The Democratic Party is Irrelevant

It looks like Hillary has the Democratic Party nomination all but locked up right now. We’re down to recriminations and sour grapes and I-told-you-sos and calls for party unity. Bernie’s still talking a big game but Hillary’s already gearing up for her victory lap and Trump has started ignoring Cruz and Kasich in favor of taking potshots at Hillary and mocking the media for its notion of what “presidential” looks like while the media tells us that he is, in fact, presidential.[1] All of this is maneuvering and posturing for the big show that will consume all of us between now and November. All of this ignores the one thing no one in America is able to recognize. Whether Hillary wins by 90 points or Trump becomes America’s most wildly unqualified President-elect since Zachary Taylor the Democratic Party is going to lose.

We’ve been hearing tales of the death of the Republican Party for years. In 2008 there were gleeful reports of the end of all things Republican Party. John McCain went from being one of the most respected politicians in America to a has-been joke accompanied by a word-salad shooting moron in a matter of months while the Democratic Party Ascendant had Barack Obama and still had Hillary waiting in the wings. In 2012 when the Republican Clown Car was whittled down to a bafflingly wealthy board with an amazing head of hair with no chance of winning the pundits looked at the vast wasteland of Republican benchwarmers and also-rans and asked yet again if the Republicans would soon go the way of the Whigs, the Anti-Masonic Party, and the American Party.[2]

What all of this ignores is the fact that the Republican Party is far stronger now than it was in 2008. The Republican Party won the most important political race of this generation in 2010 while the Democratic Party was asleep at the switch. Don’t believe me? Let me throw three names at you: John Kasich, Scott Walker, and Rick Snyder.

What do all three of those men have in common? All three were inaugurated as state governors in January of 2011. All three followed a Democratic Governor. All three are currently governors of old, mainline Union states whose men had heroic tales of fighting the Confederates in the Civil War. All three had a long tradition of leading the way on labor rights issues. All three states went to Barack Obama in 2008. The states in question are Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ohio.

You may recognize all of those names. John Kasich is, of course, the current answer to the question, “Hey, who’s the other guy who’s still in the Republican race for some reason?” Scott Walker is famous for having to run another race for his own job shortly after being elected when it turned out that he mostly wanted to tell teachers to go fuck themselves. Rick Snyder, meanwhile, let the city of Flint, Michigan drink and bathe in delicious lead water for a year or so.[3]

The Republican Party didn’t just grab a few governor’s offices in 2010. They took control of the House and very nearly managed to grab the Senate. The Senate seat grab came at the cost of the Illinois Senate seat that had belonged to Barack Obama, although there was the weird influence selling scheme by Rod Blagojevich and Roland Burris had already vacated the seat by the time Mark Kirk was sworn in. The big loss in 2010 came in — wait for it — Wisconsin, where liberal stalwart Russ Feingold was booted in favor of Ron Johnson, as dingbatty a Tea Party dingbat as any of the other Tea Partiers.[4]

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a few other Republicans who won the governorship in formerly Democratic-governed states. Rick Scott took Florida and became the first governor to push for drug testing of welfare recipients. He also refused to say that he knows anything about climate change while governing a state that’s slowly drowning. Paul LePage got the governor’s seat in Maine with just under 39% of the vote and proceeded to just be the worst. Sam Brownback won in Kansas and decided to use it as a laboratory for Republican financial policies of cutting taxes to the rich and services to everyone else and Kansas is suffering heavily from lack of funds. But it’s okay because Kansas is going to pay you $2,500 the state doesn’t have if you check the genitalia of everyone in their public restrooms and find that someone has an outtie where there should be an innie.[5]

So, in short, in 2008 the Democratic Party won the Oval Office and majorities in both houses of Congress. The pundits started asking if that would be the end of the Republican Party. Two years later the Republicans had taken basically everything back but the office of the President. We should all have such a difficult death.

