Review of 1421: The Year China Discovered America by Gavin Menzies
One of my favorite books of all time is Magellan by Tim Joyner. It's one of only a handful of books I have read more than once. It is the greatest adventure story ever told. Magellan left Spain with five ships and 200 plus men on a journey into the unknown. Two years later the last remaining ship returned to Spain with only 18 men from the original crew. Magellan was not among them, having been killed in the Philippines. Now Gavin Menzies has come along to burst my bubble by claiming that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. And his evidence is compelling.
I picked up 1421 just before the start of the Olympics in China. I wanted to learn a little about the country and its people. That was several months ago. I just now finished the 489 page behemoth. According to the author, the maps and journals of the great Chinese voyages were purposely destroyed. The reason for this unfortunate decision began with a thunderstorm. Lightening from a thunderstorm caused a fire that completely destroyed most of the buildings in the forbidden city. The emperor Zhu De felt that the fire was punishment by the gods, but he didn't understand why. He was criticized for his wasteful spending and grandiose plans. His successors, determined to make an example of the profligate emperor, decided to erase that chapter from their history and start with a clean slate.
Without official documentation to back up his claim, Gavin must resort to detective work to prove his theory. Among the few documents that did survive was evidence that a fleet of five treasure ships, along with several hundred supply ships, departed China an 1421. They returned, or at least the ships that survived the voyage, two years later. So where did these ships go for those two years? That is what Gavin Menzies attempts to answer with this book.
Gavin describes the huge treasure ships and the large armada that accompanied them carrying a combined total of some 28,000 men. The ships also carried concubines, horses, plants, jade, grains, and enough food to remain ocean bound for months at a time. As the ships traveled from port to port, the fleet grew in size to as many as eight hundred ships. The decision was then made to break up the armada and the five treasure ships each sailed a different route that would eventually encompass the entire world. They would have to accomplish this task in square rigged ships that could only sail with the wind and not against the wind.
Gavin is a former submarine captain and obviously very knowledgeable about ocean currents and wind patterns. He uses that experience to trace the suspected courses of each of the five treasure ships. Evidence of each of the ship's journeys is in the form of plants that are indigenous to China found in other parts of the world by European explorers, DNA evidence, cartography evidence showing lands and islands long before the Europeans had discovered them, wrecked Chinese junks in all parts of the world, and a slew of other tangential evidence such as Chinese architecture, fashion, and craftsmanship that showed up in places that could only be explained by the fact that thousands of the crew members and concubines had to have been stranded around the world due to the loss of their ships.
The weight of all of this research and the thoroughness with which it is presented, is what led me to give this book a four star rating. The book, however, reads a little too much like a history book and doesn't have the drama that Magellan's story has. Magellan's voyage was well documented thanks to the presence of Antonio Pigafetta, a writer who survived the journey. Thus in Magellan's story you get to ride along as Magellan is faced with storms, a mutinous crew, scurvy, and encounters with less than friendly tribal people. But even in that book there is evidence to back up Gavin's claim that The Chinese did in fact sail the globe long before the Europeans. Pigafetta writes that Magellan had seen a map prior to his departure that depicted the straight that would bare his name. So if Magellan is credited with discovering the straight, how is it that it appeared on a map before he left?
This book earns four stars for also having a Web site where further evidence can be found. The web site is www.1421.tv.