There have been many attempts in recent years to totally overhaul the conventional history of the world as it is usually taught, with the flakiest elements asserting whack-job theories such as that the human race was seeded by aliens as a slave-class for a since-lost primordial civilisation. Much of this tendency has been driven by the authors’ own anti-empirical search for novelty and notoriety, so personally I’d take the observations of a scientist like Thor Heyerdahl over a barber like Erich von Däniken any day.
However, some new overarching histories are so compellingly and rationally argued that their core theses look set to overturn conventional knowledge in the field. And nothing quite comes as close to upsetting the apple cart as Gavin Menzies’ magisterial 1421.
That imperial China, after a spurt of unprecedented exploration in 1421-1423 under visionary third Ming emperor Zhu Di, embarked on a centuries-long policy of isolation that was ultimately responsible for the stagnation of Chinese science and innovation is well known.
But what has until Menzies not been comprehensively explored was the astounding extent of the peregrinations of the great treasure fleets under Zhu’s eunuch Muslim admirals. That they traded with the Spice Islands of what is today Indonesia and traversed the Indian Ocean as far as India, Arabia and even Africa was pretty much accepted, what with evidence such as paintings of giraffe presented in tribute to the emperor, but it seems few historians looked at the actual potential routes of Zhu’s treasure fleets based on winds and currents, which the core of Menzies’ thesis, informed by his career as a former Royal Navy submarine commander.
The main reason for this lack was that Zhu’s isolationist successors destroyed as many records of the voyages as their agents could lay their hands on, imposed severe restrictions on “foreign” knowledge, and outlawed the construction of ocean-going vessels on pain of death, so there were strong incentives among the Chinese themselves to forget the great adventure had ever happened at all.
But Zhu’s testing of the extent of his imperial reach naturally intersected with other far-travelling-and-trading peoples, not least of whom were the Venetians and the Portuguese, the latter of whom, Menzies demonstrates, were the great beneficiaries of the Chinese fleets’ voyages, so there existed other accounts of those explorations written by people other than the Chinese.
The strange thing is that for a long time it was known in specialised nautical circles and by collectors of antique maps that there was firm cartographic evidence of navigators’ detailed knowledge of the passages through Tierra del Fuego and the Philippines long before Fernão de Magalhães (Ferdinand Magellan) and of the coast of Australia long before Thomas Cook. These maps that predated the celebrated European explorers of the Pacific were among the most valuable, secret and guarded possessions of the seafaring nations that built their empires based on this insider knowledge, especially the Portuguese, Spanish and British.
Prior to Menzies, the wildest theories were circulated about these seemingly impossible maps, nautical charts that appeared to have been dropped through a worm-hole in time, describing continents and islands at latitudes and longitudes supposedly unknown to “civilised” folk at that time. One of the most famous is the Kangnido World Map, created in Korea in 1402 and depicting Europe, Asia – and a reasonably accurate coastline of Africa (when corrected for longitude by Menzies), a full 95 years before Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope in 1497.
Detailing how Ming Chinese navigation techniques evolved, especially for moving south of the equator in the absence of the guiding star Polaris (using Canopus as a substitute), Menzies claims that after the great treasure armada under Admiral Zheng He reached Africa, two fleets under Admiral Hong Bao and Admiral Zhou Man split off and traveled down the coast from Mogadishu to Sofala and then, following the prevailing winds and currents, rounded the Cape and hugged the West African coast as far north as Cape Verde. He presents evidence of multilingual stone stele carved by the Chinese as diplomatic proclamations found in Ceylon, and, he argues, also in Congo and Cape Verde.
From there, Menzies theorises, the fleets of Hong Bao and Zhou Man used the currents to cross the Atlantic to the Brazilian coast, making landfall near the mouth of the Orinoco River, 70 years before Christoforo Colombo (Christopher Columbus) made landfall in The Bahamas in 1492.
The honour of being the first to “discover” a hemispheric continent with millions of inhabitants has long been contested: the Icelandic Sagas and archeological evidence show that Viking Leif Erikson was probably the first European to set foot on American soil, and probably established the first permanent settlement there, in Newfoundland, in the year 1000; while a 14th Century Egyptian book by Al Umari tells that a fleet under Malian king Mansa Abubakari II made landfall at Recife, Brazil, in 1312 – which would mean Africans “discovered” the Americas 110 years before the Chinese.
After travelling down to Patagonia – mapping its coastline and the Strait of Magellan through Tierra del Fuego 98 years before Magellan – Menzies states that the fleets parted ways, with Hong Bao’s ships mapping the pack ice down to the South Shetland Islands just off Antarctica’s Trinity Peninsula, then tracking back eastwards at those latitudes via the Kerguelen Islands in the far south Indian Ocean to the west coast of Australia, while Zhou Man traveled up the Chilean coast as far north as the Galapagos Islands, then traversed the Pacific on the equatorial current, to map the east coast of Australia and the west coast of New Zealand.
After charting Australia, the fleets returned to China via Sumatra (Hong Bao) and the Spice Islands (Zhou Man) – but not before, Menzies argues, Zhou Man’s fleet crossed the Pacific again, this time headed eastwards from the Philippines, making landfall in California 118 years before the first European to do so, Hernando de Alarcón, in 1540, then sending smaller fleets to seed settlements all down the coast from the Sacramento River valley to Mexico and Peru.
At this point I feel it will be spoiling the plot to discuss the Caribbean, Central American and North American voyages – and the establishment of colonies there – by Chinese fleets, not to mention their claimed expedition around Greenland in search of the North Pole.
Suffice to say that although Menzies is not a specialist in many of the disciplines he taps into, his evidence was accumulated over 15 years of research from a grand synthesis of interpreting not only navigation, cartography and the diaries of explorers, but of linguistics, DNA genetic mapping, of the archaeology of strange junk-like wrecks and of Chinese artefacts in unlikely places, and of the strange dispersal of fauna and flora in parts of the world where they were not to be expected, such as the uniquely American-derived corn found growing in the Philippines by Magellan.
Given that Menzies’ magnum opus was first published in 2002, it is a mark of the resistance of the academy to such radical notions that 14 years later, his work appears to still be waiting in the wings to make its mark on many serious history curricula where Magellan and Cook remain untoppled in their “discoverer” status despite the known fact that they found their way to “unknown” lands guided by earlier maps.
In the age of exploration, there was a valid reason for disguising this fact: I’m guessing that the knowledge that the Chinese had charted the world in detail decades before the Europeans was one of the most valuable state secrets, holding the keys as it did to controlling extremely valuable trade routes. But in the new Millennium, it strikes me as racist that the proven aspects of Menzies’ thesis have not received wider academic admission; perhaps this is driven by the rise of Sinophobia in the West as China awakens, but a cautious yet evidence-based far-reaching overhaul of what we know about the age of exploration is long overdue.