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1421: The Year China Discovered America

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On 3/8/1421, the largest fleet the world had ever seen set sail from China. Its mission was "to proceed all the way to the ends of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas" & unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. When it returned in 10/1423, the emperor had fallen, leaving China in political & economic chaos. The great ships were left to rot at their moorings. Most records of their journeys were destroyed. Lost in China's long, self-imposed isolation that followed was the knowledge that Chinese ships had reached America 70 years before Columbus & had circumnavigated the globe a century before Magellan. Also concealed was how the Chinese colonized America before the Europeans & transplanted in America & other countries the principal economic crops that have fed & clothed the world.

Unveiling incontrovertible evidence of these astonishing voyages, "1421" rewrites our understanding of history. Our knowledge of world exploration as it's been commonly accepted for centuries must now be reconceived due to this landmark work of historical investigation.

650 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 2002

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About the author

Gavin Menzies

5 books101 followers
Former British submarine commander and amateur historian.

Menzies is most known for his book "1421: The Year China Discovered the World" which claims that the Chinese admiral Zheng He discovered America in 1421.

In his follow up book "1434" He claims that the European Renaissance was sparked by the Chinese.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 1,174 reviews
Profile Image for Andrew.
124 reviews28 followers
July 8, 2008
There are books that break new ground with bombshell research and there are books that spellbind us with the skill of their deception. This book is the latter.
Menzies takes a tremendous dump on the sensibilities of his readers, bombarding us with outrageous claims backed up with erroneous facts and arrogant speculation. A typical "fact" presented by Menzies is introduced with "By this point I was sure..." or "I realized that Zhou must have...." or even "From my days as a navigator, I knew that ...." Then Menzies will absurdly postulate about what the Treasure Fleet MUST have been doing in uncharted territory, with no trace of written or oral record, halfway across the globe nearly 600 years ago. He claims he knows the exact date that the the Fleet passed certain islands in the Caribbean due to their haphazard presence and occurrence on later European charts (the absence of the moon excuses when these oddly shaped islands are misrepresented or missed on the charts). Then he will wax appreciatively about how precise Chinese navigators and cartographers were, attributing stone structures (Menzies' alleged observation decks) all around the globe to Chinese astronomical prowess and their desire to properly construct latitude and longitude by measuring eclipses all across the globe. Of course, the Chinese never bothered to go back to these places to collect the results. Nor did they return to the dozens of colonies they set up everywhere from South America to Massachusetts to Gympie, Australia. Nor did they return to collect the fruits of the mines they set up all over the world. Menzies will say that this is because of the isolationist policy China soon after adopted. But if you really think about, and if you read later editions' postscripts and visit his website - you will soon realize that he is trying to collect all of the unaccountables and unexplainables of history and wrap them up in a flimsy and manipulative description of a massive journey and colonization campaign that most likely never even happened. This book is the nadir of pop history, and, sadly, it shows how dedicated propagandists have been stretching history to their own means for centuries - mix your audience's curiosity and ignorance with a fantastical proposition and then support it with smart and thorough sounding explanations based on baseless facts, and then sit back and let their imagination take hold.

It may be added that the HMS Rorqual, the submarine that Menzies briefly commanded, experienced its only collision under his steerage. So much for his great navigational deductions.
Profile Image for Christopher.
1,242 reviews141 followers
June 28, 2008
From time to time, this reviewer comes across a publication so crackpot that I hardly know where to start in reviewing it here. I'm happy to see that Gavin Menzies' thesis in 1421: The Year China Discovered America, that a Chinese fleet launched in 1421, embarked on a tour around the world, discovering all major points before Europeans and leaving artifacts, has already been generally debunked by numerous sources. Perhaps the most substantial is Robert Finlay's review "How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America" in the Journal of World History, June 2004, where Finlay shows that there are no "lost years" in Ming dynasty sailing, and so Menzies' book is completely without foundation. My fellow reviewers here have also offered some important critiques. I would like to offer a perspective from my own individual profession, linguistics. Menzies writes, for example:

"Linguistics provide further evidence. The people of the Eten and Monsefu villages in the Lambayeque province of Peru can understand Chinese but not each other’s patois, despite living only three miles apart. Stephen Powers, a nineteenth-century inspector employed by the government of California to survey the native population, found linguistic evidence of a Chinese-speaking colony in the state."

The first assertion, on the Peruvian village, is not sourced at all and is either the personal fancy of the author or some minor crank idea. The second, however, is cited to an 19th-century bit of scholarship evidentally done without appropriate field methods. He goes on to claim that Chinese sailors shipwrecked on the East Coast of the United States would have been able to communicate with locals, as these would have included Chinese who had walked over the Bering Strait. Chinese walk across to Alaska and across all North America, but end up speaking Middle Chinese, and yet leave no trace of this dialect on neighbouring Native American languages? Risible fantasy. There's even an assertion that Navajo elders understand Chinese conversation, and an assertion that the Peruvian village name Chanchan must be Chinese because it sounds (at least to him) like "Canton". Perhaps the silliest Peruvian connection is between Chinese "qipu" and Quechua "quipu"; Menzies seemingly doesn't understand that "q" represents a completely different sound in each language. So, I hope that the reader with some training in linguistics can see what kind of arguments are used in the book, and beware accordingly.

If I may be permitted one final indulgence, I should like to protest Menzies' weird view of Chinese culture. He blasts European explorers for committing genocide, claiming that continued Chinese expansion would have led instead to a world of peace and Confucian harmony. This is the naive romantic view of the Orient held by a child flipping through National Geographic. A man of Menzies' age and experience should have realized that all civilizations have it within them to commit do in indigenous peoples--the marginalization of Tibetan and Uighur language and culture and the disappearance already of a distinct Manchu people stand as proof that the Chinese are no exception.
Profile Image for Ursula.
276 reviews35 followers
December 6, 2014
You might have that certain relative in your family who is affable enough, but has some really weird ideas that he loves to go on about. For the sake of this review, let's call him "Uncle Gavin." Uncle Gavin is harmless, and charms your friends, but he has one pet topic that you try to steer him away from. Before you know it, he's started asking your friends who they think discovered the world and after a short time, the friend's nods and smiles go from sincerely interested to polite to barely hanging on, and they're looking around desperately for someone to rescue them from this conversation.

