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British Author Gavin Menzies' TalkAsia Interview Transcript

Airdate: August 28th 2004

VP: Veronica Pedrosa
GM: Gavin Menzies


This week on TalkAsia former British navy commander turned amateur historian, who's challenging centuries old theories. This is Talkasia.

(VP) Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Veronica Pedrosa, sitting in for Lorraine Hahn. British author Gavin Menzies is our guest this week. When his controversial book "1421, The Year China Discovered the World" was first released in 2002, it was lambasted by book critics and historians alike. Menzies boldly claimed that there's overwhelming evidence the Chinese discovered America 70 years before Christopher Columbus, and that it was the Chinese who first circumnavigated the globe, a whole century before Ferdinand Magellan. He spent over a decade researching and gathering evidence, visiting 900 museums across 120 countries. He has consulted multiple scientists and historians along the way. Today, the 66 year old says new evidence is emerging to further support his claim. His theory is still being hotly debated. But here's a man who's not afraid to challenge history and has dedicated the latter part of his life in pursuit of his new-found passion, despite the odds. Gavin Menzies is here with me now to discuss more on his book and theories, including of course your latest findings - and there have been several - even since the book has been published.

(GM) Well Veronica that's quite right. The basis of my book was that I said or I claimed that all of the greatest explorers, that is Magellan, Columbus, Da Gama, Diasque and Captain Cook - every single one of them had a map showing them the way to the new world. Columbus had a map showing him the way to the Caribbean. Magellan had a map showing him the way through the straits of Magellan and across The Pacific. Da Gama had a map of South Africa and so on. And I argued that the Portuguese claimed that they had a master chart of the world, which they had obtained from abroad and they brought it to Portugal in the 1420s, I said that was true. And I could refer to the diaries and records of each individual explorer, and I argued in my book that only the Chinese could have chartered the world before the Europeans because only the Chinese had sufficient ships and expertise to do it. I started with a huge fleet which sailed from China in 1421 and nobody knew where they went. They disappeared for five years - hundreds of ships sailed from China and then just disappeared -- to where? Because all of the records were supposedly destroyed in China, there was a revolution in effect after the fleet sailed and the Mandarins destroyed everything. So we started off with absolutely nothing. Now that's how my book started and this massive flood of evidence, which has come in day after day after day, has created a completely new scenario.

(VP) I wonder how your discoveries have been received. I know there have been mixed responses, and what you think the response should be, what did you want to do?

(GM) Well let me answer, it's a very good question, let me answer your question rather bluntly. My book was previewed by historians in Europe, and before it was published, you send it out to reviewers the book, and the Sunday newspapers in England have a sort of table of five star book, four star book, three star book, two star book, one star book or a dustbin -- bin it. And historians who read my book, virtually all of them to start with, when it came out, put "a dustbin". So we had this almost unique scenario with all the historians saying don't read this book. Then about a sixth of these professional historians wrote a really vitriolic article and it went on page after page after page hacking my book, and then extraordinarily enough that meant sales took off because the ordinary readers thought, well what is this? Here is an unknown nobody, writing a book, why should all these distinguished historians vent their spleen page after page attacking him about a subject we know nothing about? So after that sales took off

(VP) Did you expect this to be the response? Is that what you wanted to happen?

(GM) What I wanted to happen was that people recognize its true, I wrote the book believing everything that I said is true. Now regrettably it's turned out that we've made mistakes, and essentially our mistakes are that I was too cautious and conservative all the way through. I said 100 ships sailed: its going to turn out to nearer 2000 ships. I said Zheng He discovered the whole world himself, and its going to turn out that actually he used earlier charts cause we found a whole lot of charts, not only of Zheng He himself, his voyages of 1421, 1424, but we found that he himself had earlier charts that Kubla Khan's fleet actually created. So Kubla Kahn -- and this is unknown to Chinese historians, unknown to European historians -- but Kubla Khan chartered most of the world, and as I say, recently we've found Kubla Khan's charts as well as Zheng He's charts so we can show that they reached the Americas, Australasia, across The Pacific, Europe and so on.

(VP) And this is going to be part of the new evidence that is going to be included in the new edition of the book?

(GM) Yes it will.

(VP) Right, and what do you have to support this evidence, how do you back it up?

(GM) Well, new evidence for example. In my book I claimed that there must have been a master chart of the world that all the European explorers had parts of or excerpts, well we've actually found it. Now this master chart of the world is in two parts, of the eastern hemisphere and the western hemisphere. And the eastern hemisphere part, the map was published in Venice in 1410, and it was published after Zheng He's fleets reached Europe. Now Chinese historian, European historians have poo- pooed the idea that Zheng He's fleets reached Europe, but we've found records in official Chinese history -- the Ming Chee -- the official Chinese History says that Zheng He's fleets in 1408 reached the Mediterranean, and they reached the Mediterranean by sailing up the Red Sea and coming through the Red Sea Nile canal. So Zheng He's fleet came to the Mediterranean and they exchanged information with the Europeans and two years after Zheng He arrived in the Mediterranean, this master chart was produced. And there it is, it was published in 1410 in Venice and it shows quite accurately and correctly, it shows the whole of Africa and this was before any of the Europeans set off to explore Africa. It shows the Cape of Good Hope 70 years before Da Gama got to the Cape of Good Hope. It shows Australia 270 years -- 300 years before Captain Cook got there, it shows Japan, Siberia, the Antarctica, it's absolutely, brilliantly, in my view produced. You can see the whole of the eastern hemisphere instantaneously.

