Thursday, April 06, 2006

Pre-Columbian colonies in the New World and other bold assertions 1421 : The Year China Discovered America: Books: Gavin Menzies:
"OVER TEN YEARS AGO I STUMBLED UPON AN INCREDIBLE discovery, a clue hidden in an ancient map which, though it did not lead to buried treasure, suggested that the history of the world as it has been known and handed down for centuries would have to be radically revised."

I just finished reading the 2004 US trade paper edition of 1421 and it is fascinating. There is little room for doubt that the Chinese ranged over most of the world during a very brief period of exploration and, perhaps unintentional, colonization in the early part of the 15th century under the Ming dynasty.

The book is not without its shortcomings, but most of the hyper-critical reviews I read at Amazon seem not to have read the book very closely. It is unfortunate that the Publishers Weekly and Booklist reviews refer only to the prior hardcover edition as the newer paperback includes substantial new material.

The author, Gavin Menzies, spent 17 years in the Royal Navy rising to the command of a nuclear submarine. He adopts what is, for an experienced sailor, a very different method of attacking the problem of what happened on the last great seafaring expedition of Ming dynasty China from what we would expect of an academic historian. In fact, his approach is perhaps the only way this story could begin to be revealed to the scholarly community.

The third Ming emperor Zhu Di had sent his ships throughout the long-established Chinese trade routes to India, Arabia, East Africa, etc. to invite heads of state or their ambassadors to join in the celebration of the construction of his new capital at Beijing. After suitable ceremonies, a great fleet under the command of his favorite court eunuch Admiral Zheng De departed with a fleet of hundreds of ships to convoy the dignitaries back to their own countries.

Shortly after they sailed, the emperor faced a crisis in the imperial finances, oppostition from the mandarin class who ruled the domestic bureaucracy and resented the eunuchs who controlled the military power and foreign affairs, and unrest among the people over the taxes needed for his naval extravaganza. In the midst of this, lightining set the new imperial capital afire and burned much of Beijing - the Chinese of all classes (even Zhu Di himself) regarded this as a very bad omen. The emperor withdrew from public life and turned the administration over to his son.

The reaction against Shu Di's policies was so vehement that China not only gave up its ambition to be a seagoing military power, it also turned its back several centuries of lucrative trade with the Spice Islands, India and Arabia. As the various parts of Zheng He's fleet straggled home, their officers were cashiered and their ships left to rot. The mandarins even insisted that all records of the great fleet's accomplishment's be burned - and very little has survived in China.

This is why I think Menzies' approach is the only way one could make progress on the mystery of what all those ships were doing for over two years (some authorities state the last of the ships returned after as much as four years at sea). You can't investigate this voyage as you would, say, the HMS Bounty where you have a wealth of official records, diaries, etc.

Menzies starts with what facts are clearly established, beginning with the date the fleet sailed from China and where it was heading and, when the documentary evidence peters out he uses his knowledge of winds, currents and the sailing characteristics of the Chinese ships to work out where they could have gone. The great square-prowed Chinese ships with their rigid, square-rigged sales could not sail into the wind; this helps to narrow the choices available to them at many points.

Having plotted where they could get to, Menzies looks for evidence that they got there. And, remarkably, he finds a lot of evidence. This includes wrecked ships of the right age and type, small step-pyramids of a type known to have been constructed in China and Japan at the same period to aid in astronomical observations to help construct more accurate sailing charts, stone buildings in places where the natives never worked in stone, inscriptions on rocks at prominent places such as the point on the Congo River at which oceangoing vessels must turn back.

Menzies also finds charts in the hands of various European maritime powers (Portugal, Spain, Venice, etc.) and the Ottoman Empire which show these places in considerable detail and which existed before any European sailor had ventured there. And, there are references in the diaries and memoirs of various European explorers indicating that they had or had seen such maps and - most remarkable, frequently mentioning that they found Chinese people waiting to greet them in various places in the Americas. Menzies even has an explanation for how at least some of the Chinese discoveries made their way into European maps in the person of an Italian named diCosta who seems to have been in China at the time the great fleet sailed in 1421, accompanied Admiral Zheng He on his voyage, and made a report of his travels to the Pope after returning to Europe.

[Along the way, Menzies also makes a very persuasive case that the Portuguese had established a colony at what is now Ponce, Puerto Rico, a half-century before Columbus got there.]

There is also a mass of evidence about non-native animals and plants turning up along the route Menzies proposes which fits, but doesn't prove, his thesis. And some, mostly fragmentary and arguable, linguistic evidence. What really ices the cake is the DNA evidence which shows certain assumed Amerindian populations to have fairly recent infusions of Chinese DNA. Specifically, SW China which supplied most of that nation's seafarers at that period. There are DNA links to SW China among the Inuit, Greenlanders, Incas, etc., but not to other Amerind groups around them.

There are some problems with the book. Menzies sometimes takes a step too far. For example, after making a fair case that the Mayas mined copper in the Upper Mississippi region, he goes on to suggest - for what appear to me to be insufficient reasons - that the Chinese also did so.

Still, 1421: The Year China Discovered America is well worth the time if you are interested in such things, as is America B.C. which offers intriguing evidence of trans-Atlantic trade in ancient times.


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