Sunday, February 22, 2009

1421: Gilligan's Island

[Author's Note: Ha! I technically made it. There's still 21 minutes left to go for Sunday...] Here's a new one. I already have a problem with the Introduction of 1421, which is novel. For the first time in history I have a problem with the Acknowledgments. I imagine that this is an extremely rare occurrence. But the first paragraph of the Acknowledgments bothers me.
A brief outline of the more important maps, documents and other pieces of evidence I have used to form the conclusions presented in this book has been included in the Appendices, and the primary and secondary sources I have used are cited in the Bibliography. However, this is a book for the general reader, not the academic; three quarters of the evidence has had to be omitted for lack of space.
Um, bullshit? Seriously, has this man ever picked up a history book? I understand that there are people in the world who want to read history without thinking too much about it or bothering to leaf through the Bibliography. In that case it's the responsibility of the historian to present that history in an interesting way and figure out how to make it both accessible and scholarly. I wouldn't necessarily put John Darwin's After Tamerlane in the category of really interesting history, but I could name any number of books that are both interesting and scholarly. Ian Toll's Six Frigates leaps immediately to mind. James Hornfischer's Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors works wonderfully, too. It's a slightly different category, but Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse were both extremely popular and scholarly works by Jared Diamond. Claiming some sort of historian's gnosis is not a good thing. That's kind of why I introduced this whole thing by evaluating the notes section of the book. If I want to know about a work of history I don't start with the quality of the author's argument, I start with the quality of the author's data. In the very first paragraph of his book Gavin Menzies has made himself in to the Ray Comfort of history. This is not a good start.
For that reason much of the detail of my proofs and calculations and a large amount of other supporting material have been placed on the internet at In addition, I am happy to answer any specific queries and to make my research notes available to any bona fide researcher. Contact should be made in writing, via my publisher in the first instance.
You know what? I am sorely tempted to actually contact the man's publisher and try to get a copy of his notes. I would absolutely love to know what a "bona fide researcher" is. Something tells me that I wouldn't count, what with the fact that I think he's full of shit and all. This, again, is a sign of bad history. It's also no accident that I refer to him as the Ray Comfort of history. See, the big problem with the idiots at the Discovery Institute and other Intelligent Design advocates is that they don't (and can't) send their supposed science through peer reviewed journals. Historians have those, too. You'll probably not see my name in one of those at any point in the near future, but they're out there and if I were trying to actually make a name for myself in the world of history you can bet I'd be trying to get articles in to a bona fide journal. Gavin Menzies ain't trying to do that. He's also setting up a layer of protection between his "real" data and real historians. This is an indication that he's not writing real history and he knows it. Historians who are confident in their arguments don't make a wall between real history and "popular" history. They try to make their version of what happened accessible and scholarly at the same time. But I fear I'm repeating myself... Let's move on to the Introduction. Sadly, it doesn't get any better from here. He begins with a story of seeing the 1424 Pizzigano map for the first time. Pizzigano was a Venetian cartographer who made a remarkably accurate map of the western edge of Europe and Africa. Britain, Ireland, France, the Iberian peninsula, and Morocco are on the map pretty much exactly as we'd think of them today.
However, my eye was then drawn to the most curious feature of the map. The cartographer had also drawn a group of four islands far out in the western Atlantic. The names he gave them -- Satanazes, Antilia, Saya, and Ymana -- did not correspond to any modern place-names and there are no large islands in the area where he had positioned them. That could have been a simple error in calculating longitude, for Europeans did not master that difficult art until well into the eighteenth century, but my first, troubling thought was that the islands were imaginary and had existed only in the mind of the man who drew the chart.
Now, I'm no cartographer. Nor do I claim to be an expert in cartography. However, my gut instinct were I to be looking at the Pizzigano map for the first time would be to assume that the islands only existed in the mind of the man who drew the chart, too. And I'd probably go with that assumption, too. This is one of those things where ignorance really does count as bliss. I suppose I can forgive a non-historian in this case, because it's easy to believe that a 15th Century Venetian cartographer would have more information than he actually would have had. We constantly overrate the capabilities and knowledge of those who came before us simply because we know it and cannot properly understand a world that doesn't have the knowledge we do. I read an absolutely amazing book over the summer called The Measure of All Things by Ken Alder, a professor at Northwestern University. Over the course of reading the book I was constantly struck by just how arbitrary measurement is and just how recent the metric system is as an innovation. We're so accustomed to the idea that the kilometer or the mile is a standard measure of distance that it's hard to wrap our minds around the idea that three hundred years ago each town had its own slightly different concept of how to measure how far apart things were. Menzies' "troubling thought" is far from troubling to those who actually know about the world before our time. It's far from impossible to imagine a situation in which a cartographer who had never actually seen the Atlantic would put a random island in the middle of the ocean based on hearsay and legend. It happens. Hell, Jefferson sent the Lewis and Clark expedition out because he'd just purchased Louisiana from Napoleon and wanted to figure out how much land the United States had actually acquired. Europeans had been in the New World for three centuries by then and nobody actually knew how big North America was. Menzies goes on to translate Antilia as "island on the opposite side of the Atlantic" and Satanazes as "Satan's or Devil's Island" after admitting that he had no knowledge of medieval Portuguese (which, for the record, I'm still not entirely sure matters, anyway. It's a Venetian map, after all). He also makes a big deal out of the fact that they're colored in, which is not a trait they share with the map of Euorope. After much thought (apparently), he concluded that "Antilia and Satanzes were actually the Caribbean islands of Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe. 1421 also includes four sections of full color, glossy illustrations. One of those sections includes the Pizzigano map. When I looked at it for the first time, I couldn't help but laugh out loud. The map is a port map and it does contain a remarkably accurate picture of the west coast of Europe and northern Africa. It's also surprisingly artistic, since there aren't any lines on that part of the map. The reader has to fill in the lines, since the coast is filled out by words that presumably indicate the placement of ports and landmarks. It's literally necessary to connect the dots to get a picture of the coast line. Yet off in the middle of the Atlantic there are pictures of islands. They're drawn and filled with solid colors. They look completely out of place. Chances are that they are completely out of place. It's not all that hard to imagine that some subsequent cartographer put those islands in later after they'd been discovered. It's also not impossible to imagine that the original cartographer did believe there were islands out there. He could have imagined that these were the physical localities of Heaven and Hell. Or he could have heard a legend altogether similar to Atlantis and tried to put the island up and restore it to its former glory. Oh, did I mention that when I saw the map the first time I started laughing? It's true. See, Menzies looked at the Pizzigano map and saw an island that looked perfectly like Puerto Rico. I saw an island the size of Portugal located somewhere between the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and Africa and drawn with a north-south long axis. Oh, and it looks more like Nebraska than Puerto Rico. Should you want to see it, here's a website that's hosting it. I would actually hazard a guess that the islands of Antilia and Satanazes weren't on the original Pizzigano map. The more I look at them the harder it is to conclude anything other than that they simply don't belong. There have been a good 600 years for someone to decide to use it as scratch paper or to add on islands. Anyway, this is illustrative of a major problem with having not-so-gifted amateurs running historical inquiry. Something weird or out of place in a document may be perfectly explainable without a six hundred year-old, globe spanning conspiracy theory. But if the person who sees that weird thing isn't aware of the just how new our world maps are or how recent the idea of preserving historical documents the way they were is, they'll start to extrapolate crazy things from stuff that just isn't all that crazy. Moreover, it's extremely difficult to imagine Pizzigano gaining access to the Chinese maps by 1424. It seems that Gavin Menzies believes the Chinese managed to make it everywhere on the planet except Europe. It's hard to imagine the maps making it to Venice in time for the drawing of the chart in question. Think about it. The big Chinese fleet returns to China after a successful voyage all around the planet only to discover that Beijing's desire is to cover up any and all knowledge and destroy all the records. If the Emperor successfully suppressed all knowledge with near 100% coverage it's a bit difficult to imagine that the information crossed over to Europe in the space of two years just to make it on to a Venetian cartographer's chart. Either way, this is something to think about. Gavin Menzies' "troubling thought" is actually the first thought to test. Historians also get to apply Occam's Razor. If your choices are ignorance, revision from a later point in time, or a global conspiracy, I've got some advice. Stop and think about all of the other possible explanations before you take the time to write a book. And, hey, next time around I might make it throught more than the first two pages of the Introduction...