(VP) What a brilliant discovery, and it took an amateur to do it.

(GM) Well I didn't discover it, I might say (VP: Sorry). I discovered virtually nothing. A man called Dr. Goona Thompson, who was then a professor at the University of Hawaii, he found it or he discovered where it was and he told me through our website.

(VP) All right, Up next on TalkAsia - How a fateful trip to China, triggered the book "1421" -a decade later. More with British author Gavin Menzies, after the break.

Block B

(VP) Welcome back to TalkAsia. Gavin Menzies had traveled the world as a successful British submarine commander, but he decided to quit in the early seventies over policy issues. He spent the next decade or so not doing much! But all that changed in the early 1990s when he traveled to China with his wife Marcella, to celebrate their silver anniversary. My understanding is that the year 1421, that year, kept coming up, and that's what led you to this chronicle.

(GM) That's absolutely right Veronica: I didn't set out to change anything, to turn history upside down or put it right way up -- whichever way you want to look at it. Marcella and I exactly as you say we went to China to celebrate our silver wedding. We went to the Forbidden City. And we arrived on a beautiful cold New Year's Eve. It was a fabulous evening, bitterly cold, but there were dragon processions and lion dances and people belching fire through heir mouths and it was a fabulous evening. And at the end of the evening we said to our guide - when was this great Forbidden City completed and she said -- New Year's Day 1421. And earlier in the day we'd been on The Great Wall, again a bitterly cold but a beautiful day, and that part of the great wall had also been completed in 1421. The day after we'd been to the Forbidden City we went to The Temple of Heaven and we asked -- when was that completed, and again the guide said -- 1421. So I got really interested in 1421, and our guide told us, that the emperor had sent this vast sail of ships to collect the emperor's potentates and bring them to Beijing to inaugurate the New Year's Day in the Forbidden City 1421. So I decided to research that year.

(VP ) Right so you became fascinated with that date, with what happened in that year. But how does that become a decade long quest in the end it was, right? (Yes it was) Before you published the book?

(GM) You're quite right Veronica. What I found was, when we got home from the Forbidden City back in 1990 - well I thought - I'll see what's happening in England in 1421 in that same month, February. I looked up English historical records and I found it was a very important month in England because England and France had been locked in The 100 Years War. Both countries had been made bankrupt, or very nearly bankrupt, and the great warrior Henry V of England, decided he would unite France and England and bring the war to an end. He would unite France and England by marrying the beautiful young princess Catherine de Valoir. I could compare the feast of Catherine de Valoir's coronation in London in 1421 with the feast of the Forbidden City in February 1421. I could see how 26 000 people in China could eat or banquet off beautiful plates whereas the King in England in that same month could only afford 'salt cod' and there weren't any plates -- they ate off slabs of stale bread which acted as plates. England was absolutely tiny, compared to China, and I though this was very interesting.

(VP) So could you say that you were fascinated with the misconception, as it were, with the Western interpretation of history? That western civilization was somehow more advanced than that of the East?

(GM) Absolutely Veronica. The more I went into Europe in 1421 compared to Asia and China in 1421 the more I realized that Europe in 1421 was a tiny fragmented continent. Emerging into the Renaissance admittedly, but still very very poor compared to China.

(VP) It's hard to embark on historical research of any kind and in the end your search took you around the world to several continents and museums as we said, several hundred museums. (GM: Yes it did). Wasn't that difficult to find the financing, just ordinary kind of roadblocks?

(GM) Yes well my wife financed me over the years.

(VP) Behind every good man, as they say....

(GM) She's been very successful: she's got a business center, which provides the cash, so she financed it for 10 years or so. I'm indebted to her.

(VP) What about your background as a submarine commander, I was interested to read in the book that when it came to looking at the maps, it kind of became easier for you to puzzle out what they were trying to say?

(GM) Well that's absolutely right Veronica. You see in a submarine you look through a periscope, and what you see through a periscope is very different to what appears on a map. Now I can give you a couple of examples. Supposing you are passing a couple of islands, and in the foreground are low islands, and in the background are some high islands. What you see is not a group of islands but a solid block of land because the low islands in the foreground you can't see the sea in between. And so it looks like you're seeing a parabola, if you like, of islands. So when I look at the chart of the Caribbean which was published in 1424 there were parabolic islands and I thought to myself - I wonder if that was a group of islands with low islands in the foreground, high islands in the background so I looked and I realized instantly -- it was the islands of Les Sante - which are a group of islands so I could use that experience to see how maps were drawn up and the same with using astronomical evidence.

(VP) What's your personal sense of your accomplishment now? Do you feel a sense of achievement or do you want to push forward?

