Kick-starting the Renaissance?

1433: The Year China Discovered Italy: Kick-starting the Renaissance

Captain P. J. Rivers

“Gavin Menzies’ website 1421 has announced a forthcoming project based on ‘Independent Research’ by a Vancouver-based, bi-lingual, “historian cum journalist”. This website refers to “New Evidence” in Tai Peng Wang’s ‘1433 - Zheng He’s delegation to the Papal Court of Florence’ from which flows a number of assumptions claiming that Chinese knowledge fired up the Italian Renaissance. The whole of this is based upon some obscure remarks in a letter from Toscanelli to Columbus. Unfortunately, Wang does not give source references for all the fragmentary extracts he quotes, and there is no mention elsewhere, especially in Chinese records, of such an occurrence, never mind specific statements of scientific transfers.

Evidently there was supposed to have been a meeting in 1433, which Wang correctly says is little-known, between an unnamed Chinese ambassador and “the famous Florentine astronomer Paolo dei Toscanelli”. The emphasis is added as I find Toscanelli described either as a mathematician and geographer (Encylopaedia Britannica) or as a cosmographer and physician (Encylopaedia International). At that period astronomy was bound together with these practices, (except that of physician), and, of course, astrology, but Wang insists he is “widely acknowledged as the most distinguished astronomer of the 15th century in Europe”.

Later he tells us Toscanelli’s fame as an astronomer came from his construction about 1468 of a gnomon (sun-dial) in the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiori, which could tell the time of midday to a half-second. And Wang states “here again, quite rightly so, Gavin Menzies attributes Toscanelli’s source of inspiration to the Chinese astronomical knowledge in the common use of identical sundials for centuries”.

I haven’t the faintest idea of what is meant by “the common use of identical sundials”, but the Italian and Chinese sundials were not even remotely similar. Wang tells us that the one in Florence was a marble slab with an opening placed in the dome at a height of 277 feet. On the other hand, Menzies tells us that the Chinese gnomon was a 40-foot metal pole on a huge stone platform set at ground level in a parallel bed of horizontal stones. 

Interestingly, Wang notes that the Venetian traveler Nicolo di Conti has been considered as having been the ambassador appointed by the Chinese Emperor, but, as he points out, such a meeting could only take place some time after 1438 when the Venetian went on to India from the Middle East. This effectively scuttles the fictional voyages of ‘1421’, because Menzies as an ‘expert’ dogmatically claims Conti’s return to Venice from the Orient in 1424 was the “vital” and only link between European cartography and an imagined Chinese world map. 

Apparently Conti was the man, although his appointment as the Chinese ambassador is sheer whimsy. Evelyn Edson in “The World Map 1300-1402”  describes how Conti got into the act. He was seeking papal absolution because he converted to Islam during his twenty years wanderings abroad. As penance an account was written of his travels to India, Ceylon, Thailand, Burma Sumatra, Borneo and Vietnam - but no mention was made of China, and certainly none of a junk voyage into the Atlantic.

Once more an ambiguous and complex historical meeting is a platform for pseudo-history. A peripatetic church council concerning papal superiority was opened in Basel, Switzerland, in 1431 and with a schismatic split and after several moves held its closing sessions at Rome in 1443-45. Along the way it was held at Florence in 1439 and was not interested in science but in “the relation of Western Roman Catholicism to Eastern Christendom (Britannica)”.

Over this period there was in Florence ‘a sort of continuing symposium on geographical matters’ in a circle that included Toscanelli (Edson, p.132-33). The emphasis is added and we are informed that when Conti’s Travels was finally completed in 1448 it was passed around geographers, influencing their maps, ‘not the least of which was the Genoese World Map of 1457’.

Toscanelli’s ‘ famous letter of 1474, advocating a westward voyage to the spice islands, was actually a response to a kingly request from Portugal and a few years later a copy was sent to Columbus. ‘Edson says very firmly that Toscanelli’s information about China and Japan was derived from Marco Polo’.

