Gavin Menzies illustrates the exact problem that anyone comes across when dealing with a conspiracy theory and its theorist. The truth is complicated and often requires a great deal of information to simply approach the real explanation, whereas a good conspiracy theory is usually pretty simple. That’s why I had to spend seven pages deconstructing his first five paragraphs. Fortunately, it’s about to get a bit simpler. It also proves, yet again, that Menzies doesn’t know what historians, y’know, do.
First, Menzies starts with a rhetorical question:
Why was the strait named after Magellan when Magellan had seen it on a chart before he set sail? It doesn’t make sense.
First of all, that’s technically untrue. Assuming that Magellan was looking at Schoner’s map, the Strait of Magellan most certainly is not depicted. This is the Strait of Magellan:
At best, Schoner’s map depicts Drake’s Passage, which is actually the body of water below the South American continent. Let’s just give everyone the benefit of the doubt on that one, at least in the interests of time.
Menzies follows his rhetorical question-and-answer by again showing his ass in public. It’s almost like he likes that sort of thing.
The paradox might be explained had there been no maps of the strait or of the Pacific—if, as some believe, Magellan was bluffing about having seen a chart. But there were maps. Martin Waldseemüller published his map of the Americas and the Pacific in 1507, twelve years before Magellan set sail. In 1515, four years before Magellan sailed, Johannes Schöner published a map showing the strait Magellan is said to have “discovered.”
Let’s start with Waldseemuller’s map. First of all, take a look at it:
I’d like to draw your attention to three things about that map. First, it does not go far enough south to depict the bottom of the South American continent, which is where Magellan crossed into the Pacific. Second, if you look at the eastern end of Asia you’ll see a prominently diagrammed dragon’s tail. Third, Asia is extremely wide. Waldseemuller’s depiction of Asia, Europe, and Africa, then, are definitely an evolution of the depiction of the world first advanced by Henricus Martellus in 1489. His big innovation is the addition of America over on the left side.
In order to understand why he would have incorporated America, you need to understand a couple things. First, Christopher Columbus had discovered…something in the intervening years. No one in Europe really knew what that something was yet, though. There were a bunch of maps that just kinda threw some landmasses out into the western Atlantic and then said, “Here ya go, stuff!”
The key map for understanding all of this is the Cantino Map.
If you look to the left of the Cantino Map you’ll see that there’s just a bunch of disconnected land tossed in there. The 1505 Caverio Map is obviously based on the data set and was, most likely, ripped directly off of the Cantino Map, since that’s how they rolled back in the day.
The thing that should be blatantly obvious about these early-16th Century maps is that the mapmakers had absolutely no idea what to make of the lands being discovered in the New World. Take a look at the Ruysch map, made the same year as the Waldseemuller map.
That big white area to the left of Africa? That’s what was penciled in to depict the discoveries in the New World. I’m told by people who know how to read that map that the legend says it’s probably part of Asia, but they don’t know what it is.
The thing to realize here is that these are not maps made by people who have a complete concept of what the world actually looks like. Eurasia covers way too much of the globe. China has a giant peninsula that stretches halfway across the Indian Ocean. The Americas are not exactly well-defined. They’re also not consistently drawn.
Really, though, it’s the insistence on including the dragon’s tail that’s the most damning evidence that these maps were not handed to the Europeans by the Chinese. You’d think that the Chinese would have noticed that they didn’t have a giant peninsula sticking a couple of hundred miles down from their southern shores.
We can, in fact, test this theory. There are Chinese maps that predate the European maps we’re considering. This is the Da Ming Hun Yi Tu, made about a century before the Martellus map:
This is its cousin, the Kangnido map, made a decade or so later:
The giant mass in the middle of both maps is China. The stuff over on the right is the Korean peninsula and Japan. The droopy thing over on the left that appears to be a tiny peninsula with a giant lake in the middle? That’s Africa. Yes, Africa, also known as a continent that’s significantly larger than China in reality. Interestingly (and I am shamelessly using Wikipedia for this one, since, um, Chinese cartography is not my strong suit), they were still apparently using this basic map at least as late as the Honkoji map, which was made in 1560. Assuming that wasn’t a decorative piece, that means that at least someone in the Chinese sphere still had no idea what Europe and Africa looked like 140 years after China supposedly circumnavigated the globe and handed maps off to the Europeans. Hell, aside from the bit where the Europeans made Asia too big and put a big peninsula on China, they seemed to have a better idea of what Asia looked like than that Chinese. That’s super awkward. For Gavin Menzies.
