quotes & notes from
1421: The Year China Discovered America
Gavin Menzies

These pages: 1421: The Year China Discovered America

first page (here)

second page



index pages:

There might be dispute over treating this as “history”; “historical novel” is preferred by at least one hostile website (which has its own problems).

As far as I can tell, Menzies believes he’s writing history. He just does it badly, stressing his least trustworthy evidence and conclusions and giving short shrift to alternatives. He is a former navy captain, and I believe he is used to committing to a decision on available evidence without waiting for absolute proof. This might explain his tendency to treat working hypotheses as conclusions, thereby “proving” much with little evidence. It’s efficient but unconvincing.

But the story is intriguing, and the heart of his evidence – a substantial number of charts in European hands, showing detailed knowledge of areas no Europeans had yet explored – seems pretty solid. He continues to work with historians and archaeologists to improve the evidence; Menzies’ web site contains more, and more recent, details than the book—along with a sequel and an exploration of the Atlantis myth, which might explain why he’s not taken seriously by many historians.

My notes below on evidence are incomplete and ignore a fair amount of doubt about the interpretations, but discussion of the evidence is in flux in any case.


The Year China Discovered America

Copyright © 2002, 2003 by Gavin Menzies


Note (Hal’s):
Menzies began collecting his evidence at the James Ford Bell Library, just a few miles from my home, where he found a chart dated 1424 which shows Caribbean islands. I have it on good authority (from someone working there), however, that he did not physically visit the library, but merely examined an online image.

— end note

A layman, no matter how distinguished in other fields, looks at a map or a chart and sees only a series of outlines that may or may not be the misshapen representations of familiar lands. An experienced navigator looking at the same map can deduce far more: where the cartographer who had first charted it had sailed, in what direction, how fast or slow, how near to or far from the land he had been, the state of his knowledge of latitude and longitude, even whether it was night or day. Given sufficient knowledge of the lands and oceans depicted on the chart, a navigator can also explain why what the chart shows as islands could be mountain peaks, why what was then an extensive body of land might now be shoals, reefs and islands, and hence why some lands might have been depicted with curiously distended forms.



Columbus, da Gama, Magellan and Cook were later to make the same ‘discoveries’ but they all knew they were following in the footsteps of others, for they were carrying copies of the Chinese maps with them when they set off on their own journeys into the ‘unknown’.

Imperial China
The Emperor’s Grand Plan

Note (Hal’s):
Zhu Di, fourth son of the founder of the Ming dynasty, seizes the throne, moves the capital to Beijing and builds the Forbidden City, rebuilds and enlarges the Grand Canal, builds huge fleets, and summons rulers from a large area to give homage and tribute. The fleets, under Zheng He and subordinate admirals (all Mongol eunuchs), depart to return the visitors and begin explorations.

— end note

Chinese foreign policy was quite different from that of the Europeans who followed them to the Indian Ocean many years later. The Chinese preferred to pursue their aims by trade, influence and bribery rather than by open conflict and direct colonization. Zhu Di’s policy was to despatch huge armadas every few years throughout the known world, bearing gifts and trade goods; the massive treasure ships carrying a huge array of guns and a travelling army of soldiers were also a potent reminder of his imperial might: China alone had the necessary firepower to protect friendly countries from invasion and quash insurrections against their rulers.
In 1421, the next most powerful fleet afloat was that of Venice. The Venetians possessed around three hundred galleys – fast, light, thin-skinned ships built with softwood planking, rowed by oarsmen and only suitable for island-hopping in the calm of a Mediterranean summer. The biggest Venetian galleys were some 150 feet long and 20 feet wide and carried at best 50 tons of cargo. In comparison, Zhu Di’s treasure ships were ocean-going monsters built of teak. The rudder of one of these great ships stood 36 feet high – almost as long as the whole of the flagship the Niña in which Columbus was later to set sail for the New World. Each treasure ship could carry more than two thousand tons of cargo and reach Malacca in five weeks, Hormuz in the Persian Gulf in twelve. They were capable of sailing the wildest oceans of the world, in voyages lasting years at a time.
A Thunderbolt Strikes

Note (Hal’s):
Zhu Di’s reign collapses shortly after the departure of the fleets. His successor abandons his costly expansions.

