First 1421, now 1434: Gavin Menzies and historical revisionism


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By Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews

In 2003, former submarine captain Gavin Menzies published a work that claimed to rewrite the history of the ‘Age of Exploration’, 1421: the year China discovered the world. It’s an amusing commentary on American insularity that the edition published in the USA alters the subtitle to The year China discovered America: clearly the rest of the world doesn’t matter to Americans.

In the book, Menzies presented evidence that a Chinese admiral, Zhèng Hé (鄭和, 1371–1435, born Ma He, also Cheng Ho) had been sent by the Ming Emperor Yongle (永樂, 1360-1424, born Zhu Di, also Ch’eng Tsu or Yung Lo) on a voyage of discovery. That much is uncontroversial, as Zhèng Hé’s voyages around the Indian Ocean are well documented in contemporary records. Where Menzies departs from academic orthodoxy is in his claim that the fleet went on from the Indian Ocean to discover Australia in the east, Antarctica in the south, the Americas in the west and circumnavigate Greenland in the north. These are astonishing claims and must surely be backed up by good, contemporary evidence.

The Newport Tower, Rhode Island (USA): not a Chinese lighthouse but an English colonial windmill

Alas, no. The best Menzies can do is throw in the usual (European) maps that Bad Archaeologists are so fond of, some inscribed stones (without reproducing the inscriptions), the odd mystery building (such as the Newport Tower, a seventeenth-century windmill!), unidentified shipwrecks and other very poorly documented discoveries. All his claims have been effectively debunked. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure of the Chinese fleet to reach Europe, where it would have been documented by the literate late medieval societies flourishing throughout the continent, should raise eyebrows.

So in 2009 he published a new work, 1434: the year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance. The subtitle makes an even more astonishing claim than that of 1421! When does Menzies think that the Renaissance started, for goodness sake? Where is the Italian documentation for the visit of a Chinese fleet? It seems to have been universally panned.

What is the appeal of these two books, derided by the majority of serious historians? There is the expert-bashing aspect, for a start. People always like to see them brought down a peg or two and when it is done by an amateur, it makes them feel that perhaps anyone can do it. But there has been a more insidious aspect to the popularity of Gavin Menzies. Because these books are published as a work of history, they degrade serious historical work. The standards of these books, which are at best wishful thinking and at worst outright fabrication, ought to have prevented any publisher from putting them out as non-fiction or, at the very least, to have ensured that they were marketed as works of speculation. Instead, we see them on the shelves of the history sections of any bookshop, crammed between biographies of Stalin and Hitler (although, I’m relieved to say, 1434 is nowhere near as ubiquitous as 1421). The general public does not know and cannot be expected to know that Menzies works are utter rubbish. They look like history books: Menzies follows Graham Hancock’s trick of stuffing the book with footnotes, which most of his readers will never pursue, thinking that he is quoting genuinely relevant evidence. As far as I know, Hancock was the first to do this, as earlier works of Bad Archaeology are frustratingly without adequate bibliographies, often making it impossible to identify the sites or discoveries for which they are making claims. No, Menzies works look like ‘proper’ history books, stuffed with boring endnotes that somehow prove their academic standing.

There has been a further, more political repercussion to this work. There are nationalists in China who, echoing the old Soviet craze for ascribing every invention useful to humanity as Russian in origin, are seeking to claim all discoveries for their nation. Having pride in one’s achievements is not in itself a bad thing and it is certainly good for us in the west to realise that Europe is not the source of all civilisation and knowledge. However, when it turns into revisionism of the kind that makes outlandish claims without evidence or suppresses contrary evidence, then we are straying into the realms of social evil. Creating generations of people with an entirely wrong notion of their past is the type of wickedness that one usually associates with religions.

11 comments

  1. For the last few nights I have been plowing through 1421 with my yellow marker and a red pen. Gavin on the surface appears rational and he spins a good yarn. It’s easy to see how the naive can fall under his spell. Needless to say he hasn’t made his case as you and others show. It’s tough being an honest skeptic in a world of fools. It looks like more money can be made concocting fashionable rubbish.

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  2. I’ve been reading the Spanish version of 1421, and was wondering if the exaggerated claims in this book were the result of poor translation. So even in its original English incarnation it strikes as outlandish, huh?

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  3. Can anyone confirm that it is not true? Regardless of the lack of formalised evidence and its significant departure from accepted history, and yes, clearly a few errors….. Where is the proof from the skeptics that the broad thrust of 1421 is NOT true. It seems like a lot of hot air from both sides without a real factual debate. Your time would be better spent in proving your side of the debate – a debate that you have started, or at least decided to take sides in.

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    1. Well, the basic thesis of 1421 is not true. I will admit to being very excited when the first announcements were made, as I thought that here might be a genuine challenge to the model of history in which European exploration drove the opening up of the whole world. I watched the announcements of discoveries on the web and in magazines, waiting to find out what the evidence used by Gavin Menzies might be.

      Then the book was published. Instead of using evidence that stands up to scrutiny, Menzies uses the art of innuendo. The physical remains of the Treasure Fleet he claims have been found in various places are never documented or refer to vague newspaper reports. We are never shown photographs or plans. The same is true of the alleged exotic inscriptions hundreds of kilometres upstream along the River Congo. Hoary old ‘mysteries’ such as the Piri Re‘is Map or the Newport Tower are supposedly “explained” by the voyages of Zhèng Hé, despite all the evidence that explains them in other ways.

