''The evidence is massive,'' said Gavin Menzies of his theory. ''I've got it coming out of my eyes!'' His voice was filled with excitement, just as you'd expect from someone propounding one of the most revolutionary ideas in the history of history. A retired navy man with white hair, Menzies still has a hint of red in the eyebrows that frame his ocean-blue eyes. Dressed in a handsome sports jacket and tie, he cheerfully invited me into his stately Georgian house in the Canonbury section of London. What he had to say, his publicists had warned me in breathless e-mail messages, would make ''every history book in print obsolete.''
Menzies' book, ''1421,'' boldly asserts that the Chinese discovered America 70 years before Columbus. Riding the tube out to his house, I saw ''1421'' promoted on the billboards at the station stops, alongside Eminem's new album and J. Lo's latest movie. The London papers have feverishly debated Menzies' radical thesis since its publication in November; his book will finally arrive here in the New World later this week, accompanied by a huge publicity campaign from its American publisher, William Morrow.
''My wife, Marcella, and I were in Beijing for our 25th anniversary, in 1990, and we went to the Great Wall,'' he said, explaining the origins of his discovery. ''I asked when the section we visited was completed, and the guide said 1421. Later we went to the Forbidden City and learned it was completed in 1421.'' Menzies quickly discovered that a great deal of Chinese history gathered itself up in 1421, and he resolved to write a book. But the focus of his book changed as he learned more, especially after looking into the life of the eunuch admiral Zheng He. Zheng was also known as Sin Bao, and his seven major sea expeditions became legendary, even in the West, as the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor.
''Zheng set sail in 1421,'' Menzies said. ''The famed Treasure Fleet junks were five times larger than Columbus's caravels. Each held a thousand men. Two years later, in 1423, seven ships returned. Then, in a decision that would change all of history, the Ming emperor ordered all the ships dismantled. He pensioned off the sailors. And he burned all the records.''
Traditional historians would agree with Menzies that in 1423 China abruptly abandoned exploration and turned inward after the Treasure Fleet returned from sailing no farther west than Kenya. But Menzies, a self-taught historian publishing his first book at age 65, says that he has found evidence proving that the Chinese didn't turn around after Kenya -- but rather rounded the Horn of Africa and discovered the New World.
At a time when big books must declare an end of something or a theory of everything, Menzies has accomplished both. His thesis upends the entire Western age of discovery, from Columbus to Cook, and shifts the achievements and adventure from Europe to Asia. Figures like da Gama and Pizarro are written off as war criminals and replaced with a peaceful Chinese trading mission that supposedly charted all seven continents (even the North Pole). As to America, Menzies says that he has found proof that the Chinese thoroughly explored the East Coast from what is now Florida to Rhode Island. On the West Coast, he argues, they sailed into San Francisco Bay -- humiliatingly running aground upriver near Sacramento. Another Chinese fleet checked out the center of the continent, especially Missouri, and at some point lost another ship in Kansas.
''It's either Wichita or Kansas City; I can't remember which,'' he said, pouring me some coffee.
Menzies is a charming man. He can zestily tick off one piece of suggestive data after another -- reports of Asian jade found in Aztec tombs, allegations of Chinese ideograms found on pre-Columbian pottery. He makes history sound like pure fun. This high-spiritedness, which infuses every page of ''1421,'' makes his book a seductive read.
All this helps account for his manuscript's success with publishers. He received an advance of more than $800,000 from Bantam, his British publisher. Foreign rights were promptly sold to 20 countries. His global book tour will take him to Oxford and Cambridge in England, Yale and Harvard in America and the top universities in Shanghai and Beijing. It's the kind of itinerary any established scholar would envy.