However, Wang now ignoring Conti, tells us of “Toscanelli’s own startling admission” concerning a long conversation with the Chinese ambassador, although Wang admits that few accept this as an historical fact. The ambassador, who it is said discussed “the enduring friendship between the Great Khan and the Church over the past two centuries”, later in this ‘New Evidence’ becomes transformed into “a Chinese delegate from Zheng He’s fleet”. In this role it is averred, he was “on a mission to distribute [a] Chinese calendar and promote Chinese civilisation in the papal court in Florence in 1433”. There is no proof of this or that Toscanelli actually mentioned Zheng He or a Chinese fleet.

Wang identifies the papal court at fulin or farang  as being at Avignon in France, but has the two meet in Florence, Italy, where Pope Eugenius or Eugene IV (1431-47) had moved the papal seat. This is true, but that change only took place after riots in Rome in May 1434, while this alleged meeting was supposedly in 1433.

The Chinese gentleman was purportedly from the seventh and last expedition of Zheng He, during which the Admiral died. The fleet had arrived at Hormuz, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, at the beginning of 1433 and went back almost immediately to China. The Emperor at Nanjing welcomed the surviving leaders in July, so it is not clear how and when the supposed delegate returned home. 

A long account of East-West relations through the centuries based on the religious connection is given, although surprisingly without mention of Prester John, the legendary Christian ruler of the East. Wang attempts to connect this latest diplomatic visit to Zheng He’s voyages, but even in the invented global voyages of Menzies’ ‘1421’, the fleets managed to adroitly miss Europe.

On this fragile base hinges the proposition that Renaissance Italy drew upon “Chinese technology and science, particularly in navigation and astronomy”, although Wang had thus far stressed only the religious discussions during the visit. He finishes this introduction with an unjustified statement. “Thus, in this historical context, it really surprises no one that Toscanelli met a Chinese delegate from Zheng He’s fleet” on a scientific mission.

Well, it certainly surprised me, as did what followed in what he calls ‘Act II: The Chinese Transoceanic Astronomical Navigation Technology’. He starts off, in the true Menzian manner, that “the great significance of this meeting between Toscanelli and the Chinese ambassador cannot be overemphasized”. He advances the proposition that this was a watershed prior to which Europeans had no means of “accurate longitude determination” and that “their maps were drawn without the graduations of latitude and longitude”, but thereafter these skills were developed from superior Chinese science.

Although at the end of this Act it is admitted that there is no proof that Toscanelli was given a world map by the imagined Zheng He’s delegation, his presumption that there was such a delegation or even such an advanced world map is entirely unsupported.

Also unsupported is that Chinese calendars were circulated at this time whereby the groundwork was laid for Europeans to later calculate longitude. However, if such calendars were handed around, the Europeans must have had difficulty with them, because according to Wong they were struggling along “still ignorant of longitude [sic] in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries”.

Wang’s claim, with a slight exaggeration of time, that the Chinese were leaders in “transoceanic navigation for hundreds of years in the Indian Ocean”, ignores completely the fact that, to borrow a phrase, they were following in the wake of mariners from Arabia, India, and the Malay world.

The only deep-sea navigation techniques for the Chinese, that we know of, are related to four stellar diagrams found attached to later accounts of Zheng He’s voyages. Wang deals with these as “Guoyang Qianxing tu [stars positioning charts for transoceanic voyages)”, earlier clarifying that the first two words meant “transoceanic navigation by gauging the fixed stars’ vertical positions above the horizon”.

He mentions three Chinese scholars who argue that “these ideas are very similar to the modern astronomical theory of locating a ship”. Having been a lecturer in navigation for six years, I fail to see the connection between these stellar diagrams and modern astro-navigation based on spherical trigonometry but I would be interested in considering an English translation of their paper rather than ill-digested summaries. Elsewhere, I propose that these diagrams were aide memoirs used for directional orientation and Polaris altitudes and not for position finding.

However, Wang with great assurance states “that Chinese historians of science quite mistakenly believe these were “used only for latitude determination”. As proof of this, he introduces Menzies’ discounted notion that the European Cantino map of 1502 is evidence of Chinese expertise in longitude.

