The Chinese discovered America!

Or did they? A dubious new book offers an object lesson in amateurish research, slapdash editing and publishing greed.

Topics: China, Books,

On March 15, 2002, Gavin Menzies, a retired Royal Navy submarine commanding officer, made a speech at the Royal Geographical Society in London that tipped a number of sacred cows. Menzies declared that the Chinese — traveling on a fleet of ships under the auspices of Emperor Zhu Di — had reached America 70 years before Columbus. They had also, he posited, seen Australia 350 years before Captain Cook and explored the Magellan Straits 60 years before Magellan was born. In fact, our long-mythologized European explorers, Menzies said, relied on maps provided by the Chinese. In other words, the heroes of the West were slowpokes and copycats.

Publishers came knocking. U.K. publisher Bantam/Transworld eagerly paid him a 500,000 pound advance for a manuscript that Menzies had previously been unable to sell, to be titled “1421: The Year China Discovered the World.” Rights were sold to William Morrow in the U.S. as well as to publishers in Japan, Germany, Italy, Taiwan and eight other countries. Forty-seven television production companies bid for the rights, with Pearson Broadband winning out for an undisclosed amount.

The emperor, however, has no clothes — and I don’t mean Zhu Di. Menzies’ book is fractured history, a mishmash of off-base conclusions drawn from amateurish research and wide-eyed “discovery” of well-known facts. That hasn’t hurt U.K. sales, though, and while Morrow first planned to publish “1421″ stateside in May 2003, the swell of publicity beginning after that March presentation and leading up to the Nov. 4 publication in the U.K. led the publisher to rethink its timing. It will publish 100,000 copies of “1421″ on Jan. 7.

That publicity included coverage of Menzies’ presentation by news outlets like ABC World News Tonight and the New York Times, which lent legitimacy to his claims. Of course, just because the major media report something, that doesn’t necessarily make it so. In 1983 Newsweek and the New York Times rushed to cover the discovery of the so-called Hitler diaries. The pages were revealed to be an unconvincing forgery soon afterward, but not before the German magazine Stern had paid 9.9 million marks for the rights to publish excerpts.



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Menzies’ book is not a complete fabrication the way that the ersatz Hitler diaries were (although there is a bit of trickery behind that Royal Geographical Society presentation: Menzies was not invited to speak as an esteemed scholar, but rented the lecture hall for 1,200 pounds and invited the audience). Nor is Menzies’ own identity subject to doubt, as are the autobiographical credentials provided by Kola Boof, author of the short story collection “Long Train to the Redeeming Sin” published in November 2001, who claims that she is the subject of a fatwa in her home country of Sudan.

The Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He did command fleets during the early 1400s, and those trips are well documented. In fact, Louise Levathes, author of “When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433,” has faulted Menzies for ignoring Chinese primary sources, namely the “Ming shi” and the “Ming shi lu,” that provide a detailed record of the voyages but make no mention of the Americas. (Menzies does not read Chinese, although he waxes nostalgic in his introduction to the U.K. edition about the Chinese amah who raised him until the age of 5.)

“He has not, unfortunately, discovered anything new,” said Levathes. “What he’s done is to present it in a jumbled manner so you have no idea what’s going on and what the time frames are.” There was one aspect of Menzies’ work that Levathes admitted to admiring, however: “His promotional machine is nothing less than extraordinary,” she said.

Experts in other areas were equally skeptical. Carol Urness is curator emeritus of the James Ford Bell Library in Minneapolis, which houses the Pizzigano chart, a map that Menzies holds up as proof that the Portuguese were not the first to explore the Caribbean. Said Urness, “The book is thought-provoking, stimulating, interesting, even fascinating. Whether it’s going to turn out to be historically correct — that’s another issue. It’s fine to say that the Chinese sailed all over and did all this mapping, but we have no extant copy of it.”

Patricia Seed is a Rice University history professor specializing in the history of navigation and cartography of the 15th century and the author of “American Pentimento: The Invention of Indians and the Pursuit of Riches.” Having read sections of Menzies’ book and viewed a lengthy proposal for a documentary based on it, she dismissed Menzies’ premise that ships nearly 500 feet long passed through the Mozambique Channel, mastering the difficult Aghulas current, as “meteorologically impossible.” She added, “He’s got absolutely the wrong progression of maps and mapmaking.” Seed also noted that Menzies’ claim that he used his modern naval knowledge to track voyages made over 600 years ago is absurd.

In a telephone interview, Menzies was charming, but oddly robotic. He had a tale to tell, and he would not be hurried. “I found out this strange story entirely by accident,” he began. “My wife and I went to China to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We had a lovely cold morning on the Great Wall. The adrenaline surges through your blood as you stand up there.”

Whether writing or speaking, Menzies simultaneously provides an overload of detail and glosses over important facts. The pages of “1421″ are filled with calculated leaps. An example: Menzies learns of the existence of the Stone of Letters on the Cape Verde Islands. The stone has some inscriptions in Portuguese, marking the death of a sailor, and then further inscriptions in another language that historians have never been able to identify. “After receiving the necessary approval from the Cape Verde authorities, some of the lichen was removed. This revealed two pieces of calligraphy. I hoped that, helped by computer enhancement, I would at least be able to determine the language, but the calligraphy was quite extraordinary, unlike anything I had ever seen in my travels anywhere in the world.”