Menzies manages to make what might be the dumbest argument of all time, though. So he’s got that goin’ for him. Let’s look:
The mystery only deepens when we consider the two cartographers, Waldseemüller and Schöner. Were these two hoary old sea captains who had made heroic voyages across the Pacific before Magellan? Should we rename the strait after Schöner? Hardly.
Yup. Neither Waldseemuller nor Schoner were actual sea captains. That means that…um…what does that mean, exactly? I believe that Menzies is making the argument that because Waldseemuller and Schoner weren’t hoary old sea captains they must have gotten their ideas for their maps from another source, thereby China. Because it’s not possible that they got their ideas from, say, the Cantino map. And it’s certainly not possible that one of them cribbed from the other. Unless, of course, they did.
Let’s go see what Toby Lester has to say about that.
He began his story of the Waldseemuller map in The Fourth Part of the World with the tale of Father Joseph Fischer, a Jesuit and a professor of history and geography with a thing for old maps. In 1901 he went to a castle in southern Germany called Wolfegg Castle in search of a rare 15th Century map that included Greenland (because, y’know, Greenland!). Upon finding his map he decided to look in a small storage area that wasn’t part of the main castle library.
…Fischer soon came across something that piqued his curiosity: a large folio with red beech-wood covers, bound together with finely tooled pigskin. Two Gothic brass clasps held the folio shut, and Fischer pried them open gently. On the inside cover he found a small bookplate, bearing the date 1515 and a small inscription, which gave him the name of the folio’s original owner: Johannes Schoner, a well-known sixteenth-century German mathematician and geographer. “Posterity,” the inscription began, “Schoner gives this to you as an offering.”
To make a very long story short, that folio contained the only known copy of the Waldeseemuller Map. Towards the end of the book Lester makes the primary point that I’d like to draw your attention to.
Schoner didn’t need the map for display or teaching purposes. He needed it as a reference work, so he didn’t assemble or mount it. Instead he bound it – along with a copy of Waldseemuller’s 1516 Carta Marina, a star chart engraved by Albrecht Durer in 1515, and celestial globe gores that he himself produced in 1517 – into an oversized, wood-covered folio that he could keep in his personal library. In the years between 1515 and 1520 Schoner studied the map carefully. He drew a grid of red lines across parts of its two central sheets, presumably to help him transfer the coordinates of paces he saw there to his globes – of which he produced several during those years, all of which rely heavily on the Waldseemuller map.
When it gets right down to it, though the best critiques of Menzies’ theory come from a pair of unlikely sources: a pair of 16th Century mapmakers named Martin Waldseemuller and Johannes Schoner. I’ll let Toby Lester explain for Waldseemuller.
Waldseemuller would live on for another eight years. But something peculiar happened after Ringmann’s death: Waldseemuller stopped using the name America. In 1513, when his new edition of the Geography was finally printed, in Strassburg, neither of the two maps in the atlas that portrayed the New Word called it America or showed it surrounded by water.
This is Waldseemuller’s similar 1516 Carta Marina:
If you think that looks familiar, well, scroll back up to the Caverio map.
Meanwhile, this is a reproduction of a globe that Schoner made in 1533:
If you’re thinking that looks kind of like South America attached to Asia by Central America, you’re correct. That’s exactly what that is.
If nothing else, all of these maps prove that Europeans of the early 16th Century really didn’t know what the world looked like and were relying on a combination of educated guesses and blatantly stealing from past sources. They were also quite indecisive about what to do with the world. It’s kind of the exact opposite of the story Menzies would have us accept of a European world map suddenly created by a miraculous Chinese world voyage.
That’s one of those things where simply having a great deal of obscure knowledge is extremely useful. I just happened to know that there was a mythical “dragon’s tail” attached to the eastern edge of Asia by mapmakers in the 15th and 16th century, so when I saw reference to one in the writings of Galvao I knew that it had a meaning that both Menzies and Laurence Bergreen missed. It could be that I missed it because Galvao was referring to a different dragon’s tail, since his notion of Henry the Navigator buying a map with a feature called the dragon’s tail predates the addition of the peninsular dragon’s tail by several decades. But in this case I’m willing to stand on my interpretation: Galvao didn’t know what he was talking about.
 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), 14.
Lester, Fourth Part, 385.
Mathias Ringmann, the true driving force behind the creation of the Waldseemuller map and the book that accompanied it, which was mostly Ptolemy’s Geography mashed together with a copy of a letter purportedly from Amerigo Vespucci about his voyages to the New World.
Lester, Fourth Part, 379-381.