Some of you might remember the name Gavin Menzies from my “Bad History” post. Well, he’s on my mind again after a recent trip to the library, where I stumbled across his latest book, The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed (2011). I was unaware Menzies had chosen to tackle that particular subject and my first reaction was Oh thank God.
Because how can people possibly take Menzies seriously now that he’s written a book about the factual existence of Atlantis?
But the interior flap gave me pause–
“New York Times bestselling historian Gavin Menzies…”
Historian? Oh no. Oh God no. Gavin Menzies is not a historian. That would imply Menzies has some historical training. He doesn’t. Even on an amateur historian level, that would imply his books have, um, history in them. They don’t.
So let’s go back to the beginning, folks…
Voyages in Sinocentrism
The book that made Menzies famous was 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, first published in 2002. In it, Menzies claims that between 1421 and 1423, a Chinese fleet under Admiral Zheng He split up under four captains and travelled around the entire world, discovering the Americas, Australia, Greenland, New Zealand, and a whole host of other places—even bumping into Antarctica and attempting to reach the North Pole. The charts from the voyages eventually made their way into Portuguese hands decades after the records for this particular voyage in China were destroyed, and therefore, the “European Age of Discovery” owes its debt entirely to Chinese navigators.
Now, Admiral Zheng He did exist—quite a famous figure, in fact, almost remarkably so considering he was both a Muslim and a eunuch (both groups didn’t get much good press in Chinese historiography). He did embark on seven voyages between 1405 to 1433 as admiral of a treasure fleet, tasked to collect homage and tribute across the Indian Ocean. He did indeed make stops in India and the horn of Africa, and his voyages were a remarkable achievement. Even if he did mostly stick to well-known trade routes, it’s the distance that counts. On his final voyage, he completed the Haj to Mecca and died on the way home.
The problem here are the scarce records of Zheng He’s voyages, thanks mostly to the rather cool attitude of later Ming emperors towards the enterprise. We thus don’t know much about Zheng He’s sixth voyage (1421-1422), actually, but Menzies’s reconstruction is based on almost no factual evidence. I’m not sure if I even blame Menzies, since this particular work of revisionist history seems to owe more to Bantam’s marketing department than the man himself. When some argue doubters don’t “engage with the historical arguments” it’s because there isn’t much to say. Most of the evidence is simply fabricated, and Menzies’s historical method, er, isn’t one. 1421 is a controversial book, but it certainly hasn’t generated any controversy among serious historians—all have dismissed it as, at the very least, deeply flawed.
The controversy arises from the idea catching on in other circles. When you have Chinese officials citing 1421 as evidence that Europeans had “stolen” a Chinese legacy, we start having a bit of a problem. While professional historians often just ignore popular history and keep their noses buried in their own fields, these sorts of ideas have a very real impact on general historical discourse among the public at large, which is itself an important thing to look at from time to time. 1421 is significant because of it’s rather alarming popularity. That this is considered as “the truth” so long hidden, not uncovered by generations of indigenous Chinese historians, but an enterprising (English) former sea captain not held in thrall by the mores of the historical profession, plays into a popular Western narrative, certainly, even if the ultimate work produced is a Sinocentric one. And 1421’s easy acceptance, in part, comes from its narrative format—still the major way to deliver history to a popular audience, despite narrative history all but dying in the professional field. So we should be asking: Why is this narrative so powerful?
The Treasure Fleet comes to Europe?
In all seriousness, 1421 is the only significant work in Menzies’s oeuvre. His second book hasn’t garnered nearly as much attention, mostly because 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance (2008) manages to stretch the central conceit of 1421 far beyond its breaking point. That, and the title isn’t nearly as snappy. As I said, Zheng He did exist, and he was an admiral, but there is absolutely no extent evidence that a Chinese Fleet sailed to Florence in 1434 to have a chat with the pope. And such an event would certainly get some attention from Italian chroniclers had it happened.
We open with this:
One thing that greatly puzzled me when writing 1421 was the lack of curiosity among many professional historians.
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. Indeed, even before his first voyage, Columbus signed a contract with the king and queen of Spain that appointed him the viceroy of the Americas. His fellow ship’s captain Martin Alfonso Pinzon, who sailed with him in 1492, had too seen a map of the Americas—in the pope’s library.
How do you discover a place you already have on a map? (xi).
A worthy question, except everything claimed in the above is demonstrably false. No such maps existed, and as for the first claim: do you actually believe that people who dig through historical archives for obscure bits of information about the past that very few others give a fig about don’t have the least bit of curiosity?
So we’re off to a bad start, and the narrative history that follows only gets worse. Once again, Menzies has access to primary sources that no professional historian has uncovered, mostly because they don’t exist. There is no secret stack of letters between the Pope and the Emperor. Attempts to compare Leonardo Da Vinci’s diagrams for inventions to existing bits of Chinese Engineering are…less than convincing. Having a Chinese fleet sail up through the Suez Canal hundreds of years before it existed…yeah. It’s not hard to see why this book didn’t catch on quite the way that 1421 did.
Onward to Atlantis!
And that leaves us with the latest book, The Lost Empire of Atlantis. I am at least a bit interested in what Menzies has to say here. I’ve been interested in crackpot theories about Atlantis ever since I read Patrick Moore’s delightful little book Can You Speak Venusian? A Guide to Independent Thinkers (1972), which also introduced me to Hollow Earth Theory, the Flat Earth Society and the writings of Dr. Velikovsky (and if you can find a copy, I suggest you snatch it up. It’s awesome). What does Menzies have to introduce to us in this venerable field?
As expected, not too much. Menzies goes the old Santorini-as-Atlantis route, with the Minoans as Atlanteans. While the volcanic eruption at Santorini/Thera destroying a large Minoan city is now usually accepted as possibly inspiring Plato’s parable of Atlantis (along with other suggestions concerning ancient cities swallowed by the sea), no historian seriously suggests the globe-spanning Empire of Atlantis actually was a direct analogue to the Minoan civilization. This is what Menzies does, choosing a globetrotting format, this time, where he travels from place to place and uncovers evidence long hidden from anyone else. This format is weakened because much of these arguments and connections have already been made in the long marching line of Atlantis-as-true-history books that have preceded him. The Minoan fleet ends up sailing, much like Zheng He’s fleet supposedly did millenia later, around the world, bringing the wonders of Minoan civilization to all. They reached North America and India. They built Stonehenge. They spread the secret of bronze. They Did It All.
An attractive narrative, cobbled together from wild conjecture and often fabricated evidence. Much like 1421, except this time, I’ve seen it all before.
In many ways, Gavin Menzies comes across as the von Daniken of the 21st century. His ideas aren’t quite so crazy as von Daniken’s, but the means of dealing with evidence in both Menzies and von Daniken are remarkably similar. Von Daniken’s latest book, History is Wrong (doesn’t he mean “historians are wrong”?) certainly fits with the dramatic revisionism of Menzies. Yet the sheen of historical veracity in 1421 makes it a little harder to contend with because it manages to rope in those who would laugh at the thought of aliens building the pyramids.
Hopefully, The Lost Empire of Atlantis has finally robbed Gavin Menzies of any credibility he once had. More likely, however, is that it will just be ignored, and the revisionist vision of 1421 will continue to march on in the public imagination.