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Friday, January 27, 2006
Brief Thoughts on Gavin Menzies

Those of you interested in historical controversies past and present will no doubt be aware of the claim that China, under the Ming Dynasty, discovered America before Columbus did. (We'll leave aside what "discovered" implies in this context.) It's chief proponent is Gavin Menzies, an amateur historian who has a book, DVD, and website dedicated to proving his case. (Incidentally, a Chinese world map depicting the Americas has just surfaced; the map is apparently a 1763 copy of an original dating to 1418.)

Just about all professional historians, as you might expect, regard Menzies' argument as bunk. As one particularly devastating scholarly review goes, "The reasoning of [Menzies's book 1421] is inexorably circular, its evidence spurious, its research derisory, its borrowings unacknowledged, its citations slipshod, and its assertions preposterous." That's pretty stern stuff for any scholarly journal to publish. Even Holocaust denier David Irving received a handful of favorable reviews in his earlier years, before it became apparent that he was simply bending the evidence to suit his warped view of the Third Reich. Irving also read German and spent as much time digging through the archives as he did manipulating what he found there. Menzies, as his bibliography makes all too apparent, doesn't read Chinese.

The cry will inevitably go up, as it already has, that historians are just being snobbish. Menzies's agent said that "a lot of academics have ossified views. They want to protect their own. To them, Gavin is an outsider and they may round on him like a pack of wolves." Well, this claim could be true: there is a whiff of condescension in Fernández-Armesto's review, which I cited earlier. But Menzies's agent doesn't seem to understand that even if the historians are prejudiced against Menzies -- and such claims are, by their very nature, unprovable -- their criticisms may still be valid. And until Menzies demonstrates his ability to rebuff these criticisms as any historian -- professional or amateur -- would, and without resorting to ad hominem attacks, he surely can't be taken seriously.