The Hearsay Heresy of 1421

The Hearsay Heresy of “1421”

Anatole Andro, The 1421 Heresy: An Investigation into The Ming Chinese Maritime Survey of the World, Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005. Galley proof.

A review by Captain P.J.Rivers, Master Mariner and naval reservist who sailed as master and mate in the seas of south-east Asia (1954-59), and was a lecturer, School of Nautical Studies, Singapore Polytechnic (1960-66). Relevant publications: '1421' Voyages: Fact & Fantasy for the Perak Academy; 'Monsoon Rhythms and Trade Patterns: Ancient Times East of Suez', Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, December 2004; Footprints in the Sea: Nautical and Physical Impossibilities of Menzies’ 1421 Voyages, (in preparation).

The 1421 Heresy by Mr. Anatole Andro is a collection of essays giving his views on Chinese and Western history of the period, the motives behind the voyages of Zheng He and Columbus, the history of cartography, the development of European knowledge of geography, and so on. Some of these are quite interesting.

The Chinese connection appears in the last third of Andro’s book, with chapters on ‘Fantastic Renaissance Geography’, and ‘The Meeting of the Twains (sic)’, that each close with rhetorically headed portions - Chinese in Western Waters? and Records of Ming Fleets? But they have little to do with Menzies’ fantasy of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World/America. Moreover, in his ‘Ancient Maps and Manuscripts’, a section on Chinese cartography has illustrations, which unwittingly give the lie to Menzies’ bluster that the Mings produced a modern-like world map, complete with latitude and longitude.

On first skimming through the galley proof of Anatole Andro’s work, it was encouraging to find the number of interesting reproductions of illustrations from early books and maps. However, it is a disappointment to find that the text did not live up to the sub-title’s promise of an investigation. This is a proper task for even we amateur historians, but unfortunately his work is without the usual trappings of scholarship, other than a Select Bibliography. - no reference end notes, no documentation, and but a rare mention of sources in footnotes, and then without page numbers.

 In his Preface Andro, having mentioned Louise Levathes’ readable When China Ruled the Seas, unfortunately adopts the ‘heresy’ of Menzies’ 1421 as “the motivation of the present work”. No further direct mention of Menzies or his book is made and neither appears in the index, but Andro says he instituted a systematic search, through both European and Chinese records, to formulate “an intelligent theory”. This apparently being that there were not only Ming global voyages, but earlier ones as well.

The 1421 Heresy does nothing to support the narrative of Menzies’ 1421 nor does Andro carry out a full Investigation into The Ming Chinese Maritime Survey of the World. His search for “relics” produced nothing and all of Menzies’ “Summary of Evidence’, along with almost every point made in his 1421, is jettisoned, with the exception of an inscription on the Fra Mauro Map. (see below).

Indeed, recent ‘proofs’ produced by Menzies are unwittingly refuted, such as in January 2006, the Chinese 1765 distorted world map, supposedly drawn from a Zheng He original of 1418. Andro states the Chinese had already forgotten how to draw maps, even before the arrival of the scientific missionary Ricci at the end of the 16th-century.

While Menzies, in 2005, proclaimed a Chinese naval base on Cape Breton, was proven by Paul Chiassion’s The Island of Seven Cities: The Discovery of a Lost Chinese Settlement in America, Andro firmly identifies the Seven Cities in the Caribbean, and rejects any Chinese settlements in the Americas.

Andro does not offer any concrete proof to support Menzies 1421 extravaganza of circumnavigations. So it is rather extraordinary that Andro’s ‘Epilogue’ opens with “Evidence is overwhelming” that Ming squadrons rounded Africa to circumnavigate and survey the world in the early 1400s (p.350). Only Menzies ever dreamed up this, but Andro happily adopts this particular fancy that the Chinese were the trailblazers into the Atlantic. It is uncritically accepted, to bolster his own conjecture, suggested in a footnote (p.350.), that the Chinese had begun global explorations before Zheng He.

No explanation of how they managed oceanic circumnavigations is given by Andro, who apparently relies on Menzies self proclaimed skills to follow in the imagined wake of the Chinese admirals. However, Menzies manipulated the monsoon seasons and distorted ocean currents to suit his own purposes, as I point out in my Footprints in the Sea: Nautical and Physical Impossibilities of Menzies’ 1421 Voyages.