(GM) -- Well any achievement is down to others. I sold a pretty dry tale of 140 pages and they expanded it: they put colour in it and made it readable. My book, which I sold, wasn't really readable. So I'm indebted to Transworld. I'm also indebted to our website -- everyday there's more than a 1000 people either write or email or visit our website and they have ideas, and they've brought the evidence. It's the readers of my book to whom I'm also indebted. They have also changed history.

(VP) But not all of those readers have been appreciative as you mentioned. You've had some pretty vitriolic criticism. So what was your personal response to that, how did you feel about it?

(GM) Well with the historians -- I wasn't worried; I was a 100% certain I was right. But I was very concerned with what readers would think and in the early days there was some pretty vitriolic criticism. As the evidence has come in and gone on to the website and more and more people accept I am right, and now out of the 1000 people that come in on the website, 99.4% accept that the central thrust of my book is absolutely correct: that the Europeans did not discover the New World, the Chinese did. But they also -- many of them -- have differences, disagreements, on certain aspects of the story, and I welcome that. If people disagree on North West Australia or Southeast Sumatra or wherever they bring new evidence to say why. So incorporate all that in, so it's an endlessly evolving story.

(VP) We'll leave it there for just a minute and we'll take a break. Just ahead on TalkAsia: what's next for Gavin Menzies and his theories.

Block C

(VP) Welcome back to TalkAsia and our conversation with British author Gavin Menzies. His book "1421 -- The Year China Discovered the World" has been translated into dozens of languages and sold millions of copies worldwide. Gavin, you mentioned just a few moments ago that China is the next frontier, because interestingly, and ironically enough in China, is where your theories, as expounded in "1421", have been the place where they have been the least accepted.

(GM) That is correct. I think its fair to say Chinese readers... my book so far has only been printed in complex character version, in Taiwan, but Chinese readers accept and are, I think it is fair to say, excited about my book. Chinese historians have been completely against it so the next phase is really to try and agree a way forward. Now my argument goes like this: the official view of Chinese historians or the implicit view is that all these records were destroyed: there were no records of Zheng He's voyages. Now this is completely untrue. We've found about 26 records and charts and some of them -- I accept -- are in a form that people find very difficult to understand because Chinese charts are in a strip form. But we can show that at the very least its arguable that China's own records certainly say that Zheng He's fleet certainly got to Europe. They certainly say Zheng He's fleet got to Australia.

(VP) Why is it so difficult for Chinese historians to even consider this theory?

(GM) Well I'd have to ask Chinese historians to answer that. But what I do say is that it is impossible to continue to argue that the records are destroyed: they're clearly not destroyed. Now we've learnt in the past couple of days from a very distinguished collector of maps, that many of these records are in the library of the Forbidden City, in boxes which have never been opened and searched. There are literally hundreds of boxes of the Emperor Zhu Di's records. So I hope that the Chinese government will say it is necessary to resolve this question of who's right -- of whether I am right or their historians are right, by having these boxes opened and searched and naturally I'm convinced they'll show full details of Zheng He's voyages.

(VP) How do you go about putting forth your argument, persuading people?

(GM) Well that is the $100 question I really don't know and I'm asking advice here in Hong Kong from everyone I can!

(VP) But your intention is not merely to prove them wrong right?

(GM) My intention is to show that everything I've said in my book is correct. And, furthermore, going on from that, to say that the Chinese people don't realize what they've got in this admiral: I mean he was a genius. Not only in commanding ships for 26 years, commanding a huge fleet for 26 years, but his genius really lay in getting the best out of people, different nationalities. There was a very big Japanese contingent in his fleet, big Korean contingents, Tamils, Southern Indians, he recruited European captains, European navigators and cartographers, Arabic astronomers... It was a multinational fleet, which he created, and he led. Brilliant achievement. And the second thing that Chinese people don't really understand is the importance to the West of what Zheng He achieved because Zheng He created the Master chart of the world which Europeans used to find the New World. And when they got there they found Chinese settlements: North America, South America. And this was because those seamen who were left behind on Zheng He's fleets, for one reason or another, stayed on, and continued their settlements, and continued trade. So the third thing Zheng He did was to build a multinational trading empire linking North America and the Philippines, South America and Australia, Australia and China, China and the Indian Ocean. So a global trading network was actually created by these Chinese fleets, which again the Europeans were able to completely take over when they got to the New World. And the last huge achievement of Zheng He achieved was that he transplanted very useful economic crops from one continent to another.

(VP) So in your view not only a man who explored, who chartered the world but also one who shaped the modern world?

(GM) I think in many ways he did help to create the modern world, yes.

(VP) And changed your life in a way as well (they both laugh). Gavin Menizes thank you very much for joining us on TalkAsia.

(GM) Thank you very much for inviting me.

(VP) British author Gavin Menzies. A man who's following his passion and challenging history despite the odds. And that's TalkAsia this week, do be sure to check out our website at for upcoming guests, and you can let us know who you'd like to see on the show: that address is Thank you very much for joining us, I'm Veronica Pedrosa.

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