It is not proposed to dissect Wang’s arguments about how those bold mariners navigated on transoceanic passages, especially as he has not correctly digested the astro-navigation that he attempts to summarize. He apparently has misunderstood the expression ‘fixed stars’. This is exemplified when he says “If the height of an eastern star above the horizon gets higher and higher, that means the ship is getting closer and closer to the east”, thereby ignoring the apparent motion of the celestial sphere.

The claimed superior navigational methods to calculate longitude, according to Wang, were based on the differences of the times of sunrise at the homeport and the ship’s position at sea, which ignores the fact that on any given day sunrise times vary with latitude.

Furthermore, in lieu of a chronometer, Wang has mariners calculating elapsed time according to the amount of lamp oil consumed by special lanterns or the number of incense coils burnt. Those who have used mosquito coils in the Tropics know how these are liable to break, while Mills says of incense-sticks, which were used for timekeeping aboard ships, “it seems improbable that the sticks burnt with any high degree of regularity". 

Indeed, Wang goes on to say “true it is unlikely” that the Chinese passed over their navigational knowledge, including incense coils in place of chronometers, to the Europeans. This whole “Act 2” dealing with nautical science is therefore not relevant to his main premise. It is all rather reminiscent of Menzies correctly stating that there is no connection between Chinese and the determination of longitude  and then going on at great length with about a fantasized account of their discovering it by lunar eclipses. Jumping a few centuries in time, Menzies claims that the mode the Chinese are imagined to have developed is ‘proven’ by a modern American experiment, which in circular argument was that which he adopted for the Chinese method.

Although based at best only on an obscure reference, Wang is adamant “that there is some concrete evidence” that the Renaissance was given a boost by ‘Chinese Astronomical influences in Toscanelli and his circle of friends’. This unfolds in his Act III with the unsupported assumption, claimed to be “absolutely possible to establish”, that “the Ming Datong Astronomical Treatise” was received by “the papacy of Florence”. According to him it was mandatory for Chinese envoys to spread this world-wide upon the change of a dynasty or emperor, but they were a bit tardy. The fleet set out at the beginning of 1431, in the fifth year of the Hsuan Te reign. 

In this section, Wang draws upon Menzies’ unpublished paper of 2004, ‘Chinese Astronomical methods adopted by Toscanelli. European determination of Latitude’, to further advocate Chinese-inspired astronomical advances in Europe.

Menzies tells us Toscanelli was also “the first European to observe comets in 1433, 1449-50 (Halley), two in 1457 and 1472”. This is nonsense; from time immemorial Europeans had observed comets even if purely as omens of disaster. Admittedly, it was only in 1705 that the English astronomer Edmond Halley was the first European to predict the return of a comet. However, his work was based not on Chinese records but on studies of “24 comets for which he had found accurate enough historical documents”. These included the observations of Hipparchus who worked at Rhodes and Alexandria until the year 127 BCE, and completed the first-ever star catalogue in Europe. 

Evidently, Menzies also claims that Toscanelli and his German friend Regiomontanus, who published a relevant set of tables in 1474, used the Chinese method of determining the sun’s declination “by measuring the sun’s height at midday on the same longitude but at different latitudes”. Chinese astronomers did use some such method of measurements of sun shadows for certain data but at that time declination was not one of them. 

The European tables referred to were the astronomer’s Nürnberg Ephemerides, an astronomical almanac that included the principle of longitude measurements by lunar distances. But this owed nothing to Chinese inspiration. From Greek sources recovered from Constantinople after its capture by the Turks in 1453, he completed the revision of the earlier Latin translations of Ptolemy's Almagest, as preserved by the Arabs. This important astronomical work “contributed to the revival of interest in mathematical astronomy among Renaissance humanists and scientists”. 

Wang started his ‘New Evidence” by pointing out that two early biographers of Columbus claimed the Florentine Toscanelli was “the first to conceive the bold new idea of sailing to India by the western route” and ends that Toscanelli “repeatedly emphasized . . . his first hand sources from China and Europe” (emphasis added).

