The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered North America


376 pages
Contains Photos, Maps, Bibliography, Index
ISBN 0-679-31455-5
DDC 971.6'901




Laurie C.C. Stanley-Blackwell is chair of the History Department at St.
Francis Xavier University. She is co-author of Historic Antigonish: Town
and County.


There are numerous claimants to the much-coveted title of pre-Columbian
“discoverer” of Atlantic Canada. With The Island of the Seven
Cities, Paul Chiasson has further muddied the debate with his
allegations that the Chinese established a foothold in Cape Breton
during the early 15th century, predating both the English and the
French. The Yale-trained architect makes no pretense of being a
professional historian. His self-referential commentary rings with
naiveté as he painstakingly recounts his “obsessive” scrutiny of
old maps, aerial photographs, and stone ruins, and romps through five
centuries of Cape Breton history to validate his hypothesis that the
island was once the site of the fabled Seven Cities, a network of
Chinese settlements inspired by the quest for either gold or coal. It is
highly doubtful that Chiasson anticipated that his hike to the summit of
Cape Dauphin during the summer of 2001 would unleash a firestorm of
controversy and plunge him into a personal odyssey that illuminated
meaningfully his own ancestry and medical condition.

Chiasson speculates about the origins and eventual demise of Cape
Breton’s advanced pre-European Chinese civilization. To buttress his
claims, he leans on the audacious theories of Gavin Menzies, author of
1421: The Year China Discovered America. Chiasson interweaves other
disparate strands of evidence by exploring the cultural similarities
between Cape Breton’s indigenous Mi’kmaq and the Chinese. His
assertion is a bold leap—the Chinese, with their superior technology,
social organization, and Confucian ideals overawed the Stone Age
Mi’kmaq, leaving an indelible imprint on their written language,
clothing styles, religious rituals, legends, technical knowledge, and
design aesthetic.

Throughout the book, the reader can discern Chiasson’s wavering sense
of nerve as he pushes the boundaries of historical orthodoxy. It is not
surprising that his work has received mixed reviews. Where Chiasson
detects the traces of Ming dynasty stone-walled roads, house platforms,
and courtyards, many of his critics see only evidence of glacial till,
quarry test sites, fire roads, and fire breaks. Ultimately, it is the
archaeologists and geneticists who are best qualified to find the
solution to this Chinese puzzle and to lay the controversy to rest.


Chiasson, Paul., “The Island of Seven Cities: Where the Chinese Settled When They Discovered North America,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 20, 2024,