14211On the cover of my copy of Gavin Menzies’ book 1421 is a quotation from the New York Times Magazine review. It reads, “[Menzies] makes history sound like pure fun.” That’s probably because the author’s conception of history leaps straight out of his imagination. The central premise of the book, that Chinese explorers discovered the New World 70 years before Columbus, is pure fiction.

I got suspicious about three paragraphs into the book’s introduction, which Menzies spends explaining why he, a submarine captain with no advanced historical training, picked up on something of such magnificent importance that had slipped passed thousands of other brilliant historians. The trick, he says, is that he knows the seas. That salty wisdom apparently gave Menzies the power to upend almost 600 years of established historical record.

As soon as the book was published, actual academics with actual credibility came out of the woodwork to dismiss Menzies hypothesis. An expert on Chinese naval power in the 15th century criticizes Menzies for ignoring Chinese primary sources from the time, which extensively document exploration but make no mention of the Americas. Patricia Seed of Rice University called one element of the tall tale “meteorologically impossible” and says he’s got “absolutely the wrong progression of maps and mapmaking.” Other scholars have pointed out that there is virtually zero evidence of China discovering the new world in China, a criticism Menzies dismisses because later Chinese emporers ordered the destruction of records. Ever heard of a government managing to burn EVERY book?

It’s not that the Chinese exploration hypothesis is provably false. It’s that the hypothesis has no credible evidence to support it. It’s like if I wrote a book saying aliens seeded earth with DNA because, well, there’s DNA on earth. Sure, the story could be true but that’s not good enough to rewrite history. It’s kind of embarrassing, if not surprising, that publishers actually got behind this historical novel.