Did the Chinese discover America?
New book asserts a different version of history
By Adam Dunn
NEW YORK (CNN) -- In his new book, "1421: The Year China Discovered America" (William Morrow), Gavin Menzies claims that a massive Chinese fleet of huge junks and support ships made a two-year circumnavigation of the globe, with extensive exploration of the Americas, nearly a century before Magellan and Columbus.
Needless to say, his assertion has raised an international flurry of debate.
The book has already garnered mixed reviews from the British media, as well as skeptical articles from The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.
Menzies is unfazed by the reviews. Indeed, even he was surprised at the results of his research, he said in an interview in the New York offices of his American publisher, Morrow.
"It was a complete freak," the author said. Menzies, a former Royal Navy submarine commander, is a soft-spoken and diminutive presence, not at all the obsessive eccentric he's been painted in the press.
While on an anniversary trip to China with his wife, Menzies recalled, he became fascinated with the history of the Great Wall and the Forbidden City, coincidentally completed in 1421. Delving further, Menzies found himself enmeshed in a 10-year research project on the instigators of the two monumental constructions, the Chinese emperor Zhu Di and his nemesis, the Mongol Tamerlane.
Then, while vetting the manuscript (which would have been titled "Two Emperors on Horseback") among historians, Menzies learned of a Portuguese chart, dating from 1424, depicting islands in the Caribbean.
"So here was a Portuguese claim that the whole world had been charted 70 years before Columbus. By whom?" Menzies said. He matter-of-factly presents the answer. "I looked at other charts, and found it was the Chinese. So I abandoned my book, and started this one.
"At the time," he added, "I was really brassed off (angry) about it."
Challenging the consensus
The book draws on Menzie's navigational experience, as well as the findings of a team of experts he assembled to collate and decipher an ever-growing body of multilingual, cartographic, and biological evidence.
As with any epic, "1421" begins with a history lesson. In the year of the title, the emperor Zhu Di ordered the dispatch of a fleet of treasure ships to bring back tribute to his kingdom. According to Menzies' findings, an armada of 800 massive junks set sail in the spring to return delegates who had attended the Forbidden City's inauguration to their nations, and to explore, map and bring tribute from the uncharted reaches beyond the horizons.
Menzies focuses on a fortuitous synchronicity: the presence of a Venetian trader named Niccolo da Conti, who met with the Chinese in the southwest Indian trading hub of Calicut. Da Conti made detailed records of his contact. By Menzies' reckoning, it was da Conti who corroborated the thesis that Chinese junks rounded the Cape of Good Hope, westward bound for points unknown.
Such synchronicity followed Menzies as his research took him deeper along the Chinese trade routes. He retraced the junks' routes around the globe and found shoreside marker stones, carved in a host of Asian languages, all over the world.
Other discoveries convinced him he was on the right track: Sunken junks provided evidence of Chinese-speaking peoples in the pre-Columbian New World (backed, the author claims, by anthropological evidence supported by carbon-dating and DNA analysis). So did the presence of Chinese-introduced species.
"I started off with all sorts of peripheral information," he recalled. "The first Europeans who came to the Americas found Chinese chickens, rice, Chinese porcelain and jade, they found Chinese-speaking peoples. I put all that information on a map, and then I decided to look at the accounts of the first European explorers. ... Now, I put this team together, and they have been translating into English, for the first time, the complete accounts of these European explorers. They found Chinese people everywhere. California, Mexico, Arkansas, Florida and so on. And they found not only Chinese people, but Chinese junks. So I say, that's it. Game, set and match for me." (A complete collation of these accounts can be viewed on the book's website, www.1421.tv.)
Historians range from dismissive to troubled regarding Menzies' determinations.
"He has not, unfortunately, discovered anything new," Chinese historian Louise Levathes told Salon.com. "What he's done is to present it in a jumbled manner so you have no idea what's going on and what the time frames are."
Other experts were taking a wait-and-see attitude. "There's a definite logic to his analysis," Phillip Sadler, a celestial navigation expert at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told Space.com.
Menzies presented his findings in a talk at the Royal Geographical Society in London roughly 18 months ago (which an article in Salon.com cites as an affair rented by the author himself). By coincidence, Menzies said, a Chinese TV crew was in London and beamed the talk to China. Reaction was then picked up by CBS and ABC, he said.
"So, by a complete freak of luck, I had a worldwide audience for my talk. This resulted in a torrent of information which helped me enormously," he said. "I got literally thousands of letters asking, did I know about this or that. For instance, a walnut farmer from around Sacramento [California] rang me up and said, 'I've got a Chinese junk in my backyard which predated Columbus, and my family's known about it for 50 years.' It was subsequently investigated and it turns out it is a junk. That's happened all over the world."
Indeed, after giving lectures in China, he was shocked to have his findings corroborated by two Chinese professors who had had no prior contact with him, and whose research provided hard evidence supporting a Chinese-Brazil connection dating from 1511 and earlier. One of the conferences sifted through the additional material.
"The conference was stumped," Menzies said. 'The conference split into three groups, each taking a third of my evidence and trawled through it, and after three days they said, 'If only half of your evidence is true, it's unarguable that China got to the Americas before the Europeans did.' "
At the least, Menzies' work will prompt new research of his findings, whether they're corroborated or debunked. And he's not finished yet, he said -- especially with the response he's gotten to his book, already topping best-seller lists in the UK and U.S.
"I've got a team that does nothing else but analyze this incoming stream," he said.