This whole change came about because of the Tea Party, a pseudo grassroots organization that was fueled by equal parts racism, religious bigotry, hatred of the poor, and generalized rage at the Other. Much ado was made about how the Republican Establishment wasn’t a fan of the Tea Party and either the Tea Party would take over the Republican Party or the Republican Party would splinter into a Mainline Conservative faction and a Tea Party faction. This, it was reported, would be the death of the Republican Party as a force in American politics.

We all know that didn’t happen. I’m now convinced that the Republican Party will long outlive the Democratic Party. This, of course, flies in the face of conventional wisdom. The Republican Party is the party of old people, after all. Its supporters will soon die out and its ideologies will soon become irrelevant. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

The simple fact of the matter is that it’s the Democratic Party is irrelevant. There is no nationwide plan. They look at the major grassroots, socially-driven, progressive movements in this country and they respond with shrugs at best and lectures at worst. The Democratic Party did nothing to help Occupy or Black Lives Matter. The Democratic Party gave up the high ground on North Carolina’s so-called “bathroom bill” and let Starbucks and Target and Bruce Springsteen take up the fight.

For all of the gleeful discussion of how 2008 was a sign that the Republican Party was in its death throes the Republicans gained ground. For all of the speculation that Donald Trump will destroy the Republican Party the Republicans keep gaining ground. The Republican Party has a strong coalition because the Republican Party has a coalition based on hate and fear. It doesn’t matter if the voters hate taxes or government or gays or brown people, they all hate something. And Donald Trump hates and fears the same things they do just as strongly as they do.

I do not for a moment believe that the powers that be in the Republican Party actually give a shit about whether or not Trump wins the nomination. The Kochs and the Adelsons and the dark money groups know something that most of America doesn’t: the office of the President doesn’t actually matter. It’s a sideshow. Get a stranglehold on 50 governors and 50 state legislatures and a plurality of Congress and the President could be a magical unicorn that farts jobs programs and shits healthcare vouchers and it won’t matter.

The Republican rank and file will go to the polls in November. They will vote for Trump. Whether or not Trump wins it won’t matter, though, since those very same voters will also vote for Louie Gohmert and Chuck Grassley and David Vitter and they’ll go back to the polls in two years to vote for Louie Gohmert and Rick Snyder and Bruce Rauner while the Democratic Party takes a nap and maybe lectures social progressives on what they need to do to get on the Sunday morning shows and the front page of HuffPo.

If Hillary loses, which is not a bet I’m currently willing to take, the Democratic Party will eat its own tail. It will turn on Bernie’s supporters and wag its finger and tell all of those damn Millennials and misogynistic BernieBros that it was their fault. The thing about it is, though, that those same lazy Millennials and misogynistic BernieBros flock to rallies and march in protests and love Elizabeth Warren. So maybe it’s not that they’re too lazy to vote or hate women but that they’re looking for something authentic and they see it in Bernie and Warren and don’t see it in Hillary and the Democratic Party.

The Democratic Party needs to find ways to leverage enthusiasm for Bernie but it won’t. How do I know this? We saw it in 2008 with Howard Dean. Dean, for those who can remember things that happened 12 years ago, was the presumptive frontrunner going into the 2004 election. He lost, badly, but became the DNC Chair and formulated the 50-State-Strategy, which was an attempt to counter the Republican tendency to make sure they had people running for every seat from President on down to County Coroner. Dean’s strategy was crucial for the Democratic Party wins in the 2006 mid-term and 2008’s visit to the woodshed with the Republican Party. How was Dean rewarded after the 2008 election? He was kicked to the curb.

See, it’s conventional wisdom in the Democratic Party that some seats just can’t be won and, as such, no money should be spent on those seats. It was Dean’s belief that you lose 100% of the seats you don’t put a candidate up for. Dean’s primary opponent was Rahm Immanuel, also known as Obama’s first Chief of Staff and the current mayor of the soon-to-be-formerly-great city of Chicago. It doesn’t take too much to figure out how Dean ended up on the outside of the fight.

