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If you're going to make a stir, you might as well do it in style. And Gavin Menzies has caused one, big time. In 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, this retired Royal Navy submarine commander, who only visited China for the first time on his 25th wedding anniversary, claims that the Chinese navigator Zheng He discovered America some 71 years before Columbus. And not content with this, he goes on to suggest that Zheng He learnt how to calculate longitude several centuries before John Harrison supposedly nailed the problem. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down too well in some areas and the book has been the target of some scepticism.
Although Menzies has unearthed a few unknown primary sources, the bulk of his thesis depends on amalgamating several disparate areas of research into a grand unified theory. So he combines what we do know--principally that the Chinese built huge sailing ships with nine masts and that Asiatic chickens were discovered in South America--into what he considers compelling evidence. Menzies has also turned up some maps from the pre-Columbus era that appear to show the Americas, along with a few shipwrecks and Ming artefacts from along his supposed route.
It all makes for a gripping read, even if the sum doesn't quite add up to the whole. For all the detail, Menzies is some way off providing proof. None of the supposed 28,000 colonists has left any documentary evidence because all records, boats and shipyards associated with his voyage were burnt by imperial order in 1433. This surely begs the question--if we know so much of Zheng He's voyages around the Indian Ocean, how come we know nothing of his trips further east? Nor, conveniently for Menzies, did any of the colonists return home in triumph. They either died en route or skulked home to obscurity after they were disowned by the emperor.
So you either accept Menzies as an act of faith or brush him aside with scepticism. Either way, you'll have a lot of fun in the process as the book is never less than provocative. And even the sceptics will find themselves hoping Menzies has got it right, because there's something intrinsically uplifting about the notion of an amateur historian getting one over the professionals. --John Crace [via]