Yet despite Menzies' powers of persuasion, his scholarly methods will not satisfy everyone. Sitting at his dining-room table, Menzies explained that he had found San Francisco Bay on a 1507 map -- that is, decades before historians believe it was first reached by Westerners. Menzies owns a large replica of this map, which was drawn by Martin Waldseemüller, a German cartographer. It's a map I know very well, partly because of its fame as the first map featuring the word ''America.'' Only bare chunks of Florida, a few Caribbean islands, Venezuela and Brazil are visible on the map, because that was all that had been charted. On the Western shore, Waldseemüller just colored in some nice blue, bulbous mountains, like the ones a 10-year-old might draw. The mountains are mere place holders, no more literal than the fat-cheeked cherub named Zephir seen puffing along the coast. Menzies pointed at these cartoon mountains and said, ''You can see San Francisco here.''
I looked at the smooth curved line of the mountains' edge. To my eyes, there was nothing that remotely signified San Francisco. He smiled. I smiled. I wanted to say something, but he spoke before I could. ''Here's Los Angeles,'' he said, pointing at another part of the cartoon. There was something about his jolly audacity that was appealing. I felt that I should just listen to what else he had to say. Besides, it seemed rude to point out that along the length of those supposed mountains near pre-Columbian Frisco, Waldseemüller had written, in bold type, ''Terra Incognita.''
Sipping his coffee, Menzies said that although Waldseemüller had not seen America's West Coast with his own eyes, he had clearly benefited from seeing a Chinese ''master chart of the world.'' Nobody has ever seen this chart; Menzies just presumes that it existed. How did it come to Europe? Menzies has surmised the answer: it was carried by a 15th-century Italian traveler named Niccolò da Conti. He converted to Islam in order to move among the Arab merchants; arriving in Calcutta, he witnessed the arrival of Zheng's Treasure Fleet. (This is not disputed by scholars.) Menzies told me that da Conti must have hitched a globe-trotting ride, arriving in China in 1423. The next year, he argued, da Conti returned to Venice and had to sell his master chart to Dom Pedro, the king of Portugal's brother, to buy a pardon for converting to Islam. By the time Columbus sailed, Menzies said, he had surely seen copies of this map -- and used it to guide his first voyage.
''When he landed, Columbus was said to have made a great mistake, saying that he had encountered Chinese people,'' Menzies said. ''I think he did encounter Chinese people!''
For Menzies, connecting history's dots is easy. Other scholars aren't so sure. ''He's put five gallons in a half-pint pot,'' said a chuckling Felipe Fernández-Armesto, an Oxford professor and author of ''Millennium: A History of the Last Thousand Years,'' an acclaimed history text. ''What he doesn't understand is that maps at that time were as much acts of the imagination as cartography.'' Renaissance maps, Fernández-Armesto explained, were not meant to be read as A.A.A. printouts. Fernández-Armesto's disdain for Menzies is beyond rebuttal: ''It's not really worth my time. What's really interesting about it is that the book's taken off. It's like some Elvis fad!''
Fernández-Armesto was stunned at the book's P.R. blitz in Europe. Menzies appeared on every major TV program. His books were placed in every bookstore window. Menzies' media strategy in America this month will try to duplicate the same surge of enthusiasm and debate. ''I still don't understand how it happened,'' Fernández-Armesto said.
On a brisk, sunny morning, I met Menzies once again at his home, and we took a long constitutional into Canonbury's market area for several book signings. He explained that he had originally placed the book with a small academic press, but as his theory changed and grew, he eventually placed it with a mass publisher who understood the marketing challenge ahead.
''Our big problem was going to be British professors of history,'' he said conspiratorially, ''who would be completely brassed off at a novice upsetting the apple cart. We worried we'd be taken to pieces.'' Speaking with an unusual fondness for book strategy and financing, Menzies explained how in ''Phase 1,'' his publisher presold foreign rights. ''That would cushion a disaster if we published in England and got egg on our face.'' Phase 2 was timing British publication to ''the end of October, when booksellers send out their Christmas catalogs.'' Having presold it to the bookstores, Menzies said, ''the critics can come in and give it a snotty review, but the booksellers aren't going to pulp them. They're committed.''