Andro’s identifications of Chinese in the Atlantic start, half century before Zheng He, with “the famous 1375 Catalan Atlas”. He claims, this was about the time that Mongols used Chinese ships to sail the oceans, “as is attested to by European maps”. (p.198) He adds “this fact is now accepted by historians and is regularly included in mainstream writings” (p.371). But mainstream historians do not accept as fact that Chinese voyaged into the Atlantic and beyond. The supporting excerpt he offers, from Professor Jacques Gernet, concerns well known trade routes, that in the Song dynasty (960-1279) were fully established, through the South China Sea, the Bay of Bengal and the Arabian Sea. This is illustrated in his book, by Figure 28 of Zheng He’s voyages.

The only proofs of Chinese contacts “Outside the Box”, of their normal trade limits, are anomalies, Andro discerns on early maps, along with drawings of Chinese “junks” displayed on them, supported by supposedly corrupted Chinese toponyms, he alone had deciphered in the western hemisphere.

His “main thrust”, therefore, depends on his wide knowledge of old maps indicating the possibility of precursors to the known European explorers. This is bolstered by the irritating repetition of the rhetorical “how did they know” of exploders’ goals, or map makers filling in blank spaces. He then implies the answer lies in completely unrecorded Chinese voyages, because, following Menzies’ reasoning, there are no records of prior European ones.

Yet, Andro quotes from a Muslim account, The Ottoman Conquest of Yemen, of how “Portuguese kept on coming wreck after wreck” from the Atlantic until one, obviously Da Gama, finally made it into the Indian Ocean to the east African coast (p.363).

Although the summary of the author’s credentials does not mention that he is learned in Chinese letters, Andro relies on strained similarities of Chinese words with toponyms on disparate European maps, which he “discovered” mainly in the Caribbean, but not exclusively.

The Strait of Annian, so named from one of Marco Polo’s “South Sea [!] Asian countries” (p.275), we are told is really “Annan, the present day Vietnam” (p.274). Early European maps showed this body of water, separating Asia from a nearby America, gradually shortening to a look-alike Bering Strait.

Andro also gives a number of West Indian toponyms, reflecting his elegantly termed “Chinese monickers”, (there is a whole list at p.224). These are not convincing, especially as he feels competent to state Columbus bestowed the title of Trinidad on that island, because the Chinese had first given it the name “three hills” (p.320).

He even asks, “Could “Jabacoa” be really “Japan Guo”?”(p.222), having written apace an etymology of ‘Japan’ (p.120). But that term, as a synonym for the Nippon preferred by Japanese, emerged only among Europeans as early as the 17th-century, at least according to The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology.

He finds that the Gulf of California was originally called the Vermilion Sea, because that colour applies to the imperial family name Zhu (p.162). This leads him to rearrange maps, in the same fashion as Menzies does, in an attempt to ‘marry’ the different cartographical skills of east and west.

Zheng He’s sea route, from China to Vietnam, is reconstructed into a map comparing the Californian coast (figure 277). Unfortunately, Andro runs the fleet’s track between Hainan and the mainland, which was never followed on those expeditions. Furthermore, while the actual Asian coastline runs from the north-east to the south-west, whereas California has to be tilted about 180° to correspond.

We are further treated to another “Reconstructed sea-lane in the style of Wu Bei Zhi” (figure 194), followed by a “Likely Ming fleet sea route to the Caribbean” (figure 195), which is completely divorced from the compass courses in the Chinese originals.

Andro says, in the Menzies style, such a map, “unequivocally asserts” that the Chinese had discovered and mapped the way to the Caribbean. He argues that his hypothetical maps are true, if “we are to accept that the Ming Chinese made it past the Cape of Good Hope” and Thor Heyerdahl’s balsa raft, Kon-Tiki, “could float” across the Pacific (p.213). Well, one did and the other didn’t. We know of Heyerdahl’s feat just after World War II, but the first proposition is less clear cut. Recently revealed by Menzies, it is not a “long held view” about the Ming Chinese (p.14).