Uncle Gavin wrote this book. His premise sounds interesting, and perhaps sane, if far-fetched: he claims that the Chinese sailed essentially the entire world in 1421-23 and made maps of such voyages that were later used to guide the Portuguese and Spanish explorers who "discovered" America and other parts of the world. Why this has been a hidden fact for so long: the Chinese burned nearly every record of the voyages, stopped exploration, and basically forgot about the whole thing over the centuries. Why Uncle Gavin is the only person to have figured this out: he used to captain submarines and therefore knows how ocean currents work and can read a nautical chart. I'll let that sink in for a moment.

In any case, I was willing to go along with him at first, but it became apparent pretty quickly that things were spiraling out of control. I rarely make notes on audio books, but I found myself frantically scribbling things down when I was listening to this one. Things like:

"Just because Verrazzano compared some lighter-skinned Indians and their manner of dress to the "Eastern" style doesn't mean that they are descended from his [Menzies'] imaginary pregnant concubines that were put ashore from his imaginary overcrowded voyages."

I was going to list more, but as I look at that one, I think it sums up everything. Look, it's an interesting idea that the Chinese could have sent an enormous fleet out to see what there was out there, and that they could have drawn up a map of everything, and then decided to close their borders and give up on the outside world, and that the maps could have ended up in the hands of the European explorers, and that those explorers could have found knick-knacks that were Chinese and people who might have been descended from Chinese people who ended up there long-term one way or another. But if you're going to tell me, Uncle Gavin, that the Chinese took out 40 or 50 ships which were wrecked in various places and stayed and lived there, you're going to have to come up with some physical evidence. Wrecked ships off India, or eastern Africa, or Australia simply do not prove that Chinese people built the Bimini Road in the Caribbean to get their ships on land for repairs or had a settlement on Greenland (I am not kidding. I wish I were kidding.).

If this were half as long and half as crazy, it might be worth a perusal. As it is, run from this book. Read Foucault's Pendulum, which features the same sort of wild connect-the-dots game and also has going for it that it is fiction.

PS - It turns out that Menzies has also published 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance. I imagine that he is now deep into the writing of 1468: The Year China Traveled to the Moon and Discovered Life and 1498: The Year China Invented Synthetic Life and Created the Spice Girls.
Profile Image for Jason Koivu.
Author 7 books1,197 followers
May 18, 2018
Sure 1421 has plenty of hearsay and conjecture, and some entertaining theories put forth by Menzies, most of which can't be backed up with factual evidence at this time. Obviously by reading the subtitle ...The Year China Discovered America you get the gist that Menzies asserts a China-first-to-the-Americas hypothesis.

China was on the forefront of invention once upon a time. Gunpowder is one example. But shifting firmly entrenched belief that old European explorers were first to the Americas takes some imaginative thinking. We know that the impressive China fleet of the 1400s sailed to the Middle East and Africa, but did they turn around and hit up the Americas at some point? Certainly the natives (Inuit all the way down to South America) have a certain Asian look to them, but the Bering Strait land-bridge theory already covers that. There's just not enough evidence to prove otherwise.

I don't care who gets credit in the history books for discovering this, that or the other thing. I would like to see us humans get it right though, and unfortunately Menzies can't prove his theories. Aside from that though, his book is an intriguing good read filled with fun ideas and adventure.
Profile Image for Susanna - Censored by GoodReads.
538 reviews586 followers
April 25, 2019
Actual rating: 1/2 star.

I like pseudo-science (and sometimes pseudo-history), but I couldn't finish this one. In large part that is because it is so poorly written, and so repetitive (Menzies informs us six times that he is a retired Royal Navy captain. In the first chapter.), and Menzies shows such a poor grasp on what good evidence is, that I had to bail.

I'm with the late Carl Sagan that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" (and surely the claim that the Chinese discovered America is an extraordinary one), and Menzies doesn't provide anything like "extraordinary evidence." He does provide a lot of pretty pictures in the insert, which is why I give this one half a star.
25 reviews
June 19, 2012
Do you like pseudo-history from rank amateurs that draw wild conclusions from scant evidence while discounting, in almost all situations, the simplest explanation in favor of conspiracy theory level conclusions?

Then this is for you.

Just horrid.
55 reviews
July 27, 2010
I have to say that I enjoyed reading this book, if only because it made me so angry at the gross inaccuracies and completely imaginary scenarios that the author made up. He claims to have information from anthropology, archaeology, geology, geography, history, etc, but what he really has exists only in his own mind. Read on, intrepid reader, and be amazed as the author sidesteps issues which threatens his ideas, or completely ignores them!

There is absolutely no traceable path for his research, so scholars cannot even see how he came to his conclusions. Even better, some of his citations are inaccurately recorded to the point that one wonders if he's even read them!

He claims in interviews to have been ousted by the scientific establishment - in reality, if you read the scientific reviews of his work, scholars simply subjected his work to the same standards to which they subject their own work. If the author wishes to play in the big-boy sandbox of academia, he should be prepared to get a little dirty! Stop whining and do some decent scholarship for a change!
Profile Image for Daren.
1,263 reviews4,353 followers
December 8, 2020
This is a difficult book to rate, let alone review.
This review, therefore will probably jump around a bit, contradict itself, confuse you, and end up being awkward and poorly edited.
First to a rating, as this may focus my train of thought.
If I rated on readability - 4* - it is readable, presented relatively simply, but unfortunately is prone to some repetition.
If I rated on engagement, or how much appeal the subject matter has - 4*.
If I rated on how the book deals with presenting evidence in a scientific manner - 2* (more on this later).
If I rated the book on my irritation as the author manipulates assumptions and presents them as evidence, I would rate it 1*.
Overall, I think I am fence sitting at 3*. I do own another two books by Menzies, and I will read them, which means I can't really rate this less than 3*, or I wouldn't feel able to read more.

And so, to content. As I read this book, I started out making notes of some bits to refer to in my review. This got out of hand very quickly, and I stopped completely. As other reviewers have said, Menzies is an "amateur historian". This is obvious from the outset - he even states it up front, and makes no apology for it. It does cast doubts, and while he constantly refers to his cast of scientists supporting his theories, they seem background characters, and their credentials are seldom shared.

