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Is Gavin Menzies Right or Wrong?

Every college world history textbook discusses the early 15th c. CE Chinese naval expeditions, commissioned by the Ming Emperor Zhu Di and commanded by the legendary admiral Zheng He, that sailed as far as East Africa and the Red Sea. Indeed, one of the favorite themes of the history subgenre known as alternative history is: why didn't these Chinese flotillas beat the Portuguese and Spanish to the New World--and what if they had?

Gavin Menzies, a former British Royal Navy officer, argues in the bestseller 1421: The Year China Discovered America, that squadrons from Zheng He's fleets, between 1421 and 1423, did indeed get to the Americas first--as well as to Greenland, Antarctica, Australia and New Zealand. Unfortunately for supporters of this theory, he offers no proof, only a great deal of circumstantial evidence marred by questionable scholarship.

Menzies has no "smoking gun" that proves his theory-- because the xenophobic Confucian officials who advised the later Ming emperors destroyed all records of these sea voyages. So he relies upon three types of evidence. First, Menzies claims that Chinese maps from as early as 1428, allegedly showing parts of North and South America and some Atlantic islands, were used by European explorers (including Columbus) when they started their own voyages decades later. Second, he adduces allegedly tangible evidence of pre-Columbian contact between Asia and the Americas, such as: flora and fauna (maize, sweet potatoes, Asiatic chickens, coconuts) that must have been transported by humans; "DNA evidence" that links American Indians to the Chinese; wrecks of Chinese ships and medieval Chinese anchors found in California. Third, Menzies relies upon, and constantly reminds the reader of, his own naval expertise which gives him a mystical understanding that landlubbers lack; for example, "if I was able to state with confidence the course a Chinese fleet had taken, it was because...my own knowledge of the winds, currents, and sea conditions they faced told me the route as surely as if there had been a written record of it" (p. 83).

Authors that aim to rewrite 500 years of accepted history should rely less on subjective claims and more on hard evidence. And this is where Menzies ultimately fails to persuade. First, he does not read Chinese and thus cites no primary sources--a problem even if one accepts that the records were all destroyed. Even more fatal to his argument, Menzies often fails to provide corroborating data for many of his claims. To cite just four examples, he: never provides the DNA evidence supposedly linking the American Indians and Chinese; fails to document the discovery of Chinese anchors off the coast of California; appeals to unspecified "local experts," as when arguing that remains of 15th century Chinese shipwrecks have been found in New Zealand; and says that a Taiwanese museum's copy of a Chinese map allegedly showing Australia and Tasmania "unfortunately...has been lost." Questionable speculative leaps are also Menzies's stock-in-trade, as when claiming that the inscription on a stone column in the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa's western coast) is in Maylayam, a language of South India, and that this proves the Chinese were there. Yet why would a Chinese fleet admiral order a message inscribed in a language other than Chinese? And sometimes Menzies just plain contradicts himself, as when he asserts that "sea levels in 1421 were lower than today" (p. 257) because of modern global warming, but then later claims "Greenland was circumnavigable in 1421-2, for...the climate...was far warmer than it is today" (p. 306).

As I tell my college world history students, the most likely candidate for future world domination in1400 certainly would have been China, with its huge oceangoing ships backed up by a sophisticated, prosperous and powerful state. However, that did not come to pass. Even if Menzies were right about the Chinese discovery of the New World--and there are tantalizing aspects to his thesis, such as the strangely accurate pre-Columbian maps of parts of the Atlantic, as well as the biological evidence of pre-Columbian Old and New World contacts--that would not change the fact that it was the Europeans who colonized the new lands and came to dominate the globe. Ultimately, however, Menzies's presentation in 1421 is much like that delivered at the United Nations recently by Secretary of State Powell regarding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction: convincing only to true believers and leaving others at best, in the words of the old hymn, "almost persuaded."

This article first appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution and is reprinted with permission.