Melanesianists have Jared Diamond. Sinologists have Gavin Menzies. Well, that’s not quite fair. Guns, Germs, and Steel drives a lot of anthropologists nuts (I’m not nearly as critical as some) because for a lot of big-picture reasons of which his reading of Melanesia and Melanesians is only a part. But regardless of what you think of the book, there’s no doubt that Diamond has chops — he has undoubted expertise in Melanesia (at least its birds and insects) and long and distinguished career as a scientist.

Not so with Gavin Menzies. Menzies has qualifications to be sure — as an officer and commander in the British navy he has forgotten more about the sea than I will ever know. And as an auto-didact who has traveled widely and studied deeply he doesn’t deserve to be dismissed out of hand simply because his erudition doesn’t have the three letters ‘Ph.D.’ attached to the end of it. But a trained sinologist or academic he is not — for whatever that is worth.

Many people think it is worth a lot. Menzies’s main claim to fame is his book “1421”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/006054094X/sr=8-1/qid=1142651980/ref=pd_bbs_1/002-5846516-4008032?%5Fencoding=UTF8, which claims that a Ming fleet discovered America decades before Columbus. When my fiancee tells people she studies China, she regularly gets people asking her whether she has read the book. His story, a sort of latter-day Heyerdahlism, is incredibly popular and seems determined to turn itself into a movement. Erich von Daniken had In Search Of, but Menzies has the web (ok ok, to be fair, Daniken now also “has the web”:http://www.daniken.com/ and now even a “new TV show”:http://www.chariotsofthegods.com/). Menzies’ site, “1421.tv”:http://www.1421.tv promises to build off of the book’s original premise. It’s an impressive site with a gorgeous display of early “maps”:http://www.1421.tv/maps.asp and a database of evidence of early voyaging to the Americas.

Now to be fair I think Menzies is a much more responsible (and therefore more boring) scholar than von Danniken. But some people would say it’s a close call. “Robert Finlay’s”:http://www.uark.edu/depts/histinfo/history/finlay/finlay.html vicious “review”:http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/journal_of_world_history/v015/15.2finlay.html. A fine example of academic blood sport at its finest, Finlay’s savaging of Menzies manages to combine over-the-top rhetoric with real and detailed empirical refutation. Thus we get lines like “Menzies in fact is less an ‘unlettered Ishmael’ than a Captain Ahab, gripped by a mania to bend everything to his purposes. His White Whale is Eurocentric historiography… The wounded leviathan of Eurocentricism no doubt deserves another harpoon, but 1421 is too leaky a vessel to deliver it” and “the reasoning of 1421 is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous.”

I have not read Menzies’s book, but I doubt it can be more entertaining than Finaly’s demolition. But then again, Menzies claims that the Chinese fleet survived at sea by using trained otters working in pairs to herd fish so maybe I’m wrong. And of course the story of the Ming expeditions is a fantastic one. Still, you would probably be better off reading “Louise Levathes’s book”:http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0195112075/qid=1142654041/sr=1-1/ref=sr_1_1/002-5846516-4008032?s=books&v=glance&n=283155 rather than Menzies’s. In the end the best way out is the solution to approaching this sort of work is the one that Finlay proposes — teach the work in the context of a discussion about authority, proof, and both how (and how not) to use evidence.

But then again… trained sea otters! That is hard to beat.

(update: Kerim also points out “1421exposed.com”:http://www.1421exposed.com/ which contains additional debunkery)

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

3 thoughts on “1421

  1. Wonderfully sarcastic. Do you ever dream ? Your quip about training otters can be controverted by checking out
    Broaden that petrified mind of yours.

Comments are closed.