Gavin Menzies: What Historians at the AHA Made of His Claim that the Chinese Discovered America

Roundup: Talking About History

Ken Ringle, writing in the Wash Post (Jan. 12, 2004):

If the Chinese discovered America before Columbus , wouldn't they have hungered an hour later to discover someplace else? This is only one of the galaxy of intriguing questions provoked by Gavin Menzies, a former submarine commander in the British Royal Navy, who since retirement has submerged himself in the maps and mysteries of China 's short-lived and little-known age of nautical exploration.

Last year he hit the New York Times bestseller list with a 550-page book asserting (with a fair amount of rhetorical arm-waving) that a fleet of Chinese treasure ships led by a eunuch admiral named Zheng He reached the New World 71 years ahead of Columbus and, just for good measure, circumnavigated the globe, discovered how to calculate longitude and maybe even stumbled upon Antarctica as well.

Saturday at the Omni Shoreham, as part of the American Historical Association's annual meeting, Menzies defended his sensational thesis before a politely skeptical audience by proclaiming yet more groundbreaking developments in the story. New genetic studies, he asserted, show the Chinese colonized everywhere from New Zealand to Oregon and left traces of their DNA in such isolated locales as the Azores, Greenland and Scotland's Outer Hebrides islands.

No one fluent in DNA methodology was on hand to examine, much less challenge his latest claims, and the historians did their best to remain unprovoked in the face of Menzies' less-than-critical, grab-bag approach to every e-mailed rumor that might tend to buttress his case -- even when the author breezily confessed to deliberately oversimplifying his argument "so the book would sell," adding, "I wanted huge sales and a lot of money" to finance continued research.

John E. Wills Jr. of the University of Southern California said he usually found books like Menzies' "1421: The Year China Discovered America" "entertaining and generally harmless." But, he said, since the author's "notorious" 2002 lecture before the Royal Geographic Society in London and its subsequent dissemination by the BBC, Menzies has been trumpeting more and more purported evidence for his argument with little apparent regard for its reliability or its context.

Chinese chickens in South America, Chinese stone anchors off Los Angeles and third-hand reports of ancient "yellow" visitors in Mexico have all been put forward by Menzies as proof that he knows what he's talking about. "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link," Wills told the audience, and Menzies' links of evidence "are amazingly varied in quality."

Yet the author's dismayingly unscholarly methodology does not necessarily mean that he's wrong, Wills said. Professional historians should welcome the questions raised by the "obsessed amateur," such as Menzies, he said, because they help focus public attention on debates that might otherwise remain arcane disputes in academia.

What helps make Menzies' arguments so intriguing, said Valerie Hansen of Yale University , is that Adm. Zheng He really did exist. His extraordinary voyages, though little known generally in the West, are painstakingly documented in the official chronicles of the Ming Dynasty, for which they apparently were intended to provide proof of divine validation.

Zhu Di, the third Ming emperor (1403-24), was in fact a usurper, she said: a kind of Chinese Macbeth who instead of stabbing his 25-year-old nephew, the legitimate ruler, burnt him alive in the palace after a four-year civil war. To convince the Chinese people that he was really only acting out his destiny, Zhu, who also built Beijing and its famous Forbidden City , dispatched Zheng He on seven trading voyages to bring back exotic animals such as lions and giraffes, whose arrival, according to Chinese mythology, signals divine approval.

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irgen roar iversen - 2/12/2005

Dear all,

I belive Mr. Menzies claims that the Chinese discovered America is an interesting story, but not much more than that, he has very little to show for evidence to back his teory.

Also, it is defenately WRONG, as EVEN if they came to America a few years before Columbus they was not there first. It is proven beyond ANY doubt that the Vikings arrived in America approximately 400 years before Mr. Menzies claims that the Chinese did. Archeological discoveries (hard facts) is found all over New Foundland and all the way down to the state of N.Y. The Vikings voyages and settlements are also detailed described in the "Greenland Saga" which is a very well preserved document from the Viking age.

And of course the Indians was there already when any of the above mentioned arrived there for the first time.

all the best

James Fowler - 1/28/2004

Re- 1421.

Bah! humbug! Washington Post!
The views of irate historians are interesting but hardly essential in this instance. It shouldn't be too burdensome a task for any reader to refer to an ordinary atlas and thereby detect some of the flaws in the book '1421'.

There are a considerable number of clues to warn the impartial reader that there are hoaxers about! (References to a movable equator or confused navigational ramblings in the Southern ocean might not raise the suspicions of every reader but those with access to a calculator could easily work out the absurd logistics involved in the assertion that 'thousands of cavalry horses' were transported around the oceans in fifteenth century sailing vessels.)

A quote from the article states that "The author's dismayingly unscholarly methodology does not necessarily mean that he is wrong. Professional historians should welcome the questions raised by the 'obsessed amateur' such as Menzies because they help focus public attention on debates that might otherwise remain arcane disputes in academia."

Oh really? By the same logic, purveyors of junk food must be in the business of focusing public attention on healthy eating and the finer points of international cuisine!

Apart from unscholarly methodology, the book is condescending and casually insults the competence of Chinese seafarers. Chinese seamen were neither foolish nor suicidal.
They may well have undertaken voyages of exploration across uncharted seas but they certainly would not done that in a dimwitted fashion.
They would not have burdened themselves with giant floating palaces, nor would they have carried thousands of useless mouths to be fed on the voyage.
Row, row, row your boat merrily down the stream, may be just fine for nursery rhymes but the complex streams of oceanic currents demand a little more professionalism.
Chinese seafarers had that professionalism and it's insulting to suggest that they would have organised voyages in the reckless, inefficient, manner described in the book.