Will the Real Gavin Menzies Please Stand Up?
An Unauthorized Sketch of the Author of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World (1)
Captain P.J. Rivers
This short biography is intended to put into perspective Mr Gavin Menzies’ background and qualifications and not to discredit him in order to discount his specious yarn of global voyages. Nor does is it denigrate the undoubted glories that are China’s heritage and early Chinese contacts with other parts of the world. Much of Menzies’ creative imagination has already been refuted in “1421” Voyages: Fact and Fantasy by Captain P.J. Rivers(2), master mariner, naval reservist and former lecturer in nautical studies.
Recently certain major points were disclosed in ‘Junk History’(3) , a TV documentary concerning Gavin Menzies’ 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Carried out by the investigative reporter Quentin McDermott, it disclosed the publishing background for a so-called revisionist history by a previously unknown writer (4).
A startling revelation was made that Gavin Menzies did not, repeat not, actually write what he calls “my book”. As put by McDermott: “Among those brought in to help was an experienced ghost-writer” (5)! Indeed, Menzies had done “an extraordinary thing, he asked his agent to re-write the early chapters”. Everyone concerned agreed that Menzies couldn’t write and the task of producing the book was left to others.
Because of uncertainty of who actually wrote the text of 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, or its revised and renamed editions, any references made in this article to the author as “Menzies” should be read as a generic term. However, Menzies accepts full responsibility of what he calls “evidence” and presumably for the nautical descriptions.
Even before Junk History lay open this cover-up, it had not been clear if Menzies was really the author of all of 1421, because he told one reporter, “my publisher rewrote it”(6). Furthermore, on the first page of his ‘Acknowledgements’ Menzies disclosed that “although my name appears on the cover this is a collective endeavour”. Indeed it was, by the publishers employing 130 staff members on the production.
As Menzies said they did a great job manufacturing a great read, which, however, is not revisionist history as claimed but a romantic novel. It is fiction, but not science fiction because the foundations are flawed. Despite the huge personnel engaged in the task including proof-reading, none carried out any fact-checking. “We leave that to our authors”(7).
Menzies accepts full responsibility for the original research and his input was accepted without checking by the professionals at the publishers. However, his own literary agent observed “he has fantastic ideas, but he's not an academic, and he's not a natural writer”. So Menzies wasn’t even the author of his own book, but was a sort of brilliant, albeit biased, technical adviser and creative director. So bubbling over with enthusiasm no one reined in his undoubted lively imagination as it went into overdrive.
As for the publishers, they “packaged his naval history to cast him in the light of an intrepid latter-day explorer”. After all “central to '1421's credibility is the idea that Gavin Menzies' Navy career gave him skills and experience, which are uniquely valuable”. They even gave a spin to “his credentials as an expert in Chinese maritime history”.
A Chinese connection was contrived that he was born in that country and educated there in his infancy by his nursemaid. Later claiming that he travelled many times to the Middle Kingdom, while contemplating its distinguished heritage Menzies says he was inspired to carry out global explorations in search of ancient Chinese contacts(8). Along the way he had “to immerse himself in the unfamiliar world of medieval China”(9) and became self-taught in this and in other disciplines such as medieval Portuguese, DNA, and anything else that took his fancy.
Thus equipped Menzies repeatedly pontificates on what is genuine in unsettled serious debatable points. Using Goebbels-like techniques of the repetitive “big lie”, he advances unsubstantiated conclusions in a simplistic formula along the line of “What I tell you three times is true”(10).
Normally one would not look too closely at the details of an author’s life but Menzies makes his career an integral part of his hypothesis so it is not improper to examine his credentials when he cites his own experience as a source(11). Since he sets himself up as expert in other disciplines, it is also necessary to check his attainments to establish his credibility.
Certainly much credence is placed in certain of Menzies pronouncements because of his naval service(12). Indeed, Sally Gaminara of Transworld was convinced “He was coming at it from a rather unusual perspective - i.e. a hands-on ex-naval officer”.
Menzies regards all relevant and accepted history as “fairy tale stories”. To him the European discovery of North and South America is a myth(13), Columbus discovered America is a myth, and Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world is a myth. It is time to examine the myth created about Menzies. himself.