That is not to say that Menzies THEORY is not possible, or even plausible. There are certainly some compelling arguments, examples and THEORIES which seem essential to follow up. In this book, certainly, there seem so many that it is perhaps reckless of the scientific historian community not to be following this up. However that is part of the problem with this book - it is probably unfair to expect Menzies to write about the other side of his assumptions and theory - why would he present the evidence that doesn't fit. It is because of the amateur nature of this book that at no time does the reader feel they are being offered an opportunity to decide anything. Menzies takes this choice out of our hands. He simply tells us what he believes happened, and that we should believe him.

One of the most annoying aspects of his writing, is his use of repetition, and subtle changes to the repetition to strengthen his position. During the narrative he regularly starts of with an assumption - a mere speculation that fits some vague evidence. Some pages later he will return to that assumption, and add a further layer of speculation, restating it as likely. Later again he will confirm this as fact, evidenced by X an Y theory. In his summary chapters the original "theory" is a certainty. This process undermines his evidence, in my view.

Another trait which lessens the effect of his narrative is his repetitive use of phrases to sell his assumption. "By this point I was sure...", "I realized that Zhou must have...." and "From my days as a navigator, I knew that ....". The use of these phrases, in my view changes this from a serious historical investigation to a game of join the dots.

However, his presentation methods aside, it is still a fascinating THEORY. There can be no doubting the depth of Chinese Culture. Winchesters Bomb, Book & Compass: Joseph Needham & the Great Secrets of China goes some way to describing the technological achievements of the Chinese, and there is no reason to think that navigation and seamanship should not have been ambitions of China.

Menzies helper scientists were also in the process of DNA testing at the time of publication, and he uses the postscript in this edition in a couple of ways. One is to throw around some proof of Chinese DNA in pretty much all of the native peoples of the world from American Indians to New Zealand Maori, from native Alaskans (Aleut) to the Incas and Australian Aboriginals. Again we are just told this is incontrovertible proof - but it is not explained (but to be fair, I probably wouldn't understand it either). The other thing he does is take a return swing at some of the academics who have challenged aspects of his theory. This is sort of an easy way for him to score points, as he can pick one or two of the challengers, present their argument as he wishes to and then respond. I think it lacks the professionalism required in an impartial and formal challenge to history.

But before I finish my rant, as promised, some out jumping around, because I realise you may have no idea what this book is about. The basic THEORY is that the Chinese in 1421 set sail with a massive fleet of many hundreds of ships (some massive) to explore the world and return to their homes many hundred of envoys from other countries who had been in Beijing to pay homage to Emperor Zhu Di. (These envoys, and hundreds of concubines play a part later, when they help back up some theories about certain native peoples being 'whiter' having integrated not only the Chinese but some of these envoys into their breeding.)

The flotilla of ships splits up into many, many routes, and basically not only returns some of the envoys, but carries on to discover almost the entire world, from Antarctica to Greenland, both coasts of Africa and South America, North America, the Azores, Caper Verde, the Caribbean, Australia and New Zealand. Also the obvious ones - India, the Spice Islands, parts of the Middle East and Indonesia. Pretty much all but Europe (I understand that Europe is suddenly on the table in Menzies next book, called 1434). They not only visited, they accurately surveyed and charted the extent of their travel, and even set up numerous colonies.

This, all far before the Portuguese and their Age of Discovery, and long, long before the Dutch explorers and James Cook etc.
More than just beating them to it, according to the theory, every single one of those famous explorers were in possession of the Chinese originated maps, and therefore were not heading off in discovery, but were simply following the map to places they knew existed! They just never really told anyone.
And the reason that China holds no substantial written (or oral) history on this? There was a fire which destroyed the Forbidden City. As a result the emperor lost his nerve (to do with the gods revoking his mandate to rule) and China shut her borders, and destroyed all the evidence of their explorations, and suppressed all records. Anyway that is the very short version.

But I have written enough, and need to put this review to rest, as it is approaching TL;DR.

As justified above, 3 stars.
Profile Image for Daniel Burton.
404 reviews85 followers
March 2, 2012
It's rare that I would waste space blasting a book. Life is short and time is a scarce resource. I'd rather just drop a book unworthy of finishing and move on to a new one. This time, though, I think 1421 merits further explanation because of the sensational success it has experienced worldwide.

Simply put, 1421 is junk history posing as "real history." Gavin Menzies has spun a fantastical and interesting tale out of the very real events surrounding the massive Chinese treasure fleets of 1421. His thesis--that the Chinese discovered the New World in the 1420s, mapped it, and that it was their maps that European explorers used when sailing for the New World (including, he argues, Columbus).

Built by a Ming emperor to gather in tribute from the ends of the Earth, the fleet was one of the last acts of imperial hubris. Shortly after it set sail, the emperor died. His son, in replacing his father's policies, had the fleets destroyed upon their return, along with records gathered during the voyage. Starting with that sparse introduction, Menzies proceeds to gather bits and pieces of evidence stretching from China itself to the Indian subcontinent, from the Congo to Patagonia and beyond, and levies the evidence to tell a tale of the massive Chinese fleet charting the New World the greater part of a century before Columbus set sail in 1492.

It is an extremely interesting and, if it were true, a ground breaking discovery and thesis. Perhaps it is true. But likely, it is not.

As I started reading it, the first question that came to mind for me was this: in the almost six centuries since these events happened, why has no one else suggested that the Chinese arrived first? Menzies explanation is that historians generally lack the skill set necessary to uncover the truth, a skill set that he has as a former captain in the British Navy. Unlike most historians, Menzies argues, he can read a chart, understand what he's looking at, and glean from these 15th century charts things that no historian would otherwise notice.

Yeah. It's a little bit of a stretch. I would be surprised to find that no historian has ever had the skill set to learn maritime charts and understand how to read them (heck, Theodore Roosevelt when only an undergraduate student at Harvard, researched and wrote a book of naval strategy -- "The Naval War of 1812"--that became a classic and a text book used by both the US and British navies for decades after it was published). That being said, I gave Menzies the benefit of the doubt. I've long been intrigued with China and its history, and I think I wanted to believe that history as we have been taught might not be true. How interesting would it be for America to have been discovered by the Chinese?

