On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 500 foot long junks made from the finest teak and mahogany, were led by Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was "to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the entire globe. When they returned Zhu Di had fallen from power and China was beginning its long, self-imposed isolation from the world it had so recently embraced. The great ships rotted at their moorings and the records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America 70 years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They has also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia 350 years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude 300 years before the Europeans. Gavin Menzies has spent 15 years tracing the astonishing voyages of the Chinese fleet. In this historical detective story, he shares the account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence to support them. His narrative brings together ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy and the surviving accounts by Chinese explorers and the later European navigators. It brings to light the artefacts and inscribed standing stones left behind by the Emperor's fleet, the evidence of sunken junks along its route and the ornate votive offerings left by the Chinese sailors wherever they landed, in thanks to Shao Lin, goddess of the sea.
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If you're going to make a stir, you might as well do it in style. And Gavin Menzies has caused one, big time. In 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, this retired Royal Navy submarine commander, who only visited China for the first time on his 25th wedding anniversary, claims that the Chinese navigator Zheng He discovered America some 71 years before Columbus. And not content with this, he goes on to suggest that Zheng He learnt how to calculate longitude several centuries before John Harrison supposedly nailed the problem. Unsurprisingly, this has not gone down too well in some areas and the book has been the target of some scepticism.
Although Menzies has unearthed a few unknown primary sources, the bulk of his thesis depends on amalgamating several disparate areas of research into a grand unified theory. So he combines what we do know--principally that the Chinese built huge sailing ships with nine masts and that Asiatic chickens were discovered in South America--into what he considers compelling evidence. Menzies has also turned up some maps from the pre-Columbus era that appear to show the Americas, along with a few shipwrecks and Ming artefacts from along his supposed route.
It all makes for a gripping read, even if the sum doesn't quite add up to the whole. For all the detail, Menzies is some way off providing proof. None of the supposed 28,000 colonists has left any documentary evidence because all records, boats and shipyards associated with his voyage were burnt by imperial order in 1433. This surely begs the question--if we know so much of Zheng He's voyages around the Indian Ocean, how come we know nothing of his trips further east? Nor, conveniently for Menzies, did any of the colonists return home in triumph. They either died en route or skulked home to obscurity after they were disowned by the emperor.
So you either accept Menzies as an act of faith or brush him aside with scepticism. Either way, you'll have a lot of fun in the process as the book is never less than provocative. And even the sceptics will find themselves hoping Menzies has got it right, because there's something intrinsically uplifting about the notion of an amateur historian getting one over the professionals. --John CraceReview:
'Exhaustively researched . . . an intriguing and highly persuasive thesis, told with passion and energy.' -- Evening Standard
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