I can assure you, as someone who has taken the Democratic ballot in several primaries and seen that half of the sheet is blank, that it’s frustrating and demoralizing. This primary season I wanted to vote for Bernie. I was also proud to get a chance to vote for Tammy Duckworth. After that most of the boxes on my ballot were blank. All that does is signal that in November those same boxes will have a name with an R next to it and no name with a D.

So let’s review. The Democratic Party doesn’t care about trying to win seats in districts that are in Chicago’s collar counties. The Democratic Party would rather that the people from Occupy and Black Lives Matter go home and be quiet and speak with their votes. When those people do speak with their votes for Bernie Sanders the Democratic Party scolds them for dragging out Hillary’s coronation.

Meanwhile, the unfettered id of the Republican Party runs amok. “Hey, I hear you hate Muslims. So do we!” say Trump and Cruz. “What’s that? You’re worried that the Mexicans are taking your jobs? We’ll build a wall!” “You don’t like the gays getting married? Here’s a bill that will stop all that from happening!”

And that’s the lesson the Democratic Party needs to take from the death throes of the Republicans in 2008 and 2010.[6] There will always be Tea Partiers. There will always be angry people. The rank and file of the Republican Party isn’t united in their love of low capital gains taxes or Evangelical Christianity. It’s united in the fact that the people who vote Republican are deeply, existentially, afraid of something and are looking for someone to tell them that they’re not alone in their fears. They’re looking for someone to tell them, “Yes, we are standing here on the ramparts and we will defend you from that big, scary monster.”

The Tea Party didn’t destroy the Republican Party because as far as the Republicans were concerned the Tea Party was a giant, angry focus group. Trump’s supporters are much the same. The entire Trump campaign has normalized hate and bigotry to a degree that would make Barry Goldwater blush. No matter what happens in November of 2016 the Republicans will take that information and run with it in 2018 and again in 2020.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, begs Black Lives Matter to quiet down and told Occupy to go home because they might make it harder to work with the Republicans. Those self-same Republicans who seven years ago said it was their entire job to keep Barack Obama from accomplishing anything while he was President. On one level they failed, since Obama got quite a bit accomplished. But even when Obama pushed through a victory, like the ACA, the Republicans still managed to functionally stop it from working in states like Texas by just refusing the Federal subsidies. They also made sure it was a horribly written law hated by basically everyone from the start.

Occupy should have been a refreshing of the Democratic Party. Black Lives Matter should be the signal of the start of a new Civil Rights Movement. The enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders should be a wake-up call that a huge chunk of the country is clamoring for a real progressive bent to the supposedly liberal Democratic Party. That’s simply not happening. The Democratic Party is pushing away those they should embrace.

It should be said at this point that the Democratic Party has had a pretty good track record with gay rights and women’s health issues these last few years. But even those victories have to be written down with big, fat asterisks. For every step forward at the Federal level there are huge steps backward in the Red States. Gay marriage is now the law of the land but Republican lawmakers down in the states are doubling-down with discriminatory laws. Planned Parenthood and similar organizations have been all but pushed out of the South because legislators have been allowed to write bizarre, specific laws and then change them on a whim.

What it all comes down to is the idea that a big, splashy win is meaningless if it doesn’t bring about real, helpful change. The Democratic Party focuses on big wins while the Republican Party focuses on little victories because the Republicans know that the little victories add up. The Oval Office is a big win but six governors, seventy Congresspeople, and a whole bunch of state legislators are a heap of little victories. We know from American history that the little victories mean more.

In 1876 the Republicans got the White House. The Democrats got the little victory of the end of Reconstruction. This set the stage for Jim Crow and allowed racist policies to rule the South until the signing of the Civil Rights Act in 1963. The Civil Rights Act was a big win. In 1964 the Republicans started their string of little victories with the Southern Strategy. That strategy, as I’ve talked about before, is why we are where we are today.

