"On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 500 foot long junks made from the finest teak and mahogany, were led by Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was "to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the entire globe. When they returned Zhu Di had fallen from power and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America 70 years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They has also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia 350 years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude 300 years before the Europeans. Gavin Menzies has spent 15 years tracing the astonishing voyages of the Chinese fleet. In this historical detective story, he shares the account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence to support them. His narrative brings together ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy and the surviving accounts by Chinese explorers and the later European navigators. It brings to light the artefacts and inscribed standing stones left behind by the Emperor's fleet, the evidence of sunken junks along its route and the ornate votive offerings left by the Chinese sailors wherever they landed, in thanks to Shao Lin, goddess of the sea." -- BOOK JACKET.
Menzies' passionate belief in his own thesis is evident and unfortunate; I suspect a decent fraction of what he claims is probably true, though not even close to all of it, and his credulous enthusiasm casts everything into doubt. He commits the cardinal sin of seeking evidence to PROVE his hypothesis, not to TEST it.
Take the case of Australia, for instance. I can certainly believe, based on maps, archeological findings, and other evidence discussed in the book that Chinese ships reached at least the northern parts of Australia long before Europeans, and there are what look like easy routes down the coast of Southeast Asia then via Indonesia. Menzies, however, needs to tie Australia into the grand scheme of exploration he lays out, so he posits a mind-boggling crossing of the Southern Ocean from Cape Horn, which substantially weakens the overall argument.
Similar inclusions of other laughably weak 'evidence' (he even dredges up the Vinland map), and internal inconsistencies (he argues that rising sea levels have covered land in the Caribbean (using laughably bad extrapolations for the amount of rise, assuming that the post-industrial rate of sea level rise can be extrapolated back for three hundred years before humans started producing lots of carbon dioxide) but that a warm period and the resulting lower ice levels made a circumnavigation of Greenland possible, apparently without even recognizing the conflict) make me doubt even the evidence I'd otherwise be willing to believe in other sections of the book.
Over-reliance on secondary sources, and failure to even discuss, much less rule out, alternative hypotheses is another major weakness. Here the case of South America is a good example. Menzies claims that several crops native only to the Americas were in Asia prior to
European contact with the Americas, which would be extremely strong evidence if it were adequately demonstrated. That's a big "if", though, and his claims are that Magellan found maize in the Philippines and that cochineal (a type of dye originating in Mexico and the southwestern US) was in China prior to Columbus. Unfortunately he fails to show that maize could not have reached the Philippines overland from Europe between Columbus and Magellan, and his source for the claim about cochineal is a book from the 1970s -- hardly an adequate primary source. His description of a Chinese method for determining longitude (feasible only from land when spending a reasonably long time) is feasible but utterly un-footnoted; is it documented, or the product of wishful thinking? These obvious weaknesses again make the stronger points -- a wrecked junk built in approximately 1410 found near the Philippines with metates (corn grinding stones from the Americas) in its hold, and DNA markers found only in China and in parts of the Yucatan in Mexico -- less believable
purely by association. Finally, some of the "evidence" in the section on the Americas has a faint whiff of racism, suggesting that the Native Americans could not possibly have developed complicated lacquer processes, or even observed the supernova of 1054, on their own, and utterly neglecting the Polynesians as a method of spreading plants and animals around the Pacific basin.
In short, I leave this book wishing someone less eager would write one, or for a thoughtful but not axe-grinding rebuttal -- I suspect there's something there, am reasonably sure it's not as much as Menzies claims, but wish I knew where to draw the line. Hopefully the DNA testing and further searches for wrecked Chinese ships will help answer these questions; I can only wish Menzies had waited until more of these solid forms of evidence were in before publishing the book, rather than constantly telling us to check his website for details (which are still lacking; if anything, the website has a higher ratio of hype to content than the book).
Uncle Gavin wrote this book. His premise sounds interesting, and perhaps sane, if far-fetched: he claims that the Chinese sailed essentially the entire world in 1421-23 and made maps of such voyages that were later used to guide the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who "discovered" America and other parts of the world. Why this has been a hidden fact for so long: the Chinese burned nearly every record of the voyages, stopped exploration, and basically forgot about the whole thing over the centuries. Why Uncle Gavin is the only person to have figured this out: he used to captain submarines and therefore knows how ocean currents work and can read a nautical chart. I'll let that sink in for a moment.
In any case, I was willing to go along with him at first, but it became apparent pretty quickly that things were spiraling out of control. I rarely make notes on audio books, but I found myself frantically scribbling things down when I was listening to this one. Things like:
"Just because Verrazzano compared some lighter-skinned Indians and their manner of dress to the "Eastern" style doesn't mean that they are descended from his [Menzies'] imaginary pregnant concubines that were put ashore from his imaginary overcrowded voyages."
