Date: Wed, 22 Jan 2003
From: John Robson <>
RE: [MapHist] NZ review of 1421

Michael King is one of New Zealand's foremost historians and he has just had a review of 1421 published in a local weekly magazine (the New Zealand Listener) He discusses those bits of the book that deal with New Zealand.

Given the recent communications on this list I thought others would be interested in the review, which I include as an attachment.

John Robson
Map Librarian
University of Waikato.

                           The Chinese Colonisation of New Zealand

                                               By Michael King

³So,² said my neighbour, ³youıve written a general history of New Zealand.²
I admitted I had. ³Iım really looking forward to reading it,² he went on,
³especially the bit about the Chinese link.²

This is precisely the kind of comment every historian dreads. You labour
away for years on a book. You think it is, if not ³finished², exactly, at
least ready for publication - when somebody raises an aspect of the topic
youıve never heard about. In this instance, I hoped my neighbour was
referring to Winston Petersı election claim that Maori were descended from
the Chinese. That at least was explicable and refutable.

³No, no, no,² he said. ³Iım talking about the colony that the Chinese
established in New Zealand in the fifteenth century AD. Look², he scrabbled
around the papers on his  desktop. ³Hereıs an article about it.²

The feature in question was from a quality overseas Sunday paper. It was
about the book 1421 by former submarine commander Gavin Menzies, who sets
out to prove that a fleet of Chinese junks sailed and mapped the entire
world between 1421 and 1423. Among other achievements, Menzies alleges,
these vessels reached the Magellan Straits sixty years before Magellan was
born and discovered America seventy years ahead of Colombus. In the course
of this extraordinary expedition, says Menzies, the Chinese navigators
³discovered² Australia and New Zealand and established colonies in Africa,
Australia and New Zealand.

One likes to preserve an open mind. I was, inevitably,  surprised to hear
the claim that the Chinese had discovered and colonised New Zealand when not
one shred of documentary, artifactual or traditional evidence for such a
claim had ever been found here. Perhaps Menzies had come across sensational
evidence in Chinese archives or museums? Contrary to public perception,
historians are only too willing to change their minds and their stories
when there is sound reason to do so. Every historian dreams of unveiling
sensational new paradigms backed by solid evidence before a conference of
astonished and admiring peers.

Consequently, I awaited the arrival of Menziesı book, 1421, The Year China
Discovered the World, with considerable interest. It was published
internationally by a reputable company, Bantam Press. Pre-publication blurb
urged would-be readers to ³forget everything you ever knew or thought you
knew. Because 1421 has made every history book in print obsolete Š Worldwide
TV rights already sold for a huge figure.²

The book arrived right on Christmas. I fell upon it with a sense of high
expectation. Accompanying publicity told me that, in the course of research,
Gavin Menzies had visited ³120 countries and over 900 museums and
libraries². Among these institutions, according to the authorıs
acknowledgements, are the Waikato Museum of Arts and History in Auckland
[sic]; and Tepapa [sic] Museum in a place called Tongarewa. Hmmm Š Not the
most promising of beginnings for a New Zealand reader.

What about Menziesı claim that the Chinese reached and colonised New Zealand
more than five hundred years ago? This, it turns out, is based on the
alleged discovery of two enormous Chinese junks cast up on the countryıs
west coast. ³The wreck of an old wooden ship was found two centuries ago at
Dusky Sound in Fjordland [sic] Š It was said to be very old and of Chinese
build and to have been there before Cook, according to the local people.²

Alas, only a fraction of this is true. In 1797 a wrecked ship was found in
Facile Harbour, Dusky Sound, by an American vessel, the Mercury. But far
from being ³very old² or ³of Chinese build², it turned out to be the East
Indiaman Endeavour, which had been deliberately wrecked and abandoned there
in 1795 because of its unsafe condition. The crew and passengers escaped
from Dusky Sound in a brig which had accompanied the Endeavour and in a
65-ton vessel named Providence, which had been three-quarters built by
sealers stranded in the sound two years earlier.

Menziesı misidentification of Endeavour as a Chinese junk is as fantastic
and as unsubstantiated as his suggestion that there were ³local people²
living in the sound long enough to say that the vessel had appeared there
before Cook. There were no local people in Dusky Sound when the Endeavour
arrived in 1795, nor when the Mercury was there in 1797. Even the single
family of Maori that Cook found there in 1770 had disappeared by the time of
his next visit in 1773.