There are real people in America who are hurting. Transgender people in North Carolina are being told they aren’t allowed to use the bathroom because they’re sexually violent. Black kids in Chicago and St Louis are being shot by the police who are supposed to help them. Toddlers in Flint have developmental defects from drinking lead water. The state of Illinois is no longer paying its bills because Bruce Rauner has made sure there isn’t a budget for nearly a year. Kansas appears to be at a breaking point but Brownback keeps doubling down.

Each of these things costs us something. Each of these things is another step down the road to ruin. It’s not inevitable. It’s not irreversible. But as long as the Republicans keep finding a new way to harness hate and anger while the Democrats keep seeing the progressive grassroots as a hindrance we’ll keep walking down that road.

The Democratic Party either needs to wake up or move aside. Anything else is a death spiral of irrelevance and ruin.


[1]This is one of the subplots of the 2016 Presidential race that just completely boggles my mind. The news media mocked Trump when it looked like he was just running to sell more books last year. As this bizarre farce has gone on the news has started telling us that, no, really, he can totally be President, you guys. Look! He’s learned how to use a teleprompter! And he went three whole sentences without kicking Ted Cruz in the nuts, metaphorically speaking! So President. Much gravitas.

[2]A.K.A. the Know-Nothings. That’s my second favorite political epithet behind the Mugwumps.

[3]The whole thing with Snyder is actually significantly worse than it looks if you do a little digging. One of the reasons it got to that point in the first place was because of the Emergency Financial Manager position in Michigan. It was a law originally created in 1988 to give the state the ability to step in and fix broken financial situations in municipalities. One of Snyder’s first acts as Governor was to drastically expand the scope of the Emergency Financial Manager’s power. The people of Michigan slapped the revision down but then Snyder pushed a similar bill through in 2012. Flint was living under Snyder’s rule when the city’s Emergency Financial Manager switched from Lake Huron water to Flint River water.

So, y’know, fuck Rick Snyder.

[4]2010 also included an off-cycle Senate election that followed the death of Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy. In that election the woefully inadequate Democrat Martha Coakley lost to Republican empty suit and former underwear model Scott Brown. In 2012 Scott Brown got his ass handed to him by Elizabeth Warren because Elizabeth Warren is one of the five or so politicians in America who is actually good at their job. Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Dick Durbin, and Tammy Duckworth are the other four.

[5]Here in the civilized world we call people who go into public restrooms and force other people to show them their genitals “sex offenders.” I guess things are different in Kansas.

[6]And, for that matter, 1964.

1434 Fridays, Part the Fifth

So I think I’m about done with Gavin Menzies’ introduction to 1434.  That’s not to say I’m to the end.  That’s to say that this will be the last post I write about it because there’s just so goddamn much fail packed into this thing I might never get done.

Also, the latter half of the Introduction is all about Gavin Menzies making sure we know he goes on awesome vacations.  No, really.  He seems to think that the fact that his vacations are awesome but he doesn’t take vacations from his stupid ideas matter to us.  Also, I’m pretty sure he brings up the fact that he knows things because he was the captain of a Royal Navy submarine, which makes him an expert.  Captains, after all, are the unimpeachably brilliant successes of the sea.

Just don’t tell the people on the Costa Concordia.  Or the penguins covered in oil by the Exxon Valdez.  Or the folks from the Titanic.  Although it must be said that a Royal Navy-trained captain would probably know better.  The Royal Navy, after all, never used one of their pre-dreadnoughts to ram and sink another one of their pre-dreadnoughts because the admiral in charge couldn’t be arsed to figure out that running a 180-degree inward reversal of course is best accomplished when the ships are not within each others’ turning range.

You might be saying that I’m not making a fair comparison.  Gavin Menzies, after all, never once rammed the HMS Camperdown into the HMS Victoria.  Fair point, that.  My point is, though, that there’s nothing magical about “going to sea,” even though Menzies seems to think that matters.  The truth is that I’ve never been to sea, either, but I could still draw a pretty decent map of the world.