The dapper cherubic Menzies is an enthusiastic and persuasive speaker whose hyper-active imagination has produced an entertaining bestseller. But was it originally written tongue-in-cheek as he swung the lamp(14), later evolving into an elaborate hoax? Has Menzies fallen under the spell of his own propaganda or is he, indeed, a charlatan, as some allege, out to make a buck? Or perhaps he is sincere in his fantasy, one of the great English eccentrics - the first of the 21st-century.
To decide which of the above, bear in mind the words of Admiral Sir John Woodward. “I was a teacher on a commanding officers’ qualifying course and he was the cleverest, sharpest and best I had seen. He is not some mad eccentric but a rational man, good at analysis”(15).
On the other hand Menzies’ literary agent, Luigi Bonomi opined “he is a very English eccentric and people like him often hit on the truth”. This decision was voiced immediately following “Almost whether it’s true of not, this is a great adventure story, Gavin’s confidence and research will swing it”(16).
The Advertised Menzies
Menzies, fondly referred to as “Gavin” on his website, was baptised Rowan Gavin Paton Menzies. The pretence of having been born in China was soon dropped because he was from London. He had been in the Royal Navy but his seniority as an officer is dated from 1956 and he left it in 1970, not when he retired but when he quit. Although he did have about a decade in the submarine service, his period as a “submarine captain” can be counted in months rather than years.
His association with the Royal Navy, as noted above, lends credibility to his pronouncements. Some think that he was an Admiral, but Menzies never refers to his actual rank, although “submarine commander” features. He was, in fact, a Lieutenant Commander when he resigned his commission. The equivalent of an Army Major, politeness awards the courtesy title of “Commander” to his last rank.
So what are the nautical credentials of Gavin Menzies? As will be seen, his curtailed naval service, with self-proclaimed navigational skills and sea-going experience, does not support his claims of superior insights. These assertions are not fully supported by relevant Navy Lists - periodic official publications listing the steps of an officer’s career (See appendix).
Early Life - Family Connections
Later editions of 1421 were amended to read that Menzies “was born in 1937 and lived in China for two years before the Second World War”. He confided to a reporter at Nanjing, that he had been there before “in 1937 when his father served in a heavily armed British gunboat”.
In a variant tale a Malaysian newspaper reported that his “first links with all things Chinese began in 1937 when his father, a submarine captain was posted to China”. Indeed, his father, the late Captain G.C.P.Menzies DSO, had served on the China Station in command of submarines based on Hong Kong.
In 1935 the then Commander George Menzies returned to England from Hong Kong for a Staff Course. The following year on the 14 April with the Bishop of London officiating, he married Miss Constance Rosabel Grice-Hutchinson. Their son Rowan Gavin Paton was born at 27 Welbeck Street, London on 14 August 1937. Before this, Commander George returned to the China Station to take command of HMS Regulas, 4th Submarine Flotilla, from 12 February 1937 until 15th January 1939.
Although the claim of being “China born” abandoned, Menzies repeatedly maintained that in 1937, shortly after his birth, he arrived in China where he lived “for two years before the Second World War”. Yet in his text, Menzies reminisces “I remember to this day my sorrow at our parting” from his faithful Chinese amah five years later. While in Malaysia, he recounted “he was a mere two-week old baby” when he reached China and “for the next six years he was educated by a Chinese amah”.
A fast finger count shows that the emotional scene doesn’t fit in with a period of either five or six years. Such a departure would have been at earliest impossibly in 1942, when the Japanese had already overrun the British Far Eastern Possessions. In any event the compulsory evacuation of service families from Hong Kong took place on 1 July 1940. British land forces were withdrawn from Shanghai about the same time.
Nor could the baby Gavin arrive in the Far East when two or three weeks old, the journey by sea would have been much longer. Indeed, it is a moot point that his mother even followed his father to Hong Kong, let alone China. Gavin was born in August 1937, at the time Sino-Japanese fighting led to the bombing of the International Settlement at Shanghai so that European civilians were being evacuated. Mrs Menzies would have arrived in the East about the same time that the British Ambassador, severely shot up by the Japanese, took passage away from Shanghai. Shortly after, in their attacks on British shipping, the Japanese also sank the gunboat Ladybird.
