[Contrary Books]
Catastrophism and Alternative Cosmologies

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Gavin Menzies

Although the topic and time period are completely beyond the range of my interest, let me recommend the book "1421, the year China discovered America" (2002) by Gavin Menzies, anyway -- it will keep you gainfully busy reading. I read the 500 pages in two days, and you could do the same.

Menzies was a WWII submarine navigator with 17 years experience world-wide, and a "consuming" interest in medieval maps and history. But he is an enthused amatuer, other will point out. So much the better, but of course his critics point up his missing academic credentials. One criticism was the fact that he called a Bank of India clerk to identify a medieval Indian script. But in actuality, the Bank of India knows just that. Their banknotes incorporate the cyphers.

General idea: in AD 1415 to 1420 China, having expelled the last of the Mongols, rebuilds their grand canal, great wall, build imperial headquarters in Peking, and expands their naval forces. (If I remember right, the Mongols had attacked Japan twice, using the Chinese fleet.)

The Navy gets orders to bring all other nations into the tribute realm of China. Of special interest is to map the world, locate accurately the geographical and magnetic north and south poles, and find stars to aid navigation in the southern hemisphere. These sound all too much like Western European concerns of a few hubdred years ago, and the scientific accomplishment of the charting tasks are far too crude when compared to the established navigation techniques of the Polynesians. But the task of charting the stars forms a core narrative around which much of the book is built.

While the fleet is out, Peking burns down, and the Empire changes a policy of trade with other nations to complete closure of the borders. The reports from the returned fleet (only 1 in 10 ships returns), are destroyed, the ships rot, and it becomes a capital offence to trade outside Chinese borders, despite the fact that this has been going on for 400 years. China regularly traded with Indonesia (the Spice Islands), India, Persia, Arabia, and almost the whole East coast of Africa.

But snippets of information make it out -- maps predating Columbus show the coasts of Africa, the outlying Caribean islands, both sides of North and South America, Australia, the Arctic ocean, Antarctica, Greenland, the Straights of Magellan.

The Straights of Magellan are particulary interesting, for Magellan's record displayed an absolute certitude about his course, when in reality he could have been kept busy for years plotting his trip through these islands. This we know from sources other than Menzies.

Menzies worked mainly from maps, but augmented it with written records. Latitude on these maps is correct (he does not list a few known early maps where latitudes are badly off). Longitude is always off except for the East coast of Africa. His information is mostly convincing, with a few sloppy details.

But, about the fleet: The Chinese Navy consisted of 400 large warships, and 1200 patrol boats and 1200 other combat ships, and 400 grain carriers. The smallerships were mostly about 90 feet long. The warships are equiped with brass and iron cannon, and are immense compared to European ships of the time.

Venice at that time had Europe's largest Navy of only 300 ships, about 50 ton capacity each, 150 feet long. Columbus's caravels, a hundred years later, were even smaller. The freighters of the Chinese fleet had a capacity of 2000 tons.

The 250 huge freighters, were 450 foot long, 180 feet wide, 9 masted, square rigged, with 16 compartmented holds, 11 stories tall, made of teak, the equivalent to oak. A found rudder measured 39 feet tall, twice as tall as my house.

They were manned with a crew of 1000, complete with horses, otters, and whores. They also had translators, scribes, metallurgists, botanists, astronomers, and cartographers aboard.

In all 1700 ships of various sizes were built early in the century, and a number of trade missions to India and Africa were accomplished before the fleet split into 4 in 1420 (claims Menzies) and sailed for various parts of the world, accompanied (apparently) by a merchant fleet of Vietnamese and (especially) Indian ships (of which Mezies makes very little).

I only looked up twice during the reading. The first time when he writes, "at the equator the day and night are of equal length on the equinoxes" -- Duh! They are the same throughout the whole world on those days. I forget why he made that point, maybe had something to do with determining longitude.

There have to be completely easier methods of determining longitude on land than how Menzies imagines it to be done. His methods for the Chinese navigators involve observation towers, twenty foot long gnomons, and charts of solar eclipses. This is not going to work too easily, and seems excessive and time consuming (especially waiting for a solar eclipse) when it can be done with a chart of the home stars, a calendar, and an inkling of the delay in the helical rising of any known star. (Although, admittedly, the Europeans, never did figure it out.)

The other item: he offhand mentions that, by his inspection of medieval maps, the equator was 3 degrees further north in 1420. The equator does not move north and south. It is always at the equator. He may have been looking for a reason that Greenland could be circumnavigated, and perhaps he meant to displace the North Pole. His critics have somehow neglected this, but concentrate instead on pointing up the distortions of the coast of South America and Antarctica. My complaint is that his reproductions of old maps are unreadable.

I checked the Earth's nutation and the precession of the earth's axis, and concluded that the 3 degree shift of the equator could not happen in the time since AD 1400. But world climate can explain. It had gotten mild (mild enough to perhaps circumnavigate Greenland), followed by 'mini ice-ages' a number of times: ca 800 AD: cold; ca 1400: warm; ca 1700: cold.

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This page last updated: Friday, December 24th, 2010
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