, European history," said Urness. "But it kind of woke everybody up, so I kind of like that. Instead of being completely settled in one path, you at least look."

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