August 18, 2013

Chinese puzzle that's hard to swallow

DID A FLEET of Chinese junks discover America in 1421, long before dear old Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue?  Did those junks complete a circumnavigation of the world in 1423, almost 100 years before Magellan’s expedition claimed the honor?

Gavin Menzies is quite sure they did.  He’s the author of 1421, The Year China Discovered America (Harper, Perennial).  I’m not quite so sure they did, but I have nothing to base my opinion on except the kind of hunch a sailor gets when he reads an unproven hypothesis involving boats and navigation.

In his book Menzies offers a little hard evidence and a wealth of circumstantial evidence. Perhaps too much circumstantial evidence. It almost seems as though he seeks to convince us by smothering us with a mountain of possibilities and conjecture.

He maintains that a enormous armada sailed from China in 1421 to circle the globe. At the center were “the great leviathan flagships, surrounded by a host of merchant junks.”  Surrounding them were squadrons of warships. By the time they reached India, the fleet consisted of more than 800 vessels. He says.

The flagships themselves numbered more than 100 huge junks, each about 480 feet in length and 180 feet in beam. “Great sails of red silk, light but immensely strong, were furled on each ship’s nine masts,” Menzies declares.

Whoa! Let’s pause there for a bit.  Silk sails?  Enough for 900 masts on 100 480-foot junks.  How many silkworms does it take to spin that much silk?  And why silk?  Why not canvas made from flax like everybody else? Did the Chinese have that much money to burn?

And now, before our amazement makes us forget, isn’t 480 feet rather large for a wooden boat?  Did the Europeans ever build a wooden boat that big?  The Great Republic was 335 feet long and 33 feet wide. Caligula’s giant barge was about 341 feet long and had a beam of 66 feet.

And what about the alleged beam of the alleged Chinese junks?  I have a hard time even imagining one with a beam of 180 feet, especially a flat-bottomed boat with a transom bow.

Apparently each of these enormous junks was built in separate water-tight sections, 16 of them in all, each one bolted to the next with what Menzies says are brass fastenings.  I find it hard to believe they’d use brass, which has practically no place at all on a sea-going vessel except maybe for the ship’s bell.  Iron was a lot cheaper, stronger, and readily available.

In one place, the author explains that these junks were hopelessly inefficient at getting to windward.  (That’s easy to believe.)  So they had to plan their routes by running downwind with the prevailing winds.

And yet he claims: “Reinforced bows enabled the vessel to smash through the waves . . .” Ahem.  What waves do you have to smash through when you’re hightailing it downwind all the time?  And it gets weirder:

“ . . . at either side of the bow were channels leading to internal compartments. As the square bow pitched in heavy seas, water was funnelled in; as the bow surfaced above the waves, the water drained out, modifying the pitching motion . . . in a storm, semi-submersible sea anchors could also be thrown overboard to reduce rolling. Even in the roughest weather and sea conditions, pitching and rolling were greatly reduced by these ingenious modifications.”

I’m sorry. I don’t buy it. This is too much for me to swallow. What size sea anchor would you need for a 480-foot junk?  How many men would it take to deploy it?  And, how would it stop rolling?  If Menzies is thinking of giant flopper-stoppers, even if they were feasible you wouldn’t be able to use them at sea.

I’m not alone in voicing doubts about the veracity of Menzies’ claims of course. Some minds far greater than mine have beaten me to the draw in that respect. But the great unwashed public, the hoi polloi who don’t care about the beam of an alleged junk, are falling over themselves to shove money into the author’s hands. New York Times bestseller. Ka-ching!  I guess that’s all that really matters. 

Today’s Thought
In reporting with some accuracy, at times we have to go much further than the strictly factual. Facts are part of the perceived whole.
— Alastair Reid, WSJ, 18 June 84

The woman who thinks no man is good enough for her may be right. But she may also be left.

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)




Bill said...

Isn't this book about ten years old? Are people still "falling over themselves to shove money into the author’s hands"? Or is it b-a-a-ack?

Anyway, I read it when it first came out, and was no more convinced than you are (the boat construction details were by no means the least convincing parts).

But I also remember it as a very entertaining read. Add some stock characters and some sex and you've got yourself a mini-series.

John Vigor said...

Yes, it's old, but it keeps coming out in new forms. There are now 13different forms and editions; and a sticker on the front of the 2008 edition says "Major New Findings." It has just never stopped selling.

John V.

Edward said...

I read this about 7 years ago. Sure there are certainly things that don't ring true to the modern western ear. But then I see these silly Discovery channel shows that say the Mongols couldn't possibly do some things on horse back, because modern riders can't. Humm.....
Well, I'm not master wood boat builder but could it be that ancient Eastern peoples could have built larger than western? I'm a skeptic but lack of evidence is not proof, e.g. the Black Swan.

Anonymous said...

Never read the book but I've heard the theory. Like you I find it unconvincing.

On the other hand The theory that Norse visited the "New World" prior to Columbus was considered nonsense until L'Anse aux Meadows. Now there is a theory that the Basques were fishing and whaling on the East Coast as much as 100 years before Cabot (1497) but that, like all good fishermen, found a good spot and kept it secret.

As for the people "falling over themselves to shove money into the author's hands" to prove the Chineese connection? They clearly have too much money so can't possibly be boat owners.

Don P