Even before the outbreak of the European War, the submarines were withdrawn, Regulus being one of the first to go, while eventually only a few token antiquated river gunboats were left behind. The elder Menzies, now a Captain, was already back in England assisting from June 1939 in the inquiry about the sinking of HMS Thetis.
So this personal Chinese connection appears to be a Menzies touch where facts are adjusted to fit. It is also rather peculiar that he never mentions Hong Kong in his writing and interviews. Nor does he ever refer to Singapore although he told a reporter that for two years from 1968 he lived with his Italian wife Marcella in, Johor Baru, nearby the former Singapore Naval Base, when his researches took him many times to Malacca.
Oddly enough too, he says little of his naval family postulating instead “a lineage of priesthood”. In addition to this seemingly startling admission, he mentions, almost in passing, he followed in his father’s footsteps into the navy, but not always that both had entered the submarine service - perhaps because the elder was more successful.
In addition there were two uncles who donned the blue and gold. A. F. F. Menzies was in the Engineer Branch. He survived the war and, like his brother, Gavin’s father, retired as a Captain. Surprisingly there is no mention of his mother’s brother, one of whose names he bears.
Lieutenant Commander Charles Rowan Grice-Hutchinson, DSC and Bar, Royal Navy, Younger Brother of Trinity House, was only 32 when buried at sea with naval honours. He died in 1949 at the Royal Navy Hospital Hong Kong, “of wounds sustained while navigating officer of H.M.S. London when she was attacked on April 21 in the Yangtse”.
This heroic uncle had been mortally wounded during a celebrated affair of the day - the failed attempt by the cruiser to rescue the frigate Amethyst after she grounded in the river. The trapped British warship later floated free and escaped to the safety of Hong Kong to be received in jingoistic jubilation for what was a last attempt at old style gunboat diplomacy.
Such an uncle should have been more of a model for an impressionable child than any imagined grandfather in the Indian army. In his ‘Deep Thought’ article, meant to bolster the sale of his 1421, no mention is made of either any China connection or his naval relatives. Indeed, in that a different story emerges with a most puzzling reference to India.
Gavin informs us “My grandfather had served in the Indian Army and my first choice was to follow in his footsteps by joining Skinner's Horse”. All very romantic, especially as Skinner's Horse, an irregular unit during the Mutiny, became the senior cavalry regiment in the Indian Army outclassing even the famed Bengal Lancers. His hopes were dashed, however, when on his tenth birthday in 1947 India became independent.
This was, indeed, a poignant childhood story of end of Empire, but Menzies, did not have any family who had served in the Indian army. His grandfather, whose two sons entered the navy, had been the superintendent of a Mental Asylum. He was a reverse immigrant, William Francis Menzies, Doctor of Medicine, born in Halifax, Canada, where his father had been a bank clerk.
Although there were military on Gavin’s mother’s side, her father, Lieutenant-Colonel C.B. Grice-Hutchinson had been in the Royal Artillery, while his father had been an infantry officer born at Gibraltar. Her family, who apparently numbered among the gentry of the time , seems to have retained Spanish connections.
In the Navy
None of this is absolutely true and, indeed, he followed the then conventional route. From his own ‘Deep Thought’, he tells us he entered Britannia, the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, in January, 1954 - when he was sixteen years old.
As an officer candidate he was a student at what the British confusingly call a “public” (i.e. private) school run along naval lines. At that time, under the old scheme for officer entry, a candidate entered Dartmouth as a Cadet and after two years emerged to become an Acting Sub-Lieutenant.
Indeed, two years later, Menzies, noted, along with others, to be a “Dartmouth 16 year old entry”, first appears as an officer under training on the Navy List as a Cadet from 1 January 1956, to become on 1 May a Midshipman in the Executive “X” Branch. The Navy Lists, rather uncommonly, show against Menzies’ name both “X” and “S” (Supply and Secretariat). This second appointment appears from January 1958 to January 1960 (See Appendix).
Menzies tells us his “first ship, HMS Diamond, was a destroyer serving in the Mediterranean fleet. It was an era of invasions and tumult: the uprising in Algeria, the aftermath of Suez, the invasion by Iraq of Kuwait. We hurtled from one end of the Mediterranean to another”.