Without attribution, but pure Menzies, a bald statement has it that “Ming fleets had rounded the southern tip of Africa in 1420” (p.207) and [impossibly] “hugging the coast” went on to the Cape Verde Islands and then westwards along the equator (p.211). Such a voyage is not supported by his map ‘Atlantic Ocean currents’, (figure 193) or, indeed, by anything else, least of all the narrative in Menzies’ 1421

 This conclusion is conjured up, from an inscription on the 1457 Fra Mauro’s map, that an unnamed European had travelled on an eastern vessel beyond the usual trade limits of the Indian Ocean, possibly into the Atlantic. Menzies, of course, insists that this eastern vessel was, in fact, a Chinese fleet and that the unnamed man could only have been the Venetian traveller Conti. Unfortunately Andro swallows this hook, line and sinker.

Andro follows the party line that the single ship, transformed into a fleet, reached the Cape Verde Isles in the north Atlantic. Both these gentleman ignore the fact, as the inscription clearly states, that during the forty day jaunt into the unknown, the ship returned without seeing anything “but air and water and storms”.

Nevertheless, Fra Mauro’s inscription becomes the main exhibit, (p.205 et seq.) of the first dated passage in 1420 around the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic. Unlike Menzies, who ‘improves’ his translation that “a ship or junk [coming] from India” (Menzies p.122), Andro gives the correct version, “an Indian junk (Zoncho de India)” (p.206).

However, he disagrees with Fra Mauro, who “indicated it was an Indian junk, we know the Indians had no junk”. The emphasis is added, because the “we” is apparently himself and Menzies, and others of such ilk. They overlooked another inscription by Fra Mauro that states eastern junks did “navigate without a compass”, when Chinese mariners, as noted by the great Professor Joseph Needham, were already definitely using these.

Andro goes into a possible etymology of ‘junk’, the origin of which is admittedly uncertain, but was certainly not uniquely Chinese. As I pointed out, in my own book, “1421” Voyages: Fact & Fantasy, a well-known Anglo-Indian dictionary defines a junk as a “large Eastern ship, especially (and in later use exclusively) a Chinese ship”. I also noted, along with several apposite examples, that ownership varied from Arabs to Portuguese, and that in 1673 “The word had thus come to mean any large ship in the Eastern seas”(Rivers, p.37).

It is claimed that the Fra Mauro “map shows a junk (Figure 192). . . rounding the southern tip of Africa” (p.206). Unfortunately, the reproduction in his book is blurred, but this has already been discussed by Dr Su Ming-Yang in his Seven Epic Voyages of Zheng He in Ming China (1405-1433): Facts, Fiction and Fabrication, (2005).

Dr.Su points out that the ship is European, as it is fitted with a crow’s nest, or lookout post, at the masthead, and has sails fitted to the yards, unlike the batten sails of Chinese ships. It therefore is “not a Chinese ship, as erroneously assumed by Mr. Menzies” (Su, p. 247, and figure 13-3, page 274).

Andro also makes his own erroneous assumptions, such as the Turkish Piri Reis map of 1528 in which “a Chinese junk is clearly visible” in the Atlantic (p.217). However, it is a lateen rigged vessel, common to the Mediterranean.

Concerning a 1519 edition of Da Conti’s Travels, that illustrates a vessel of four masts and one of seven, he says these can not be European, because they are multi-masted (figure 309). Well, because these are steered by paddle-rudders on each side, they can not be Chinese either, a point that should have registered with Andro, as he was already aware that Chinese rudders were on the centreline (p.347).

Almost everything Andro has on the Italian Conti is from Menzies’ speculations. And far from “most investigators of the Ming naval saga zeroed in on Niccolò dé Conti”, this idea appears to have started with Menzies.

A casual glance at the Encyclopedia Britannica reveals that Conti provided a source book for India. There is some doubt Conti even reached China and, if he did, it was overland. Needham (p.474) ventures he was possibly in South China in 1438, well after the fantasised Ming globe trotting.

Andro starts by giving an accepted summary of the Venetian Da Conti, who, he correctly notes, “from 1419 to 1444 . . . traveled around the Orient”. Andro then continues, ludicrously, in the next sentence: “He returned from Asia about 1424” (p.313). As Conti lived possibly between 1395 and 1469, according to this last bit, he must have set off when about five years old to return briefly two decades early to suit Menzies mythical 1428 World Map.