Wang admits that modern historians remain skeptical of the encounter in Florence, because, quoting one of his references Henry Vignaud, “it is an historic fact that no ambassador came from China at that period, and if one had come he certainly would not have called his country Cathay”. Wang, however, maintains his stand with a confused mix of examples of diplomatic exchanges with cardinals being appointed to Beijing up to 1426.

So from an obscure, unidentified, meeting with an unknown ‘ambassador’ in 1433, it is alleged that this emissary, during a long conversation about prior religious friendship, introduced Toscanelli, “and his circle of friends”, to the admittedly advanced astronomical knowledge of the Celestial Empire at that time. Thus, according to Wang, Chinese influence among other things led to the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe’s ‘torquetum’, in the 17th century (sic) and the introduction of our modern Georgian Calendar in 1582.

It appears that Menzies, who in his ‘1421’ revealed a number of bloopers in his grasp of sextant navigation, is setting up a launch pad for an astonishing disclosure that Renaissance astronomy, navigation, and cartography were brought into the modern age by science derived from the Celestial Kingdom and its knowledge of the celestial sphere. [About a year after this was written, the great guru Gavin did, indeed, announce such a book].


In the midst of Wang’s Act II discourse on Navigation, he tells us of some hitherto untrumpeted attainments of Toscanelli. His usual claim to fame is that as a cosmographer he supplied Columbus with his chart. This has been long lost and now Wang says Toscanelli produced in 1474 the first-ever world map with graduations of latitude and longitude, which he states was in a style derived from the Chinese. Indeed, Dr Joseph Needham made a suggestion that Europeans were influenced by Chinese grid-maps, but according to him that was a century earlier.

There is a good reproduction of the beautiful planisphere of Toscanelli, “the learned Florentine, humanist and cosmographer”, in The Life and Times of Columbus.  Criss-crossed by portolan-like lines, it seems an exaggeration to label this as a map complete with parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude.

I am not qualified to argue who was the first with a proto-type for modern world maps but Wang continues that such a style was otherwise unknown until the middle of the 16th-century. However, from Toscanelli’s time, although not universally adopted, there was a long stream of mappa mundi set in a grid of latitudes and longitudes. Indeed, one such was the map called the Claudius Ptolemy of Rome 1478, based upon that Alexandrian’s Geographia from the second century Common Era. 

Another such Ptolemaic world map was that of Francesco Berlingieri of Florence in 1482, but neither this nor the lost map of Columbus were derived from the imagined introduction of Chinese science, in 1433. Indeed, Toscanelli’s map may have been similar to that of a globe by Martin Behaim, which “was copied from the map submitted to King John in 1485 by the Columbus brothers” .

Strabo (ca 63 BCE-ca 21CE) recommended terrestrial globes, which reduced the distortion found on flat maps. In Europe the oldest extant sample is Behaim’s of 1492 but they were first made during the 13th century. On the other hand, as Needham points out, in China “the doctrine of the flat earth was still accepted in court circles” when the earlier Mongolian grid system was being developed. He also points out that terrestrial globes were unfamiliar to Chinese culture and that the oldest extant models are of the Renaissance type, but made under the guidance of the Jesuits at the beginning of the 17th century. 

Wang claims that, because the Florentinian was supposedly tutored in Chinese science, “It is thus no exaggeration to say that Toscanelli was the intellectual architect of westward transatlantic enterprise to Indies and China”. He reiterates that Toscanelli, with his “unprecedented advocacy”, was the first European in history to advocate the western route to the Orient.

Whatever theories Toscanelli may have introduced to Columbus, he was not the first to enunciate ‘westward ho’. In ancient times Strabo had already postulated that spices could be obtained by sailing west from Spain. And the Alexandrine’s “ideas were introduced to the West at the Council of Florence in 1459, whose participants included Toscanelli, who in turn influenced Columbus”.

To Wang “significantly” Toscanelli’s world map “assumed a terrestrial degree of 50 x 5/4 = 66 2/3”, whatever that is supposed to mean. Presumably it refers to the number of miles to a degree of latitude, because the miles between meridians of longitude vary according to latitude. If this is what Wang means and Columbus had adopted such a length for a degree, derived from Chinese science, he ended up with a world circumference of about three-quarters of the actual distance.

