I saw a fascinating doco running over the last two Sundays on the ABC, called 1421: The Year China Discovered America?. This is the title of a book by Gavin Menzies, described as a “historian and former submarine commander”, who claims that the fleet commanded by Zheng He, and known to have sailed to India and East Africa, actually continued on to America and circumnavigated the world.

The first episode gave the historical background on Zheng He and a reasonably sympathetic outline of Menzies’ theory. In the second episode, the pieces of evidence advanced by Menzies were presented in more detail, along with responses from experts on a wide range of topics, nearly all of whom tore Menzies’ claims to shreds (though in a very polite way). He didn’t seem to be fazed and was busy mounting an expedition to look for more evidence.

What struck me, watching this, was how different everything would have been if it had, for some reason, been politically useful for the US Republican Party and their Australian offshoots, to support Menzies’ claim. Then we would have had opinion pieces from Andrew Bolt and the like denouncing the experts as elitists only concerned to suppress dissenting views, claims of ABC bias, blogospheric recycling of bogus quotes, claims that many scientists support the 1421 theory and so on. The whole panoply of postmodernist tricks would be pressed into the service of a patent absurdity, just as we’ve seen with Intelligent Design, global warming denialism, defence of CFCs and so on.

31 thoughts on “1421

  1. Hmmm,

    In Ep 2 this Menzies character went way beyond “controversial” in his absurd claims about Chinese presence in the Americas in the early fifteenth century.

    His argument is entirely without evidentiary support. The fact that he seemed quite serene about the utter destruction of his claims had an air of the surreal about it.

    Was he too stupid to perceive the fate of his argument, or didn’t he care?

    Without wishing to lend any credence to Andrew Bolt, I’m unaware of any instance of Bolt attempting to support someone who was as far off beam as Menzies was.

    However, I’d be extremely happy to be proven wrong.

  2. I don’t think Menzies has been any more (or less) thoroughly refuted than creationism/intelligent design, and Bolt is happy to push the ID line, not claiming ID is true but bashing anyone who criticises it. He’s been favorably quoted on this score by Answers in Genesis.

    And most of the anti-GW evidence pushed by Bolt, such as the Oregon petition and the work of Benny Peiser are every bit as bogus as Menzies’ evidence. Check TIm Lambert’s site on this.

  3. I also read the 1421 book and it is terrible, but, even if he is right, so what? If he is right the Chinese got there first, made a few maps, went home and then burned their boats. No long lasting, useful effects apart from (possibly) the effects that the map had on Europe. All it does is show the effects that a capricious government can have on innovation.
    Like ID, this is an interesting idea but is not actually useful.

  4. However, to be fair to Menzies, Galileo was attacked by the scientists at the time and some scientists are even on record as saying that they need to “make simplified statements and make little mention of any doubts that we haveâ€?. Historians are dependent on their grant money, so they have to tow the party line.

    So maybe he’s on to something…

  5. I’ve read the book but not seen the TV program. For me, the most interesting thing in the book was the claim that the Chinese _could_ have sailed around the world (given the size of their ships and navigation skills etc) but then decided to destroy their navy. Do the critics have anything to say about Menzies’ view of this aspect of Chinese history? (Yes I know this basically unrelated to JQ’s point)

  6. I saw the doco, but I have to disagree, John. While the subject matter hinted at a suggestion that the show might just be nearly promising, the show was dreadfully tedious.

  7. I didn’t see it, but debunkings of sensational theories are usually fun. It was hilarious watching Baldrick tear apart the Da Vinci Code over two Sundays, earlier in the year.

  8. I haven’t read it, but some time ago looked up some navigation bits. It’s drivel.

    Page 367: “Even more startling, the longitudes on the Cantino are correct to within thirty nautical miles – a mere thirty seconds of time.� But thirty nautical miles is actually two minutes of time. Very basic; a British naval commander ought to know this.

    page 375: “The brilliance of the method is that, unlike calculations for latitude neither sextant nor a clock is required.� Well, a clock is not required for latitude. This is a naval officer? Did Gilbert and Sullivan write documentaries? For latitude, all you need to know is the date and to have a table of the sun’s declination (in effect the sun’s latitude) every day. The observer finds latitude with almost no calculation by measuring the sun’s elevation at noon.

    page 376: “The Portugese did not have enough ships to determine longitude by trigonometry.� How do I convey the sense of this? Maybe: “John Quiggin does not have enough martial arts outfits to determine the GDP by counting Sundays.�

    The author has the explorers finding longitude by lunar eclipses. Lunar eclipses do not occur very often – only about twice a year and often only partial (which are not very useful) and each only visible by half the planet. Of course the weather has to cooperate. To be useful, the eclipse has to be visible by both the expedition and the people in China so that Peking standard time (as it were) can be transferred and the longitude computed. The eclipses during the two years of the 1421 expedition may be readily calculated, eg by the astronomy professor, John Oliver, whom he talks about on page 374-5 and who writes part of Appendix 2. Now why aren’t we given the exact dates and times of the eclipses and where they were visible from?

