Sunday, March 1, 2009

1421: The Conspiracy Deepens

When we left off on our last exciting episode of Gavin Menzies' journey towards insanity he was making illogical leaps about islands he found on a chart. He attempted to corroborate his theory (which is good, we like research in the world of historical inquiry) but found, shockingly enough, that the Portuguese hadn't yet heard about the crazy Venetian islands. He did discover that they ended up on a 1428 chart that made its way over to Portugual in 1431, at which point Henry the Navigator, the leader of Portugal, ordered his captains to keep an eye out. A couple entries ago I mentioned that I once read a book called The Russian Push Toward Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1875. I'm now extremely glad I happened to pick that particular tome up from the Western Illinois library for a project. It was a fascinating book at the time and one of those books that served to illuminate just how much people didn't know in the past and how recent that past lack of knowledge was. The book started in 1697 (really!) at roughly the moment Russia pushed across to the mouth of the Amur River. The Tsar made it a goal, for reasons I don't really recall, to enter in to relations with Japan. There was only one problem with this idea: the Russians had no idea where Japan was. Seriously. Japan. Yeah, it was closed off, but there were lots of people nearby who knew how to find it. The Koreans and Chinese knew exactly where Japan was. The Dutch had a trading presence at Kagoshima island, an artificial island built specifically for them outside Kure, that had been there for a couple hundred years. And Japan isn't that far from Russia, so it seems a little crazy that the original Russians to reach the mouth of the Amur wouldn't have a clue where it is. No one was giving the Russians maps and they didn't exactly have satellite images of the Pacific Ocean. So we can use this as a thought experiment. Pretend, for a moment, that Japan doesn't exist. I'm not talking about from a political standpoint, but that instead of the Japanese islands there's just an empty expanse of water. Now let's say that there was a Chinese dude somewhere who met up with a bunch of Russian explorers and wanted to screw with them. So he says, "Hey, did you guys know there's an island out there?" Then he tells them stories about an island filled with rich people who desperately wanted to buy Russian pelts and wherein all the women were extremely attractive and curious and would undoubtedly be far more impressed with the sexual prowess of the Russians than the native men. So the Russians go scooting out in to the ocean and sail around for a while, dreaming of wealth and bitches. When they don't find it they go back to their new Chinese buddy and ask him to draw them a picture. So he does. About three hundred years later a dude named Gavin Menzies finds the crudely-drawn map of Japan in a library somewhere and writes a book about the mysterious island off the coast of Asia and the centuries-old conspiracy to block knowledge of it from the rest of the world. Or something. I haven't quite gotten that far yet. But here I must digress. Menzies goes off on his research, in which he apparently found maps of various parts of the world that were created before the Europeans could have possible found everything. He doesn't offer evidence, but this is just the Introduction. Theoretically speaking, he should be offering evidence in the book. Although somehow I doubt he will, since his readers aren't, y'know, bona fide researchers. Ah, crap, I have to tangent again. Okay, I know that not everyone who picks up a history book is a real, college-trained historian. I know that some people don't want to be bothered with the extremely intricate details of historical inquiry. I also fully understand that some people find history downright boring. But, um, those people probably won't be picking up a history book for any reason. I'm pretty sure that by announcing outright that he's selling to "the general reader" is pretty much an insult to his readers and, y'know, the sort of thing that's going to keep academics from actually giving two-tenths of a shit. But, again, I digress. Menzies engages in a maddening discussion with naysayers here. He points out all of the problems with his new theories, points out that historians have already dismissed the random islands that dot the charts he's looking at. In this he becomes not so much a historian, but an apologist. Now, all historians are, in a way, apologists. It's kind of a necessary process, especially for those historians that are attempting to upend the status quo. This, though, is were Menzies diverges from usual historical process. Historians generally lay out their case and put it in front of other historians by presenting papers at conferences or in journals. They generally don't operate in the manner of the religious apologist. This isn't to say they can't and it's not to say that Menzies is doing anything particularly wrong here. I just have an aversion to the apologist. The tactics he's engaging in here are simply disingenuous. "Some might say I'm crazy," he's saying, "And I can't say I disagree. Hell, I didn't think I was right at first." I don't want Gavin Menzies' personal testimony of his conversion to the true theory of the 1421 discovery of America. I actually find it quite a bit interesting that he would claim this is for the general reader, then he would claim that the academics have already rejected his theory, but he knows. It sounds a lot like the evangelical minister decrying those pointy-headed liberals with all their book learning that's just getting in the way of acknowledging the truth. Again, there's nothing wrong with this approach. It may well be completely unintentional. If Menzies hadn't spent enough time reading history books (or reading them with a proper understanding of the nuance) he probably just didn't have the background necessary to understand how to present his case. Menzies, though, is quick to point out where he knows way more than all those historians. He's a retired Royal Navy officer who knows how to read charts. There's undoubtedly a bit of truth to it. Cartographers of the days when people couldn't get any farther above the sea than the top of the highest mast saw things differently than we do now. A Navy man would understand that perspective far better than I would (although I have a hard time seeing how a submariner would see everything that way...). But in this idea he offers the downfall of his own arguments. If his claim is that the Chinese were intently exploring Puerto Rico and Guadeloupe and had solved the mystery of mapping longitude (which is extremely difficult, by the by. Latitude is fairly simple if you know what you're looking at, since the rotation of the Earth is a constant and all you have to do is find a celestial marker. Longitude doesn't quite work that way*), why were they so out of place in the Pizzigano chart? It doesn't quite match up. The Introduction finishes thusly:
Columbus, de Gama, Magellan, and Cook were later to make these same 'discoveries' but they all knew they were following in the footsteps of others, for they were carrying copies of the Chinese maps with them when they set off on their journeys into the 'unknown'. To misuse a famous quotation: if they could see further than others, it was because they were standing on the shoulders of giants.
I find it fascinating that he would claim Columbus headed towards the setting sun with knowledge that he was heading for a world already explored by the Chinese. There's a reason we refer to the islands of the Caribbean as the "West Indies." There's also a reason why the native inhabitants of the New World are known as "Indians." Columbus thought he was off the coast of India. Remember, he was trying to find a quicker way to India when he left Portugal. It took a while for him to realize he wasn't anywhere close to Asia. In fact, Menzies is now, whether he knows it or not, positing a conspiracy that stretches from the Ming court to Henry the Navigator and out to all the great European explorers themselves. All we need now is a mention of the Knights Templar and the Masons and we have every loony conspiracy from the last couple hundred years. This, again, is not a good start. And he didn't accidentally run aground on the shores of Satanazes or Antilia, either. I don't think he was expecting to, either. Hell, who knows. Maybe Pizzigano was an inspiration to Columbus. Maybe Satanazes was supposed to be Taiwan and Antilia was Luzon, the big island on the north end of the Philippenes. Considering that Marco Polo could have brought that info to Europe some two centuries before, it's not the craziest idea in the world. And I could probably come up with plenty of stuff to back up my theory. But you don't see me writing a book about it... Anyway, I'm finally done with the Intro. Next we move on to the book itself. Hooray! ------------------------------ *I got latitude and longitude backwards there. Oops. I didn't put in a simple edit, though, because the story of figuring out how to measure longitude is pretty interesting. Latitude is a fairly simple thing to figure out if you have the right equipment and the ability to do some math. You basically find a celestial body that's at a known location relative to the Earth and measure its angle. From that angle you can figure out how far from the north or south pole you are (basically). This is why Polaris and the Southern Cross are so important to navigators. They play the role of fixed celestial body. Measuring longitude accurately, however, required a pair of devices that we take for granted today: the accurate clock and the spring. Figuring out longitude in a world without GPS was basically dependent on figuring out how fast the ship was traveling, in which direction it was traveling, and how long it had been traveling. Speed and direction could be figured out.** Time was the doozy. See, we've known how to tell time pretty much since civilization began. Telling time is deeply ingrained in the whole of the human story. But most timekeeping throughout history relied on things like sundials or jars filled with water that were designed to drain at a fixed rate. The former is useless on a non-fixed platform and the latter isn't overly accurate. The first mechanical clocks relied on pendulums to keep everything in time and the natural motion of a ship on the surface of the water basically screwed that whole thing up. It wasn't until somebody, and I forget who, combined the spring with the pendulum that the ships had a solution. The first shipboard clocks basically had four pendulums. They were mounted in dumbbell fashion on parallel rods and springs were mounted between the rods. Once set in motion, the two rods pushed and pulled according to the tension on the springs and kept the clockwork going without interference from the motion of the ship on the ocean. The history of timekeeping is an absolutely fascinating subject, by the way. From the simple, prehistoric henges designed to tell the ancients when the solstice would occur to the modern digital clock there's an awful lot going on. Society couldn't function without the telling of time, but we take so much of what has gone in to it for granted. **This, too, is a neat bit of history. When someone aboard ship wanted to know how fast they were going they dropped a bit of rope in to the water and left it there for a fixed length of time. The rope had knots at certain intervals, so the number of knots that were pulled out indicated how fast the ship was going. This is why measures of nautical speed to this day are given in knots.


Anonymous said...

"It wasn't until somebody, and I forget who, combined the spring with the pendulum that the ships had a solution"

John Harrison. Cf. Dava Sobel, LONGITUDE. Also a nice example of "popular history for the general reader" done *right*.

peanutsnraisins said...

All we need now is a mention of the Knights Templar and the Masons and we have every loony conspiracy from the last couple hundred years.

You forgot the Jews! It's not a real conspiracy unless it involves Jews, and maybe international bankers... or aliens.

Professor Timonin said...

You forgot the Jews! It's not a real conspiracy unless it involves Jews, and maybe international bankers... or aliens.

And the boy scouts, who are connected to the CIA because they are both violent...

Professor Timonin said...
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