In the early years of the 15th century, Chinese Admiral Zheng He and his commanders unfurled their sails and embarked in great teak junks, boats so enormous that each could "swallow 50 fishing ships." These flagships were the centerpiece of armadas manned by thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, of sailors on scores of vessels.
"The great armada's ships could remain at sea for over three months and cover at least 4,500 miles without making landfall to replenish food or water, for separate grain ships and water tankers sailed with them," writes Gavin Menzies in his provocatively titled "1421: The Year the Chinese Discovered America."
By the 1420s, the Chinese had six centuries of experience in ocean navigation. Their ships carried fresh vegetables, and the sailors knew how to desalinate seawater. That Zheng He's ships plied the waters from China to India, the Arab states of the Gulf and the East African seaboard is widely acknowledged, though not usually well noted in the West.
Menzies, a former Royal Navy submarine commander, would have us believe that these ambitions ultimately encompassed world exploration. He explains that accounts of the final great voyages of Zheng He's fleets were "deliberately destroyed" by a Chinese Empire that suddenly turned inward when natural disasters were taken as signs that the dynastic rule was endangered. But these "missing years of 1421 through 1423" were years of great adventure, when, according to Menzies, the Chinese were the first to round the Cape of Good Hope, to reach the Americas, and to circumnavigate the world.
Menzies understands that his claim will serve as a lightning rod for criticism, especially from those entrenched in protecting the legacy of European explorers. "If all this was true, history would need to be radically revised, but it seemed extremely presumptuous for a retired Royal Navy submarine captain to be the one initiating the process."
Menzies argues, though, that as a former seafarer, he "sailed the world in the wake of the great European explorers," which gives him qualifications that scholars might not have: the ability to read and navigate from maps; experience from years of peering at shorelines (often from the height of a periscope, roughly the same height from which medieval ships would have looked); and a passion for navigating from the stars.
In fact, no matter what you think of Menzies's theories, his enthusiasm is infectious. After each tidbit he learns, he hypothesizes excitedly, but then seeks to corroborate. He's trying to unify what he says is a "mountain of evidence - wrecks, blood groups, architecture, painting, customs, linguistics, clothes, technology, artifacts, dye-stuffs, plants and animals transferred between China and South America - that points to a pervasive Chinese influence the length of the Pacific coast of Central and South America, and inland."
His suppositions will seem preposterous to some, especially when he overexerts himself to explain every stray account of nonindigenous animals or the arrival of foreigners on certain shores as the work of these Chinese explorers.
Menzies's primary evidence is the existence of maps that he says predate the great Portuguese and Spanish voyages, yet still show remarkable detail of geography that historically was thought to have been unexplored until those European voyages.
"The revelation that Vasco da Gama was not the first to sail to India round the Cape of Good Hope, that Christopher Columbus did not discover America, that Magellan was not the first to circumnavigate the world, and that Australia was surveyed three centuries before Captain Cook and Antarctica four centuries before the first European attempt may come as a disappointment, even a shock, to the champions of those brave and skillful explorers, but the Kangnido, Pizzigano, Piri Reis, Jean Rotz, Cantino, and Waldseemüller charts are indisputably genuine."
Of course, the question then becomes how was this information transferred from China to Europe? The common thread between Zheng He's treasure fleets and the navigational knowledge that Menzies says was imparted to the European explorers was a young Venetian named Niccolo da Conti, who was in Calicut at the same time as the treasure boats.
"Someone must have brought back copies of maps showing the discoveries made by the Chinese fleets," he writes, "for how else could this information have reached Europe and become incorporated in the charts that were later to guide the Portuguese explorers?"
He also wonders what the legacy of the great Chinese armadas would have been if China had not "turned its back on its glorious maritime and scientific heritage and retreated into a long, self-imposed isolation from the outside world." Instead, "Portuguese explorers set sail on ever more adventurous voyages in the vanguard of an expansion that was to see European nations dominate the world for another 500 years."
Far from shunning the controversy he knows his book will attract, Menzies seeks it, believing that it will spur greater discussion of the great Chinese exploration of the 1400s. "The story is only just beginning," he writes, "and it is one for all of us to share."
• Wayne E. Yang has written for The North American Review, the Asian Review of Books, and A. Magazine.