Sunday, March 22, 2009
1421: Many Happy Returns
And we're back with 1421. Kind of. Turns out that getting this thing set up involves something called "reading." I've apparently spent my weekend doing these things called "playing COD4" and "watching Band of Brothers." It's similar, but not quite the same. However, I will say this: from a historical accuracy perspective, playing COD4 is surprisingly similar to reading 1421. It's also just slightly less accurate than my current game of Medieval II: Total War. We all remember that time when Venice took over Byzantium and the Holy Land, beat back the Mongols and Tamerlane, then invaded Russia and colonized the New World, right? Right? But that's neither here nor there. Before I actually go any further, I'm going to stall for one more week. See, one of the things that I think would be helpful to discuss before going anywhere is what it actually means to "change history." Hopefully I will do so in a way that doesn't cover previously treaded ground. But, hey, such is life... We already have the historical record of the discovery of the New World. It was helpfully put in to rhyming form. In fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue. It's catchy, no? Columbus set foot on an island in the Caribbean. He then made four other voyages and was followed by a hell of a lot of other people. The reason the United States of Columbus isn't the world's sole superpower is because the discovery of the big prize actually fell to Amerigo Vespucci. Of course from the voyages of discovery we have the conquistadors and the Spanish supremacy in the New World for a time. The high tide of Spanish supremacy came in the late 1500s with the Spanish Armada. Following the British win in the Channel we got the ill-fated Roanoke colony, followed by Jamestown, then Plymouth Plantation and all the rest. Thing is, though, this is wrong. Menzies would have us believe that seventy-one years before Columbus made his fateful discovery the Chinese actually showed up and colonized the New World. This assertion, according to him, turns history on its head. We have to re-think everything we know about the formation of the New World. Except there's one tiny problem with that assertion. See, some four hundred years before the supposed Chinese voyages the Vikings showed up on the shores of the New World. And we know this happened because we've found the Viking settlement up in, um Nova Scotia or Newfoundland or somewhere. Before the discovery of the settlement, though, historians argued about the veracity of the claim. Some said it was impossible. Some said the Vikings were good enough seamen and their longboats could hop from Iceland to Greenland and across to the Canadian coast. In fact, it seemed logical that the only way to support the Greenland colony was to get supplies from Canada, which was much closer than the far shores of Scandinavia. When the issue was finally settled with hard evidence it changed history, right? Not really. I mean, in the sense that it changed a few things about the history books, yes. In the sense that it validated the arguments of certain historians and alerted everyone as to the skills of Viking navigators, sure. But it didn't actually change anything. Christopher Columbus might not have been the first European to reach the New World, but he did something Leif Erickson couldn't do. He kicked off an age of exploration, discovery, and colonization that did, in a very real and unquestionable sense, change the course of history. This is the hurdle that the Viking discovery supporters theoretically had to leap and couldn't. It's the hurdle Gavin Menzies still has to show he can get over. The question is, quite simply, does a 1421 discovery of America by the Chinese actually change anything about the history of the world? Think of it in other terms. Say the Germans knew how to build atomic bombs in 1943 and had actually built one. If they had it but didn't use it, does that change the reality that Hiroshima and Nagasaki ushered in the atomic age? There are basically two different ways that history can be changed. The first is when we change the books slightly to say that things didn't happen quite the way we thought. This happens all the time and it's exactly the sort of thing that historians research and squabble about. These things do, in fact, make or break careers. The second is when we step back and say, "Whoa. We thought *this* happened, but it was really *that.*" These events are rare. I tend to go with Schliemann's discovery of Troy in these moments because it's hard to think of events that drastically change our conception of history like that. The discovery of a Viking colony in Canada was basically one of those events, too, when it gets right down to it. However, Menzies is going for something that's a level above these two ways of changing history. He's trying to argue that the 1421 voyage itself changed history. This is a much harder argument to make and support. But it's hard to explain, so I'll do my best. We changed the history books when we discovered that Leif Erickson actually did make it to America. Leif Erickson, however, didn't really change history. The Viking settlement of America was simply too limited in scope and focus to have any long-term effect on the world as we know it. It's a footnote in the story of exploration. Christopher Columbus changed history when he made it to America. There was a cascade of events that followed in Columbus's shadow that did not happen with the Vikings. He was followed by other explorers and settlers and the settlements kicked off a period of European prosperity and empire building that both illuminated and re-shaped the globe in ways that were unfathomable in the year 1491. If Columbus hadn't done it, would someone else have? Probably. It's a bit difficult to conceive of the idea that the New World would have remained undiscovered forever. But the question is, who would have done it? It's more than likely that it would have been a different European explorer. Chances are good, too, that it would have happened within a decade or two of Columbus's voyage. Meanwhile, Erickson's discovery of America was basically ignored for eight or nine hundred years. If Menzies' theory is actually correct, it's been a fantastically well-kept secret for nearly six hundred years. This hardly counts as changing history, at least in my book. His argument that the Europeans headed to the New World equipped with Chinese maps is deeply flawed, too. I'm aware of the fact that there's more to it than the whole Antilia and Satanazes thing. But there are two random historical tidbits that indicate nobody in Europe knew as much as they supposedly did. I've already covered Columbus's theory that he was close to India. It's why we referred to Native Americans as Indians for so very long (and still do, for that matter). However, there's one other point that puts the lie to the Chinese map ide. In the early days of the European colonization of the Americas it looked like Spain and Portugal would be the two major players. They really didn't want to fight about it, so the two powers sat down and divided the world. They cut the map at somewhere around 50 degrees west longitude. Spain took everything to the west and Portugal took everything to the east. Portugal thought it had won, because that meant Spain was relegated to whatever it could find in the New World, and Portugal got to found Brazil and participate in the carving up of Africa. It was a gamble for Spain to take the New World. They simply didn't know what they had. It worked out pretty well for them, too. At least up until the Armada and the slow rise of British supremacy at the expense of Spain. And when it gets right down to it, if the Chinese had a chance to get the jump on the Europeans in the New World, I'll bet they were really regretting it by the time they were being carved in to pieces and trading their sovereignty for opium a few hundred years later. EDIT: For some crazy reason I placed the Spanish Armada in the "early 1500s" last night. 1588 isn't "early" by any stretch of the imagination. I think I'd decided it took place in 1521, but I can't fathom why.