      In short, it’s a wonderful idea. There are no a priori reasons why Gavin Menzies’ thesis is wrong. The problem is that the evidence he marshalls in its support does not actually support it. It’s a case of the thesis preceding the evidence rather than being led by it: I have the distinct impression that Menzies came up with an idea and then went in search of evidence to back it up. That’s not how science – even a ‘soft’ science like archaeology – works. Hypotheses have to be formed around the evidence, not vice versa.

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  4. Neil Macdonald.
    This is Quite interesting ; Admiral He was a muslim & as such he was casterated (old habbits die hard ) it is a fact of historical certanty in China that he led a voyage of confermation as to the 1400+ voyages of his predisors. I have read the China & Portugease transcripts of this, Unfortunately as I am a pauper who enjoys Nautical historical facts I could not afford to purchase the copies of manuscripts available at the Marine Museam in Macau . I am sure if you get in touch with them they would be more than happy to help with revelant documented evidance.
    My dates hear are not accurate as to Admiral He, approx 1530 To 154?.
    I will be traveling in China & will be stoping in Hainan. in late February just to thaugh out from the cold in Shanghai. Its a short way to Macau so I can stop in & check & possibly purchase some of the documents available , Special NOTE Admiral He returned to china on directions from the Emporer. His main fleat was destroyed by fire on the Emporers orders,,, China then closed its borders & turned inward. Also the previous voyages are well recordered on documents available for study purposes within China. Admiral He had his main dockyard in Penang Malasia for the upkeap & repair of his fleat of ONE THOUSAND PLUS SHIPS.
    A further posible source of certifacation may just be the Admiralty Archives in London in the prior voyages or varifacation by Master J. Cook into the Pacific & Australasion area.
    Have a good day & please check your facts before folowing through with a sevear case of Foot In Mouth . Bye from Neil & Rui Hua

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    1. Neil

      There is some doubt about whether or not Zhèng Hé was Muslim: although his ancestors were, he left bequests to the Taoist goddess of the sea, Mazu, which is something no devout Muslim would ever do! His castration also has nothing to do with his religion, as it was a consequence of his capture by imperial forces in 1381.

      While it is true that he was commissioned to undertake seven naval expeditions between 1305 and 1333, they were not voyages of discovery (as you point out, there were voyages to confirm what earlier sailors had discovered). Part of the purpose for these voyages was to receive tribute from rulers around the Indian Ocean as the Yongle Emperor saw himself as overlord of all the peoples with whom his fleets came into contact. This much is well documented.

      There is some evidence that a Chinese expedition may have landed on the northern coast of Australia: there are documents that refer to foreigners with crooked knifes that may be Australian boomerangs, who live in a land with jumping animals shaped like a rat in front and a rabbit behind that carry their young, which sound like kangaroos. Australian aborigines’ stories include reference to a light-skinned people called the Baijini, which may be the Mandarin term pei jin (‘northern men’). There is also a fifteenth-century statue of Shou Lao that was found in 1879 beneath the roots of a two-hundred year old banyan tree. There does therefore seem to be evidence that Chinese voyagers of the time of Zheng He did reach Australia.

      However, the problem with Gavin Menzies’s ideas is that he relies on unsubstantiated reports, poor translations of documents and data that are just plain wrong. We should not underestimate the scale of Zhèng Hé’s voyages, which were an impressive achievement; over-inflating them to voyages of world discovery by using poor and non-existent evidence does him a disservice.

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  5. Thanks all for your comments. I taught History for 40 years, and the early part of the voyage is well documented. The Master Mariners are up in arms re the Suez Canal and the ability of the Junks to get through. The Cook Society are particularly incensed.The danger of rattling good yarns is that they may downplay the real history. The achievement of Cook, master surveyor and cartographer are attributed, in part to his possession of Chinese maps.One way to cut a great man down to size

    Re the maps. It took Cook some months, with the aid of modern instruments, to survey the St Lawrence, and he mapped Newfoundland between 1762-67, in the warmer months, using local pilots. Puts Menzies’s assertions about the Chinese maps, ant the time taken for the voyages into perspective.
    But I love the thought of my brother with his angry Chinese wife plowing through Chinese docs in China to debunk Menzies.

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  6. Columbus wrotte to the Spanish queen in 1492: “And you ordered that I didn’t go to the India towards the Est, but towards the West, where we know that nobody has gone before”. Does it needs to be more clear? Of course not. In any case, did Columbus know some islands in the Atlantic, unknown by the rest of the Europeans thanks to some Chinese maps given to Columbus by his friend Toscanelli? It’s posible, in fact there are misterious sentences in the Columbus journal about that. However, Menzies follows across slippery roads with a very personal opinions.

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  7. A very interesting blog and an excellent post. I have posted on Gavin Menzies on my blog and reached the same conclusions as you.

    Seth is typical of the kind of person who produces and maintains pseudoscience. Can anyone prove that he didn’t make these voyages? Well, what if I propose that the pyramids were actually built by a race of slave-Sasquatch brought to Egypt in flying saucers from the Americas. Can you prove that isn’t true?

    In other words, that’s not how it works. It’s up to the person making the flaky, cretinous, badly-researched, fanciful, anti-intellectual, pseudoscientific and incredibly implausible claim to provide some proof for their conjectures. If Menzies wants to prove this rubbish to people like me and the author of this blog, he’ll have to do a lot better than he did in this book.

    Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter to people like Menzies because they sell millions of books to people who would never dream of buying a genuine, factual book written by a real archaeologist because it doesn’t have the woo factor, just a load of boring old facts! I mean, who wants to read the truth when you can read a book about why the Greys and the Lizard People decided to assassinate JFK to keep their bases under the South Pole secret… ? Actually, I do …

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