Society for the History of Discoveries

Menzies, Gavin.  1421:  The Year China Discovered America.  New York:  William Morrow, 2002.  xix, 552 p.  ISBN 0060537639.

     Our Society is one whose subject-matter invites contentious debate, and there have been plenty of these controversies down the years.  They seem to concern two particular themes:  how are early maps to be interpreted, and who landed where?  One thinks of the Vinland map, of the maps of the “ancient sea kings,” of Columbus in the West Indies, of Drake on the Pacific coast, and so forth.  Gavin Menzies has now produced a book which relies heavily on both these themes, with their ample opportunity for controversy.

     His thesis is that the Chinese of the early fifteenth century sent “treasure fleets” all over the world, penetrating not only into the South Atlantic Ocean, but also around the northern coasts of Greenland and Russia.  The reader’s initial apprehension is not calmed by learning - again in time-honored fashion - that scholars have remained ignorant of these voyages because imperial bureaucrats made sure that all mention of them was destroyed (p. 81).  And yet, this initial apprehension is not altogether confirmed by the pages which follow.  Menzies has attempted to tease out the meanings of many maps familiar to our readers, and in particular those of Fra Mauro, Piri Reis, Jean Rotz and Pizzigano.  His faith in the Vinland map seems curiously misplaced, but he has interesting things to say about some of the other cartographic material.

     It has of course long been accepted, since the work of Joseph Needham, that an immense Chinese fleet penetrated the Indian Ocean and many of its coasts during the 1420s.  What is not so well known is that Needham anticipated Menzies in his belief that there was much evidence of an early Chinese presence on the west coast of the Americas, though Needham did not explicitly relate this presence to the 1420s.  1421 offers evidence to confirm this idea of Needham’s,  though it too does not succeed in dating this presence.  The book is much less strong on the Caribbean and on the east coast of North America, where such discouraging evidence as that on the “Bimini Road” and the “Rhode island tower” come into play; it is frankly fantastical in affirming that Chinese fleets sailed in the 1420s round the coast of Greenland and along the arctic coast of Russia.

     This book, given its ambitious and misleading title, will no doubt sell well.  But from the point of view of serious students, Menzies would have done well to take just one of his geographical areas, and then to present his evidence in a systematic and complete way, setting out those arguments that run counter to his thesis as well as those that support it.  The idea of continuing the dialogue on the internet is a good one, but the contributions will need to be severely screened and assessed if they are to do anything but confirm a good deal of special pleading and wishful thinking.

David Buisseret

The University of Texas at Arlington

Society for the History of Discoveries home page

All Original Material, Translations and HTML Coding Copyright © The Society for the History of Discoveries 1999 - 2004. All rights reserved.