Digest>Archives> September 2005

Was This Really the First Lighthouse In North America?

By Varoujan Karentz


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Lighthouse organizations and municipalities where lighthouses are located take much pride in the historic dates when their lights were first established. Most notable is the famous Boston Light, located on Little Brewster Island in Boston Harbor. It was first built in 1716, rebuilt with a 75-foot rubble stone tower in 1783 and raised in height in 1859 when a second order lens was installed. Boston Light has the distinction of being the oldest light station in North America.

Or does it?

A new claim for being the oldest light in North America comes from a recently published book titled 1421: The Year China Discovered America. One chapter focuses on an old stone tower in Newport, Rhode Island, which may have been used as a lighthouse almost 300 years earlier than Boston Light.

For decades, the mysterious Newport Tower, sometimes called the Viking Tower or the Colonial Mill, has baffled both historians and archaeologists. There is no record of ownership or any consensus of its purpose. One recent carbon dating of the tower now places its earliest date at 1410.

Theories of its origin abound, including the possibility that Norsemen sailing to the New World in their open boats across the Atlantic Ocean were the builders. The Knights Templar of the Crusades era has been credited by some, and so has the first governor of Rhode Island, Benedict Arnold, who wrote of the “stone mill” he built during the mid-1600s. This Arnold was also the original colonial landowner of Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island in Narragansett Bay. It was there that America’s third oldest lighthouse was established in 1749. Arnold’s fame extended down as the great-great grandfather of the alleged Revolutionary War traitor with the same name.

The British author of the 1421 book, Gavin Menzies, is a retired Royal Navy submarine captain who meticulously researched thousands of records and documents worldwide. He found early charts and maps with references to Chinese symbols. With these, he substantiated the credibility of the theory that the Chinese Ming Dynasty, in the year 1421, sent forth two large fleets of junks to the “ends of the world.” The remnants of the fleet returned three years later to find a new Chinese dynasty in place that destroyed all the evidence of the epic voyages. One of the fleets under the command of Admiral Zhou Wen, according to Menzies, had reached the Caribbean and the Bahamas, and then easily followed favorable winds and currents to reach New England.

Menzies maintains that Chinese sailors and their concubines were left behind in Newport to build a settlement and the light tower. They aligned the tower windows so that a fire could be seen from the ocean, guiding a rescue ship north into Narragansett Bay. The fire would then be shielded until another window came into view from the vessel, directing it to the east and into the harbor cove of Newport. Navigational experiments simulated and conducted this past year confirm that this possibility exists. Menzies also suggests that the tower was used for taking astronomical, lunar and celestial readings. University of Rhode Island physicists concluded the tower is a cylinder with arches sitting on eight pillars whose windows are cut so as to enable astronomical sightings (in 3D) of the sun, moon, Polaris and Dubhe (Ursa Major) at spring equinox and winter solstice.

Menzies uses examples of Chinese construction methods and a comparison of a larger but similar tower used as a lighthouse in the port of Zaiton (Fujian Province) in China. One strange characteristic of the Newport tower that adds some credence to his theory is that its dimensions conform to the units of Chinese measurement used in the 15th century.

Menzies states that the mortar made of clamshells (lime) and sand used to cement the stones in place need to be analyzed for content and carbon dating to validate his findings. Rice flour, employed by the Chinese to strengthen mortar, may have also been used. The author’s analysis request to authorities has been denied to date.

Although some stunning new DNA evidence connects specific tribes in North and South America with Chinese genetic markers, the controversy remains from a host of other sources discrediting the author’s interpretation of old maps, stone carvings he found worldwide and his rewriting of history. Some critics claim his findings are just a hoax, while others are alarmed that many of his findings may indeed be genuine.

When and if Gavin Menzies’ theories and facts will ever be fully accepted remains to be seen. But if they are true, many lighthouse historical documents, as well as books of exploration and history, will have to be revised.

(Menzies’ book was first published in Great Britain in 2002, with an American version in 2003 (ISBN 0-06-054094-X) published by Harper Collins Publishers Inc. of NYC.)

Varoujan Karentz is a member of the Board of Directors of the Beavertail Lighthouse Museum Association and a member of the Jamestown Historical Society in Jamestown, Rhode Island.

This story appeared in the September 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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