Gavin Menzies is an aggressively ignorant non-historian. It’s true. Oh, he’s also extremely arrogant about it. If I’ve learned anything in life, it’s that ignorance and arrogance go hand-in-hand. Also, too, they make for some interesting situations, especially if the ignorant and arrogant individual writes books specifically about the stupidity they believe is rampant in the rest of the world.
Those who have been around for a while might remember that I once attempted to make a series about the wildly historically inaccurate 1421, in which Menzies claimed that the Chinese circumnavigated the globe in 1421, made maps, and handed said maps to the Europeans who then immediately incorporated said maps into their own charts. I gave up a short while in because I, um, I’m lazy. And that’s how I roll. Also because it seemed that I’d just end up writing, “No, seriously, what the fuck?” over and over again. That’s got a shelf life. At least I assume it has a shelf life.
Still, he wrote a second book. I remembered that a while ago and even mentioned it on this here blog. That same day I did my best Petrarch imitation and scoured the internet for my own copy of his famously difficult to find 1434. Because, really, why not?
Menzies has a singularly spectacular ability to piss me off before I get to the end of the introductions of his book. I didn’t make it past the Acknowledgements page of 1421 before I got mad. I didn’t make it past the first sentence of 1434’s Introduction this time. That might seem like it’s an achievement, but I started with the Introduction. So, yeah. Either way, this is his first sentence (also, too, his first paragraph):
One thing that greatly puzzled me when writing 1421 was the lack of curiosity among many professional historians.
Now, for some this might be an indication that it’s time to re-think the premise or methodology used in researching and writing the book. Professional historians are, after all, a curious bunch. They’re also an argumentative bunch, many of whom love nothing more to engage in an argument and win. There is a reason why the first thing a historian needs to learn to be a good historian is historiography, also known as the history of history. There is almost no known historical fact and there certainly isn’t any analysis of a historical fact that hasn’t been disputed at least once and, more likely, argued to death by men with beards and an unnatural appreciation for tweed.
Any good work of history contains a survey of the analysis of the results and a conclusion as to which side, if any, makes a stronger case. This is a necessary part of the process of adding to the long lists of historical documents, especially for anything that has been picked over and over and over again. It also shows, crucially, that the historian has done his or her homework. More than that, it makes for testable claims if anyone wants to wander far afield of the historical consensus.
Historians love this shit. It’s why they do what they do. When Gavin Menzies released 1421 it was a book that literally turned everything we know about the last six centuries of world history on its head. When real historians greeted it with a yawn that should tell you everything you need to know about the worthiness of Menzies’ claims. His inability to understand why he was ignored then says everything we need to know about Menzies’ efficacy as a historian.
Fortunately, though, you don’t have to take my word for it. He tells us exactly how good of a historian he is in the very next paragraph, also known as the second paragraph of the introduction to his book.
After all, Christopher Columbus supposedly discovered America in 1492. Yet eighteen years before he set sail, Columbus had a map of the Americas, which he later acknowledged in his logs.
This, right here, is what we call “an extraordinary claim.” An extraordinary claim is one that requires extraordinary evidence. Fortunately, this claim is also a testable claim. But before we get to the evidence – of which there is plenty – that Menzies is showing his ass in public, let’s see if we can apply simple reason to this statement.
We refer to certain islands in the Caribbean as the West Indies. The somewhat-less-than-politically-correct term for the native occupants of the Americas is “Indians.” The Indies were lands of fabulous wealth on the far eastern side of the Eurasian landmass that Europeans had been trying to reach and exploit for centuries by the time Colombo headed west from Spain.
Now, then, given this tiny bit of knowledge, what would you say is more likely? Did Colombo land in the New World and mistakenly call it the Indies and its people Indians? Or did Colombo know he was heading for the New World but pretend he was going somewhere else in order to participate in the biggest cover-up in history, wherein he, with the full cooperation of the Spanish sovereigns, the Spanish Court, his entire crew, and all of his partners in correspondence managed to participate in a conspiracy of silence that lasted from 1492 through 2002, when a former British submarine commander blew it all open with a book. And then there was not one historian who could offer up a single shit about his discovery.
Which one seems more likely?
As it turns out, I’m fascinated by the Age of Discovery. I think that’s how I originally heard about Gavin Menzies and his fevered fantasies featuring Chinese eunuchs. I’m not exactly an expert in these things, but I do definitely know a thing or two. In fact, one of my favorite books is about exactly the claims Gavin Menzies makes at the beginning of 1434.
Well, not really. It’s not about Gavin Menzies claims. It’s about the actual reality of the things that Gavin Menzies makes the claims about. As such, I shall be trotting out Toby Lester’s The Fourth Part of the World quite a bit here. On some level that’s cheating. Menzies published 1421 in 2002 and 1434 in 2008. Lester published The Fourth Part of the World in 2009. So Menzies couldn’t possibly offer anything to contradict Lester. By the same token, Lester doesn’t mention Menzies once. Menzies would probably mention this as part of the conspiracy of silence from real historians. Lester – who isn’t actually a real historian, either, but a journalist who happens to know how to do the history thing – did something that Menzies didn’t do, though: his homework.
Homework, in this case, is boring-ass research. It involves reading a lot of books and chasing down manuscripts and synthesizing historiography. It’s not Indiana Jones-esque globetrotting in search of crystal skulls or Holy Grails or dudes who can rip still-beating hearts out of chests. That would be awesome, but that ain’t how it works. For someone who’s done their homework Gavin Menzies’ theory is, well, stupid. It’s also self-evidently stupid. Let’s continue:
Indeed, even before his first voyage, Columbus signed a contract with the king and queen of Spain that appointed him viceroy of the Americas. His fellow ship’s captain Martín Alonso Pinzón, who sailed with him in 1492, had too seen a map of the Americas—in the pope’s library.
Um…no? I mean, seriously, no. Columbus was told that he’d be made Admiral of the Ocean Sea if he found the Indies. He was also told that he’d be made governor of any land he discovered and claimed for Spain. America was not mentioned at all, mostly because America wasn’t named until Waldseemuller and Ringmann put the word on their map of the world in 1507. But that’s a technicality. Let’s see what Toby Lester has to say about the subject.
Ophir, Saba, Tarshish, Cipangu: Columbus believe that Hispaniola might be any one of those places, or perhaps all of them at once, a single land that over the ages had been known by a succession of different names. Even several years later, after having devoted much study to this question, Columbus still hadn’t worked out an answer. Instead, he had identified even more possibilities. “This island is Tarshish,” he wrote in a letter to Pope Alexander VI in 1502, “It is Chittim, it is Ophir and Ophaz, and Cipangu, and we have named it Hispaniola.”
For those who aren’t up on their mythical lands, Tarshish, Chittim, and Ophir are all lands mentioned in the Bible that can be shorthanded as “far away” and “really fucking rich.” I have no idea what Ophaz is. Cipangu, though, is the key to this whole thing. The idea of the place came to Europe in the Travels of Marco Polo and it’s not actually a legendary island at all. We know it as Japan.
In fact, you might want to keep that tidbit in mind. It’ll come up a time or seven in the future…
Toby Lester, The Fourth Part of the World: The Race to the Ends of the Earth and the Epic Story of the Map That Gave America its Name, (New York: Free Press, 2009), 281.