Not long ago, my brother Coley asked me if I’d ever heard of the Ming dynasty’s Admiral Zheng He. When I answered no, he was surprised. After all, he and I had each spent considerable time in China, where the admiral is becoming legendary. Coley explained that, in the early 1400s, Zheng He had assembled a naval ﬂeet so vast and so technologically superior that the Europeans’ ships of the same time period seemed like bath toys in comparison. The presumed prowess of this armada has inspired theories that Zheng He had discovered the world decades before the famed European explorers.
I was intrigued. So, as I began to research my second book, I read about Zheng He. I learned that he was indeed a towering ﬁgure, both ﬁguratively and literally: a Muslim, a eunuch, the closest adviser of the famous Ming dynasty emperor Yongle, and the chief admiral of an unprecedented navy. I also learned why I had never heard of this fascinating character. After the admiral returned from one of his last voyages, a new emperor assumed the Chinese throne, and with the advice of the newly reinstated mandarin court, began to order not only the prohibition of all future expeditions, but the destruction of all evidence of the seafaring missions that preceded him—on punishment of death.
I started wondering. What if the theories were true? Could Zheng He’s massive ﬂeet have discovered the world ﬁrst? And, what if his achievement was lost because all documentation of those discoveries was destroyed on the whim of an imperial edict?
I threw myself into Ming dynasty China and the European Age of Discovery. As I pored over early world maps from this time period, I learned something curious, a historical mystery of sorts. Several of the very earliest European world maps—dating from the mid-1400s and beyond—showed lands and bodies of water that had not been ofﬁcially “discovered” by the Europeans for decades. In 1457, thirty years before Bartolomeu Dias rounded the tip of Africa, the Genoese World Map showed the coast of Africa as navigable and connecting to the east. In 1459, the monk and cartographer Fra Mauro created a map depicting Africa as a separate continent surrounded by water with a possible route to the East Indies around its southern tip, again some thirty years before Dias’s expedition and forty years before Vasco da Gama’s journey to India. In 1507, the mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller produced a world chart showing America as an island continent with a mountainous western coast and an ocean stretching to Asia, even though Ferdinand Magellan did not complete his Paciﬁc voyage for ﬁfteen more years. These are just a few examples.
My imagination soared. Though certainly not the ﬁrst to so conjecture, I wondered whether a scrap of evidence of Zheng He’s voyages might have escaped the bonﬁres and whether that documentation might have reached the hands of the Europeans. I speculated that the surviving artifact was a Chinese map.
Thus, The Map Thief was born. In the book, I created a map—an early ﬁfteenth-century Chinese chart memorializing the possible voyages of Zheng He—and set it to sail to answer the questions about the early European world maps and the Age of “Discovery.”
Yet, as I struggled to solve this historical puzzle in novel form, I found that I had to play with history a bit for the purposes of ﬁction. For instance, I modiﬁed the dates of certain events that transpired on Vasco da Gama’s voyages, transporting acts from latter journeys to his ﬁrst. I heightened alleged aspects of da Gama’s personality and motivations—and that of Emperor Yongle—for dramatic effect. I compressed the critical closing of China’s door to the outside world: instead of occurring through imperial edicts issued over a period of decades beginning in 1424, I slammed China’s door shut in one early fell swoop. I colored in the bold, yet largely empty, outlines of Zheng He’s voyages with a rainbow of details and destinations, drawing on the speculations, research, and observations of many esteemed historians and historical participants—much as I did with Prince Henry’s School of Navigation in Sagres. I even played with modern history, including the current nature of the Order of Christ, the existence of certain archival holdings in the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, the structure of the Monastery of Saint Vincent, and the creation of a controversial ﬁrst ﬂoor of the Charola in the Templar Castle and the Convent of the Order of Christ at Tomar.
Though The Map Thief tries to answer a real historical riddle via ﬁction, it primarily tells a story about an object’s power to reveal something important about the past, as well as something private about its creator. And it poses a question about who are the rightful owners of art and history—and who are its thieves.