    Lunar eclipses are available at

    The expedition left on 8 March 1421. In the next two years there was only one total eclipse – at 06.20 GMT on 14 August 1421. Multiply the UT by 15 to get the GHA – ie the west longitude of the moon. The dec of 11.8 degrees south is the latitude of the moon so the point where the moon is overhead is known. At 06.20 on 13/8/1421 we have: 15 * 6.33 = 95 deg West. That is maybe over Peru. Not visible in China.

  9. his theory is rubbish, but check out this on the Bimini Rd, maybe thepheonicians built it

    from a couple of days ago

    Home > Ancient Harbor Complex Confirmed at Bimini, Bahamas—Hoax Revealed
    An American archaeological team has discovered definitive evidence of underwater ancient harbor remains at two separate locations at Bimini. A hoax begun in 1978 by skeptics has also been uncovered.

    (I-Newswire) – Archaeologist William Donato and a team of researchers have confirmed a complex of ancient harbor works in shallow water off Bimini, 50 miles from Miami. In May 2005, the team investigated a little-known line of underwater stones located a mile from a controversial site known as the “Bimini Road.â€? The new mile-long line of stones was found and videotaped from the air. Subsequent dives revealed several large stone circles on the bottom, formed from large blocks of limestone arranged into circular patterns. The circles were spaced at regular intervals. Stone anchors, identical to ancient Phoenician, Greek, and Roman anchors, were also found. “These finds took us by surprise,â€? stated Dr. Greg Little, who organized the expedition. “The circles may be similar to ancient Mediterranean harbor ‘mooring circles.’â€?

    Near the new site is the Bimini Road, a misnamed J-shaped underwater formation of stone blocks. A careful search there yielded two stone anchors in the 1800-foot long stone formation. “One of these is identical to unusual ancient Greek anchors found at Thera,� Little related. Several other artifacts were found, “but the most important finds directly contradict skeptical claims.� The team found numerous multiple tiers of blocks including one set of three on top of each other. “The top block has a U-shaped channel cut all the way across its bottom,� Little said. “The most definitive evidence was found under the massive blocks. We found rectangular slabs of smooth, cut stone literally stacked under several blocks. These were used as leveling prop stones. This is proof that the so-called Bimini Road was a breakwater forming an ancient harbor.�

    The team took 20 hours of underwater video and 1000 photos. “It’s taken us five months to process the information and organize the evidence,� Little stated. “While the finds are definitive, the real problem is that a few skeptics wrote articles asserting the main formation was simply natural limestone. A hoax was perpetrated at Bimini by the skeptics, but you have to examine a 1978 report to understand it. Academic archaeologists and geologists don’t read that report. They cite later summaries, which are based on falsified data. The hoax is a disgrace, but it’s been actively supported by key people.�

    Little prepared a free 30-page pdf report on the expedition and the hoax and produced a 73-minute DVD documentary. The report, containing 70 photos, can be downloaded at: http://www.mysterious-america.net/biminihoax.html )

  10. The book is drivel. The interesting thing is that the Zheng He voyages to Southeast Asia, Africa and India are confirmed, along with a considerable amount of interference in local politics. The Yungle Emperor was very specific that China was not interested in placing garrisons anywhere because they would not be able to maintain them. Someone should have sent the imperial memo to a couple of contemporary Western rulers.

  11. Bolt as credible as a self-promoting fantasist with absolutely no respect for the truth?

    Who’d have thought it?

    Thanks JQ, I stand corrected.

  12. Read the book (a trial) and saw Ep2 (enjoyable) and the image that struck me about Menzie was someone pounding square blocks into round holes. No matter what evidence or anecdote he encounters it had to be related to Chinese voyages from 1421-1424. His theory, as a result, has huge holes and ridiculous claims – which undermine what (little) good evidence he puts forward.

