Did China discover America?
On 8 February the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 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 seventy years before Columbus and circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. They has also discovered Antarctica, reached Australia three hundred and fifty years before Cook and solved the problem of longitude three hundred years before the Europeans. His first book claimed that the Chinese discovered America. Now, in a controversial sequel, Gavin Menzies says they also sparked the Renaissance.
Six years ago, the retired submarine commander caused apoplexy among historians with his controversial theory that vast fleets of Chinese adventurers in multi-masted junks beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas and mapped the entire world centuries before the European explorers. It made him rich and infamous. Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, professor of history at the University of London, dismissed his book, The Year China Discovered the World, as "the historical equivalent of stories about Elvis Presley in Tesco and close encounters with alien hamsters".
But while boiling oil was being poured on him from the ramparts of academe, Menzies's book was surging up the bestseller list. It has sold a million copies worldwide, and run to 24 editions in countries. Every day, 2, people go to his website, www. Menzies, 71, could have anointed his bruises, pulled up his stumps and gone to live in Venice on the proceeds of , satisfied that his revisionist view of history had at least got a good airing.
Instead, he has ploughed his profits into more research and produced an equally contentious sequel, , claiming that the Chinese, once again sailing under the eunuch Admiral Zheng He, sparked the Italian Renaissance and that Leonardo da Vinci's inventions were directly influenced by Chinese technical drawings. While the eyes of the world are on the exploits of modern China as host of the Beijing Olympics, Menzies is providing the historical counterpoint. What drives him? Is he, as some critics have suggested, "mad as a snake" or a sincere visionary?
I was accused of manufacturing the evidence.
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I got so ferociously attacked that I decided to defend myself by putting the new evidence on the website as it piles in. But Menzies has academic supporters, too, especially in China and America. The worse the battering he gets from historians, the more people want to know what the fuss is all about. Advance warning of a television documentary called Junk History, shown by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in , prompted Menzies to alert the website's 13, subscribers.
The Year China Discovered the World - Wikidata
We apologised to our website friends and said if you want to cancel your subscription, we will understand. Only one person cancelled. That night, we had a huge number of new subscribers and sales of the book in Australia trebled, making it the biggest-selling history book in that country.
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People want to make up their own minds. In , Menzies argues that the strong armada of Zheng He's sixth voyage of exploration reached Latin America, the Caribbean and Australia, circumnavigating the globe a century before Ferdinand Magellan, leaving wrecks and artefacts and establishing colonies. He believes Columbus, Magellan and James Cook all had maps before they set sail - based on a Chinese original. The new book, , is not so sensational but more far-reaching.
In it, he contends that Chinese advances in science, art and technology - brought by a cultural delegation that sailed first to Cairo and arrived in Tuscany in - shaped the Renaissance. Under his urbanity there is a thin skin. It is just amazing how splenetic academics can be.
Such a different world from the Navy. If I had been in charge of destroying , I would have said: 'Well, it's a very interesting book and it's a good read.
But the Chinese went home, they didn't colonise the world. History wasn't affected. That was the end of it.
1421: The Year China Discovered The World
So what? The man in the street thought he'd better find out about this unknown writer. It is easy to see why Menzies could be the victim of academic snobbery. He left school at 15, with no qualifications, to follow his father into the Navy, becoming a commander of submarines. He became fascinated by Chinese navigation on a silver wedding trip to Beijing, where he first heard about Zheng He. His sprawling book on the subject took 11 years to write and was unpublishable. I can understand their lack of enthusiasm.
Also, if you have written about Columbus's discoveries and you are told he had a map, you would think: this is grotesque. A further annoyance is that Menzies produces riveting reads with copious reference sources and appendices. Gavin is a phenomenon. He genuinely believes he is right and offers some very fascinating insights. People think he must be in the pay of the Chinese government but he pays for all his own flights.