All very exciting for a young man of 19 but in 1956, when presumably he was a midshipman, only Suez (October) would have been of interest to the Royal Navy. The French problems in Algeria began in December 1954 and there was no invasion of Kuwait by Iraq until Saddam Hussein. Kuwait was still under British protection until June 1961 when declared independent and troops were sent there in answer to sabre rattling from Baghdad.
Apparently after Menzies was transferred to the Supply & Secretariat Branch, where he served as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant. This may have been by choice but usually the move was made because of failing vision or developing colour blindness.
Menzies, still an Acting Sub-Lieutenant “S”, was 21 on 14 August 1958, by which time he boasts “the Navy had taken me around the world in the wake of Magellan, Cabral, Dias and da Gama”. Well, except for Magellan these early explorers scarcely navigated the world, mainly covering the Atlantic from the Canaries to the Caribbean and further south around the tip of Africa into the Indian Ocean. The various snippets he supplies of his naval life appear to show that generally he didn’t follow behind them but went in the opposite direction.
During this time as a junior officer in training, besides the Mediterranean tour, he only mentions a single passage home aboard HMS Newfoundland when she left Singapore in February 1959. Presumably he had just joined her, because in the July 1959 Navy List she was the first ship shown against his name. He recounts that Newfoundland returned via the Malacca Straits, the Seychelles, down the east African coast with half a dozen calls at Mombassa et al around the Cape to Sierra Leona through the Cape Verde Islands and home.
Sounds like a cruise liner rather than a naval cruiser but from this comes one of his major clues to later trace the track of the Chinese armada to the Cape Verde Islands. As observed elsewhere “Menzies selected this landfall from boasted personal knowledge, as he “knew the Cape Verde islands well, having sailed through them in HMS Newfoundland”. Passing at a speed of possibly up to 20 knots or so through a square of roughly 180 nautical miles along each side is rather like claiming an intimate insight of Green Park having cruised along Piccadilly in a bus.
Calling them “strikingly green”, he finds the windward islands “are significantly wetter than the leeward”. He tells us from his own experience of “the windward islands, the biggest, highest, wettest and greenest is Santo Antão”, that would beckon as a watering hole with “lush valleys”..
He paints an idyllic scene, but Encyclopedia Britannica relates exactly the opposite about the Cape Verde Islands. The landscape of the Windward Islands “is generally barren and the climate always hot”. They “suffer from constant drought due to poor rainfall” while the Leeward group is even worse. “Rainfall is scarce, and drought is a constant problem”. This little gem provides a splendid example of the Menzies’ touch - facts fabricated from fantasy.
He may have had another passage through those waters because he tells us “As I well know from my own time at sea in the South Atlantic” but like other pearls that Menzies lets fall, there is no certainty. Menzies goes on to embellish his description of what he calls “an extraordinary natural phenomena in this part of Africa” (emphasis added) with the South Equatorial Current upwelling as “a massive body of cold water”.
Every particular of the detailed description he gives is absolutely wrong as is explained elsewhere. In fact, he probably was confused with the Equatorial Counter Current, which flows in the opposite direction to what he describes.
It certainly doesn’t bolster his assertion that while serving in HMS Newfoundland, he acquired “an invaluable insight into the winds, currents and navigational problems, the Chinese admirals had encountered”. Quite an unusual achievement, if as it seems Menzies was still a “pusser”, as an Acting Sub-Lieutenant in the Supply and Secretariat Branch.
At that time this was the equivalent of an Ensign in the Supply Corps of the United States Navy. However, by the beginning of 1960 Menzies passed his qualifying examinations and was listed as a Sub-Lieutenant, “X” Branch, aboard HMS Hermes.
Rather uniquely Menzies was once more in the Executive Branch, and shortly after commendably entered the submarine service, where he remained for the rest of his curtailed career. Following the requisite eight-year period of seniority as a Lieutenant, he was automatically promoted to Lieutenant Commander from 1 February 1968. Any further rise in rank to Commander was through selection based on ability but he resigned in 1970.