Well, I couldn’t, really.  I’m a terrible artist.

Anyway, fuck that noise.  We’ve got unsupported assertions to deal with here.

Menzies makes an interesting statement after dragging Schoner and Waldseemuller’s good names through the mud.

Similarly, Brazil appeared on Portuguese maps before the first Portuguese, Cabral and Dias, set sail for Brazil.

This literally comes out of nowhere.  He tosses it in as an aside after his claims that the di Virga map depicted Australia, which I covered last time out.  The problem here is that there’s no evidence Cabral had a map of Brazil.  We know next to nothing about what sort of kit Cabral had and all of the indications are that Cabral’s discovery of Brazil was a happy accident or, possibly, a secret instruction to find out if there was anything on Portugal’s side of the line from the Treaty of Tordesillas.

We simply don’t know what, if anything, Cabral knew.  Well, that’s not true.  We do know that they had to engage in a bit of surveying to prove that the land was, indeed, on Portugal’s side of the Tordesillas line.  Oh, and we know that Brazil’s original name was Island of the True Cross.  Because they thought it was a fucking island.  Which is problematic for Menzies’ Chinese map theory.

I suppose you could make up a theory that the Portuguese were doing it to bullshit the Spanish.  The fact is, though, that nobody knew what was what in the New World at the time and the Portuguese were in the right – at least where the Spanish and the Pope were concerned, which was the only issue that mattered to them at the time – to claim the land.  There was no real need to call the land a big island for the purposes of subterfuge.

It doesn’t matter, though.  You see, Gavin Menzies is engaging in a Gish Gallop here, just throwing out information without backing it up.  If I’m charitable I’ll admit that’s because I’m still in the Introduction.  Still, though, it’s a lot of bullshit.  Perhaps I’d have a better grasp on what he thinks is going on if I’d read all of 1421.  Perhaps I wouldn’t be writing these posts, though.  I don’t think they’d allow me to access my blog from the loony bin.

So what’s his next bit of information?  I’m glad you asked:

The South Shetland Islands were shown on the Piri Reis map four hundred years before Europeans reached the Antarctic.

I’ve seen the Piri Reis Map.  I have no clue what Menzies is talking about.  This should shock no one.

Piri Reis, or Piri the Captain, was one of the captains who served the first generation of what would be known as the Barbary Pirates.  He was a navigator and a mapmaker and the producer of the most detailed maps of the Mediterranean available to the armadas of the Sultan during the 16th Century.  He produced a world map in 1513 that looked quite a bit like the earlier Caverio and Cantino maps. Take a look at the Atlantic in the Piri Reis:


Now the Cantino:


Now the Caverio:


It’s also likely that Piri Reis would have had access to either the Ruysch map or the Waldseemuller map or both.  It’s pretty easy to look at the Piri Reis Map and see the influence of the earlier maps.  That’s pretty much always been the historical consensus about the Piri Reis map as far as I know.  This consensus is aided and abetted by the fact that early 16th Century mapmakers liberally stole from their source material all the freaking time.  And, hell, Piri Reis was a fucking pirate, so there’s that.

One thing Reis did that was different from his source material, though, was to draw other land in around South America.  This land, it should be noted, conforms to absolutely no land that exists anywhere near South America, as it makes it look like South America stretches almost to Africa just south of Brazil. There was absolutely nothing analogous to that landform on any maps before or after 1513.  Magellan hadn’t done his thing yet, but Vasco de Gama, Cabral, and Amerigo Vespucci would have known better by then.

The most likely explanation is pretty simple: Piri Reis decided to duplicate the shape of South America from the Ruysch map or the Waldseemuller map but ran out of paper, so he drew it around the corner.  This is a much easier explanation to swallow than the idea that he was drawing an accurate depiction of the South Shetland Islands.  That theory would require us to believe that Piri Reis had a super accurate Chinese map of the world that somehow put Antarctica on a line directly between Uruguay and South Africa.