In the end, Columbus, for divers reasons, not least of which was to obtain backers for his project, opted for a smaller measure than the more correct one in use, and also considerably exaggerated the width of Asia. So as Britannica pointed out, “his estimate of the sea distance to be crossed to Cathay was wildly inaccurate”. Columbus had to convince the European scientists of his day about the size of the world, not that it was a sphere. They were right, he was wrong and the Chinese should not be blamed.

So Menzies and his acolytes, using conflicting ‘evidence’ from that of the master, try to demonstrate that European discovery and European cartography derived from Chinese sources, as did the flowering of European navigational techniques in the 15th century. It is possible that there may have been some such connection, but the propositions of the Menzies’ team are not only unproven.

In all cases, their comments on navigation and oceanic passages ignores the more likely and logical influence of Arabic-Islamic science. For this aspect, I would recommend the paper by Professor Dr Fuat Sezgin, ‘The Pre-Columbian Discovery of the American Continent by Muslim Seafarers’, which starts off with well-reasoned arguments dismissing “Menzies’ countless outrageous theories”. It can be found on the web - www.uni-frankfurt/ftb13/igaiw. 


Propelled by the publisher’s awesome publicity machinery, Gavin Menzies’s 1421: The Year China Discovered the World caused quite a stir. Although the book was ghost-written, Gavin, as he likes to be called on his web site, in the role of a technical adviser provided creative input that distorted ocean currents, monsoon seasons, and polar climate to support global voyages he had dreamed up. However the fantasy ‘1421’ is now discredited, in no small part due to his own unthinking production of ‘new evidence’. Indeed, he appears to have abandoned his flagship.

The whole edifice of ‘1421’ was based upon his observations concerning anomalies on early European world maps, ranging from the Americas before Columbus to centuries later Australia before Captain Cook. Gavin’s claim is that Ming Chinese drew up a World Map after Zheng He’s ships returned home in 1423 and this was passed to a Portuguese prince in Venice in 1424. Only passing reference to this wonder was made in the following century. If it did exist it was ignored by other Portuguese cartographers. The gradual revelation of the real world is not explained, but, according to the book ‘1421’, proof of all this is found in a Korean map of 1404, a Turkish map of 1513, an Italian map of 1502, a French map of 1540 and so on.

Gavin later augments this with ‘new evidence’ of a Venetian ‘master chart’ (sic) of 1410 and a Chinese world map, in the European style, dated 1763 said to be a copy of an earlier one of 1418. This is more than doubtful and, at best, someone at some much later date probably merely added to an 18th-century print where Zheng He fleets and others may have gone.

Gavin eventually woke up to the fact that these later maps predated his ‘1421’ voyages and declared that those Ming Mariners were not the pioneers that he had proclaimed. He now reveals that an earlier Mongolian Map of the World ordered by Kublai Khan, in fact, had shown the way. He also tells us that Zheng He’s passage charts of the Antarctic, were discovered recently in Hong Kong and that a map of China of 1137 displays a Prime Meridian of Longitude, although his “1421” claims that prior to that date the Chinese knew nought of longitude.
None of the Oriental world maps resemble each other and only that of 1763 presents a recognizable picture, so he now talks of a non-existent Zheng He’s Integrated World Map of 1418 - Bye, bye, ‘1421’.

Having also established himself to his own satisfaction as a self taught expert on DNA, Gavin discovered Ming mixed blood in Hottentots of SW Africa, Gypsies in Seville and Maoris of New Zealand as offspring of Melanesian slaves and Cantonese whores. Emboldened, Gavin has now moved away from cartography to astronomy, horology and other scientific disciplines for which he also has no formal schooling and possibly only slight understanding.

Training his periscope on ‘Zheng He and the Italian Renaissance’, Gavin gives us the benefit of his insight that Chinese scholarship showed the way ahead to European advances. Smarting from rejection of his ‘1421’ by established historians and others, he has said rather than reject out-of-hand a statement that Zheng He had gone to the moon, he would examine the evidence first.