Service in Submarines
Later in that year Lieutenant Menzies took up residence at the Royal Navy College Greenwich, where in the Chapel on 8 October 1966 he, aged 28, married Marcella Marengo, 23, spinster, translator, in the presence of his father, the retired Captain, and her father, a farmer.
In 1967 Menzies was appointed to a nuclear submarine Resolution, during which time he was automatically promoted to Lieutenant Commander with seniority. Then he was appointed to the Commanding Officers Qualifying Course, presumably in the spring of 1969, when posted ashore to HMS Neptune the submarine base in the Clyde. There he undertook this further training probably the hardest in the navy.
“After this 'perisher' I was appointed in command of HMS Rorqual, based in the Far East”, which he claims was from 1968. However, according to various Navy Lists, Menzies was only appointed to HMS Rorqual, his only command early in 1969. The Royal Navy Submarine Museum confirms this post from 1 February 1969, which coincided with his first anniversary as a Lieutenant Commander and just over a year later he quit the navy.
Moreover, we are then given a ridiculous account of his being allocated a submarine for his personal yacht shortly after he was appointed to his first command. Menzies tells us the Commander in Chief “agreed that I could take Rorqual round the world on my own, which was spectacular fun. Provided we met our commitments, I could do more or less what I wanted”. Such a roving commission is pure fantasy; the Admiralty hasn’t released the reins since the introduction of wireless communications.
He gives no details of his wanderings in Rorqual, but says that “by then” he had met his wife Marcella - indeed, they had already been married for three years. So using his cabin as a repository for her clothes, she followed romantically “from island to island by air”. None of these are named, but he claims to have discovered “large pyramids built on islands across the Pacific from Australia to South America”. Just how he managed this is not clear as the Rorqual’s logbooks shows that after sailing from New Zealand she called only at Tahiti (see below).
Following this, “Nobody had any idea who built them” and then, in what is now a familiar refrain, “Who did? Read my book”. Well, read away but you’ll still be unenlightened.
However, it seems the purported right to sail around the world on his own was curtailed when “ordered to take Rorqual to South Africa”. Getting it wrong by about five years, he says Mandela had just been imprisoned and to circumvent apartheid, Menzies insisted “that shore leave must be the same for all my ship's company - black or white”. Fine sentiments but not in accordance with the facts - there were no restrictions on non-white crew being allowed ashore.
The visit was cancelled and he was ordered to return to Singapore, where he “learned with horror” that aircraft carriers were to be phased out! Then during exercises in the South China Sea, he saw the fleet pass by with no aircraft carriers to provide air cover. So he was “disgusted with the disingenuous Wilson government, and resigned my commission in protest”. Although he makes it sound as if he left his command on the spot, it might be noted that there was no British fleet in the Far East at that time.
His claim that during his short period in command of HMS Rorqual he took Rorqual “round the world”, is difficult to reconcile with what he tells us in his book. There it is stated that when “in command of HMS Rorqual (1968 (sic)-1970) he sailed the routes pioneered by Magellan and Captain Cook”, which could only refer to the Pacific.
Indeed, having joined his submarine in the Far East he relates he “took her from China to Australasia, the Pacific and the Americas”. Presumably he means he sailed from Hong Kong but elsewhere he says “when I commanded HMS Rorqual, I took her through the South China Sea and Philippines to Subic Bay”. The site of the then American Naval base is not far up the coast from Manila on Luzon Island across the South China Sea from both Hong Kong and Singapore, so no one would sail through the Philippine Islands to reach there. Perhaps he got lost or it was one of Menzies’ “mystery tours”.
In fact Rorqual’s logbooks shows that she sailed from Singapore on 17 October 1969 to return to the United Kingdom. Her route took her through the Java Sea, down the east coast of Australia to Sydney, then to Auckland, New Zealand, and across the Pacific to the Panama Canal touching only at Tahiti. Outside of this, the logbooks of Rorqual, even allowing for their irregular entries, do not reveal any worldwide voyages being confined to the straits of Malacca and the South China Sea.
Based on Singapore Rorqual made a run or two to Hong Kong and back with only the single call at Subic Bay. According to the logs, she appears to have been mainly employed on training exercises with the local defence forces. The only tropical islands listed are those off the Malayan coast, such as Penang, used for bearings, although on one occasion in July, she anchored in a bay at Pulau Tioman off the east coast.
