In 2003, former submarine captain Gavin Menzies published a work that promised to rewrite the history of the ‘Age of Exploration’, 1421: the year China discovered the world. It’s an amusing commentary on American insularity that the edition published in the USA alters the subtitle to The year China discovered America: clearly the rest of the world doesn’t matter to Americans. He claims to have discovered evidence that a Chinese fleet set out in 1421 to explore and map the rest of the world. While Admiral Zheng He is known to have voyaged throughout the Indian Ocean, according to Menzies, groups of ships travelled the world, mapping the Americas, Antarctica, Greenland… but not Europe. We can but wonder why they failed to reach the one civilisation outside the Indian Ocean that would have recorded their visit.

In the book, Menzies presented evidence that a Chinese admiral, Zhèng Hé (鄭和, 1371–1435, born Ma He, also Cheng Ho) had been sent by the Ming Emperor Yongle (永樂, 1360-1424, born Zhu Di, also Ch’eng Tsu or Yung Lo) on a voyage of discovery. That much is uncontroversial, as Zhèng Hé’s voyages around the Indian Ocean are well documented in contemporary records. Where Menzies departs from academic orthodoxy is in his claim that the fleet went on from the Indian Ocean to discover Australia in the east, Antarctica in the south, the Americas in the west and circumnavigate Greenland in the north. These are astonishing claims and must surely be backed up by good, contemporary evidence.

The Newport Tower, Rhode Island (USA)

The Newport Tower, Rhode Island (USA): not a Chinese lighthouse but an English colonial windmill

Alas, no. The best Menzies can do is throw in the usual (European) maps that Bad Archaeologists are so fond of, some inscribed stones (without reproducing the inscriptions), the odd mystery building (such as the Newport Tower, a seventeenth-century windmill!), unidentified shipwrecks and other very poorly documented discoveries. All his claims have been effectively debunked. Perhaps more than anything else, the failure of the Chinese fleet to reach Europe, where it would have been documented by the literate late medieval societies flourishing throughout the continent, should raise eyebrows.

So in 2009 he published a new work, 1434: the year a magnificent Chinese fleet sailed to Italy and ignited the Renaissance. The subtitle makes an even more astonishing claim than that of 1421! When does Menzies think that the Renaissance started, for goodness sake? Where is the Italian documentation for the visit of a Chinese fleet? It seems to have been universally panned.

What is the appeal of these two books, derided by the majority of serious historians? There is the expert-bashing aspect, for a start. People always like to see them brought down a peg or two and when it is done by an amateur, it makes them feel that perhaps anyone can do it. But there has been a more insidious aspect to the popularity of Gavin Menzies. Because these books are published as a work of history, they degrade serious historical work. The standards of these books, which are at best wishful thinking and at worst outright fabrication, ought to have prevented any publisher from putting them out as non-fiction or, at the very least, to have ensured that they were marketed as works of speculation. Instead, we see them on the shelves of the history sections of any bookshop, crammed between biographies of Stalin and Hitler (although, I’m relieved to say, 1434 is nowhere near as ubiquitous as 1421). The general public does not know and cannot be expected to know that Menzies works are utter rubbish. They look like history books: Menzies follows Graham Hancock’s trick of stuffing the book with footnotes, which most of his readers will never pursue, thinking that he is quoting genuinely relevant evidence. As far as I know, Hancock was the first to do this, as earlier works of Bad Archaeology are frustratingly without adequate bibliographies, often making it impossible to identify the sites or discoveries for which they are making claims. No, Menzies’ works look like ‘proper’ history books, stuffed with boring endnotes that somehow prove their academic standing.

There has been a further, more political repercussion to this work. There are nationalists in China who, echoing the old Soviet craze for ascribing every invention useful to humanity as Russian in origin, are seeking to claim all discoveries for their nation. Having pride in one’s achievements is not in itself a bad thing and it is certainly good for us in the west to realise that Europe is not the source of all civilisation and knowledge. However, when it turns into revisionism of the kind that makes outlandish claims without evidence or suppresses contrary evidence, then we are straying into the realms of social evil. Creating generations of people with an entirely wrong notion of their past is the type of wickedness that one usually associates with religions.