Good bookshop, lousy book
The other day I went to check out the website of the Women's Bookshop, a long-time favourite watering hole for Auckland bookworms. Imagine my dismay when I found that the bookshop was not only stocking but enthusiastically promoting Gavin Menzies' piece of pseudo-history, 1421: the Year China Discovered the World. Here's what the Women's Bookshop site says about Menzies' offspring:
On 8 February 1421 the largest fleet the world had ever seen sailed from its base in China. The ships, 500 foot long [yep, you read it right, 500 foot long] junks made from the finest teak and mahogany, were led by Emperor Zhu Di's loyal eunuch admirals. Their mission was 'to proceed all the way to the end of the earth to collect tribute from the barbarians beyond the seas' and unite the whole world in Confucian harmony. Their journey would last over two years and circle the entire globe...
Gavin Menzies has spent fifteen years tracing the astonishing voyages of the Chinese fleet. Now, in a fascinating historical detective story, he shares the remarkable account of his discoveries and the incontrovertible evidence to support them, bringing together a compelling narrative, ancient maps, precise navigational knowledge, astronomy and the surviving accounts by Chinese explorers and the later European navigators. It brings to light the artefacts and inscribed standing stones left behind by the emperor¹s fleet,the evidence of sunken junks along its route and the ornate votive offerings left by the Chinese sailors wherever they landed, in thanks to Shao Lin, Goddess of the sea.
1421 is the story of a remarkable journey of discovery that rewrites our understanding of history. Our knowledge of world exploration as it has been commonly accepted for centuries must now be revised. 1421: The Year China Discovered the World is destined to become a classic work of historical detection.
Since Menzies published his book, not a single historian has assented to his claim that a fleet of Chinese ships circumnavigated the world in the 1420s. The maps that Menzies produced to back his claims that the Chinese got to places like Greenland and New Zealand have been exposed as obvious hoaxes. Some of them, for instance, include place names written in the modern Chinese script, which was only developed after Mao came to power at the end of the 1940s (Menzies may not have noticed this small problem because, despite wanting to rewrite Chinese history, he doesn't actually know Mandarin).
Much of the non-cartographic 'evidence' that Menzies cites for his theory is similarly absurd. For instance, he claims that the wrecks of fifteenth century Ming dynasty ships have been discovered up and down the coast of New Zealand. I must keep an eye out the next time I go down to Pt Chev Beach for a swim...
A lot of the evidence against Menzies' claims is presented at this website, which was set up by historians and Sinologists irritated by 1421.
Despite its absurd theses, Menzies' book has become a bestseller in many countries. Partly this reflects a slick marketing campaign by his publishers, who are the same outfit that gave us the Da Vinci Code. A big part of the success of the book, though, is due to the resurgent Chinese nationalism which has been one of the side-effects of the spectacular economic growth there over the past couple of decades. And the 1421 myth has support in high places: in 2003, Chinese President Hu Jintao regurgitated one of Menzies' claims when he told a joint session of China's parliament that his country had 'discovered' Australia.
I know what you're thinking. Why get so het up about a bit of Chinese myth-making, especially when it's being orchestrated by a former Pommy submarine driver who left school at fifteen and doesn't know that coconuts can float across oceans? The Brits have King Arthur, the Americans have JFK - why can't China's burgeoning elite create its own fact-free nationalist myth? And fair enough, I'd say, were it not for the way that Menzies' book contributes to some pervasive, harmful, and - let's not forget - profoundly stupid myths about the history of this fair land.
After working on the Information Desk at a major New Zealand museum for a few months, I can tell you, dear readers, that there is still a bewildering amount of bewilderment about the pre-history of these islands. A lot of the confusion surrounds the question of pre-Maori habitation of New Zealand. Despite a complete absence of evidence, many New Zelanders - Maori, as well as Pakeha - and not a few foreign visitors still believe that Maori conquered an earlier people who had settled on these islands. The pre-Maori people in question varies: I've heard theories about South American, Celtic, Phoenician, Haida, and Portugese settlers who were rudely disturbed by latecomer Maori. (A variant strain of thinking holds that Maori were the first settlers of these islanders, but that they are not a Polynesian people. A co-worker was solemnly informed that Maori were a Papuan tribe, for instance.)
But by far the most pervasive myth of a pre-Maori people is built around Moriori, the indigenous people of the Chatham Islands. Moriori are descended from a group of Maori who travelled to the Chathams from one of the two main islands of New Zealand in or before the fourteenth century AD. It is likely, but not certain, that the travellers came from the southern part of the South Island. The travellers did not return, probably because the trees on the Chathams could not be made into canoes capable of making long sea journeys. In their centuries of isolation, and in response to the unique conditions on the Chathams, the settlers developed a distinct culture and identity.
Perhaps because of the harsh climate of the Chathams, Moriori did not grow crops. Like the Australian Aborigines, they lived as hunter gatherers. Moriori society was more egalitarian than most Maori societies. Slavery did not exist, and elders wielded less power than most Maori chiefs. Moriori society was also distinguished by its pacifism. Early in Moriori history, an elder named Nunuku-whenua forbade war, and placed strict limits on violence. ‘Nunuku’s law’ ordered that fights between individuals must stop as soon as blood was spilt.
