Oh, Go Away Gavin Menzies!

Some of you may recall the high and hedy days of 2002 when Gavin Menzies first book, 1421: The Year China Discovered the World came out. This one (as its title would imply) was premised upon the idea that the noted Chinese naval hero Zheng He sailed not only to East Africa (as is already beknownst to historians), but also discovered Australia, New Zealand, the North East Passage, Greenland and the Americas, and that the records of these travels were subsequently (conveniently) destroyed by the Hongxi Emperor upon his accession to the throne so as to avoid the necessity of funding subsequent expeditions. You may also recall that this book (although pilloried from the day of its publication by academic historians and Sinologists) actually made  quite a number of headlines when it came-out, propelling it to the level of an international bestseller.

The sequel, 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance recieved a somewhat more muted reception. I suspect that the problem in this case was not just the relative lack of pithiness of its title, but the fact that this one is so painfully easily falsified that not even popular audiences are liable to believe in it. The idea expressed in 1421 had some power to it, if only because (in the popular imagination at least) it is pretty difficult to show one way or another; Menzies could provide some genetic data to “prove” that Chinese people had been to such and such a place (and, presumably, got jiggy with the locals) and say that some local artefact resembled some analagous Chinese artefact (and academic historians, archaeologists, and ethnographers could make their own counterarguments) but as far as broad segments of the public were concerned it was a simply case of “he said/she said.” Most of the aboriginal populations in the places that Zheng He allegedly visited were illiterate (and so their lack of records of such encounters is easily explained away) and Menzies could always claim that Chinese records were destroyed by the Hongxi Emperor (one wonders, though, why he didn’t bother to destroy the records of Zheng He visiting East Africa). In this case, however, there’s no good reason why the Italians wouldn’t keep records of it (or, for that matter, the Portuguese and Spanish, whose territory the Chinese treasure fleet must presumably have passed through); or, if the fleet was really so “magnificent,” why none of the aspiring artists in fifteenth century Italy would not run out to draw sketches of it. Thus, I suspect it never really took off as the first one did because the public was never really able to suspend their disbelief.

If 1434 felt like Gavin Menzies was scraping the bottom of the barrel, his latest offering, at least conceptually, sounds like he has now plunged headlong into self-parody: The Lost Empire of Atlantis: History’s Greatest Mystery Revealed. Generally, when a ‘historian’ starts talking about “Atlantis” it means the same thing as when a quantum physicist starts talking about life after death; namely, he’s sold-out entirely, and has consciously elected to mortgage his credibility in exchange for booksales. To Menzies’s credit, however, he doesn’t appear to be arguing in favour of a literal Atlantis (I have not yet read this book); rather, he argues that the historical Minoan civilization was responsible (owing to its being brutally upended by the explosion of an island) for inspiring the legend of Atlantis in the ancient world. This is not an original hypothesis, of course; as soon as you hear about an island exploding in the ancient mediterranean, you naturally jump to the conclusion that ‘that’s the historical Atlantis!’ and Menzies has hardly been the first to do so. A major problem, however, is that there essentially was no ancient legend of Atlantis; Atlantis appears first in the works of Plato (some thousand years after the destruction of Thira), fairly obviously as a philosophical allegory, and all subsequent mentions of the place reference his work. Looking for the “historical Atlantis” is about on par with someone three thousand years from now looking for the “historical United Federation of Planets;” it’s a tad silly.

He also claims that the Atlanteans Minoans discovered the Americas.  I begin to wonder if there are any ancient civilizations which didn’t discover the Americas. Anyways, you can put The Lost Empire of Atlantis on my Christmas wishlist, as I kind of want to read it now, but not so much that I feel like paying for it.


About thevenerablecorvex

I have the heart of a poet, the brain of a theoretical physicist, and the wingspan of an albatross. I am also notable for my humility.
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