Yet Gavin has revealed without any evidence whatsoever other unrecorded momentous events prior to “1421”, such as in 1408 when a Chinese fleet voyaged up the Red Sea and was able to plough through the sand filled ancient Suez-Nile Canal and sail through the Mediterranean to the Azores and back. Side trips he says were also made in 1410 up the Adriatic to Venice to disclose geography for Albertin di Virga’s distorted world map, as well as sailing up the Thames to deliver silken underpants to Henry V, who was crowned King of England in 1413.

Now ‘New Evidence’ is offered for this recent chimera of a Zheng He delegation to Florence in 1433, ‘discovered’ by the part time journalist Tai Peng Wang in his paper reviewed above. Material supplied by this recent acolyte, enables Gavin to examine ‘the letter’, in which he proclaims Toscanelli disclosed having met the Chinese delegation and acknowledged receipt of maps later provided to Columbus.

The scraps copied in Gavin’s rendition tell only of numerous distinguished men at the Court of Rome, not Florence, and say nothing about Chinese or Zheng He. Even Wang states “it is far from certain” that Zheng He’s delegate handed over a world map, “before or during or after his long conversation". Indeed, the Chinese visitor must have been learned in all the sciences, in view of further extravagant claims now being made by Gavin.

The various subjects talked about in ‘ a long conversation’ are unknown but Gavin opines that this was a defining moment for the enrichment of the Italian Renaissance and the debt owed to Oriental science. Among his several claims he imagines that, about half a century later, Leonardo da Vinci recorded almost 100 sketches, complete with detailed descriptions, of ‘civil engineering machines’, which were directly derived from Chinese inventions.

Recently (13.04.08) newspapers carried a press release from the Guardian News Service ‘Leonardo Da Vinci’s mother was a slave, study claims”. An Italian researcher, based on a thumb print left by that earlier genius, deduced that his mother was an Arab or of Middle Eastern origin.

It will be interesting to see if Menzies in his new book converts that woman into a Chinese concubine carried by the fleets as he did with ‘Maori mums’. He could then claim that along with imbibing her milk, Leonardo was imbued with the splendor of Oriental wisdom. After all, he claims he was introduced to Chinese culture by his Chinese amah, who educated him for the first five years of his life. Ten years later he tells us that he joined the Royal Navy, where in History Today “he recalls being well founded in the world’s religions, customs and philosophy”. Which will surprise others who were subjected to naval instruction.

Gavin roundly declares that “only Professional Historians would dare deny” his several coincidental inferences. Well, they can defend their own turf, but as a professional seaman I refute his supporting nautical evidence in ‘Zheng He - Method of calculating latitude and longitude’ and his related Part II ‘Medieval Chinese knowledge and the Fleets’ (of Zheng He).

The so-called Chinese knowledge in the latter is mainly a summary of some points made in his jettisoned 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Under the impression that the Central Atlantic in the Turkish Map of Piri Reis (1513) depicts Patagonia rather than Brazil, Gavin adopts a notion that a compass rose obscures the Falkland Islands, to which he relates the star Canopus.

This hallucination leads him to conclude that the Chinese determined latitude across the whole world sailing along the parallels of 52° 40’ S and 3° 20’ N, as well as of 38° 30’ N, which he substitutes for Beijing’s latitude he used in ‘1421’. These lines of discovery and the positions for the relevant observatories do not match the routes he so ‘expertly’ dreamed up for the several fleets in his 1421.

His “memo” on ‘Zheng He - Method of calculating latitude and longitude’ deals almost exclusively with the latter and Chinese astronomy. Indeed, little that Gavin outlines deals with marine navigation while Zheng He’s several voyages were not scientific expeditions. 

The nautical side of this latest fantasy is based almost solely on the above article from Wang Peng Wang. Gavin acknowledges the part-time journalist for the discovery of Zheng He’s records that are supposed to describe the actual stars used to calculate latitude and longitude at sea. Well, this is a bit of hyperbole (or ‘hyper balls’ in naval terms) because as the sinologist Dr J.V.G. Mills points out in his Ma Huan it is impossible to accurately identify stars for which Chinese sailors had their own names. 

