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How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America

How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America

By Robert Finlay

Journal of World History, Volume 15, Number 2 (2004)

Abstract: In 1421: The Year China Discovered America, Gavin Menzies claims that several Chinese fleets sailed around the world, charting sea coasts, founding colonies, and creating a global maritime empire. Moreover, he argues that these Chinese exploits shaped European map making, thereby inspiring Portuguese overseas discoveries and the rise of the West. The author’s attempt to rewrite world history, however, is based on a hodgepodge of circular reasoning, bizarre speculation, distorted sources, and slapdash research. In reality, the voyages described did not take place, Chinese exploration did not influence European cartography, and there is no evidence of the Chinese fleets in the Americas.

Introduction: In 1421: The Year China Discovered America (2002), Gavin Menzies aspires to rewrite world history on a grand scale. He maintains that four Chinese fleets, comprising twenty-five to thirty ships and at least 7,000 persons each, visited every part of the world except Europe between 1421 and 1423. Trained by Zheng He, the famous eunuch admiral, Chinese captains carried out the orders of Zhu Di (r. 1402-1424), the third Ming emperor, to map coastlines, settle new territories, and establish a global maritime empire. According to Menzies, proof of the passage of the Ming fleets to the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, and Polynesia is overwhelming and indisputable. His “index of supporting evidence” (pp. 429-462) includes thousands of items from the fields of archaeology, cartography, astronomy, and anthropology; his footnotes and bibliography include publications in Chinese, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, German, Arabic, and Hebrew.

Menzies claims that Chinese mariners explored the islands of Cape Verde, the Azores, the Bahamas, and the Falklands; they established colonies in Australia, New Zealand, British Columbia, California, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island; they introduced horses to the Americas, rice to California, chickens to South America, coffee to Puerto Rico, South American sloths to Australia, sea otters to New Zealand, and maize to the Philippines. In addition, Chinese seamen toured the temples and palaces of the Maya center of Palenque in Mexico, hunted walruses and smelted copper in Greenland, mined for lead and saltpeter in northern Australia, and established trading posts for diamonds along the Amazon and its tributaries.

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