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THE NEW YORK TIMES
By John Noble Wilford
February 2, 2003
1421: The Year China Discovered America.
By Gavin Menzies
Illustrated. 552 pp. New York:
William Morrow. $27.95.
WITH verve and unflagging conviction, Gavin Menzies advances a thesis that, if proved, would fundamentally rewrite the history of 15th-century maritime exploration. It is his contention -- a certainty, in his mind -- that Vasco da Gama, Columbus, Magellan and, later, James Cook achieved nothing new. They had not sailed into the unknown; they set out with knowledge and maps handed down from intrepid predecessors, the Chinese. For Menzies declares that between 1421 and 1423, fleets of huge Chinese ships rounded the Cape of Good Hope, reached North and South America, circumnavigated the globe and landed in Australia. The full scope of the world, in short, was a Chinese discovery.
But what is the proof? Ay, there's the rub. In ''1421: The Year China Discovered America,'' Menzies points out the undisputed fact that 15th-century Ming China was the world's foremost naval power. Its shipyards regularly turned out hulking vessels 400 feet long, with as many as nine masts; by contrast, da Gama's largest ship, more than 70 years later, was barely 100 feet long.
By the early part of the century, under the emperor Zhu Di, fleets of these treasure ships and accompanying supply vessels, commanded by eunuch admirals, carried crews, ambassadors and concubines on voyages through the Indian Ocean to Calicut, the Persian Gulf and the east coast of Africa. They distributed fine porcelain and lacquerware and returned with tribute, visiting dignitaries and exotic creatures like giraffes. ''My research confirmed'' these expeditions, Menzies states. Either he was unaware that the voyages are well-documented history or he hoped to lead the unwary into believing that his subsequent research, introduced to support speculation of wider-ranging voyages, likewise rested on a firm foundation. In any case, he should have known that the Ming fleets needed no confirmation. His own bibliography lists an excellent 1994 history of those exploits, ''When China Ruled the Seas,'' by Louise Levathes.
Menzies is at his best retelling the story of the Ming seafarers, notably the remarkable Zheng He. The narrative of court life, political and sexual, and of naval adventures runs through the first quarter of the book, a good example of vivid popular history. But then he proceeds to sail over the edge of recorded knowledge. One can understand the temptation. Questions persist over how much Columbus and other Europeans knew or suspected about the rest of the world before they set sail. Historians acknowledge that perhaps the Chinese would have been the first to ''discover'' America and other distant shores if they had not withdrawn into isolation after the Zheng He period. Or perhaps they were, as Menzies avers, and the record of their achievements was destroyed in a palace fire and by isolationist successors.
Menzies, a retired British submarine commander, writes that he began more than a decade of investigations into the mystery after studying a 1424 map by a Venetian cartographer, Zuane Pizzigano. Four islands drawn in the western Atlantic -- the largest named Antilia -- caught his eye. After further investigation, he writes, this appeared to be ''solid evidence that someone had reached the Caribbean and established a secret colony there 68 years before Columbus.'' The colonists, he assumes, were Chinese. Later in the book, Menzies announces that the Antilia on the map is Puerto Rico -- a ''tremendous breakthrough'' that sent him, he says, ''off into the night in search of a celebratory drink.''
Scholars have long studied the penchant of early mapmakers for sprinkling the Atlantic with islands inspired by legend. Menzies has ignored the Portuguese tale of a bishop, fleeing the Moors in the eighth century, who reached the ''Island of the Seven Cities,'' known as Antilia. Or the one about St. Brendan, an Irish monk, who found his way to a paradise island in the sixth century. Real or mythic, these and other Atlantic islands were believed in before 1421. They were faithfully if erratically mapped, and became magnets drawing European explorers westward. The diligent Menzies has entered as evidence several additional maps, as well as a scattering of shipwrecks, carved stones and other artifacts. He also draws on his own naval expertise in analyzing currents and wind patterns that could have favored the Chinese fleets and describing how cartographers on board were presumably able to chart the latitude and longitude of coastlines.
Granted, a few of the wrecks and artifacts could be genuine Chinese remains, suggesting that small groups indeed reached American shores from time to time. Levathes writes that ''most scholars are generally agreed that there appears to have been at least some Asian influence in the New World before the arrival of Columbus.'' But she does not mention anything about the Ming fleets rounding the Cape of Good Hope or circling the globe. The farthest down the African coast any of the Chinese fleets are certain to have sailed, according to historians, is near Madagascar.
One must read with care how Menzies describes and interprets the archaeological material. Consider his not atypical approach to what appeared to be a wrecked Chinese vessel near San Francisco Bay. ''I was certain that a great treasure fleet had discovered the Pacific coasts of North and South America,'' he writes, ''but my researches failed to uncover conclusive evidence such as the wreck of a Chinese junk.'' He was certain before he had evidence. Then he hears about the California wreck, which a ''local expert,'' now dead, had said 20 years ago was identified ''as of medieval Chinese origin.'' Menzies is also told that a Chinese ''former professor'' had ''provisionally identified'' some seeds in the wreck as Chinese. Even without confirmation of this analysis, Menzies declares that he had his proof of Chinese discovery and, moreover, imagines that some of the crew and their concubines settled there. Their descendants, he continues, could have later blended in with the 19th-century wave of Chinese immigrants.
Nor is Menzies' use of maps reassuring. His principal cartographic evidence seems to be a world map, now lost but said to be derived from Chinese information, that a Portuguese prince obtained in Venice in 1428. The map's existence and contents were reported by a 16th-century Portuguese historian, who appears to have relied on hearsay about the map, which, it was claimed, showed the cape at the southern tip of Africa and the Strait of Magellan at the end of South America. (The ''dragon's taile'' depiction said to be lower South America could actually have been the peninsula of Malaysia, which sometimes went by that term on early European maps.) On such slender evidence, Menzies tells us that Columbus ''knew exactly where he was going.''
But if there was such a map and it showed part of the New World, why does no extant European map of the 15th century contain some trace of the knowledge? If, as Menzies suggests, the Venetian traveler Niccolò da Conti was the source of this Chinese information, why did he not share it when he met with the Vatican and the savants of Florence? If Lisbon alone possessed this knowledge, why did its court act as if it knew nothing of the Chinese discoveries? Why did the Portuguese king reject Columbus's proposed enterprise? Nearly all the other maps introduced in support of the book's thesis were drawn by Europeans after their encounter with the New World. One supposedly pre-Columbian chart is hardly a trump card. Still, Menzies the believer will no doubt gain loyal followers who, reversing the usual practice of scholarship, will seek to shift the burden of proof and demand that skeptical historians now convince them that an epic surge of Chinese global exploration in 1421-23 did not happen as claimed in this book.
Some of the circumstantial evidence gathered by Menzies is suggestive, but hardly conclusive. It shows that the Chinese may well have made many landfalls unrecorded in surviving documents, places Europeans would not see for decades or centuries. Given their known voyages among the islands off Southeast Asia, it would not be surprising to learn that the Chinese had reached Australia long before Cook. But Menzies has yet to make a compelling case. To lump together all the assorted findings, most of undetermined dates and provenance, and argue that much of this exploration was accomplished in one sweep is an incredible stretch. It is unlikely that all the emperor's ships and all the emperor's admirals, for all their vaunted capabilities, could have put together concerted expeditions of the scope ascribed to them in ''1421: The Year China Discovered America.''
John Noble Wilford, a senior science writer for The Times, has written books on the history of mapmaking and the enduring mysteries of Columbus.