Mapping Chinese World Exploration: Gavin Menzies' Theory

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In elementary school, one of the first substantial pieces of history that the teacher engrains into the developing minds of young students is that Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue to discover the United States of America in 1492. What if you were informed that your basis of historical knowledge may be erroneous? In his widely disputed novel 1421, author Gavin Menzies makes the argument that it was neither Columbus nor Magellan who discovered the Americas in 1492, but rather the Chinese Admiral Zheng He along with his fleet of ships. Based on assessment of Menzies’ work along with supporting cartography documents, it is extremely unlikely that the Chinese explorers reached the western coast of Africa as Menzies claims in Chapter Four of 1421 because he repeatedly makes grand assumptions with little to no incontrovertible evidence to support his claims, tarnishing his credibility.

First, Menzies uses his repertoire of exploration with prior experience as a navigator and commanding officer on the high seas to assume that the winds and ocean currents played a large role in western Africa’s discovery, but fails to account for the evolution of natural conditions over time. The attempt to simulate the voyage the Chinese took to Africa is a valid and effective strategy for learning purposes and allows a taste of what the ancient explorers experienced, but the practice of reenactment is also problematic because there is no way to recreate the exact circumstances from the 1400s.

One of the claims he makes is that from his own observations at sea, the winds and currents would have prevented Zheng He’s ships from sailing south at any point, and it was apparent that the Chinese had been carried on a ‘free ride’ west by the south equatorial current to the ‘bulge’ of Africa four decades prior to the Europeans (Menzies 100). It is highly likely that ocean currents and wind patterns had evolved since the Chinese sailed. Menzies makes a large assumption that between his reenactment trip overseas and Zheng He’s trip, the ocean and wind conditions would be identical to those hundreds of years ago when he lacks primary evidence of the state of the waters at that time.

Menzies also introduces the first map of the world created since the Roman Empire, but again asserts dubious significance with insufficient support for its reliability. The map was produced by Italian cartographer Fra Mauro, and contains an accurate triangular depiction of the Cape of Good Hope (Menzies 93). The question remains unclear how he gained access to this information. Menzies points to a fifteenth-century document which stated, ‘Fra Mauro has himself spoken with “a trustworthy person” who said he had sailed from India past Sofala to Garbin, a place located in the middle of the west coast of Africa’ (Menzies 92).

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With this vague statement Menzies theorizes that the “trustworthy person” mentioned must be Niccolò da Conti, a contemporary of Fra Mauro (Menzies 93). It is risky to base major claims on a source because they are the only documented party. Also, if the source of information was indeed trustworthy their identity would be shared. Menzies chooses to make another large assumption based on the information readily available. Cartographic theorist Denis Wood has suggested maps ‘make the past and future present’ so that ‘whatever invisible, unattainable, erasable past or future can become part of our living’

Author O’Doherty states that “the mapmaker selects and manipulates what he wishes to carry over and silently omits what he does not” (O’Doherty 33). We as skeptical readers are correct to assume that Fra Mauro, just as any other cartographer, plays the role of an intermediary who creates images that are selectively pieced together and should not be used as a neutral witness.

A piece of Korean mapwork known as the Kangnido is also controversial to use as conclusive evidence because as a copy of an original, Menzies should be cautious as the copy has been modified to depict possible inaccuracies since its original state. Menzies states that the original map has been lost, “and the Ryukoku version of the Kangnido was extensively modified after 1420” (Menzies 97). According to Ledyard, “a good understanding of its function is hampered because we know nothing of [the original map’s] history after its completion[footnoteRef:3].” The Kangnido was also compiled from many different sources from old Chinese maps.

Menzies expresses full confidence that because the Kangnido’s precision in its depiction of the African coasts, it must have been recorded by someone who had sailed around the Cape. While this portion may have been accurate, other locations were not depicted correctly such as the ‘bulge’ of Africa to the north of the Bay of Biafra (Menzies 99). While the credentials of the map paint the work to be an integral piece of evidence, Menzies must not assume that after modification and a patchwork of sources that the Kangnido is fully dependable support for making his substantial argument.

In conclusion, Menzies does make efforts to track down the slivers of evidence in existence that relate to Zheng He’s voyages but falls short when he fails to acknowledge that the artefacts referenced as well as the claims that he makes after his reenacted personal journey require Menzies to make massive assumptions that are not adequately supported with incontrovertible evidence. The gaps in evidence are holes in Menzies’ submarine, and he tries desperately to fill each one as they appear.

Ultimately, the holes need stronger material to close, and Menzies ends up drowning as a result. He makes large leaps of faith in order to overcompensate for the questionable credibility of his sources. Menzies has fabricated a plausible but unlikely story to fit the mold of his theory. For this reason, it is very unlikely that the Chinese fleet reached the western coast of Africa as claimed in Chapter Four of Gavin Menzies’ 1421.

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