Surprisingly, for a self-proclaimed expert in astro-navigation, Gavin seems to have accepted all of Wang’s so-called ‘New Evidence’. From this, Gavin incredibly repeats that Zheng He’s fleets relied on “the height of the stars to determine the distance of the ship from the stars (lat and long)”. What bilge, but it illustrates Gavin’s own shortfall in understanding the principles of astro-navigation.

Indeed, in his synopsis of Professor Robert Cribb’s second method, Gavin states  it is ‘entirely feasible’ Wang was also correct that Zheng He’s fleets could determine how far east or west they travelled from bearings of the rising or setting sun or moon. If only it were so easy; mariners call these ‘amplitudes’ found from latitude and declination, not longitude.

Latitude is summarily dispensed with, by Gavin noting that astronomers had for centuries (sic) proven methods of finding latitude by not only Polaris but also by the sun, which in ‘1421’ he had stated they were not yet capable of doing. Indeed, latitude as such played no part in their navigation, mariners feeling their way by ‘polar-altitudes’ of Polaris.

The rest deals with astronomical observations, not navigation. To quote an old Master, “As an astronomical question, the determination of longitude resolves itself into the determination of the differences of time reckoned at two meridians at the same ABSOLUTE instant.

Gavin continues describing mainly sophisticated methods of determining longitude without chronometers, almost all being theoretical or involving instruments only used in observatories. None proposed have any practical application for position finding at sea, particularly with the rudimentary means available to seamen in those early times.

He points out that he described in ‘1421’ a method using lunar eclipses to find longitude. Indeed, it is, where, in great detail and with great assurance, he created a separate fleet trundling across the Indian Ocean on this task. Unfortunately, he made a balls of this as well, because the only lunar eclipse at the time was not visible in that area.

However, as he has in effect abandoned the time-frame of his ‘1421’, he therefore turned to a Mr. Ross Prefect to determine which lunar eclipses were available during all the 1405-1431 voyages. He also modifies the method he originally described by having separate observers noting “the star in line with Polaris at the same predetermined instant” for later comparison.

Polaris on the meridian is also used by Cribb in the first of his two proposals. However, as Marco Polo recorded, Polaris disappears from sight in the vicinity of northern Sumatra, so Zheng He could not use it, as Gavin claims, on a daily basis or during several of the oceanic passages referred to. While the second method, apparently the same as the later European use of lunar distances, required, as Cribb noted, sextants that had yet to be invented.

In dealing with finding longitude by transit of Jupiter’s moons, which are not visible to the naked eye, Gavin has to admit that Zheng He did not have telescopes, so he asserts in those days the moons could be seen without one!

Although Gavin still tries to dismiss chronometers as unnecessary, he turns to the research of Professor Rosa Hui. She describes various clocks and time measuring devices of the Chinese from 104 BCE to 1276 CE, which Gavin says were “available to Zheng He” in the 15th century. None of the instruments described, excellent as they are, could be used at sea.

Gavin gives a summary of five instruments, which includes that splendid water clock of Su Song in 1092 CE. This, in Gavin’s description, becomes a “water transportation machine”, which he labels a “chronometer”, an unlikely designation for a complicated structure about four stories high. As a naval officer with a dozen or so years service, he especially should be aware that a chronometer usually designates a small portable clock of great accuracy. It is like comparing Big Ben to a pocket watch.

Gavin, having just described in great detail how a Prime Meridian was established at Beijing in about 1442, comes to a learned conclusion that 18th-century Chinese astronomers didn’t know what they were doing when they aligned a later observatory there. He pronounces they had forgotten what their ancients knew and had been incorrectly taught by Italian Jesuits. However, he seems to have overlooked that, according to his latest brainstorm, those Europeans had derived their knowledge from Zheng He’s fleets.

Rather modestly, for a change, Gavin declared, “As will be seen - neither I nor the 1421 Team has made any original contribution”. This disclaimer ignores completely the spin that Gavin’s lively imagination has contributed to an inordinate interpretation of an obscure passage in a letter of Toscanelli.


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Wilkinson, R.J., (1959), CMG, A Malay-English Dictionary (Romanised), Two Volumes, London: MacMillan, 1959.

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