Not unnaturally, Menzies does tell us of an unfortunate misadventure at Subic Bay, shortly after he took over his first command in 1969. It appears that he was in charge when HMS Rorqual on the 13th June “evening “bumped” the moored American minesweeper Endurance, while docking at this American naval base. A hole three feet wide was made in the wooden hull of Endurance”. Apparently there was confusion over his engine orders while manoeuvring, resulting in a couple of weeks repair work on the American vessel.
In a TV interview, Junk History, when taxed about the incident, he thought it was “the end of my career”. Then swinging the lamp with great gusto, he describes how he avoided a court marital by throwing a party for the American Admiral where “we got totally smashed”. He goes on to overstate that the minesweeper had been sunk but the drunken Admiral proposed that the affair would go no further if Menzies put it right. “We got our team down, we got divers, we got the thing up, we did repair [it], it made its voyage on-time, and so I wasn't court martialled.”
Even without the embellishment, the experience may have unnerved Menzies somewhat because during the odyssey of Rorqual, while on the way to Sydney, Australia, he became involved in “a constant waking nightmare”. Despite Admiral Woodward considered opinion that Menzies “certainly knows all about charts” and having accurate ones at hand, he managed to wander off the recommended and constantly used trading route to end up inside the Great Barrier Reef. Drawing on this experience, he commiserates with Captain James Cook who had grounded his sailing vessel HMS Endeavour off the then unknown Australian coast.
By Christmas 1969 Menzies reached the South Island of New Zealand where during a short visit over Christmas he “had many happy memories of that beautiful land”. Beyond that there is no mention in 1421 of his visiting Pacific islands or their pyramids as promised in ‘Deep Thought’, a pattern often repeated.
Indeed, the logbooks of Rorqual show that she sailed directly from Auckland to Panama, stopping off solely at Tahiti. Thereby emulating for at least one short passage only Captain Cook from the galaxy of European explorers in whose wake he claimed to have sailed.
His final disclosures are that he “spent some time in the Caribbean [where he] visited and photographed many of the islands”. This enabled him to “vividly picture the scene as the Chinese approached” and, indeed, he visualised many other happy scenes with the mariners “gambolling in the surf” and so on.
His shallow knowledge is revealed when he talks about localised breezes in the West Indies. These are often experienced near tropical islands because of unequal temperatures between warmed land and cool sea, with air flowing to replace rising heated air. The stronger sea breeze blows onshore during the day. From just after sunrise it develops with increasing force until late afternoon and lasts into the early evening. Only an hour or so after the land has sufficiently cooled does a much weaker “offshore” breeze begin to develop in the night, lasting perhaps for an hour or so after sunrise.
Menzies reverses this process, pronouncing that “In the eastern Caribbean, an offshore breeze usually springs up in the early evening” requiring the Chinese “on the exposed Atlantic shore” to seek “ a sheltered anchorage for the night”.
The emphasis is added because in the West Indies, it is the onshore sea breeze that combines with the trade wind to “often cause a wind of force 5 or 6 on the windward side of the island”. The nightly offshore wind would be cancelled out by the Trades and in any case would blow the ships away from the “exposed Atlantic shore”. This is not the only time that Menzies got things backwards.
Once more the submarine was his vehicle to this build-up of paraded personal background but time was against him to acquire much. At the beginning of 1970 Rorqual had barely cleared New Zealand and was at Panama on 26 January in her passage crossing the Pacific and north Atlantic Oceans to be back in Britain in February.
From Naval Cap to Bowler Hat
The reader should not infer any incompetence on the part of Lieutenant Commander Gavin Menzies. In my opinion from some 20 years experience of investigating marine insurance claims, accidents can happen to anyone. As the saying goes “A collision at sea can spoil your whole day”.
However, as well as this incident at Subic Bay, shortly after that he managed to stray into the Great Barrier Reef off Australia. Then in the Caribbean, according to him, more than once he nosed Rorqual into bays to land his crew for a ‘jolly’ - a dubious undertaking in an area where reefs are notoriously treacherous.
