Gavin Menzies’ new book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, alternately called The Year China Discovered America, depending on the edition, weighs almost as much as a hard copy of Bowditch. Within its 576 pages, Menzies lays out before the reader his theories that Chinese junks circumnavigated and charted much of the globe some seven decades before Christopher Columbus sailed to America.
Why read this book by an amateur historian? Well, to begin with, Menzies is an experienced sailor. He has navigated the world’s oceans practicing celestial navigation as a naval officer, and later as a submarine commander. He is intimately acquainted with the world’s ocean currents and winds, and he has been able to view the same landfalls observed by early explorers, as he says, “through a submarine periscope, with roughly the same perspective” they had from the decks of their vessels. The book will be an intriguing read for non-historians because of Menzies’ compelling storytelling style. He fleshes out and gives personality to many of the historic characters in his book. But he also gives us a glimpse into the advanced construction of Chinese junks, describing for instance, the design of effective watertight bulkheads. We also learn about life aboard 15th-century Chinese vessels, including methods of growing food while at sea, and the curious practice of carrying otters aboard, which were trained to “herd” fish into seamen’s nets.
The practiced navigator’s eye Menzies used in studying original ancient charts and maps has allowed him to make inferences and offer informed interpretations about documented Chinese voyages of exploration that many of his academic historian detractors have dismissed as absurd. That, in the end, may be the greatest value of 1421: its ability to shake up the conservative academic establishment who will ultimately be responsible for either disproving or proving Menzies’ bold and tantalizing navigational theories.
William Morrow & Co., New York; 576 pages; $27.95.
J. Gregory Dill