    But that’s pop-research all over. A small idea, some supporting evidence, include the unsubstantiated, exclude the problematic and blind everyone with bulldust. Or is that casus belli?

    Menzies also has a great skill at overlooking important details. He mentions several times Chinese fleets interacting or trading with Arnhem Land communities and seems to not realise that this may count as a discovery of the sort he’s after.

    Bimini Road. The Mahogany Ship. Badly drawn islands on maps pre-dating (non-Viking) European discoveries… It does look like one or several societies were out there long ago.

  13. Oh dear! I actually quite liked the book so it is just as well I missed the TV show. I particularly liked the idea that in the Incas, the Chinese voyagers found a civilisation which matched their own technologically at least (the bloody barbarous bits notwithstanding). The idea that one could travel, discover, meet and yet not eradicate the locals has some appeal, surely?

  14. The Vikings made it to Australia. I’m living proof of that. They came here in the early 1960s. They did go to America also but they liked it here better.

  15. They must have come earlier than that, Terje. A great-uncle of yours, who sacked and pillaged Queensland for two decades, arrived just before World War I.

  16. I thought he tried to liberate it from the appalling tyrants that reside in Canberra and routinely pillage people everywhere. I hear that he was working on a motte.

  17. “For me, the most interesting thing in the book was the claim that the Chinese could have sailed around the world (given the size of their ships and navigation skills etc) but then decided to destroy their navy. Do the critics have anything to say about Menzies’ view of this aspect of Chinese history?”

    The Ming dynasty which was reponsible for Zheng He’s voyages succeeded the Yuan (Mongol) dynasty.

    The Ming reacted to the trauma of the whole of China being invaded and conquered by foreigners for the first time in their history by developing a belief in Chinese cultural superiority and a xenophobic hostility otwards the outside world.

    The principal political objective of Zheng He’s voyages was to demonstrate to the folks at home Chinese superiority by adding to the list of tributary kingdoms (states such as Korea and vietnam which paid tribute to China and recognised Chinese supremacy).

    The same motive was behind the contemporaneous military campaigns in Mongolia and Central Asia.

    When the military campaigns ended in disaster, the Chinese state responded by developing the idea that the outside world had nothign to offer China.

    I assume at least some of this was covered in the program.

  18. The wider context of Zheng He’s voyages was that he was a Muslim and that the India ocean was, prior to the arrival of the Portuguese, a Muslim “lake”.
    Circumnavigating around the world is unlikely to have ever been Zheng He’s goal. Visiting Mecca (something he never managed) and trying to get some control over the trade with Africa and India’s southern ports being of far greater importance.

    Indian and Persian ships in those days routinely sailed to China and back. Marco Polo used one of them to sail home on a century earlier.

  19. He personally may have wished to visit Mecca but I don’t think that decided where his expeditions went.

    If a Concord flies from New York to Paris it’s unlike to be because of the pilot’s fondness for French cuisine.

  20. One of the interesting aspects of Ep. 1, which seemed to be based on some actual facts, was the importance of the Muslim presence in China. I had been aware of their importance in Western, inland China, but I had not previously been aware of the existence of large, Islamic, mercantile communities on the Eastern Chinese litteral.

    Clearly, these people looked outward, their imporant trading connections lay beyond China, and as John Hardy, alludes above, their cultural and religious centre lay beyond China.

    The decision of the Confucians to shut the doors and to burn the books must have been extremely traumatic for these people. By these acts they were thoroughly deligitimised by the Empire.

  21. There is, apparently, a whole literature devoted to reconciling Islam and Confucianism and explaining how, for example, venerating the Emperor’s portrait doesn’t contradict the muslim ban on worshipping idols.

    The Ming didn’t engage in widespread book-burning to the best of my knowledge. Also overseas trade continued on a reduced scale and the overland route to Mecca via central Asia was still open.

  22. Look…it is inconceivable that a sailing expedition would round sothern Africa and not continue following the coast but instead head off into nothing. I could, thus, believe an altercation with a Portugese ship further up the coast and can imagine the subsequent press that would have been generated in Iberia. The alternative that this crank flogs is simply not worth the expenditure of breath.

  23. Actually, mike pod, it’s not so far fetched as all that. If the wrong sort of storm came up and drove a ship into the southern latitudes with high winds a ship’s captain might be tempted to run a long way east while waiting for a favourable opportunity to head north. So it’s more likely than (say) St. Brendan’s voyages.

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