Menzies then follows up his unsupported assertions with this paragraph:

The great European explorers were brave and determined men. But they discovered nothing. Magellan was not the first to circumnavigate the globe, nor was Columbus the first to discover the Americas. So why, we may ask, do historians persist in propagating this fantasy? Why is The Times Atlas of World Exploration, which details the discoveries of European explorers, still taught in schools? Why are the young so insistently misled?

Good god, but the man is a fucking idiot.  And a self-important fucking idiot, too.

Either way, I give up on the Introduction.  Join me next week when I wade into the giant pile-o-fail that is, well, the rest of the goddamn book.

1434 Fridays, Part the Fourth

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[1], 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.[2]

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[3] 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.


[1]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.

[2]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.

[3]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.

1434 Fridays, Part the Third

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,[1] 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.”[2]

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.[3]

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[4] 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.[5]

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.


[1]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.

[2] 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.

[3]Lester, Fourth Part, 385.

[4]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.

[5]Lester, Fourth Part, 379-381.

1434 Fridays, Part the Second

In the last entry I made it all the way to the second paragraph of Gavin Menzies’ Introduction to 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance.  Hopefully I’ll make it slightly farther this time.  I’m guessing I’ll make it at least to the second page.

In Menzies’ second paragraph he claimed that Christopher Columbus had already seen a map of the Americas before he did his Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria thing in 1492.  The next logical step, then, is to drag the good name of Ferdinand Magellan through the mud.  This is, I believe, primarily because Gavin Menzies has never heard of John Cabot, Amerigo Vespucci, or Balboa.  More power to them, I say.

Either way Menzies again makes testable claims in relation to Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition.  He points out that the voyage wasn’t going well as Magellan transited the passage which is now known by his name down at the bottom of South America.  So we get this:

A member of the crew wrote, “We all believed that [the Strait] was a cul-de-sac; but the captain knew that he had to navigate through a very well-concealed strait, having seen it in a chart preserved in the treasury of the king of Portugal, and made by Martin of Bohemia, a man of great parts.”

This is from the Pigafetta account of Magellan’s expedition.  The Martin of Bohemia in question was Martin Behaim.  This is the super-helpful cleaned-up depiction of Behaim’s globe on Wikipedia:


If you look closely at that globe you’ll notice a few things.  First, you’ll notice that there is no strait of anybody, let alone Magellan.  It’s just a bunch of islands.  But if you look at the islands closely, you might notice a few other things.

First, Cipangu is on the left side, just above the Equator.  Just to its right you’ll see an island labeled “Sant Brandan.”  That would be the mythical Island of Saint Brendan, who supposedly traveled into the Atlantic and discovered a bunch of amazing stuff in the 6th Century.  Above and to the right of Sant Brandan you’ll see Antilia and Indicus.  Antilia is the mythical island of seven cities of gold that was depicted in the Pizzigano Chart and kicked off Menzies’ search for proof that the Chinese discovered America in 1421.  To the right of that are a bunch of other islands labeled Acores, Ferro, Canarie, and Cabo Verde.  Those are the Azores, Canaries, and Cape Verde Islands, which were long inhabited by the Portuguese and Spanish by 1492.  To the right of that are the west coasts of Africa and Europe.

Suspiciously absent, you might notice, is a giant landmass in between.  I mention this because it’s completely and totally obvious right here that Gavin Menzies did not do his homework.  If he actually cared about true historical inquiry – which, you’ll recall, he accused the many historians who greeted 1421 with silence of being guilty of – he might have looked at Martin Behaim’s map and noticed that it does not include America or anything even remotely America-like.

In fact, he could have read Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, which was published in 2003.  Bergreen offers this explanation:

Pigafetta was inadvertently responsible for the case of mistaken identity; in all likelihood, he confused Behaim’s rendition with that of another Nuremberg mapmaker, Johannes Schoner, a professor of mathematics who produced two maps, one in 1515 and the other in 1520, close to the time Magellan was displaying a map to King Charles.  To the nonspecialist, Schoner’s maps closely resembled Behaim’s, and Pigafetta could easily have mistaken one for the other, especially since Schoner did not sign his production.[1]

Let us then consider Schoner’s map.