Although Fra Mauro made use of Conti’s Travels, there is nothing, other than Menzies conjecture, to make the Italian the cartographer’s informant, who actually ‘rode on one of these huge ships’ (p.209). In fact, it was pointed out on Discovery TV. Conti’s Travels said nothing about seeing the Chinese fleet, much less sailing with them.

Menzies could only admit that this was one of the weakest parts of his story, although he unequivocally stated Conti was the only link between Chinese and European mapmakers (Menzies, p.118).

Andro doesn’t waste any time on the possibility of a Chinese World Map, or Menzies mythical Portuguese 1428 map derived from Chinese knowledge brought by an Italian courier. Instead, Andro relies on the transfer of knowledge by chart sections of a Zheng He’s ‘scroll’, declaring “Whether they arrived though S. dé Conti is of little consequence” (p.291).

He goes on, however, “It should be understood by now that the Ming navigators, Zheng He’s sailors and their predecessors supplied this last instrument” (p.348 - emphasis added). This “instrument’ is said to be a sailing map, each European explorer had to guide him to his destination.

 To account for the fragmentary appearance on European maps of Chinese ‘discoveries’, Andro conjures up a thriving black market. From there, “in some narrow alley in Quanzhou”, (p.290) a crafty seller, to keep up prices, only doled out snippets to foreign buyers. As they could not speak Chinese, an “Arabic speaking intermediate/middleman” provided translations in that tongue of features on the scraps. And so it goes on, to explain how Chinese discoveries showed up as Arabic names on early European maps of the Atlantic.

The answer lies not in mythical world maps, either Portuguese or Chinese, during the 1420s. By invoking Chinese phonetic phenomena the obvious is ignored. Over the years storms would have carried fishermen or traders far out into the Atlantic to return with tales of lands touched upon or hastily sighted.

The discovery of Madeira (1418) and the Azores (about 1427) were found by such casual accidents, before the imagined ‘1428 World map’ of Menzies. Sightings were made not only by Spaniards and Portuguese, but French and even Genoese seamen and traders, as well as the often-overlooked Arabs. After all their occupation of the Iberian Peninsula lasted from 711 to 1492”.

Andro’s study of medieval European maps, “demonstrate conclusively that Chinese junks were roaming the international waters even before Zheng He took to the waves” (p.316). Thus, while seeking to support his own assumptions, Andro obviously ranks among those who Menzies claims accept the “Chinese first” doctrine, but reject his time frame, limited to 1421-3 voyages (Menzies p.347).

Andro also opines that the European Renaissance began in 1420, sparked off by “the Ming Chinese via our hero Zheng He and his intrepid argonauts” (p.349). My Oxford Dictionary dates this period as circa the 14th-16th century, so he probably just got carried away.

No doubt, Chinese achievements are often not fully recognized, and sidelined as having no influence on world development. However, Andro goes too far declaring these Chinese sailormen triggered the Renaissance and now their feats are concealed by a western Academic “conspiracy’, which even succeeded in brainwashing Chinese scholars.

It is a pity that Mr Andro fell under the spell of Menzies’ fantasy, as he could have produced an interesting, well illustrated book for the general reader on the development of historical geography and early cartography,


Books mentioned in the review

Andro, Anatole, The 1421 Heresy: An Investigation into The Ming Chinese Maritime Survey of the World, Bloomington, Indiana: AuthorHouse, 2005. Galley proof.

Levathes, Louise, When China Ruled the Seas - the Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne -1405-1433, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

Menzies, Gavin, 1421: The Year China Discovered America, revised paper back of his World. New York: Perennial, 2004.

Mills, J.V.G., Ma Huan: Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan ‘The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores’ (1433), Bangkok: White Lotus Press, 1997, originally published by the Hakluyt Society 1970.

Needham, Joseph, Science and Civilisation in China, Vol. IV Parts 1,2,& 3. Cambridge University Press, 1971. Taiwan edition.

Parkinson (1963), Professor C. Northcote, East and West, London: John Murray 1963.

Rivers, P.J., 'Monsoon Rhythms and Trade Patterns: Ancient Times East of Suez', Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, December 2004

-- “1421” Voyages: Fact & Fantasy, Ipoh: The Perak Academy, 2004.

-- Footprints in the Sea: Nautical and Physical Impossibilities of Menzies’ 1421 Voyages, (in preparation).

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