Later that morning, back at his table, Menzies could sense my skepticism. ''How many books would you guess have been written about the Chinese discovery of the Americas?'' he said. Before I could answer, he bolted from the room and quickly returned. ''More than 6,000!'' He presented me with a bibliography published by two American academics, John Sorenson and Martin Raish, listing thousands of publications plumbing the kind of evidence Menzies specializes in -- reports of sunken junks, findings of Chinese cannons. The bibliography Menzies showed me is often used to support something called ''diffusion theory.'' Briefly put, this is an umbrella idea encompassing various alternative theories of America's discovery. Columbus (and Zheng He and Leif Ericsson) had a lot more competitors than most people think: Prince Madoc of Wales, the Zeni brothers of Venice, Jo-o Vaz Corte Real of Portugal, Poland's Jan of Kolno. The fact is, crossing the Atlantic was probably not as big a deal as Columbus-centric historians described it. Diffusionists may not be able to pinpoint who beat Columbus to the punch -- but they're sure someone did. And they may well be right. But if you scrutinize the evidence of any of these specific claims, they melt away. Which is why these theorists like to emphasize quantity over quality.
''The evidence grows by leaps and bounds every day,'' Menzies told me at his table. ''Come, you must come see this.''
We went to the third floor of his house, where he invited me to read through shelves of printed e-mail messages alerting him to findings of sunken ships and pre-Columbian shards of Chinese pottery. The sunken junks, especially, seemed to be multiplying like medieval chunks of the True Cross. According to Menzies, Chinese junks clog the harbors of every port town in the world. His original fleet estimate of 100 boats will be emended in future editions.
''New evidence suggests it was closer to 800 ships, making the population of the fleet bigger than all but one city in Europe,'' he said confidently. Many of those ships were lost, but others stayed behind, he said, establishing ''settlements in San Francisco and Vancouver Island.'' He paused. ''The entire country of Peru was a Chinese settlement.''
Trying to navigate a safe course through Menzies' evidence made Odysseus's voyage past Scylla and Charybdis seem like a breeze. I tried to follow one piece of evidence - the California junk - to its source.
''It was up the Sacramento River,'' Menzies said. A ship nearly the length of a modern aircraft carrier heading up a river? I've only skippered a Sunfish, and even I know that would be foolhardy. Menzies said there had been reports of finding medieval Chinese armor at the site. Great, but it turned out that the armor was found more than 20 years ago, lent out to a local high school and then lost.
I pressed on to the discovery of a pre-Columbian Chinese corpse in Mexico. ''Yes, yes, found at Teotihuacán.'' Who found it? ''The body was found by a Professor Niven.'' Could I contact him? ''He found it in 1911.'' A century ago? ''Oh, yes, but it's very exciting. Our real drive is to confirm it.'' Where's the body? ''It appears to be split up.'' Split up? ''We believe part is in Switzerland and part of it is in Sweden,'' he confessed. ''I've told my assistants, Track down the body and get DNA on it!''
On it went. The Kansas evidence was another presumed junk. The East Coast evidence turned out to be the squishiest of all. The Chinese astronomical tower and the Chinese writing, it seems, are the Newport Tower in Rhode Island and the Dighton Rock in Massachusetts. As an amateur historian of amateur historians, I have to say that the tower and the rock are two of the greatest Rorschach monuments in American history. At one time or another people have claimed the Newport Tower to be an Indian lookout, a Viking outpost, an Irish oratory. The Dighton Rock is covered in indecipherable scratches that are apparently of human origin, and you would be hard pressed to find a culture that hasn't claimed these petroglyphs as its own.