PersonalFailure said...

three quarters of the evidence has had to be omitted for lack of space.

i see our author is from the Sarah Palin school: "I won't answer the questions the way people think I should answer them".

Anonymous said...

I checked the link, and there most certainly _are_ lines defining the coastline of Europe and Africa. They are faint, but they can be seen easily on the various 'magnified' views.

Anonymous said...

Also on that web site are images of two other maps, from 1466 and 1489 that have very similar islands, which seems to me to make the "scratch paper" theory unlikely. Unless all three maps were in the same collection at one point, and even then I'd be doubtful. I'm pretty ignorant of what sorts of modifications have been made to other old documents, though, so I'm willing to be corrected.

Geds said...

The scratch pad thing was just off the top of my head.

Apparently word of the "islands" did spread far and wide by about ten years after the Pizzigano map. So it's not at all surprising that they'd show up on maps between 1424 and Columbus's voyage. But I go in to that more in the next post.

Sadly, my knowledge of European seafaring in the 15th Century is pretty lacking. Apparently I'm going to have to educate myself a bit before I go much further.

Anonymous said...

you guys just live to comment? no education in any of the socalled 'christianity based system' on this planet will have the truth about what happened during the crusades or the voyages of the 'defenders of the cross'. those murdering bands and all the represent will continue to hide the truth and will keep you uninformed to keep total control over you. start reading all and then reconsider what is veryfiable or not.