As I read, though, red flags continued to pop up. Out of only sparse details, Menzies would assert "conclusive proof" that his theories were finding relevance. Finally, over two hundred pages in, I decided to check into what critical review might have said about his methods and evidence. I reasoned that if Menzies is correct, or even has a good theory, then the academic community would support his findings with further research. I went to the internet.

Critical acclaim was anything but what I found. In addition to finding entire sites dedicated to debunking Menzies myths, I also found that historical lectures had been given explaining and demonstrating that what Menzies proposed was just that--a proposal. Be it even true, the evidence was not there, not was the reasoning clearly logical.

For example:

--Menzies claims that Chinese anchors have been found off of the coast of California, but fails to document them.
--1421 says that Chinese DNA is found in North America natives, but fails to account for the influx of Chinese immigrants in the 17th century.
--Menzies finds what he claims are chickens unique to Asia living in Peru, but fails to note that Peru exported millions of tons of silver to China and brought back silk and porcelain (and presumably other things, like, for example, chickens) throughout the heyday of the Spanish during the 16th through 17th centuries.

And that's just to start.

Historian Kirstin A. Seaver says, in disecting claims about the Chinese in Vinland:

"The study of history is likely to reward anyone willing to undertake it in a quest for better understanding of who they are, how they became what they are, and what they might hope to become. The manufacture of a history that never existed rewards only those who make money by deceiving the public."

If 1421 is true, Menzies has not found the evidence to support it. If it is false, it's junk and a waste of time to read. Further, it perpetuates a falsehood that makes the acquisition of real history--real, boring, dry and factual history--that much harder to grasp.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Michael.
4 reviews1 follower
June 26, 2007
While this book presents itself as a revelation, it lacks citations or footnotes or much evidence for that matter to support such wild claims. I am not some jaded professor who believes in the current historical status quo, but to make such claims without good scholarly follow-through just begs for it to be debunked. Don't get me wrong, it was an entertaining read, which is why it got 2 stars and not one. But ultimately it is a futile book. The reason History is a social science is partly because new evidence and information is peer-reviewed. If the evidence supports further research or re-evaluates long-held historical notions, then it is absolutely necessary to do so. I don't think there is such a pro-Western or anti-Chinese conspiracy among modern historians that the "terrible truth" in this book would be willfully ignored.

As there are many examples of historical revisions that were necessary because of new evidence or racism and bigotry in the original historical perspective, I can only guess that Gavin Menzies had reason to believe that his "evidence" wasn't strong enough. In addition, he conflates history for which there is strong evidence with unsupported theories. For example, there is plenty of written and physical evidence that the Chinese were trading and sailing to the East African coast. But there is no substantiated evidence that they rounded the Cape of Good Hope. There is also evidence that the Chinese were well aware of many land masses throughout the South Pacific, but no evidence to support them landing and colonizing Australia or New Zealand. Menzies also claims DNA evidence of Chinese intermixing with aboriginal populations around the world. We all know that DNA evidence, while not conclusive, would certainly be very strong proof. So why isn't this data cited?

It is well-established that the most powerful agent of change when the New World came into contact with the Old World was disease. Since there is evidence of Sino-European contact during the Roman period, and both populations had enough density to be cauldrons for the same diseases, why didn't supposed Chinese contact with Native Americans or Australian Aboriginals result in devastating plagues? This to me is Menzies' largest theoretical hole, large enough to sail a treasure ship through.

On a much smaller note, the images that are in the book as well as some of Menzies' physical evidence are suspiciously inexact. Why not display images of the plinths with Chinese characters from Australia and West Africa and the Cape Verde Islands? Why not show the Mao Tsu statue "found" in Australia or the Gympie Pyramid? I suspect these are not shown because of the utter dearth of testable data or clear evidence supporting his theories. It is unfortunate that his claims are presented so sloppily and amateurishly that they invite such damning criticism.

Finally, I acknowledge the possibility of Menzies' claims. It is well-known that History of European Contact with the New World has long been a racist and exclusionary account of the clash of civilizations. Only recently (in the last 15 years) have there been serious attempts to include the perspectives of women, natives and common Europeans. If concrete evidence of Chinese contact with the rest of the world is discovered, then History should indeed be revised. But until then I will shelve this theory next to the Lost Continent of Muu and Mayan Trips to the Moon.
Profile Image for K..
3,539 reviews999 followers
September 29, 2016
DNFed on page 237.

I tried so hard, you guys. I wanted to love this book. I mean, turning all of western exploration on its head? YAAAAAAAAAAAS.

But here's the thing: this book is not a non-fiction history book. This book is pure speculation based on the experiences of one man with no background in history. Like, his entire premise is "I was in the navy, therefore I can read charts and most historians can't." It literally took all of my self control not to put this book on my fantasy, alternate history and historical fiction shelves.

Is it possible that expeditions from China sailed to Africa, Australia, New Zealand, South American, Central America and North America? Yes. Is there historical evidence for most of these? No. Menzies provides historical sources for Chinese expeditions visiting Africa, but after that the sources dry up.

Additionally, all of his sources are secondary documents which he claims were based on Chinese sources, but for which there is no evidence because apparently the Chinese emperor ordered all reference to the expeditions destroyed when they returned to China. Menzies doesn't read Chinese, and therefore can't have examined any primary documents himself.

So after the fleet leaves Africa, the rest of the book is pure speculation: lots of "I knew instantly that X, Y, and Z" and "chickens in South America lay blue eggs, which is a uniquely Asian chicken trait, therefore the only possible conclusion is that the Chinese fleet landed in South America" and "there's an Aboriginal rock painting of a huge animal with a dog-shaped head. The only possible conclusion is that it's a milodon which the Chinese fleet brought with them from Patagonia" and "I found this rock with swirly patterns on it in New Zealand. There's a similar rock with swirly patterns on it in Central America. THE TWO MUST HAVE BEEN LEFT AS MARKERS BY THE FLEET!"

In short, it's a lovely idea and I wish to God it were true. And it's a very readable (if rage inducing) book. However, Menzies sounds increasingly like the Captain of the HMS Tinfoil Hat Brigade as the book progresses.