I was going to list more, but as I look at that one, I think it sums up everything. Look, it's an interesting idea that the Chinese could have sent an enormous fleet out to see what there was out there, and that they could have drawn up a map of everything, and then decided to close their borders and give up on the outside world, and that the maps could have ended up in the hands of the European explorers, and that those explorers could have found knick-knacks that were Chinese and people who might have been descended from Chinese people who ended up there long-term one way or another. But if you're going to tell me, Uncle Gavin, that the Chinese took out 40 or 50 ships which were wrecked in various places and stayed and lived there, you're going to have to come up with some physical evidence. Wrecked ships off India, or eastern Africa, or Australia simply do not prove that Chinese people built the Bimini Road in the Caribbean to get their ships on land for repairs or had a settlement on Greenland (I am not kidding. I wish I were kidding.).
If this were half as long and half as crazy, it might be worth a perusal. As it is, run from this book. Read Foucault's Pendulum, which features the same sort of wild connect-the-dots game and also has going for it that it is fiction.
PS - It turns out that Menzies has also published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. I imagine that he is now deep into the writing of 1468: The Year China Traveled to the Moon and Discovered Life and 1498: The Year China Invented Synthetic Life and Created the Spice Girls.
Simply put, 1421 is junk history posing as "real history." Gavin Menzies has spun a fantastical and interesting tale out of the very real events surrounding the massive Chinese treasure fleets of 1421. His thesis--that the Chinese discovered the New World in the 1420s, mapped it, and that it was their maps that European explorers used when sailing for the New World (including, he argues, Columbus).
Built by a Ming emperor to gather in tribute from the ends of the Earth, the fleet was one of the last acts of imperial hubris. Shortly after it set sail, the emperor died. His son, in replacing his father's policies, had the fleets destroyed upon their return, along with records gathered during the voyage. Starting with that sparse introduction, Menzies proceeds to gather bits and pieces of evidence stretching from China itself to the Indian subcontinent, from the Congo to Patagonia and beyond, and levies the evidence to tell a tale of the massive Chinese fleet charting the New World the greater part of a century before Columbus set sail in 1492.
It is an extremely interesting and, if it were true, a ground breaking discovery and thesis. Perhaps it is true. But likely, it is not.
As I started reading it, the first question that came to mind for me was this: in the almost six centuries since these events happened, why has no one else suggested that the Chinese arrived first? Menzies explanation is that historians generally lack the skill set necessary to uncover the truth, a skill set that he has as a former captain in the British Navy. Unlike most historians, Menzies argues, he can read a chart, understand what he's looking at, and glean from these 15th century charts things that no historian would otherwise notice.
Yeah. It's a little bit of a stretch. I would be surprised to find that no historian has ever had the skill set to learn maritime charts and understand how to read them (heck, Theodore Roosevelt when only an undergraduate student at Harvard, researched and wrote a book of naval strategy -- "The Naval War of 1812"--that became a classic and a text book used by both the US and British navies for decades after it was published). That being said, I gave Menzies the benefit of the doubt. I've long been intrigued with China and its history, and I think I wanted to believe that history as we have been taught might not be true. How interesting would it be for America to have been discovered by the Chinese?
As I read, though, red flags continued to pop up. Out of only sparse details, Menzies would assert "conclusive proof" that his theories were finding relevance. Finally, over two hundred pages in, I decided to check into what critical review might have said about his methods and evidence. I reasoned that if Menzies is correct, or even has a good theory, then the academic community would support his findings with further research. I went to the internet.
Critical acclaim was anything but what I found. In addition to finding entire sites dedicated to debunking Menzies myths, I also found that historical lectures had been given explaining and demonstrating that what Menzies proposed was just that--a proposal. Be it even true, the evidence was not there, not was the reasoning clearly logical.
--Menzies claims that Chinese anchors have been found off of the coast of California, but fails to document them.
--1421 says that Chinese DNA is found in North America natives, but fails to account for the influx of Chinese immigrants in the 17th century.
--Menzies finds what he claims are chickens unique to Asia living in Peru, but fails to note that Peru exported millions of tons of silver to China and brought back silk and porcelain (and presumably other things, like, for example, chickens) throughout the heyday of the Spanish during the 16th through 17th centuries.
And that's just to start.
Historian Kirstin A. Seaver says, in disecting claims about the Chinese in Vinland:
"The study of history is likely to reward anyone willing to undertake it in a quest for better understanding of who they are, how they became what they are, and what they might hope to become. The manufacture of a history that never existed rewards only those who make money by deceiving the public."
If 1421 is true, Menzies has not found the evidence to support it. If it is false, it's junk and a waste of time to read. Further, it perpetuates a falsehood that makes the acquisition of real history--real, boring, dry and factual history--that much harder to grasp.
But, of course, it's complete malarkey.
Archaeologists pour over the slightest details of ancient burial sites, yet we're expected to believe that great hulking sunken Chinese junks are distributed around the world's coastlines and no one is digging them up!
