I’m sure I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I have a real problem with the way history is generally taught. We usually learn history as either a series of dates and names that have no connection or as a master narrative that makes it seems like Event A inexorably lead to Event B and then Event C was the only logical response. Or, worse, we make it seem like Person A saw Event A and Event B and then went and intentionally caused Event C in order to get Outcome Z. This is, for the most part, flat wrong.
We think about history in this manner because we see the historical narrative. Certain people, places, and things are connected so we invoke a narrative to explain why they’re connected that often starts with the outcome or at least its place in history. That narrative is wrong as often as not, but we keep telling it to ourselves because humans are addicted not to the facts but to the narrative that puts them all together. That narrative is where conspiracy theories are born. That narrative is why conspiracy theories often fall apart when you pick at the details.
If you go back to part 3 of the 1434 posts you’ll see that Menzies went after Martin Waldseemuller and Johannes Schoner and attempted to use their maps as proof that they’d learned about the world from Chinese maps. Debunking that notion required a quick primer on pretty much every European map of the new world that existed at the time. Feel free to refresh your memory, because things are about to get even more complicated.
These two rustic mapmakers were not the only Europeans with an uncanny prescience about unseen lands. In 1419, before European voyages of exploration even began, Albertin di Virga published a map of the Eastern Hemisphere that shows northern Australia. It was another 350 years before Captain Cook “discovered” that continent.
So…this is super awkward. See, a bit of Google-fu brought me to Gavin Menzies’ own site that included a description of the 1419 di Virga map and a comparison to the “1418” Liu Gang map which I shall get into shortly. Notice anything about the di Virga map on Menzies’ own website? If you said, “There’s nothing that looks even remotely like Australia on that map,” you’d be correct. You could make a case that the land out there is Australia, I suppose, but all the descriptions I’ve seen indicate that the inscription says “Caparu sive Java magna.” It’s far more likely that di Virga simply penciled in a landmass to cover Java, which Marco Polo did visit, and possibly that other Pacific island that so beguiled the medieval European imagination: Cipangu, or Japan.
I should pause here and point something out. The possibility that Chinese cartography influenced European cartography cannot and, for that matter, should not be dismissed. The di Virga map is, in fact, a key place where it’s important to take a moment’s pause, as is the Martellus map I mentioned in part 2. The reason it’s important to consider the possibility of Chinese influence is the Kangnido map I mentioned in part 3 as compared to the old Ptolemy map and the legacy of the Dragon’s Tail. Europeans in the early part of the Renaissance thought that the Indian Ocean was landlocked. Not all maps made in the early 1400s showed this, however, which was interesting considering that no European rounded the Cape of Good Hope before the very late 1400s and Vasco de Gama was the first European to sail from western Europe to India in a voyage that ran more-or-less concurrently with Columbus’s expeditions to the New World.
Toby Lester offers as good an explanation as we’ll probably get in The Fourth Part of the World:
During the early 1400s a few maps appeared in Europe that also suggested an awareness of Africa’s true shape. A case in point is the world map of Albertin de Virga, made in Venice between 1411 and 1415. Drawn before the Portuguese had even captured Ceuta, and probably incorporating knowledge obtained from Muslim or Chinese merchants, the map confidently portrays the continent as bulging out to the west in the north, and then honing itself gently to a point in the South.
It stands to reason that Muslim cartographers would have some idea of what Africa looked like by the early 1400s. That explanation is more likely than a Chinese-centered cartography, though. Still, there was enough sharing of information between Europe, the Middle East, and China to make any explanation of mapmaking that doesn’t include some amount of sharing far more suspect than one that does. For one, accounts of Marco Polo’s sojourn in the east had been available for nearly a century by then. The Fra Mauro mappamundi was, for example, said to be based in part on a map brought back from Cathay by Polo himself.
The key thing to realize here, though, is that if Gavin Menzies had simply claimed that the Chinese knew more than the Europeans of the 1400s about the navigation of the Indian Ocean the appropriate response would probably be something like, “Well, duh.” European maps from before 1300 or so weren’t exactly based on anything closely resembling reality and the ones up until about 1600 still had some weirdness. Hell, they were still bugging anyone and everyone from Africa or Asia about that Prester John fellow until sometime around 1500 and thought Gog and Magog were hanging out in Siberia for most of that time, too.
When confronted with an aberration on a European map it’s actually best to work under the assumption that the cartographer was either incorrect, making a wild guess, or treating legendary lands as real places. This, though, is where the narrative and the conspiracy theories come into play. We know now that the Americas exist and where they are. We know now that Australia and Antarctica exist and where they are. Any map that contains things that look like the Americas, Australia, and Antarctica before their official discoveries, then, invite speculation.
So let’s get back to the di Virga map and the Liu Gang map that Gavin Menzies compared it to. The Liu Gang map is supposedly a 1763 copy of a 1418 map. So Menzies calls the di Virga map a 1419 map and claims he copied it from the Liu Gang map after di Virga ran into the Chinese somewhere. The problem here is that there is no full date on the di Virga map, just the numbers 141. Every other source I’ve seen reads the map as created in either 1411 or 1415. So that’s a pretty strong mark against Menzies’ interpretation.
This is how conspiracies work, though. There are two things, one of which is a map that was most likely a forgery. Then there’s another map that’s most likely not a forgery but that seems to match up with the forged map and also has anachronisms and a fuzzy date. So Menzies took the most generous possible interpretation of the fuzziness of the date and turned it into proof of his own theory.
I have, however, run a marathon where a brisk walk down the block would have been enough. Remember: Gavin Menzies’ theory is that the Chinese discovered the New World in 1421. His book, which has a copyright of 2002, makes absolutely no mention of Liu Gang, which you’d think it would since, y’know, it would be slam-dunk evidence. That’s because Liu Gang didn’t reveal his map until 2005 or 2006. Whether Liu Gang is in on the hoax is debatable, but for the sake of argument let’s say his story is correct and that he’s been suckered by a fake map.
Liu Gang’s map supposedly dates to a 1418 map created by Zheng He that shows the entire world pretty much as we know it today. Gavin Menzies originally claimed that Zheng He discovered the New World on a voyage that lasted from 1421 through 1423. So who gave Zheng He his 1418 map before his 1421 voyage? Was it St. Brendan?
I’m gonna go with St. Brendan.
A Muslim fortification on the opposite side of the Strait of Gibraltar from, well, Gibraltar. The Portuguese captured it in 1415 as part of the long struggle between the Christians of the Iberian Peninsula and the Muslims of North Africa. It’s currently a semi-autonomous Spanish possession because of things that are totally outside the scope of this project. The Portuguese push to explore along the coast of Africa didn’t start until well after Ceuta.
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), 207.
Purchased by a man named Liu Gang. Liu Gang claims that it’s a copy of a 1418 map created by Zheng He as part of his voyages. I choose to call it the Liu Gang map, though, since that’s easier and calling it the Zheng He map wouldn’t be accurate.