Essentially, this book involves many a tenuous connection and a hell of a lot of jumping to conclusions. So after reading about how the Chinese explorers rode their horses hundreds of kilometres inland from the Australian coast to mine for gold and iron and who knows what else, I noped my way firmly to the exit, following the path that dozens of reputable historians have forged before me.
Profile Image for Jeff.
38 reviews
April 29, 2008
I am convinced. There is a raging debate over this book. The problem lies in the fact that the author is not a traditional historian--he's just a sailor who had a theory about what a few famous Chinese admirals did over a period of a couple of undocumented years. His theory is that they visited every continent on Earth except Europe, and he amasses a great deal of circumstantial evidence to support it. Not the least convincing, and what a good deal of the book focuses on, are the maps that many of the "great" European explorers used that show the areas that they are setting out to discover. If they're discovering them, who made the maps? Well, the Chinese did, and in great detail, and the maps were then copied or made by some of the Europeans who were sailing with the Chinese fleets. All in all, it's a very interesting book. The primary flaw stems straight from the fact that the author is not part of the establishment: he made his theory first and then tried to drum up evidence to support it... could open him up to all sort of biases and misjudgments. I found it compelling, however, and I have enough faith in the Chinese culture of antiquity that I believe they had the technology and drive to do it. Check it out if you want to shake your faith in the primacy of European world domination. And really, who doesn't?
Profile Image for Jini.
73 reviews3 followers
July 1, 2008
I suppose I should feel bad that I gave up on this book, but I don't. It seemed like an interesting concept: China sent out huge ships to bring back treasure and knowledge, and just happened to find America 70 years before Christopher Columbus. Too bad there's so much evidence pointing against this being the case. I was about two chapters in when I really started to think about the logic of this and decided to do a little research. Turns out there are very few people that agree with this book. Most scholars agree that the logic is flawed. I gave up and gave it back to the guy who loaned it to me.
Profile Image for Nate Mundy.
18 reviews1 follower
November 13, 2011
Poorly researched. Highly speculative. A little condescending.

I found myself wondering throughout this book, how the hell this guy made the conclusions he did. After about 150 pages into it, I started noticing he wasn't making as many citations as he should be. A lot of his research comes from his own experience as a submarine captain, which he thinks puts him in a better position than other scholars before him.

He also makes excuses for the Chinese for basic mistakes, "the land was connected by ice, so they figured it was the same island" or "they could have passed by this at night so they might not have seen this". Further, when there's some completely inexplicable conclusion, he reminds the reader, "the Chinese had expert carpenters, stone masons, cartographers, astronomers, etc., so they could have figured this out, I believe they did." When they make a basic mistake, he chalks it up to mere oversight, but yet when the impossible is accomplished the Chinese were able to do it because they were experts?

The book does have an interesting premise, which is why I give it one star. Ultimately, I feel he rushed to judgment. He went about the book as a mystery, not as historical fact. I found it frustrating when he'd say "check the website for further information" or "negotiations are underway for the release of these documents".

Anyway, I stopped reading because I found the book less and less convincing. After 325 pages, I was no longer believing a word he said. After wondering if this guy was a fraud, I checked out the reviews on here and found many people wondering the same thing I was. After some research, the map that gave this guy the original idea turned out to be a fake. I found no reason to continue reading.
Profile Image for Brian.
269 reviews63 followers
August 24, 2007
First off, I will start off by saying that I do NOT believe the Chinese beat the Europeans to the New World. I just think the evidence just is not compelling enough.

However that doesn't mean that they could NOT have. They certainly had the navy, the navigational skills (no worse than the Europeans), and the funding and ingenuity to accomplish it. And that is precisely what this book seeks to theorize. Of course there is not any historian that wants to make any money "theorizing" unless you are stictly in the academic community. In which case you then are not making any money.

But I digress.

Gavin Menzies has decided to theorize that the Chinese could and did in fact do exactly what the title promises. He makes a compelling case and this book is very readible to the amateur history buff. Which is why it gets 4 stars. You will read and really think that maybe the textbooks have been wrong the whole time.

But like any good, compelling history, the reader should now get enough information and go find out for themselves what is really believable. Especially with a theory like this one that would literally turn history on its head. And after doing some further reading, you realize that Mr. Menzies simply does not have enough solid data to support this claim.

But the book is well written and he makes a compelling case. Just not a slam dunk nor anything close. But fun to think about nonetheless.
55 reviews
July 10, 2014
So much for all that crap they taught us in school about who discovered America! The Chinese did it first. All the European explorers were following charts that the Chinese had created in the early 1420s. Its fascinating to see how the revelation of what "really" happened developes for the author as he travels all over the world finding evidence in shipwrecks, artifacts and structures, plants and animals, languages and customs, and genetic markers in the indigenous peoples of Africa, the New World, and Australia and New Zealand. This book, and its accompanying website that is constantly being updated with new evidence from around the world, are going to change how we teach history.

Columbus and his brother were frauds--literally! They stole maps from the Portuguese (a capitol crime at the time), and then altered the maps to fool the Spanish into thinking the Western route to the Spice Islands was shorter so they would finance Christopher's expeditions. Part of the reason he thought he was in Asia when he landed in the Caribbean was because his crew encountered "light skinned" Asians that were the descendants of Chinese who'd been shipwrecked there 70 years before.
Profile Image for Tim Weakley.
693 reviews24 followers
September 20, 2011
I really wanted to like this book. Sadly it became a long, non-stop series of suppositions along the lines of Chariots of the Gods. If I had to read one more mention of the Asian chickens in the New World I would have gone mad!Or another use of "the ONLY thing this could mean was that the Chinese had been there before anyone!" He has a lot to learn about inescapable conclusions and the evidence leading up to them. I gave it one star for the few things I actually found interesting, but given the rest of the book it makes me want to double check even those.

Too bad.
Profile Image for Clif.
430 reviews115 followers
April 16, 2018
What a story this is! Do you remember Erich von Daniken? He had quite a story to tell, too.

Menzies writes that the Chinese, during the reign of a single emperor at a time over five decades before the voyages of Columbus, spared no expense building treasure fleets with the centerpieces being huge flat bottomed square bowed junks 180 by 450 feet flying bright red silk sails on up to nine masts surrounded with lesser support ships that carried everything from food to horses in a quest to discover the world and plant colonies in the process. To this extent, it's all true. But then, Gavin Menzies runs with the ball.

1421 tells of of the voyages these fleets undertook that reached and accurately mapped, within the limits of the technologies of the time, the coasts of much of North and South America, Australia and Antarctica. Page after page of revelations kept me eagerly reading. I thought it would be interesting to use the Internet to look up some of the artifacts, standing stones, and buildings that Menzies mentions.