Menzies cites a further piece of evidence that a Chinese fleet had been in
Dusky Sound. He reports that in 1831, two sailors off a Sydney ship ³saw a
strange animal perching at the edge of the bush and nibbling the foliage. It
stood on its hind legs, the lower part of its body curving to a thick
pointed tail Š they estimated that it stood nearly nine metres high.²

Rejecting the more obvious explanation that the sailors might have been
affected by substance abuse  or were lying  Menzies identifies the
mysterious creature as a mylodon or South American giant sloth. The Chinese,
he goes on to say, ³could have taken [them] aboard in Patagonia. Perhaps a
pair could have escaped from the wreck, survived and bred in similar
conditions to their home territory in Patagonia.²

The conditions in Dusky Sound, where the wet bush hangs right to the water
level, are in fact nothing like the environment in Patagonia in which the
mylodon lived during the Pleistocene era. And, even leaving aside for the
moment the fact that there was no Chinese wreck there, how likely is it that
creatures of this size could have survived in Fiordland for 500 years
without being seen by Maori or Pakeha visitors or leaving so much as a trace
of a carcass, a bone, a scrap of fur?

Disappointingly, Menzies claim that a second Chinese junk was beached on the
North Island coast is every bit as shonky. He alleges that the wreck of
(again) a ³very old ship² was found near the mouth of the Torei Palma River
[sic] at Whaingaroa (Raglan Harbour). ³[It] is known as the Ruapuke Ship
after the beach of that name.²

Ruapuke Beach is in fact on the open coast some 50 km south of Raglan
Harbour. But its mystery wreck is well known to historians, one might even
call it an old friend. In my professional lifetime this phantom ship has
been cited as evidence for Phoenician, Roman, Egyptian, Viking, Tamil,
Portuguese and Spanish discoveries of New Zealand. It should be no surprise
that Menzies has recruited it as proof of a Chinese discovery. The reason
that this marvellously elastic piece of evidence fulfils all these
expectations is that nobody can produce the wreck itself, which allegedly
keeps appearing and disappearing in the sand dunes; nor, even, photographs
or drawings of it. 

In 1969, determined to subject earlier claims to some kind of test, I sent a
piece of the Ruapuke wreck recovered by a local farming family to the Forest
Research Institute in Rotorua. The fragment was two ancient pieces of wood,
which I was assured was teak, held together by two brass nails. The verdict
was disappointingly sober. The wood was totara, and the institute
established that, as an artifact, the fragment was little more than 100
years old. The Ruapuke wreck, in other words, was the remains of a vessel
built in New Zealand in the nineteenth century. So much for the theories of
ancient voyagers reaching New Zealand before Tasman and Cook; so much for
Gavin Menziesı claim of a giant junk in the west coast sand dunes.

The remainder of Menziesı New Zealand research is on a par with his nonsense
about the wrecked junks. He enlists that old favourite the Tamil bell, which
he claims was discovered by a ³Bishop Colenso² near Ruapuke Beach (it was
found in Northland by Church Missionary Society printer William Colenso);
the example of a non-existent stone at Ruapuke Beach covered in Tamil or
Chinese inscriptions; the Korotangi bird valued by Maori as a Tainui taonga
but identified by Menzies as evidence of a Chinese presence; and the legend
about Patupaiarehe or fairy people, which Menzies alleges is a local Ruapuke
story when in fact it is common to tribes  throughout the North Island.

Iım not equipped to evaluate the quality of Gavin Menziesı global research
in support of his great Chinese voyage of discovery from 1421-1423. I can
say, however, that his New Zealand section exhibits more false information
and a more dishonest manipulation of evidence than any that I have
encountered in a book issued by a reputable publisher. The book is, in
short, a disgrace. But by the time this becomes apparent in professional
reviews the deals will have been done, the television documentary made and
the enormous print runs sold  and author and publisher will be laughing all
the way to the bank. For those of us who try to make a living ffrom the
writing of accurate and responsible history, the prospect is depressing.


Out of the frame? Click here

Contributions to the discussion direct to the MapHist discussion list (sending to MapHist means sending to 700 people world wide!).