Menzies muses over what language it might be, then faxes a copy not to a linguist or other specialist in the field, but to the Bank of India, where an unnamed source helpfully and easily does what so many historians have failed to do:

“‘It looks like Malayalam,’ they replied. It was a language I had never even heard of. I faxed again. ‘Where was this language spoken?’ ‘It was the language of Kerala.’ ‘Was it in use in the 15th century?’ ‘Yes, it had been in common use since the 9th century. It has largely ceased to be spoken today, though it is still used in a few outlying coastal districts on the Malabar coast.’”

Menzies, overjoyed at the news from this mysteriously erudite teller, asserts that the Portuguese were not the first explorers to reach the Cape Verde Islands. From there, in the author’s mind, it’s a short hop to the conclusion that the Indian ship recorded as arriving in Matadi Falls in the Congo — where there is a similar stone — “around the year 1420″ was actually Chinese, and the interpreters who traveled with the Chinese fleet inscribed both stones in a foreign language.

Most readers will wonder why Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, didn’t question these unorthodox research methods or the veracity of the statements Menzies has built on them. Sadly, many observers concur that accuracy matters little to publishing houses, especially when fudged facts are almost guaranteed to generate controversy, and therefore sales. “The publishing industry’s gullibility is boundless and its devotion to the bottom line endless, so if they can maintain their fealty to P.T. Barnum and put one over on the public, they’ll do so without losing a wink’s worth of sleep,” commented Steve Wasserman, literary editor of the Los Angeles Times, who formerly worked on the editorial side of the publishing industry.

To my questions about how his finds had been vetted, Menzies responded vaguely, “The evidence is just so overwhelming that it’s impossible to argue against.” For her part, executive editor Claire Wachtel defended Menzies by insisting, “He’s not a crazy loony.” Wachtel theorized that skeptics are threatened by Menzies’ attack on the status quo: “People don’t like the basis of their fundamental knowledge to be challenged, and we all know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

As further proof, Menzies reported that after his March presentation and the surrounding publicity, corroborating evidence arrived at his doorstep. He recalled, “A walnut farmer north of Sacramento called up and said, ‘We’ve always known there’s a Chinese junk underneath our land.’ I thought, this chap’s clearly a nutter, but now it looks as if it’s true.”

When asked for the exact location of the walnut farm, Menzies declined to answer, saying, “Pearson Broadband has spent quite a bit of money assembling experts to survey the junk in Sacramento. They understandably want to keep control of publicity surrounding it.” Likewise, the British edition of the book grandiosely promises that “three-quarters of the evidence has had to be omitted for lack of space.”

Menzies certainly isn’t the first author backed by a major publisher to refuse to reveal crucial information. In 1997, Little, Brown was prepared to publish “The City of Light,” the purported diary of Jacob d’Ancona, a Jewish merchant who wrote about reaching China in 1271, four years before Marco Polo. The house had published the book in the U.K. when word spread that China scholar Jonathan Spence, the Sterling professor of history at Yale, had written a review for the New York Times Book Review that questioned the book’s provenance. Despite growing pressure, David Selbourne, the Englishman residing in Italy who translated the diary, refused to make the original manuscript available for public scrutiny. At the last minute, an embarrassed Little, Brown pulled the diary from U.S. publication (although the Kensington imprint Citadel published “The City of Light,” its origins still unverified, in 2000).

For his part, Pearson Broadband executive producer John Steele backpedaled somewhat when asked about the Menzies connection. “We’re doing a documentary of the Ming fleet’s exploration of the world using Gavin’s book as a source,” he explained. “The first two parts deal with the well-documented exploits of the Ming fleet in India, Africa, etc. In Parts 3 and 4 we’re going to put the viewer on a boat and take it through Gavin’s theory. We’re saying, ‘Gavin has opened an incredible door that could rewrite history. Let’s go through it.’”

Other documentarians have responded to Menzies’ book with even more doubts. Evan Hadingham, senior science editor for “Nova” at WGBH, was approached about filming a program based on Menzies’ initial presentation but declined. “The limited information provided so far raises concerns about the journalistic soundness and historical accuracy of Menzies’ approach, and for that reason we decided not to commission a show,” he said.

Perhaps an amused but skeptical article by Jack Hitt in the Jan. 5 issue of the New York Times Magazine, referring to the “gossamer strength of Menzies’ evidence,” will further bolster resistance to the author’s theories, and “1421″ (to be published in the U.S. with the slightly altered subtitle “The Year China Discovered America”) will not be accepted at face value here. On the other hand, Hitt seems less troubled by the book’s numerous inaccuracies than he is entertained by their author’s panache.

Menzies’ theory might just turn out to be one of those stories we love too much to kill. “The Education of Little Tree” is a documented fake — not a memoir of a Cherokee boyhood, as claimed when it was first published in 1976, but the fictional work of a segregationist and Ku Klux Klan member. Yet it still appears on high school and college reading lists, and the University of New Mexico Press published a 25th anniversary edition in 2001. Sometimes an emperor parades naked down the middle of the street, and a crowd not only gathers to applaud, but willingly shells out the ticket price as well.

Natalie Danford is co-editor of the Best New American Voices series and contributes frequently to Publishers Weekly.

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