I went online only to discover that though the items mentioned do exist (check out the Newport Round Tower and the Bimini Road, for examples) there is no evidence for the claims Menzies makes and very good evidence for their existence that has nothing to do with any Chinese visitors. At this encounter with real science I had read past the middle of the book but, feeling duped, stopped reading.

My suspicion had been aroused even before I did my online checking. Menzies doesn't write with the care and deliberation of a historian. He follows a pattern. He looks at an ancient map, puts his experience as a navigator in the Royal Navy to use, comes up with a hunch about a Chinese visit to some point on the globe, visits the location and discovers that, sure enough, there is strong evidence for exactly what his hunch had told him might be the case. The Chinese visited! Move on to the next place. Thus does he move along around the world revealing what he would have us believe are facts. From time to time he admits there might be other reasons for something he finds, but little time is spent bothering with them because his view is obviously correct.

Chinese treasure fleets did sail starting in 1421, reaching as far as the east coast of Africa, long before the famous voyages made by the Portuguese around Africa and into the Indian Ocean. It's a fact that the Chinese were all over the waters off Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, India and the Persian Gulf long before Europeans arrived over the waves. That is no little thing, reason for admiration, proof that Chinese civilization and technology was second to none at the time. It is also a fascinating fact that this expansive effort was stopped abruptly, leaving the world to be "discovered" by the Europeans as China turned inward.

The real story of the Chinese treasure fleets is remarkable. This account from a man with a very active imagination and a publisher willing to put it in print wasted my precious reading time. Don't waste yours.
Profile Image for John.
897 reviews89 followers
July 16, 2007
Ok, so this was really interesting and he had a pretty good basic thesis. In fact, I could totally buy the most important 10% of his theory. Basically, no one disputes that the Chinese had this enormous fleet that set sail in 1421 and went across the Indian Ocean to the east coast of Africa. They were sent on a mission to trade with different countries and basically tell everyone how great China was.
The part of his theory I can buy is that the Chinese didn't stop at East Africa. They sailed around the southern tip, up the west coast, and across to Brazil. Then they bumped around the coasts of what is now Brazil and Argentina and then sailed back to the Indian Ocean. Makes sense. They were told to sail as far as they could and explore, and they had the ships to do it. Plus they were mapping the southern stars and learning about navigation.
But the author doesn't stop there. He says, basically, that the fleet split up and then sailed, literally, everywhere else in the world. One group went up the east coast and explored everything from Puerto Rico to Greenland, one group explored Mexico and California, one group explored Antarctica(!) and Australia. Basically, the Chinese went EVERYWHERE.....except Europe. For some reason, they didn't stop anywhere in Europe. At all. Even though they knew there were countries there they could trade with.
Plus whenever this guy sees a map that doesn't help his story, he comes up with some excuse, including gems such as "they must have seen an iceberg and thought it was an island" or "they must have traveled by these islands at night and accidentally thought they were a continent". Right.
I can't say it's not an interesting read though. I'd say read it and decide for yourself how much of this guy's elaborate story you are willing to buy into.
Profile Image for Jeff Brown.
26 reviews3 followers
May 22, 2014
It is hard to explain the awfulness of this book fact-wise(the fact that there is actually a web site dedicated to to doing this should tell you something). It consists of a long list of anecdotes along the lines of "when I was in the navy, I saw a pile of moss covered rocks on the beach in South America that had a shape vaguely similar to that of a collapsed Chinese temple - further proof of Chinese contact with America!"

I like a good wild theory as much as anyone, and typically enjoy reading about them and considering them ("The Deep Hot Biosphere" is a favorite), but I need a FEW FACTS to make it palatable - not an author posturing as if he was an authority to trick people without strong analytical abilities in to believing him. Menzies just rolls out a long list of vague assertions with really no proof other than his own belief(which I don't doubt), and acts as if a long list of vague assertions has more validity together than they would separately. I am not some ivory tower type either, who gets all wound up because sources are vague, or a few of the facts might be slightly off. I'll overlook some speculation or inaccuracies if the actual evidence you DO have is compelling and you are just filling in some blanks. But 100% speculation and 0% facts is a little tough to swallow.

I normally don't go out of my way to slam a book, but since this guy didn't fade in to obscurity after his first book & actually seems to be gaining a following, people need to be warned.
Profile Image for Bunga Mawar.
1,244 reviews43 followers
January 18, 2022
I bought this book December 2006 on Indonesia Book Fair. The real prize was IDR75000, but I got it for only IDR49000 (still one of expensive books I've ever bought).

The book's content amazed me. It's a kind of re-writing world history that attempted to tell us that Magellan, Columbus and other Western discoverers were only followers of a path built by Chinese sailors under the command of Zheng-He (or Cheng-Ho, his popular name in Indonesia) on Emperor Zhu-Di era.

I like Menzies' style in writing. Seemed that he's trying to be honest, because the greatest part he did for the book was arranging other people's work ; he wondered everytime he found a match in his research; he wanted to make sure that the proof are not coincidences. He showed that he's only a writer for things that alresdy exist, for history that never be written in decent manner.

You may find many discussion and critics about the book when you surf on internet. Americans (or Europeans), many of them, don't feel comfortable about replacing their superior Columbus with Chinese wanderers they never heard before. As for me, I do not have enough scientific authority to judge whether all the writer said in the book are true or not, but I really respect all research he's done for the book. He said it took him forty years of research; here, there and everywhere. He went to many parts of the world in finding and matching the proof to support his theory. It inspired me, at least to think that when there's a will, there's a way, especially when I get stuck in finishing one of my writing work.

For me, it's still a book on my priority list to be read again and again
Profile Image for Rebecca.
1,214 reviews102 followers
August 14, 2012
This is a completely enthralling book dedicated to a really ballsy thesis--that the treasure fleets of the Ming Dynasty charted most of the world, including North and South America as well as Siberia and Antarctica, in 1421. According to Menzies, European explorers including Columbus, Magellan, and Cook were working off of already existing charts that had been essentially stolen from the Chinese when they made their own voyages of exploration.