That includes something that looks a lot like South America.  It also includes something that looks like a decent-sized island where North America would be.  And there’s a strait in between those two.  Also there’s a strait at the bottom, between proto-South America and a giant, completely out of place Antarctica-ish looking place.

If you look directly to the left of not-North-America you’ll also see an interesting land form: Cipangu.  It’s called Zipangri in the Schoner map, but that is most definitely Cipangu.  It’s also roughly in the neighborhood of the Baja Peninisula in the North America of reality.  From there, too, it’s a hop, skip, and a jump from Cipangu to mainland Asia.

That’s what Magellan was looking for: a quick route through the newly-discovered lands in the Atlantic that would grant him easy passage to the Spice Islands and fantastic wealth.  In the Schoner map Asia and Europe take up far more of the world than they do in reality, which is how Schoner’s Atlantic, Pacific, and Americas can be so very narrow.  This is an explanation that goes all the way back to Claudius Ptolemy.

Ptolemy made two mistakes in creating his map of the world that ended up really distorting his – and, therefore, posterity’s – notion of the world.  First, he underestimated the circumference of the planet by about 14 percent.  Second, he overestimated longitudinal distances.  In his map Europe and Asia reached approximately 180 degrees around the globe.  This is technically true, but for the ancient and medieval mind the east side of Asia pretty much meant China.  The distance from the west coast of Portugal to the east coast of China is about 140 degrees.  In 1492 Henricus Martellus completed his map, which increased the size of Europe and Asia to 230 degrees.  The 1474 Toscanelli Map also extended Europe and Asia around 230 degrees.  Toscanelli or his allies attempted to argue for a western voyage to Asia based on his conclusions.[2]  Wikipedia offers a helpful illustration of what Toscanelli’s Map would look like in the real world:


Notice how Cipangu is between the west coast of reality-Mexico and the east coast of the Baja Peninsula.  If you’re thinking that’s pretty much exactly the same place Schoner put it…well…I am, too.  Make a note of that, as I’ll be getting back to it shortly.

I need to back up just a bit.  I mentioned the weird-pseudo Antarctica in the Schoner map.  The straight between South America and pseudo-Antarctica is at about 42 degrees south on the Schoner map.  The actual south end of South America is down around 60 degrees.  So that’s too low.  There is, however, the Rio de la Plata at 35 degrees.  Let’s go back to Bergreen here.

Years before Magellan arrived at the Rio de la Plata, both Spanish and Portuguese ships had searched for the strait at this very point.  Antonio Galvao, who served as the Portuguese governor of the Moluccas, wrote about a “most rare and excellent map of the world, which was a great helpe [sic] to Don Henry (the Navigator) in his discouries [sic].”  In 1428, Galvao said, the king of Portugal’s eldest son made a journey through England, France, Germany, and Italy “from whence he brought a map of the world which had all the parts of the world and the earth described.  The Streight of Magelan [sic] was called in it the Dragon’s taile[sic].”  A dragon’s tail was a fitting image for the strait, suggesting that it was dangerous, sinuous, and possibly mythological.  Columbus believed in its existence, too.

I find this utterly fascinating.  For one thing, the 1428 map and Galvao’s description of it made it into Menzies’ 1421 and, not surprisingly, Menzies made a big deal about it.  For another thing, both Menzies and Bergreen get this one completely and totally wrong.  It’s understandable, since Galvao’s explanation doesn’t exactly make sense, either, but the Dragon’s Tail is a specific feature of world maps from the 15th Century.  Let’s look at the Martellus map:


See that big peninsula sticking down from the east side of Asia?  There’s a term for that: The Dragon’s Tail.  To understand the Dragon’s Tail, we need to understand Ptolemy’s map of the ancient world.  Also we need to understand a bit of Aristotle’s cosmography.  Isn’t this fun?[3]


If you look at that map you’ll see two broadly-defined areas: white areas and blue areas.  The blue areas are water.  The white areas are land.  If you look over at the right side of the map and then trace it down along the bottom, you’ll notice that the land seems to surround a huge, inland sea that stretches between the west coast of Africa and the general area around India.  Ptolemy thought that the body of water we now call the Indian Ocean was landlocked.  Let that thought rattle around for a bit.