Moriori physical culture was also distinctive. Moriori carving was less ornate than Maori carving. Unlike Maori, though, Moriori made dendroglyphs (carvings on living trees). Moriori often made ingenious uses out of simple materials. For instance, Moriori built wash-through rafts (waka korari) out of seaweed and reeds. The rafts floated partially submerged in water, and this gave them considerable stability in the rough seas around the Chathams.
In 1835 two Taranaki iwi, Ngati Mutunga and Ngati Tama, invaded the Chatham Islands and enslaved the Moriori. By 1862, when slavery was abolished on the Chathams, 1,500 Moriori had died, and only about 100 remained. After they were freed Moriori were unable to recover much of their land, and their population continued to decline. In recent decades, though, there has been a ‘Moriori renaissance’, and in January 2005 the first modern Moriori marae opened on the Chathams.
There is no doubt about the origin of the Moriori. The Moriori and Maori languages both belong to the Eastern Polynesian subfamily of Polynesian languages, but they share many similarities that the other languages in the subfamily do not have. This suggests a shared history. Tools made from obsidian and argillite, materials which were available in the North and South Islands but not in other parts of Polynesian, have been found at Moriori archaeological sites on the Chathams.
Nevertheless, a very powerful myth has developed which says that Moriori were Melanesian pre-Maori settlers of New Zealand, who were conquered and then driven to the remote Chathams by the more 'advanced' and 'aggressive' Polynesians. Even though it has no credibility amongst scholars, the myth of Moriori as a pre-Maori people has persisted in the minds of many Pakeha, and a surprising number of Maori.
Gavin Menzies has plugged in to some of the myths of pre-Maori habitation of these islands in a doomed attempt to make his argument for the Chinese circumnavigation of the world seem more convincing. In 1421 he suggests that many Maori are actually the descendants of members of the Chinese fleet that set out in the fifteenth century and thus, presumably, not really the indigenous people of these islands. That was bad enough, but last year Menzies visited New Zealand to inform us all that 'Maori do not exist'. According to Menzies, Maori are the descendants of Chinese prostitutes and Melanesian slaves. Here's an excerpt from a report on the talk Menzies gave:
Chinese miners were in New Zealand from about 286 BC, he said. They brought concubines from China and on the way to New Zealand picked up Melanesian slaves who revolted, killed the Chinese men and took the women for themselves. This, he said, was the origin of the Maori people.
Menzies said his book had been well-received around the world but had drawn hostile criticism in New Zealand...
Funny that. One person who has responded warmly to Menzies' bizarre reformulations of the Moriori myth is Muriel Newman, former Act party MP and scourge of solo mothers, 'bludging Maoris' and the 'Treaty industry'. In her weekly newsletter Newman regurgitated the musings of Menzies and other pseuds:
Gavin Menzies and his 1421 Team presented new evidence of early Chinese exploration by Zheng He, strengthening their belief that Chinese colonies existed in New Zealand for hundreds of years before the arrival of Maori...
Claims have been made that New Zealand was discovered from as early as 600BC by Phoenician, Indian, Greek and Arab explorers. In fact, claims of these visits help to explain the existence in the South Island of the fossilised remains of rats that have been carbon dated at 160 BC - more than 1,000 years before Maori!
Well, only if you can explain what the Polynesian rat was doing in Greece or Phoenicia, Muriel. The real reason for the enthusiasm Newman and other right-wingers show for the pseudo-histories of Menzies and others is easy to understand. Many Pakeha want to believe that Maori took New Zealand from the Moriori, or from some other people, or that Maori are some kind of historical freak, because that would, according to the Darwinian logic of the right, somehow make the subsequent Pakeha colonisation of Maori more justifiable. 'We only did to you what you did to the poor old Morioris, mate'... What mystifies me is why the Women's Bookshop, which has always been associated, in my deluded mind at least, with the warm fuzzy liberal left, would want to go out on a limb and promote a load of racist baloney like Menzies' book. I can understand the free speech, 'fair's fair, let him have his say argument' for stocking 1421 , but to call it 'a classic' that 'rewrites history' goes above and beyond the call of liberal pluralism, surely?
Pseudo-historians like Menzies like to apologise for their stupidity by claiming that they represent some heroic intellectual 'alternative' which a hegemonic scholarly 'establishment' wants to gag. The truth is that history, like most fields of scholarship, is a nest of infighting between rival schools and theories. Every year in this country, dozens of interesting, innovative and carefully researched histories are published; it's a pity that so few of them attract the hype or readership of 1421. If anyone has been dissuaded from reading 1421 by this post, but still wants to connect this part of the world with China, then they ought to check out Jade Taniwha, Jenny Bol Lee's just-released study of the 'Maori Chinese' culture that has developed in New Zealand over the last eighty years or so. Real history is always better than the counterfeit stuff.