— end note

There had always been an inherent contradiction at the heart of Zhu Di’s government: it was effectively two separate administrations – a mandarin cabinet in charge of finance, economics, home affairs and law and order, and the eunuchs, who led the armed forces and executed Zhu Di’s foreign policy. At the peak of his powers, Zhu Di had tolerated his mandarin critics, allowing them to influence his favourite son and successor, Zhu Gaozhi. Deep down the mandarins loathed Zhu Di’s grandiose plans, his foreign policy, and the bleak northern location of the Forbidden City. They seized the opportunity offered by his illness and waning powers and looked to the crown prince, Zhu Gaozhi, to reverse his father’s policies.

The last of the battered remnants of the great treasure fleets limped home in October 1423 after two and a half years at sea. Zheng He’s men had no idea of the dramatic events unfolding at home and must have been expecting a heroes’ welcome. Their voyages had been a remarkable success. They had reached countless unknown lands and immeasurably furthered their knowledge of navigation, but instead of plaudits, the returning admirals were spurned by those who now ruled China.


Zheng He

By late 1421, China’s history was set for centuries to come. The legacy of Zhu Di, Zheng He and their great treasure fleets would be all but obliterated. What oceans they had sailed, what lands they had seen, what discoveries they had made, what colonies they had created were no longer of interest to the Chinese hierarchy.

The Fleets Set Sail

Note (Hal’s):
Four fleets – a fifth was already enroute – sail to Malacca in Malaysia, their forward base. Zheng He returns to China by way of Southeast Asia, delegating the exploration of unknown regions to the other three fleets, commanded by his subordinates.

— end note

The first task of the fleets was to return the rulers, ambassadors and envoys to their home ports in India, Arabia and East Africa. They were then to rendezvous off the southern coast of Africa and set sail into uncharted waters to fulfil Zhu Di’s vision. They knew exactly what was expected of them. They would proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas or they would die in the attempt.
The Guiding Stars
Rounding the Cape

Note (Hal’s):
Three fleets continue to Calicut on the west coast of India, to East Africa, and then round the Cape of Good Hope and turn northward with the winds and current, reaching the Cape Verde Islands. From there the current takes them straight west; they separate to follow northward and southward branches near the Americas.


  • Maps, especially the Kangnido, a Japanese copy of a Chinese original showing the west coast of Africa.
  • Stones, possibly inscribed in Malayalam (the language of Calicut), in the Cape Verde Islands and at Matadi Falls on the Congo River.

— end note

The New World

Note (Hal’s):
Fleets under Zhou Man and Hong Bo explore southward: the coasts of Brazil and Patagonia, and the Falklands, useful as a navigation reference because it has a peak at the latitude of Canopus. These fleets separate, one returning east and the other going west.


  • On the Piri Reis map: the Patagonian coast, the Falklands marked as a reference point, and depictions of animals:
    • a huemil (a type of deer),
    • a guanaco,
    • a mountain lion, and
    • a mylodon (a giant sloth).
  • Asiatic varieties of chickens in the New World.
  • Maize cultivated as far west as the Philippines, and processed with characteristically American metates, prior to European arrival.
  • Asiatic diseases in South America.

— end note

During the Northern and Southern dynasties in the first year of the ‘Everlasting Origin’ Emperor, AD 499, a Buddhist priest named Hoei-Shin (‘Universal Compassion’) returned from a land twenty thousand li (eight thousand nautical miles) east of China. He named this continent Fusang after the trees that grew there. The Fusang tree bore fruit like a red pear, and had edible shoots and bark the inhabitants used for clothing and paper. Coupled with his statement that the country had no iron, Hoei-Shin’s description suggests that the Fusang was the maguey tree that grows only in Central and South America. It bears red fruit and is also used in the other ways he described. Iron is found in almost every part of the world except for Central America, just as Hoei-Shin indicated.

The Voyage of Hong Bao
Voyage to Antarctica and Australia

Note (Hal’s):
Hong Bao returns to Patagonia for supplies, is drawn through the Strait of Magellan, and continues south along Tierra del Fuego toward Antarctica, approaching close enough to chart Graham Land and the South Shetlands, and to identify Bird Island in South Georgia as a navigational reference. Continuing eastward at the latitude of Canopus, they pass Heard Island and visit the Kerguelen Islands and the west coast of Australia, then return home via Malacca and the South China Sea.


