1421: THE YEAR CHINA DISCOVERED THE WORLD, by Gavin Menzies. Bantam, $54.95.

Zheng He is not a name that is well known in the west. However, his seven voyages from China, through the Indian Ocean to Africa between 1405 and 1435 would place him among the world’s great explorers. Yet retired submarine captain Gavin Menzies is convinced Zheng He’s feats were even greater. He believes a massive Chinese fleet conducted four simultaneous circumnavigations of the world between 1421 and 1423, during which they discovered the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, even Antarctica. But while they were away, the Chinese emperor turned his back on the outside world and, when the ships returned, had all mention of them erased. Why the records of Zheng He’s other expeditions were kept, Menzies does not explain.

As Menzies tells it, he was set on his own personal voyage after viewing some early European maps. He claims these have details that could not have been known to Europeans at the time, and concludes only the Chinese could have mounted expeditions to map these areas. The Europeans then copied the Chinese charts. One is the Piri Reis map, which Erich von Däniken made so much of, with different conclusions. Another, the Jean Rotz map, shows land stretching to the south and east of Australia. Menzies argues this was solid ice stretching from Tasmania to the Auckland and Campbell Islands. What appear on the map to be rivers, Menzies interprets as harbours on these islands, which were, he claims, “at the normal limit of the pack ice that links them in midwinter.” Of course, they’re actually ice-free year round.

After mapping this region, Menzies says the Chinese sailed north to New Zealand, pausing in Fjordland (sic) to drop off some giant ground sloths (which have been extinct for 10,000 years), collected in South America. A teak ship was then wrecked on Ruapuke Beach, south of Raglan, “near the mouth of the Torei Palma River”. Further evidence cited includes a brass bell found in the area which bears a Tamil inscription (a Tamil ship must have joined the fleet for trading purposes, he says), some rocks with Tamil inscriptions on them, and a carved stone duck which resembles a Chinese votive offering. European cartographers then somehow got hold of the charts drawn by the expedition before the Chinese authorities destroyed them, and copied down the ice sheet to the south of Australia, but left out New Zealand, and, for that matter, most of China itself.

It doesn’t take much research (using the same sources that Menzies consulted) to establish that the Ruapuke wreck (which originally came to light in the 1870s) was actually made from totara, the bell was found in the central North Island, the rock inscriptions are Maori, and the duck’s provenance is dubious, but unlikely to be Chinese.

The whole book is like this. There is no logic whatever as he leaps from one piece of “incontrovertible” evidence to the next. The only mystery is how a reputable publisher could lavish such attention (the book is beautifully produced) on the kind of writing that is usually found in cheap pulp paperbacks. There’s talk of a TV series too.

A version of this review originally appeared in the Waikato Times

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