There is an overwhelming amount of evidence presented--everything from ancient maps to European ship logs to shipwrecks to lingual analysis to plant migrations to DNA. Some of the declarations are fairly easy to believe, such as the notion that the Chinese were well aware of the location of Australia. Others seem awfully far-fetched, like the declaration that Chinese sailors built the Bimini Road to repair reef-savaged junks.

Taken as a whole and in isolation, this is an incredibly compelling and fascinating argument. Menzies claims the support of an armada of Chinese scholars--this isn't merely one guy out on a mission of his own. And he has plausible-sounding explanations for most possible objections.

Is it true? I'll admit I have no idea. A part of me wants it to be--it's just such a cool idea. But I'll freely admit I don't have nearly the background required to evaluate this. There are dozens of websites that seem devoted to proving him wrong--although there are also dozens of websites devoted to proving the moon landing wrong, too, so that doesn't necessarily mean much. I'd be very much interested in reading a rebuttal by a group of qualified historians. But again, my own lack of knowledge hampers me here--I don't actually know who is considered a respected authority, who is a crank, and who is just inflexible and has an axe to grind. It's certain that there's a lot of "established" history that we're aware is not actually true. But at the same time, this just seems too good to be true. And there's definitely a bunch of places where I think he's making unjustified leaps of logic.

But it certainly is interesting.
Profile Image for Marc.
3,022 reviews1,007 followers
December 21, 2019
I was 13, I read "Were the Gods kosmonauts?" by von Däniken, and I was immeditaly swept away: it all seemed very plausible and convincing. With this book I almost had the same experience. Menzies writes well, knows how to tell a story, and so he seems to convince you that a giant Chinese flotilla at the beginning of the 15th Century explored the world, and discovered America and Australia.

But then you think about it: the author doesn't understand one word of Chinese and does not but put up a chain of suppositions. Now, indeed, there's convincing evidence that some giant Chinese vessels did explore Sout Asia and even the East coast of Afrika. But some simple checks through internet reveil that his assertions about America and Australia are based upon nothing and lots of experts in the meantime have unmasked Menzies as a fraud. Alas, this book is an enticing read and that's probably why it captivates so many people, we just want these kind of stories to be true.
Profile Image for Yigal Zur.
Author 9 books126 followers
May 12, 2019
great book about the discoveries the Chinese made of the new world and other places like Tasmania long before Columbus sailed looking for the new route to India. great tale.
Profile Image for Darrell.
384 reviews7 followers
March 13, 2008
In 1421: The Year China Discovered America, Gavin Menzies presents evidence that China not only discovered North and South America before Columbus was born, but also rounded the Cape of Good Hope, explored the North and South Poles, discovered Australia, and circumnavigated the world, visiting every continent except Europe.

The reason this information isn't widely known is because China became xenophobic after these great voyages and all records of the voyages were destroyed. However, enough evidence of these voyages remains to provide compelling proof.

Menzies focuses on maps of the world made before the European explores were born and points to journals showing that Columbus, Magellan, Cook, and others had maps of the areas they were "discovering" before they ever set sail.

Magellan knew where the Straight of Magellan was by using a map. Cook found Australia the same way. Columbus didn't discover America on accident; he simply followed the map he brought with him. In fact, when Columbus landed on Puerto Rico, he found an earlier Portuguese voyage had already settled there ahead of him. (The Portuguese landed in Puerto Rico a short ten years after the Chinese.) Columbus wasn't even the first non-Scandinavian European to visit America! Also, Columbus himself admits that the Chinese had been to America before him.

Where did these maps come from? Menzies shows that Europeans who visited India came into contact with the Chinese and brought maps back to Europe. Portugal kept the maps a secret from the rest of Europe to give them an advantage in the spice trade. However, Columbus and his brother copied the maps, altered them to make it look like it was easier to reach the Spice Islands by going west rather than east and tricked Spain into financing a voyage to the Americas.

Menzies also presents a mountain of evidence of Chinese explorations around the world including Chinese stone markers and observation pyramids, ancient Chinese shipwrecks, including one found in San Francisco Bay, Chinese artifacts found around the world, Asian plants and animals introduced to the Americas, American plants and animals brought back to China, legends and cave drawings of indigenous peoples, and Native Americans with Chinese DNA who speak languages similar to Chinese.

In addition to presenting compelling evidence, Menzies also provides interesting historical tidbits. For example, the Chinese had trained otters who herded fish into nets. He provides fascinating descriptions of medieval China, which made me wish the grade school history classes I took didn't focus solely on Europe and European America.

The only problem I had with the book is that it gets repetitious towards the end, especially the epilogue that I found unnecessary since it just restates evidence from earlier in the book. Strangely, he includes an appendix explaining how the Chinese measured longitude, which is almost exactly the same word for word as his description of how the Chinese measured longitude found in Chapter 15, making it completely extraneous. Except for this one shortcoming, the book is a fantastic read and gives us indisputable proof that our history books need to be rewritten.
1 review3 followers
December 16, 2009
There are some books that come to our attention through curious routes and then strike us as books "we were meant to read." I suppose in some ways, this is true for many books. Perhaps it is proof of the old saying, "Chance favors the prepared mind."
When my GoogleLitTrips.com project was selected by the Asia Society to receive the Goldman Sachs Foundation Prize for Excellence in Education, I was invited to New York City to receive the prize and there, in passing, it was suggested that 1421 might be a good book to do a Lit Trip on. Though I found the book a bit outside of the parameters of the Lit Trip project, I found it eye-opening to say the least.
I had forever been aware of the "controversy" relating to the claims that Christopher Columbus "discovered" the new world. It had long been in my cognizance that the Vikings had been to the Americas earlier. And, of course, how can one claim to have discovered a land when the land one "discovers" is inhabited by millions of people with clear signs of advanced civilization?
I had also only recently become aware of the extent of the Portuguese sailing history, suggesting that Columbus was following fairly well-known routes that the Portuguese were well aware of.
But, this book, which offers extensive evidence that the Chinese were sailing the entire world long before either the Portuguese or Columbus was essentially complete news to me.
One beauty of the book for me is it's support for my serious belief in photographer Aaron Siskind's quote which I had posted above my black, then, green, then white board in my classroom for over 30 years. It was Siskind who said, "We look at the world and see what we have learned to believe is there."
I love this book because it verifies that what we know, or what we believe we know about history (and perhaps everything else) quite possibly is sufficiently less than what there is to know and therefore an indicator that we ought to always make room for the possibility that a complete reality check may always be in order.
Was it coincidence then that through virtually no pre-planning or awareness on my part, that in traveling to New York to receive my prize, that "coincidentally" a friend of mine from the Apple Distinguished Educator group would "happen" to be invited to attend the ceremony, not knowing that I was to be one of the recipients? And that he would because of this "coincidence" invite me to join him in presenting at a conference in China on 21st Century Learning? And, that, I would then use part of the prize money to fund my attendance where I would find ample evidence of the stories of 1421 to be documented in multiple museums?
It is true and always refreshing to be reminded that "The more we know, the more we come to understand how little we know."
Great book!
Profile Image for Dana Stabenow.
Author 93 books1,868 followers
January 31, 2022
The Strait of Magellan should be called the Strait of Hong Bao. Really? Why?

