World History Connected Home    
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format          

Book Review


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. 1
     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" Europe. 2
     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. 3
     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. 4
     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 (; 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. 5
     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. 6
     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. 7
John E. Wills, Jr.
University of Southern California

Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2004 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.

Terms and Conditions of Use