Monday, July 26, 2004

Non-Fiction: Coming to America

1421 The Year China Discovered America Gavin Menzies, Perennial (Harper Collins), 2003

Here’s the short form: in the early 1420s, the Chinese Emperor Zhu Di sent out a number of large treasure fleets to explore the world. These fleets, made up of hundreds of immense ships, made it practically everywhere, mapping South America, Australia, Antarctica, the Americas, and Siberia before returning home. Upon their return, the fleets discovered that in their absence their nation had been wracked by tragedy, their emperor was dying, and a rival, anti-naval faction had come to power. The fleets were grounded and left to rot, all knowledge of the voyages removed from the books, their names chiseled from the monuments, and the lid slammed down on a great age of exploration.

Gavin Menzies is former Royal Navy with extensive submarine background, who started to unspool this tale, starting with old maps that showed lands that Europeans had not yet reached at the time these maps were created. Menzies’ theory is that the highly-advanced Chinese circumnavigated the globe, and created the maps which first the Portuguese and then Columbus used to reach the New World. His evidence is impressive in amount, and presented in a great heap, like a Central American step-pyramid. Remove one (or a dozen) stones and the structure can still stand.

And there are stones that can be removed, and the reader has to keep a watchful eye at creeping assertions, as theories move to fact quickly within the text. There is an onslaught of evidence - plant and animal species in non-native locations, genetic markers in disparate populations, mysterious shipwrecks, native artwork of horses in Australia and the Americas. And, of course the maps, showing lands the Europeans had yet to reach.

The maps are the cornerstone of Menzies’ arguments, and include such charts as the Kangnido, the Piri Reis, the Waldseemuller, and the Vinland maps. A lot of these maps are controversial in themselves: The Vinland map was declared a fraud (though Menzies exhumes and rebuts the claim). The Piri Reis, which reputedly shows Antarctica, has been used previously as “proof” of ancient astronauts and Atlantean civilizations. In comparison, crediting it to the Chinese makes a lot more sense.

One problem with the map evidence is that Menzies has to “widget” the facts a little in order to make them fit. His source maps don’t exactly fit reality, but fit better once he “corrects for Longitude” – as the Chinese at the time did not have Longitude fix (they got in on another voyage at the same time). That sort of widgeting makes me suspicious. In a similar fashion, the maps of the Caribbean islands work better if the sea levels are 6 feet lower, but Greenland can be circumnavigated only if we have unseasonably warm weather. Menzies argues both options in different sections, which strikes me as being contradictory (Won’t less ice mean higher sea levels?)

Similarly, his argument is that the South American Coast shown on the Piri Reis map is the area near Tierra De Fuego, pointing out that the animals shown on the map are in areas where the animals would be found in the real world. That’s a good argument, until you look at the entire map, where it becomes clear that what he is claiming to be Cabo Blanco in southernmost Patagonia is more reasonably the part of Brazil closest to Africa. A good argument for a bad point undermines his reliability elsewhere.

Menzies also has “White Wolf” disease. In White Wolf’s World of Darkness, everything important is tied back to vampires – every important historical figure is a vampire, was a thrall of vampires, or fought vampires. Similarly, here it feels like every mystery has its answer in the highly-advanced Chinese, from the Bimini Road (underwater stone structures in the Bahamas) to a possibly pre-colonial tower in Newport, Rhode Island, to the Vinland Map. The Chinese become our “Ancient Astronauts/Altlanteans” spreading civilization and knowledge across the globe.

Of course, European sea travelers spread something else – disease, and on this the volume is silent on the effects of full Chinese Colonies on indigenous populations in California and Peru. Evidence of a sudden dip in population, a few plagues (and they were in China – that was one of the things that brought down the adventurous emperor), would support his theory well.

Finally, the great travels of the Chinese fleet go everywhere in the world EXCEPT Western Europe. Much like the Bush military service records, this absence is intriguing, particularly since one of the fleets supposedly got to Iceland and the northern shores of Russia. No one thought to point out that there was a large civilization just to the south. Similarly, there is no Aztec evidence of their presence, and only a glancing mention of the Incas and Mayans. Given that Menzies has presented extensive evidence for India, Arabia, Eastern Africa, and Australia, as well as the oral traditions of California Native Americans, the impact on supposed Chinese contact with the American Empires would be supportive.

Menzies is an excellent and accessible author, though he elevates the Chinese by pressing down others. The Western Europeans are little more than barbarians in thatch huts, and the Intuits could never produce jewelry of the quality found in Greenland. Columbus himself was nothing more than a conman, using Chinese maps stolen from the Portuguese that already showed what he would “discover”, then ginning down the distance to the Spanish Crown in order to get funding. The Portuguese colonies (in Puerto Rico fifty years before Columbus) are less-enlightened than the Chinese ones, and the Henry the Navigator’s people stole the spice trade from the retiring Chinese.

All in all, the book holds together, and even if fifty percent of it is off-base, it’s an excellent re-thinking of pre-Columbian exploration. I am unwilling to buy Chinese settlements in Greenland or Rhode Island, but am more willing to allow Chinese ships off the coast of Oregon or South America. A hundred and fifty years ago, Troy was considered a myth. Until the 1960s, respectable scientists felt the fact that South America and Africa fit together like puzzle pieces to be coincidence, not Continental Drift. And even with the Vinland Map controversy, people now believe it likely that the Vikings made it to the continental US, So too I think this book will be a “tipping point”, where we go from disbelief in the Chinese achievements to a basic understanding that this is so. And we'll wonder why would we ever think differently, in the face of all the available facts?

More later,