Because when Magellan traversed that homicidal passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific he had a chart to show him the way, a chart made by Chinese Admiral Hong Bao, one of the captains of the great Chinese treasure fleet that not only got to America 70 years before Columbus, but to Australia and Alaska 370 years before Cook.  This is history stood on its ear, backed by indigenous oral legends, physical artifacts, believe it or not the weather, and DNA.

Author and retired British submariner Gavin Menzies has sailed all of the waters he writes about, which makes for a you-are-there read.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 12 books1,260 followers
July 31, 2008
(Reprinted from the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [cclapcenter.com]. I am the original author of this review, as well as the owner of CCLaP; it is not being reprinted here illegally.)

We Westerners are of course familiar with the historical period known as the Renaissance; taking place between the 1300s and 1600s, it's the period when Europeans finally crawled out of their Dark-Age hole, rediscovered such ancient Greek concepts as science and philosophy, and started doing such things for the first time as sailing to the far corners of the planet. But did you know that China as well went through its own brief Renaissance at the same time, actually sailing around the planet on a regular basis a full 50 years before the Europeans started doing so, and that it was the maps and tips these Chinese gave to the Europeans that allowed the great figures from the "Age of Discovery" to make their voyages in the first place? Well, okay, so not everyone completely agrees with this theory; but it's the surprisingly strong one being espoused in the books 1421: The Year China Discovered America and 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, both of them by a retired British naval commander named Gavin Menzies, a hobbyist scholar who just happened to start stumbling across more and more evidence during his studies to support the theory mentioned above. See, the whole thing is problematic, because the Chinese actually went through a major period of isolationism right after this brief period of world-traveling, specifically as a overreaction to Ghengis Khan and his Mongol Hoard Horde(!), which had actually held and ruled China all the way up to the beginning of the 1400s, or in other words the beginning of the Ming Dynasty in that country.

According to well-known history, the Chinese were so set on turning inwards at this point, they actually destroyed most of their own records regarding their globetrotting sea voyages from this period, just so no one else would be tempted to make such trips again; according to Menzies, he has slowly been putting the pieces back together through shreds of evidence in other countries, stone markers and rescued scrolls and the like, revealing that the Ming Dynasty's own period of global seafaring was actually much larger than any of us have ever realized, a systematic series of successes that would've virtually guaranteed China's eventual world domination, if they had simply stuck with it instead of embarking on a four-hundred-year period of profound isolationism like they actually did. It's certainly an intriguing theory, and Menzies does a pretty credible job backing it up; these are giant thick books we're talking about (over a thousand pages altogether), just chock-full of evidence both direct and circumstantial. Combine this, then, with Menzies' tech-savvy prose concerning the problems of map-drawing and chart-creating in that period, which is why certain documents from that period need to be widened or narrowed in Photoshop before they'll actually line up with real coastlines; it's just one of the dozens of little issues and problems with all this old evidence, he argues, that prevented it from being all added together by anyone else before now. (See, one of the things Menzies did while in the navy was actually sail the ancient Chinese routes talked about in these books; he therefore has an expert's understanding on what these routes must've been like for the original Chinese sailors, and can thus explain the inconsistencies in the maps and charts they left behind.)

These were great reads, books that really crank the gears of the mind into action (why, just the descriptions of a glittering, wealthy Southeast Asia in the 1400s is worth the cover price alone); I'll warn you, though, that these are denser books than the usual airport and beach reads, not exactly academic in complexity but definitely stories you need to pay careful attention to while reading. That said, they both get a big recommendation from me, especially for the growing amount of people in the western half of the world who are becoming more and more curious these days about the mysterious history of the eastern half.

Out of 10: 9.3
Profile Image for Kimba Tichenor.
Author 1 book109 followers
December 13, 2016
Gavin Menzies, a former submarine commander in the British navy and amateur historian, argues in this book that between 1421 and 1423 squadrons from Zheng He's fleets reached the Americas prior to the Europeans. The problem is that the author offers very little proof for this provocative theory.

As the author acknowledges in his introduction, later Ming Dynasty rulers destroyed all records documenting the sea voyages made by the Chinese during Zheng He's rule. Thus, the author bases his argument on three claims: 1) Chinese maps from as early as 1428, allegedly showing parts of North and South America and some Atlantic islands, which the author claims, European explorers (including Columbus) used to their advantage 2) evidence of pre-Columbian contact between America and Asia based on flora and fauna exchange that he asserts must have occurred as the result of human contact and 3) his past maritime experience as a British naval officer (of which the author regularly reminds the reader ).

The problem is these subjective claims for the most part are not adequately substantiated with hard evidence. While the extremely accurate pre-Columbian maps will give the reader reason to consider his theory, the many leaps of logic contained in this book should give one pause before abandoning 500 years of history. For example, Menzies never provides the DNA evidence supposedly linking native Americans and the Chinese. With the exception of the maps, he never cites any primary sources and cannot, since by his admission, he does not speak or read Chinese. The author also contradicts himself on several occasions. For example, at one point in the book, he claims that Greenland was navigable in the 15th century because it was warmer then (p. 306); but just 50 pages earlier, the author had asserted that 21st-century sea levels are lower because of global warming (p. 257)! He also fails to identify the "local experts" who supposedly have found evidence of Chinese shipwrecks off the coast of New Zealand

Thus, at this point, Menzies's theory remains just that -- a provocative theory, but one for which he failed to provide adequate substantiation.
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