Book Review: 1421

Categories: Book Reviews
Comments: 2 Comments
Published on: 2011.12.03

Title: 1421 (The Year China Discovered America)
Author: Gavin Menzies
Subject: China’s sea voyages of discovery in the 15th Century
Genre: history
Publisher: Harper

I wasn’t as surprised as I was supposed to have been by the theories in Gavin Menzies’ 2002 book 1421. Menzies writes with the enthusiasm of someone who’s the first to discover something, but it fell a little flat on my ears since I’d heard it before.

It was in the late 1990s that various news reports around the U.S. told of discoveries of ancient Chinese ships found wrecked off the coast of California, indicating that they’d been to the Americas long before the Europeans. Even before that, I thought it was accepted by historians that Leif Ericson led Norse expeditions to the northeastern reaches of North America.

Yet Menzies seems bound and determined to prove that Columbus wasn’t the first explorer to reach America — something that’s already been proved.

Still, it’s a fascinating read.

Menzies begins with his discovery of a map drawn in 1424, a map that shows (he says) Caribbean islands — decades before they were supposedly discovered by Columbus. Digging further, he describes finding maps from the same era that chart Antarctica, Patagonia, Australia, and other locations. These are European maps, yet according to accepted history Europeans didn’t discover these places until much later.

Listing quite a bit of evidence, Menzies proves to his satisfaction that great Chinese “treasure fleets” sailed the world in 1421 and the years immediately thereafter, leaving behind a trail that’s convincing — despite the fact that the Chinese themselves destroyed all known records of these voyages just after they were finished.

Much of Menzies’ “proof” lies in his own self-proclaimed navigation skill and map-reading abilities, things he says made him more likely to understand these maps than the average historian. (Menzies was formerly a submarine captain in the British Navy.) I wish he’d left this part out and focused on the parts that anyone could have discovered.

For example, there are dozens of types of plants that were introduced to places around the Pacific and later found by European explorers; plants that didn’t migrate by themselves. There are very interesting parallels in language between Chinese and Native American tribes. Several European explorers wrote that they met Chinese people while walking through America in the 1500s.

That last is the astonishing part to me. According to Menzies, Giovanni de Verrazzano claimed to have found Chinese people in the 1500s in what is now New York. In the 1700s, when George Washington and friends drained the Great Dismal Swamp, they found an old Chinese junk. Spanish explorer Coronado supposedly found Chinese junks with gilded sterns in New Mexico, and claimed to have met Chinese people there.

He lists dozens of other explorers who wrote that they met Chinese people or found shipwrecked Chinese ships in the Americas.

This is the part I wonder about. Were these records secret all these years? Haven’t enough historians scoured the records of these explorers? If so, and if these things were indeed written, how do other historians explain them away?

Menzies also claims that the discovery of Chinese DNA in many Native Americans proves his theory. However, the currently accepted story that Native Americans started out as Asians and migrated across the Bering Strait, would explain the existence of the DNA, wouldn’t it?

But I’ll leave these arguments to people more qualified than myself. The book itself is fascinating, interesting, and educational to some degree. Menzies even mentions that Portuguese sailors began colonies in the Caribbean before Columbus arrived, something I’d never heard before.

The fascinating thing about history is that none of us were there, so none of us can know for sure. We’re all depending on what some dead guy wrote, or some old stuff we found that we interpret through our own viewpoints.

One problem with the book 1421, is that it seems to have been written in a hurry. And after its first publication, new information has been added at seemingly random places. The flow of thought in the book felt interrupted and circular to me. Some pieces of “evidence” are mentioned repeatedly; I can’t tell if Menzies forgot he mentioned it before or if he feels that repetition will make it more true.

“Mainstream” historians, naturally, have dismissed the book as fictitious or even worse. Of course, “mainstream” has almost never been synonymous with “correct”, but it does mean that’s what is in the history books your kid will read at school.

Though I enjoyed the book for the most part, and I thoroughly enjoy postulating about alternate theories of history, I was not convinced enough to buy Menzies’ subsequent books, one about a Chinese voyage to Europe, and one about the lost continent of Atlantis.

  1. Shari says:

    How interesting! I don’t remember hearing of Chinese explorers before.
    I think you have a good point about the “Native Americans” and the Chinese having a common ancestry being a good reason for the DNA markers (and even appearance and language). If the Chinese first came to America in 1421, they would hardly have influenced the Americans so widely by the time of European exploration.
    I also like to argue that how ever many peoples visited America, it was Columbus’ visit that made the new world known to the general public of the old world, thus he truly discovered America (in the archaic usage of “reveal; make known” at least).

  2. Wil C. Fry says:


    As to your last point — one thing mentioned in the book that I didn’t cover above is that Columbus actually had a map that showed the New World (at least according to Menzies)… And some of Columbus’ writings indicate he was following a map that showed these Caribbean islands. If this is true, then his claim to fame is less substantial.

    Regardless, I certainly agree with Menzies when he lauds Columbus and other explorers of the age for their courage and determination — things that were likely as rare then as they are now… ;-)

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