  • Analysis of the Piri Reis map and Rotz chart.
  • On the Piri Reis, a man pictured in indigenous lack of costume near Tierra Del Fuego.
  • Magellan’s statement to his crew that he already knew the strait was there.
  • A wrecked ship in Australia.

— end note

The existence of the strait leading from the Atlantic to the Pacific was well known both to the King of Spain and Magellan before he set sail. He took with him on the voyage a marine chart that showed the strait and the Pacific Ocean beyond it. The contract he had signed with the king specified the aims of the voyage – to sail westwards for the Spice Islands – and the share of the profits each was to enjoy.
The Voyage of Zhou Man

Note (Hal’s):
Zhou Man’s fleet enters the Pacific and explores northward along the coast of South America, then west from Ecuador across the Pacific, and divides near Samoa where the currents separate. The northern group reach Kiribati in the Carolines, New Guinea, and the Philippines. The southern group pass through the Tuamotu archipelago, leave traces in Tahiti and Fiji, chart Norfolk Island, and reach Australia just north of Sydney, charting to the southern tip of Tasmania. They reach Campbell Island and return northward via New Zealand to Norfolk Island.


  • Analysis of the Rotz map.
  • Chinese records of items brought back.
  • Traces of pre-European copper mining in Fiji.
  • Trade goods, including Central American beads in the Carolines.
  • Maize and metates in the Philippines.
  • Wrecked ships, carved stones, a bell, “votive offerings.”
  • Maori legends.

— end note

The Barrier Reef and the Spice Islands

Note (Hal’s):
Returning to Australia, they chart the Great Barrier Reef and the north coast to Arnhem Land, survey inland from the Beagle Gulf, and head north via the Spice Islands.


  • Chart analysis.
  • Reports of charts in Magellan’s possession.

— end note

When Europeans eventually arrived, they were not sailing blindly into a great unknown. The Dauphin chart, one of the other charts from the Dieppe School and almost identical to the Rotz chart, came into the possession of Edmund Harley, Earl of Oxford and First Lord of the Admiralty, in the mid-eighteenth century and became known as the Harleian. It was later acquired by Joseph Banks, the young scientist who sailed in the Endeavour with Captain Cook. At the time Captain Cook sailed, the British government therefore had access to both the Harleian and Rotz charts, since the latter was at that stage owned by the Admiralty. Cook’s orders from the Admiralty were to search down to 40°S – the latitude of South Australia shown on both charts – where they ‘had good reason’ to suppose the southern continent existed.

The First Colony in the Americas

Note (Hal’s):
Zhou Man re-enters the Pacific and travels north and back east, exploring the North American coast from Vancouver Island southward to Mexico, and encounters the Mayas.


  • A wrecked junk in the Sacramento River, and fragments of wood carbon-dated to 1410.
  • A 19th-century claim of linguistic and cultural evidence of a Chinese colony nearby.
  • Central American crops (especially sweet potatoes) in Asia.
  • Ming porcelain and Chinese anchors spread along the coast (lacking reliable dating).

— end note

Colonies in Central America

Note (Hal’s):

Evidence of Chinese contact with Central America:

  • Lacquerware and dyeing techniques, adapted to local materials.
  • Asian chickens, used for divination rather than food.
  • Possible depiction of Chinese visitors in a linen painting.
  • A genetic characteristic found only in people of Venezuela and Kwantung.
  • A wrecked teak ship, carbon-dated 1410, on the island of Pandanan (near the Philippines, and on the Rotz chart), with a cargo including metates and possible Cholula ware (Mexican porcelain) in addition to items from China and Vietnam.
  • I Yü Thu Chih, a Chinese book printed c. 1430, depicting llamas, an armadillo, a jaguar, a Patagonian, men chewing coca, and a mylodon.

— end note

I began to wonder why American and European historians had managed to persuade the world for so long that Columbus had discovered America and Cook Australia. Were they ignorant of the Chinese voyages to the Americas before Columbus? I decided to find out. To my amazement, I discovered that there were more than a thousand books providing overwhelming evidence of pre-Columbian Chinese journeys to the Americas.

text checked (note A) Feb 2005

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