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Asian mariners beat Europeans to world destinations

[This article does not claim superiority of Asian peoples over non-Asians. Nor does it aim to discount the achievements of non-Asians. Its purpose is to highlight some lesser-known achievements of Asians.]

There is a prevailing stereotype that the European peoples are of greater resource and intelligence than non-European peoples, as evinced by their ability to conquer and colonize distant countries. The inability of non-European civilizations to "achieve world dominance" is attributed partly to their lack of curiosity for what lay outside their borders. This paints a picture of adventurous and bold Europeans exploring the world, while non-Europeans passively stayed at home. From hence came the concept of whites as "universal" to all cultures, and people of color as "specific" to their own.

In the following paragraphs, we take a glimpse at Asians/Pacific Islanders traveling beyond the Asia/Pacific region in the pre-modern era. Many times, Asians reached world destinations before Europeans did.

Southeast Asians and Australians

50 millennia ago, the predecessors of modern Austronesians and aboriginal Australians crossed the waters between Asia and Oceania . They were the first known humans to settle a new land over the sea. Recent genetic studies confirm the genetic link between the Asian and Oceanic peoples: Melanesians, aboriginal Australians and New Guineans are related most closely to Southeast Asians (not Africans).1

Indonesians are believed to have arrived in Madagascar (of the east coast of Africa) as early as first century BCE.2 The first Indonesians to reach Madagascar did so either direct from their homeland or by way of the Indonesian colonies in Southern India.3 They possessed both the ships and the know-how to make either trip regularly.4

Between the 2nd and 4th centuries CE, Indonesian settlements were established in Madagascar. They left traces on the African mainland in the form of plants and material culture.5 Writer Ibn Lakis witnessed an Indonesian assault upon the East African island of Kanbula in the mid-10th century.6 Various Arab writers have recorded much evidence of Indonesian trading activities on the East African coast south of Cape Delgado in the late first and early 2nd millennium.7

East Asians

In the 15th century, the Chinese eunuch-admiral Zheng He sailed from China to East Africa via Southeast Asia, India, Persia and Arabia. His mission was to open trade routes and establish diplomatic relations with countries along the way. This voyage was undertaken twice and successfully established China as the naval superpower of the day.

Further reading:

Islam Online - Zheng He, the Chinese Muslim Admiral

1421 - the book by Gavin Menzies

South and West Asians

East Africa has traded with Asia (from Arabia to India to Indonesia to China) for almost 2000 years before the arrival of Europeans in East Africa.8 Swahili, Omani and Indian merchants were at the core of this trade, each having their own distribution channels.9 Arab ships from Asia were common in East African ports as early as the 1st century AD.9

The previous sections are limited to the intercontinental travels of Asians. Within the Asia-Pacific region, people of different nations had been trading and exchanging ideas all the way from Arabia to Indonesia to Japan for thousands of years prior to European arrival. In the Middle Ages, Indonesian explorers landed in Australia and Arabian scholars were sent to China on research programs. These are just a few examples of the idea-rich and cosmopolitan world Asians created around them.

  1. Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and Francesco Cavalli-Sforza, p. 119
  2. John Middleton, p. 65
  3. Middleton, p. 67
  4. Middleton, p. 68
  5. Middleton, p. 12
  6. James de V. Allen, p. 68
  7. de V. Allen, p. 68
  8. Middleton, p. 203
  9. Middleton, p. 6
  10. Middleton, p. 11