By connecting with the tower and the rock, Menzies has hooked into a great historical tradition: the obsessed amateur. Traditional historians try to ignore them, these gadflies who claim to know better than the experts. But it's not so easy. You can laugh aside the various Jans of Kolno, but one of these theories is occasionally correct. In the mid-20th century, traditionalists mocked the ideas of an obsessed Norwegian lawyer named Helge Ingstad. He was convinced that the Viking sagas about discovering ''Vinland'' were based on truth. A self-taught historian like Menzies, he traveled at his own expense to the eastern shore of Canada hoping to find evidence of landfall. Same methodology as Menzies', essentially.
One day in 1961, Ingstad found the ruins of a Viking settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland. A crackpot theory suddenly became authentic history. Ingstad received numerous honorary degrees; when he died, he was hailed as a great archaeologist.
Amateurism is derided by professionals because it is so often wrong, but think of what paleontology or astronomy (or jazz or the Constitution) would be without them. It's quite possible that the Chinese came to the Americas in 1421. It's also likely that a mission devoted largely to trade would easily be forgotten in a few years. Exchanging textiles for pepper isn't quite as memorable as, say, an army on horseback armed with cannons eager to rape and kill.
Given the gossamer strength of Menzies' evidence, however, it is unlikely that history departments will soon be dressing him in Ingstad's garlands. But that hasn't stopped him from trying. While I was in London, Menzies received a speaking invitation from the Oxford Student Union.
Standing in a hall lined with flaking editions of Chaucer and Hobbes, Menzies gave his talk. ''Massive evidence, simply overwhelming,'' he said, prancing amid the massive overwhelmingness of it all. He reprised his stories of junks and jades. He talked of peculiar ''bowel afflictions among the Indians once thought to be unique to the Chinese.'' Then there is the matter of the Chinese chickens in South America. Menzies cited his own experience for knowing well ''how the morning call of the Asiatic hen's 'kik-kiri-kee' was markedly different from the 'cock-a-doodle-doo' of their European counterparts.'' Menzies suggested that somewhere in South America, the crew of the Treasure Fleet dropped off some of Admiral Zheng's chickens -- scoring another historical milestone with the first delivery of Chinese takeout.
After Menzies' talk, a man in a fine suit, presumably a scholar, raised his hand. I anticipated a rough question. But the gentleman, a pickled Oxford hanger-on (the kind who haunts every university town), asked: ''How do you talk without notes and without pause? It must mean you are right.'' Even the few skeptical questions from students became occasions to pick through more middens of evidence. At one point, Menzies claimed that more than 100 Peruvian villages in an area called Ancash have names linguistically linked to medieval China. ''They speak Chinese still,'' Menzies said, ''but cannot understand each other's patois.'' Verification is pending.
''Torrents of information are pouring in,'' Menzies later told me, explaining why he has hired ''a permanent team of people who can translate medieval Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese.'' A television series ''is coming out next year, and the Web sites are up and running.'' For a fee, interested readers can subscribe and gain access to Menzies' latest ''confidential'' postings of fresh evidence. The plan is to keep the book constantly updated; his assistants, Menzies promised, will be creating new editions of the book ''long after I'm dead.''
Last month, as part of his book tour, Menzies traveled to China. According to The Times of London, when he arrived in Nanjing, he was ''pinned down in the corridor of a Chinese conference hotel'' by admirers. Many Chinese academics were skeptical of Menzies' claims. But among the popular journalists and the pickled hangers-on in the big university towns, Menzies is a rock star.
A Chinese admiral now plans to build a replica of a Treasure Fleet junk, the way Spain built modern versions of Columbus's caravels 10 years ago, and sail it around the world. ''I have heard about this, and I am so excited about it,'' Menzies said in the cab back to London, marveling at the coincidences that will fuel sales of future editions. This year, China may launch its first manned spaceship, and in 2008 Beijing will be the host of the Olympics. The global markets are rejoicing in China's awakening, as it returns to center stage for the first time since Emperor Zhu Di dismantled the Treasure Fleet. China is coming out, and at the costume ball of pop history her most handsome escort is Cmdr. Gavin Menzies, late of Her Majesty's Royal Navy.
[Via NY Times]