The second thing we need to consider is Aristotelian cosmography.  Aristotle divided the world into five zones.  Broadly, these were two arctic zones, two temperate zones, and an area in between known as the torrid zone.  The notion we have of the Arctic Circle, the Antarctic Circle, the Tropic of Cancer, and the Tropic of Capricorn are holdouts of Aristotle’s notion of the world, as they are the dividing lines between various zones.  He believed that humans were incapable of surviving in the arctic zones and would burn up in the Torrid Zone.  He was also the only classical philosopher to maintain a hold on western European thought during the medieval period.  So when medieval cosmographers were drawing their T-O maps they were basing their world on Aristotle’s notion.

Aristotle had two other beliefs that matter a great deal.  The first was that there had to be a landmass of equal size on the opposite side of the Torrid Zone.  This was referred to as the antipodes, which is a term that literally means “opposed foot.”  The second was that there had to be a fourth part of the world somewhere, which would eventually be reached, with the first three being Europe, Asia, and Africa.  These two ideas are fundamentally linked.  Probably.

During the medieval period, however, people mostly kept to the notion of the uncrossable Torrid Zone.  Then Marco Polo made a brief mention of crossing so far south that the Pole Star could no longer be seen.  That meant that Marco Polo had crossed the Torrid Zone into the southern hemisphere and lived to tell the tale.

The Portuguese eventually figured out that Africa did end.  If you go back to the Martellus Map, however, you’ll see that Africa’s southeastern coast extends really far out into the Indian Ocean.  You’ll also see that there’s a giant peninsula that extends down from the east coast of China and stretches back towards Africa.  That’s an artifact of the Ptolemy map.  Martellus was the first European to make a map after the Portuguese found the southern tip of Africa.  He believed that it was still possible that land extended all around the islands Marco Polo had visited, so he adjusted his map accordingly.

This feature was repeated on a whole bunch of maps.  The interesting thing is, though, that it started with Martellus’s map in 1489-ish.  So the timeline of Galvao mentioning Magellan and a “dragon’s taile” and incorporating a date of 1428 is way off.  In my professional opinion, though, I’d say that Galvao got something wrong.  I see no conspiracy here.  Galvao was born thirty years after the death of Henry the Navigator and sixty years after the story related by Bergreen.  European knowledge of the globe increased exponentially in that time and, crucially, many of the discoveries and maps thereof were considered state secrets.  It’s not hard, then, to imagine that actual events or terminology were distorted from time to time.

Meanwhile, remember that notion of an equally-sized antipodean landmass?  It lived on in the European imagination as a land called “Terra Australis” or “Terra Australis Incognita,” also known as “the unknown southern land.”  Eventually, of course, a large southern land was discovered down in the antipodes.  They called it Australia.  Later on they found Antarctica.  Some mapmakers, however, insisted on putting Terra Australis on their maps.  I strongly suspect that’s what Johanes Schoner was up to.

Either way, I’m up to, like, page 7 and part 2 of this series of posts.  I’ve covered approximately five paragraphs of Menzies’ Introduction.  Two of those paragraphs contain one sentence and a third contains a rhetorical question followed by the words, “It doesn’t make sense.”

We’re making GREAT time.


[1]Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 170.

[2]Toscanelli also claims to have had a long conversation with an ambassador from Cathay in 1432, which most definitely got Menzies’ attention…

[3]Yes.  Yes it is.

1434 Fridays, Part the First

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.”[1]

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…


[1]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.