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 BOOK REVIEWS


Exotic elephants lined the Spirit Way, which lead to the Ming tomb in Beijing.

 

From The Asian Reporter, V13, #13 (March 25-31, 2003), page 11.

Whose history

1421: The Year China Discovered America

By Gavin Menzies

William Morrow, 2003

Hardbound, 552 pages, $27.95

By Polo

"Over ten years ago," British author Gavin Menzies writes in the foreword of his new book 1421, "I stumbled upon an incredible discovery Ö (which) suggested that the history of the world Ö would have to be radically revised."

What a stumble it was, what a re-write historiansíll be doing after the dust settles. Mr. Menzies happened upon tiny clues lying unnoticed on dusty old marinersí maps in musty library backrooms. Historians defending established history will undoubtedly dismiss him as a stumbler, unworthy of recognition by academe. Mr. Menzies is not a university professor, he is not an institutional researcher. By his own admission, he is simply an ocean navigator and a seasoned sailor. It is in all likelihood these very peculiarities in perspective that made a whole other kind of sense out of the evidence lying before historians since Ö well, since shortly after 1492, when Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Retired Royal Navy Captain Gavin Menzies was a decorated submariner since 1953. He saw a lot of night sky when his ship surfaced to navigate against the stars, same as ancient sailors, whether commissioned by a familiar Spanish Queen or a distant Chinese Emperor. Submarine commander Menzies saw a lot of our world. Like 15th-century mariners he saw idyllic isles, he approached continental shores, and gazed at soaring highlands, from just 20 feet above the rolling waves. Those historians and academics challenging Mr. Gavinís credentials, his theories, and his evidence, probably havenít stared at a lot of night skies while bobbing around in all that blue sea.

In Mr. Menziesí fresh look at old old maps ó the very charts that guided the guys every school child knows by rote (Columbus, Magellan, Cook, Popeye) ó the author spotted landforms that might look mistaken from an orbiting space shuttle, but would be accurate representations of what a sailor sees at sea level. These lands (continental North and South America, among others) appear around the edges of those places Europeans "discovered" from 1492 forward. Mr. Menzies kept looking until he got to the grandmother of all maps, the 1424 chart by Venetian cartographer, Zuane Pizzigano. Then it occurred to him, if European explorers hadnít been there, hadnít mapped there ó who did? Whereíd they buy this stuff?

"It seemed arrogance bordering on hubris," Mr. Menzies writes, "to believe that a retired submarine captain could reveal a story many great minds had failed to unearth."

What Mr. Menzies reveals in his book 1421 is five hundred and fifty two pages of text and sup- porting appendices, notations, and bibliography. And, of course, he methodically lays out his case for Chinese barter, horticultural trade, cultural exchange, engineering, and settlement, on both the Pacific and Atlantic sides of both North and South America.

These were not, Mr. Menzies maintains, little trips on tiny boats. These were not Columbusí forty-foot Nina, Pinta, or Santa Maria. Chinese ship-builders and navigators had been busy for over six hundred years when the third Ming Emperor Zhu Di decided to chart the planet. Chinese admirals introduced themselves to American Indian nations in great armadas anchored around teak-planked, 500-foot- long, nine-mast treasure ships. Each of Emperor Zhu Diís four fleets was provisioned for the two-year voyage with soil for vegetables, tubs for tofu, livestock for lunch, cannon and mortars for bad guys. Compared to Columbusí conscripted crew of convicts and social misfits, each of the Emperorís four admirals enlisted an army of astronomers, engineers, metallurgists, botanists, physicians, priests, and of course, talented courtesans.

How I made it through public school and private universities missing this massive history lesson makes me uneasy. How our historians failed to string together unsigned maps and Chinese farm animals, Chinese crops, Chinese pots, pans, shipwrecks, Chinese men and women among Indian peoples of Vancouver, California, Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Florida, in Mexico, Panama, Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, all of it, all of them, well before 1492, is troublesome. Maybe Mr. Menzies said it best during his March 2002 televised lecture before the prestigious Royal Geographical Society:

"I seemed to be looking at the most incredible journeys in history, but ones completely expunged from human memory, the majority of records destroyed, the achievements ignored and forgotten."

Information and research continue at website <www.1421.tv>.

 

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