Real historians are limited in their abilities to write ripping yarns by the need to rely on rigorous research and to avoid conjecture.
However, a copy of the so-called Kangnido map - the Chinese/Korean chart dating from 1403, which shows Africa with remarkable accuracy - hangs in the South African National Assembly, the country's houses of parliament. This map embroidered on silk was presented by the government of China to the South African state as an act of friendship. Chinese nationals travel to Cape Town to see it as the original is somewhat fragile and is not open to public inspection.
What likely began as a private obsession by Menzies has grown into a considerable and no doubt lucrative publishing enterprise. I recommend that anyone coming into contact with this book (672pp) save themselves many hours of wasted time by disposing of it immediately
About the only reason to wade through this massive construction is for the amusement of contemplating what might have happened if Zheng had chosen to round the Cape and sail north, potentially arriving in European waters where Henry the Navigator was trying out his new 75-foot boats at Ceuta, Joan of Arc was rabble rousing and preparing to influence the 100 Years War, the British were fighting the French with picks and staves at Agincourt, and Hieronymus Bosch was worrying about moral failings.
By the way recent scholarship points to the Polynesians as responsible for bringing chickens to South America.
Part of what makes his overall argument almost convincing is the amount and variety of evidence he brings together. He ties his findings to those other people have made with data of varying levels of corroboration... But I also thought that he often jumped to specific conclusions about evidence I felt was a bit thin -- he may very well be right, but I wasn't yet convinced based solely on the evidence he presented in the text. So while he may be right that Chinese got to Australia and the Americas, I'm not convinced they got everywhere he claims (such New England or Greenland). I'd be very interested to see how this all turns out after rigorous academic research.
Overall, I felt that the book will be (and to some degree has been) useful to spur and synthesize a lot of research in many fields to either corroborate or dispute his claims. As such I think the book could be important. Had it been written more objectively as a synthesis of other folks' research I don't think I would have been as much of a skeptic.
As for the quality of the writing, it's easy to read, has a fairly conversational tone, but Menzies often repeats himself and brings in the same evidence over and over (oh those asiatic hens!) to justify multiple claims, and it often just isn't enough.
I found many points he makes both provocative and plausible, but this is such an aggressive attempt to overturn conventional historical assumptions that it's simply impossible to agree with all of Menzies's conclusions, or even to believe everything he says.
Menzies's style is quite readable, but his frenzied attempts to marshall evidence lead to repetition and a kind of breathlessness common to alternate histories.
Still, I think he's on to something, and this book is well worth reading.
Partially read December 2007
Menzies was a highly regarded navigator when he served aboard Her Majesty's submarines and this undoubted skill provides a new and rewarding perspective on the maps derived from the voyages of Zheng He's fleets. This authority is undermined, however, by his reliance on anecdote and in some cases demonstrably mistaken evidence from a very wide palette of academic disciplines. Similarly, he has used some evidence inconsistently: why, for example, are sea level changes only significant when the maps are inaccurate?
More than anything else, I like the kind of expertise Menzies brings to his research. No, he's not an historian, but he is a navigator of wide experience and deep knowledge. That impacts his study of history giving us his novel perspective. How completely accurate the "history" is, I am in no position to judge. I do wonder how much of the uproar raised among historians arises from that very fact about the author. One must certainly acknowledge his openness to criticism as his website is open to comment and refutation. Anyone who goes against received wisdom, though, opens himself up to egregious attack--"this can't possibly be true" obviates rational discourse.
No doubt, Zheng He must have achieved more, and deserves more lasting and widespread fame, than any other eunuch in history. (I'd love to be corrected if that is wrong!) And I'm happy that this era of opening in Chinese history is now more widely acknowledged. That the Chinese perceived this endeavor in diplomatic terms rather than militaristic/imperialistic ones certainly contrasts to the soon-to-come European exploitation of their colonial empires commencing mere decades after Cheng He's voyages.
What an interesting set of hypothetical scenarios arise when we consider what might have been if the Chinese had not drawn back into such hermetic isolation?
Firstly, no one disputes that China's seagoing fleet dwarfed anything European in the early 15th century, although it is little mentioned in your average world history book. The story of the Chinese government then turning its back on the sea is one of the classic "what ifs" in history.
This book though seeks to recreate the most impressive of the voyages by the Chinese fleets, and as the author sailed the world in only-just post war submarines when navigation was still done with a sextant his insight on the nautical side is fascinating too.
If anything the weakness of this book is in the author's absolute certainty. Parts of the voyages are far more convincing than others (and radically rewrite history anyway), others are more speculative (not least by the standards of evidence set in, especially, the earlier parts of the book), and I found these less convincing. If they had been presented as possibilities rather than certainties the book as a whole would have sat easier with me. Nonetheless it is thought-provoking and well researched and deserves to be read and judged on its merits.