North is Up

May 27, 2000

Maps are drawn as though the cartographer were God, gazing down on His handiwork, taking in everything at once. They translate something that we can see only a small portion of into something that we can see all of, including where we are in relationship to where we may wish to go. Maps are useful to the traveller by land, though not nearly so much as to the traveller by sea.

The sailor, perforce, gets out of sight of land at his great peril, and thus hugs the coast and, once driven out to sea by storm or in mad flight from pirates, may have a wretched time finding his way home. Sailing by the stars has many virtues, but the seafarer can deviate wildly from his course without knowing it.

For real ocean commerce to thrive, you need three things: accurate charts, the compass, and an accurate chronometer. We may marvel that explorers found their way across trackless wastes of ocean with as much success as they did. But individual drive and genius goes only so far, and many a sailor never reached port.

Early maps show no bias toward north, and indeed seem more to favor south as up. This may be owed to the Chinese, who made use of the gnomon around 1000 BC for determining latitude, and whose invention of the magnetic compass or "south pointing needle" in the 10th century AD contributed materially to successful navigation of the open sea.

The Chinese, as is their peculiar wont, invented the compass for the wrong reason -- as an aid to divination -- and did not use it for the right reason -- navigation out of sight of land. The Chinese have consistently invented the most marvellous things and then either employed them to the end of strengthening the bureaucratic status quo or, should that prove unnecessary, suppressed or forgotten them utterly. (1)

When the West adopted the compass, it was used to look outward rather than inward. Since the needle can be said to point north as well as south, and the navigators also used the stars, the fixed North Star (visible in the lands and seas above the equator) was seen to be the object at which the needle pointed. Looking northward quickly translated to having north at the top of charts and maps.

The map on the schoolroom wall indicates south as toward the floor, and north as toward the ceiling. This otherwise reasonless bias colors our thought in deep ways: as we elevate our eyes heavenward to seek out the dwelling of lighter races, so do we look downward toward the darker inhabitants who live below the equator, forever beneath the salt of our post-industrial table.

(1) The eunuch Cheng Ho made seven voyages, from AD 1405 - 1433, which took him to the inhabited lands bordering the South China Sea, Singapore, the Indian Ocean, and as far as the east coast of Africa. His exploits predated the voyages of discovery made by his European counterparts by almost a century. Each of his seven flotillas had more than 200 vessels, a crew of 27,000 and the largest ships were at least 1,500 tonnes each.

Emperor Yongle was determined his reign should rival, if not surpass, those of the Tang (AD 618 - 910) and Song (AD 960- 1279) dynasties, generally regarded as golden ages in Chinese history. He believed passionately that the country's greatness would be much enhanced through an open-door policy in international diplomacy and trade, while maintaining universal peace and prosperity at home.

Yongle decided to dispatch grand maritime expeditions, charged with the principal mission to spread messages of his power and glory to all the seas surrounding China and beyond. Within a little over a year, Cheng Ho was ready to set sail from Suzhou. The likes of these expeditions had not been seen before or since until the coming of larger fleets in World War I.

Besides being the largest, Cheng Ho's fleet was also the best-equipped of his time. The magnetic compass, a 10th-century Chinese invention, and other sophisticated Chinese navigational aids, such as the ship's rudder and accurate maps, helped make these expeditions possible.

Cheng Ho's first expedition, which set out in 1405, visited Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and India, among others. The ensuing expeditions called at Siam, made Malacca headquarters for visiting the East Indies, then proceeded to Bengal, the Maldive Islands and went as far west as the Persian sultanate of Ormuz at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Part of the fleet also visited Ryukyu and Brunei, while others went further westward from Ormuz to Aden at the mouth of the Red Sea, then southward down the African coast to Somaliland, Mombasa and Zanzibar.

Unfortunately for Cheng Ho, Yongle died suddenly in 1424. His successor sided with the anti-maritime clique by canceling the seventh voyage already planned for that year, and all future expeditions. For six years, Cheng Ho languished in relatively minor assignments overseeing the renovation and reconstruction of temples and pagodas.

Fortunately, the anti-maritime emperor's reign was short. His successor, who shared Yongle's vision for grand maritime expeditions, supported the seventh and largest of all the voyages. Cheng Ho died on the way home, and the seventh voyage was China's last government-sponsored seafaring adventure. After that, the country closed its doors. Future emperors practiced strict isolationism and burned all records of Cheng Ho's voyages. (Source: Internet site Chinese Mariner Cheng Ho, 2000)


27 May 2000

Left graphic Small button graphic  

North is Up

  Small button graphic Right Graphic
Previous Article This Article    Next Article

Return to  N - T Index