Did the Chinese Circumnavigate the World in 1421?
Why Menzies’ 1421 Won’t Sail
Captain P. J. Rivers, FRGS FNI MRIN ACII ACI Arb, Master Mariner
The controversial best seller 1421: The Year China Discovered the World by Gavin Menzies (London: Bantam Press, 2002) poses a question as whether in fact such circumnavigations took place.
According to the author, his main thrust is every great European explorer, from Columbus in 1492 to Captain Cook in 1768, sailed with charts showing their destinations. This prior knowledge supposedly came from a single source - a Portuguese World Map of 1428 (p.107), solely mentioned by the historian Galvano who died in 1557.
Although stated by Menzies that Columbus certainly had a copy of this map in 1492 (p.108), this anachronistic wonder, if it even existed, soon disappeared, as it played no part in the papal division of the globe with neighbouring Spain (Treaty of Tordesillas 1494). Menzies’ only ‘proof’ is in anomalies, real or imagined, found in “Key Charts”(1424 to 1542) from various cartographers of differing nationality, who implausibly copied from scattered fragments of the ‘1428 World Map’.
Ruling out unrecorded European sources, Menzies posits that it all indirectly derived from unrecorded Chinese voyages that resulted in an imagined Chinese world map, complete with latitudes and longitudes (p.456). This even greater wonder was brought back to Italy by Niccolo da Conti, a real person who spent over two decades in the East. He only arrived in Calicut, India, in 1421 (p.85) and, according to Menzies, set off for 20 years sailing with the Chinese round the world (p.352). But Menzies also conjectures that in mid 1424 Conti was back in Venice, where he secretly met the Portuguese prince Dom Pedro (p.369) who commissioned the 1428 Map.
Menzies unequivocally maintains (p.87 et al) Conti was the only link between Chinese and European mapmakers and that he actually sailed with one fleet into the Atlantic and back to China at the end of 1423 (p.352). When Discovery TV pointed out Conti’s Travels (1444) make no mention of even seeing a Chinese junk much less boarding one, Menzies agreed this was one of the weakest parts of his story. In fact, it demolishes the possibility of any connection between the two world maps, all three vital factors which were ‘discovered’ only by himself. Even weaker are the foundations for his story line to support these.
Menzies’ scenario postulates that Chinese fleets in the brief period of 1421-1423 surveyed the entire globe from North Pole to Antarctica, missing only the east coast of New Zealand, the North West Passage through the Canadian Arctic and, incredibly, Europe! Also side-stepped were the inhabited islands of the Atlantic, although remote Easter and Pitcairn islands are portrayed (map p.402) as Chinese bases in the Pacific.
Adroitly avoiding contact with any European centres, of course, provides a facile explanation why these Chinese junkets do not appear in western accounts, or indeed anywhere else. Although Menzies at first wrongly insisted all records of Zheng He’s voyages were expunged by Imperial decree, no accounts can be found elsewhere. Even in those countries whose ships, he says (p.39), joined the Chinese. These were from Vietnam and India; in later editions increased to include Japan, Korea and Burma (Menzies 1421: The Year China Discovered America p.66).
Experts in Oriental studies point out that no verifiable Chinese inscriptions or Ming wrecks have been found outside the known trade area from China to east Africa, while a few Chinese artefacts found outside this area are not from this era. There are great gaps in this narrative, while academics and others refute the several segments showing these vary from unlikely through improbable to impossible.
Menzies ignores all such criticism, dismissing the learned as being protective of their positions and jealous of the revelations of a mere amateur. He and his followers insist that a reappraisal will confirm 1421 and the supporting mass of controversial ‘evidence’ in his revised book. The later text is also increased to include, as it were, fingerprints of DNA left along their path.
But none of this relates to the heart of the matter. Menzies in his voluminous Appendix rejects that contact with America took place sporadically over centuries and contends it all happened during the 1421-3 voyage (Menzies 1421: The Year China Discovered America, p.547.). So his hypothesis depends directly upon the voyages, which he exclusively discovered during research of 15 years.
Having joined the navy he says at age 15, the author had only a limited formal education and is self-taught outside of naval instruction. This explains his lack of scholarship and loose understanding of most aspects that he advances but surprisingly he manifests multiple deficiencies in nautical knowledge. Indeed, it takes several pages to summarise his many shortcomings as a navigator.
Despite his self-proclaimed professional insights and skills denied to academics (e.g. pp.12, 234), he makes many elementary errors. For example, in astro-navigation, where, among other blunders, he places the North Star directly above the North Pole (p.61) and managed to analyse Chinese documents to proclaim (p.306) that in Ming times the Equator was 3° 40’ north of where it has always been. (This last absurdity and others are incised from later editions.)
The whole structure of his ‘1421 voyages’ by Chinese junks, which Menzies portrays (pp.64, 109) as almost unmanageable scows capable only of being propelled by following winds and carried along by ocean currents, depends on the unchanging pattern of nature.
It is here that Menzies’ hypothesis unravels despite his service as a naval officer and claimed practical experience as a navigator, which enable him, he boasts, to trace their routes as sure as any written records (p.83).
Fundamental flaws on his part undermine his own case particularly in his detailed descriptions of ocean currents in the Atlantic (Chap 4, ‘Rounding the Cape’). Indeed, those south of the Cape Verde Islands are deliberately distorted, as are his references culled from the Admiralty Ocean Passages of the World (Chap 4 e.n.23; Chap 11 e.n.1; Chap 17 e.n.12). So also are his times of monsoonal seasons (p.69).
In his chapter when ‘The Fleets Set Sail’, they did not even follow the established tracks of the Seven Voyages of Zheng He. These all started from Nanjing and at the end of the year sailed down the South China Sea with the northeast monsoon taking about a year to reach India.
However, in the book 1421 the fleets purportedly left Beijing in March (p.59) and despite contrary winds were in Calicut, west India, three months later ready to set off on the great adventure. From there his fantasy voyages could never have even started because, according to Menzies, in June they impossibly sailed in the teeth of the southwest monsoon to east Africa.
When an interviewer pointed this out to him, there was an amazing response from Menzies - “who really cares how they got there”! * Surely that is what his book is all about - how the Chinese discovered the world in 1421. In effect, Menzies dismisses as irrelevant the very foundation for all his fanciful identifications of Chinese global contacts.
This entertaining amateur ‘detective’ novel, masquerading as revisionist history, may well prove to be the Piltdown Man of literature and should only be classified as fiction.
*(Kristina Tom’s ‘Voyage to historical truth’, Straits Times, Singapore 7 July 2005).