Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America (William
Morrow, 2003). 552 pp, maps, $8.95 paper.
Gavin Menzies' 1421 offers a bold new
account of the achievements of the great fleets sent out under the eunuch
admiral Zheng He by the Ming emperors between 1402 and 1435. He claims that
the fifth expedition, which took place in two years that are not well documented
in the Chinese sources, passed the Cape of Good Hope into the South Atlantic
and then divided into squadrons that surveyed the shores of the north Atlantic,
the south Atlantic, the north Pacific, and the south Pacific.
The attractions of this dramatic story for
teachers and students of world history are considerable. The "Age of Discovery"
is an era of contention between those who wish to de-emphasize Eurocentrism
and those who insist that there was a special dynamism in western Europe
compared to other early modern civilizations. After all, it was Columbus
who "discovered" the Americas rather than an Ottoman, Mughal, or Ming admiral.
If, instead, a Ming fleet "discovered" the Americas, it would be difficult
to maintain well-worn stereotypes about "tradition-ridden" Asia and "dynamic"
Unfortunately, 1421 is a deeply flawed
piece of research, and quickly aroused the suspicions of many non-professional,
and almost all professional, readers. The core difficulty with Menzies'
big picture is that the reader will only be convinced by it if she or he
agrees with his interpretation of evidence on all of a very large
number of points: the nature of an archeological find, the reading of a
text or chart, the probability that a voyage could have been completed in
a certain length of time, and much more. The same holds true for each major
piece of the work; the reader may decide, for example, that the big swing
through the south Atlantic is plausible, but not the one that went through
the north Pacific. In addition, the reader will begin to discover that Menzies
applies no critical standards to his sources of information, especially
when they support his big picture. On the Pacific circuits, for example,
it certainly is intriguing that there seem to have been chickens in the
Americas bearing distinctive Asian genetic traits before European chickens
arrived. But one must be very careful with documents and dates to be sure
that this cannot be explained by the early Spanish voyages between Manila
and Acapulco, on which live Asian chickens must have been brought as sources
of meat and eggs. Menzies also cites a non-academic book published in Provo,
Utah, which would have to be examined very carefully in view of Mormon dogmas
on ancient trans-Pacific connections. More generally, Menzies' knowledge
of the Acapulco-Manila connection seems quite shaky; indeed, he has a Zheng
He squadron making a north Pacific circuit in just four and a half months,
whereas the Spanish would have taken at least eight and more likely nine
or ten months to complete the same circuit.
The south Atlantic circuit starts off a bit
more plausibly. There is a very old Korean map which suggests a pre-1500
East Asian knowledge of southern Africa as a broad peninsula with an ocean
on its west side. Moreover, we know that the Zheng He voyages got to east
Africa. When an old inscription turns up on the Cape Verde Islands in the
Atlantic that might be in Malayalam (a south Indian language current in
the Indian Ocean trade world), things get exciting. But Menzies obtained
support for his Malayalam hypothesis not from a scholar in that language,
but from a branch of the Bank of India! If he had stopped at this point
and sought funds for a proper excavation and study of this inscription,
he might have been able to make a breakthrough that would have won him a
hearing among specialists as he continued his investigations.
Gavin Menzies is a retired Royal Navy submarine
officer. His professional understanding of pre-electronic celestial navigation
may not be as useful to his investigations as he thinks it is; I am not
qualified to evaluate such issues. Yet the passion of the obsessed amateur
for his subject is displayed throughout the book. Every piece of evidence
presented points in the same direction, in support of his thesis. 1421
came out in a considerable blaze of publicity, and Menzies has given many
lectures around the world. I have received reports on several of these lectures
from professional colleagues, all of them appalled by one or another excessive
or credulous assertion by the author. One called him a "charlatan." I would
instead call him an enthusiast. And he has an odd rationale for his enthusiastic
assertions. When he and I participated in a session at the annual meeting
of the American Historical Association in January 2004, he stated that he
doesn't hesitate to make adventurous claims because they get more attention,
so that more people send fresh information to his website, where it is made
available, and so that he can use this new data in a second edition of the
book. Teachers and students should poke around in the website (www.1421.tv);
they may come to conclusions different than mine. In my experience, inquiries
directed to the website produce further unqualified assertions of Menzies'
views on a particular point without providing fresh citations of sources.
These myriad flaws do not make Menzies' book
completely useless to teachers of world history. Rather, it might be used
to teach students about the use and misuse of historical evidence. One resource
that might be helpful in this regard is a two-hour PBS special which aired
in July 2004 (available for purchase in VHS or DVD). The special includes
some good on-scene footage from the remains of a shipyard near Nanjing to
Bimini in the West Indies. Critical comment is offered by Western and Chinese
historians. Menzies is cross-examined on camera, politely but firmly, and
several times has to admit that he may be mistaken on a particular point.
Readers who would like to be convinced by
Menzies' big picture might suspect that the negative reactions of many professional
historians are manifestations of a conservative professional establishment
reacting against a bold revisionist work. Professional historians certainly
are capable of such reactions, but many professional historians have great
respect for dedicated amateurs, especially when they are the custodians
of the lore and memory of a community; the people who know every old wall
and every cemetery in a given area, or who are experts in the methods and
products of some craft. It should be clear from these comments that Menzies
isn't that kind of devoted amateur. He is instead an amateur seized by a
great vision, unwilling to let it unfold in increments, only reluctantly
acknowledging the weaknesses that needed to be dealt with before moving
from one part of his big picture to another.
John E. Wills, Jr.
University of Southern California