The Admiralty could not have been pleased with him putting at risk an expensive submarine. By early 1970 Gavin Menzies was no longer in the service and Rorqual was at Rosyth for a much-needed refit. It is no surprise that he quit the navy because of what he described as a difference over policy. Indeed, some were to “speculate he may have been subsequently assigned to guard the paper clips in the third sub basement of Naval Headquarters, which provoked his resignation.”
As soon as he left the service, Menzies, not yet 33 years old, stood for election against Enoch Powell at Wolverhampton. A newspaper relates, “The most unusual intervention is by Commander Menzies, a submarine commander who resigned his commission to fight the election as an Independent”. He had “evolved a political theory that calls for unrestricted immigration in Britain’s enlightened self interest” and a warning about nuclear proliferation, as he used to be operations officer in Resolution, the first Polaris Submarine. He failed to catch the public fancy and garnered a mere 77 votes.
Menzies now claims that he resigned because of a difference over policy, not because of politics. He portrays himself as a crusader whose “credo has been to find out what the Establishment view is, and then to try to do precisely the opposite”. That is his story now but, as always, he has a tune for every occasion.
Despite his failure at the polls, he remained in the establishment under a bowler hat. “He joined a prestigious English Merchant Bank1 Singer and Friedlander, where he worked from 1970-1974 as Managing Director of a subsidiary of the bank”.
“In 1975 he and his wife started a real estate development company” which in 1980 “acquired the headquarters of the Reed Paper group in central London”. They “developed this into a Business Centre” with more than 100 companies as tenants”.
Well, that’s his story but, as usual, it is not quite complete. His affairs did not prosper as claimed but were ill starred, mired down in a series of legal disputes and costs. A capital of GBP600,000 disappeared to be followed by suits against many, including the Bank of Kuwait. Over the period 1990-1995 Menzies took out almost a dozen writs in the Chancery Court and lost them all with costs in the tens of thousands of pounds.
The bold sea lawyer even managed in 1996 to get himself a rare distinction by being placed on a list of Vexatious Litigants. As such, a Court Order restricted him from filing cases without a judge’s prior permission.
But some habits die hard and in recent times Menzies has threatened lawsuits against more than one academic for disagreeing with his views. This was touched upon in ABCTV’s Junk History, where in making one such threat against the respected historian Kirsten Seaver, the reporter, Quentin McDermott, put it to Menzies “those are the words of a bully, not of a genteel author”.
The Issue at Stake
This is not to say that the Chinese were incapable of doing so. Indeed, some contact by them undoubtedly preceded Columbus, but their early contacts were across the Pacific to the Americas and their voyages were certainly not in the manner detailed in 1421. However, for Menzies the absence of written records stating Europeans had reached the Americas before Columbus is proof that they had not. On the other hand, he declares the absence of written records is evidence that Chinese fleets had crossed the Atlantic first.
Moreover, because of his naval experience, Menzies confidently states he could find the tracks of these fleets better than any written record. He claims to have discovered this story “that had eluded many historians simply because they lacked the knowledge of astro-navigation and the world’s oceans”. It needed his “trained eye” and “first-hand knowledge of the world’s oceans, currents and trade winds” to disclose the Truth. But alas, his knowledge of these is either flawed or altered to meet the requirements of his romance.
As a prime example, at the beginning of his imagined voyages, Menzies has the Chinese fleet departing in May from Calicut, West India, to East Africa, which was impossible. They would have been sailing in the teeth of the south-west monsoon and not, as he states, “on the tail of the north-east monsoon”.
“When an interviewer pointed this out to him, Menzies gave an amazing response stating “who cares how they got there”! Surely that is what his book is all about - how the Chinese discovered the world in 1421. In effect, Menzies dismisses as irrelevant the very foundation for all his fanciful identifications of Chinese global contacts.”
Early in the new century as Menzies mounted his sales campaign for 1421, Menzies played a different hornpipe, but still as a rebel - this time attacking “an Anglo-Saxon Establishment, which has done its utmost to prevent the truth from coming out”.
Once more emphasis is added because only Capt James Cook fits that bill among the many explorers that Menzies rails against. For his opening salvo was aimed at mere “fairy tale stories that Columbus discovered the Americas and that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world”.
As will be seen his naval service does not support his claims of special insights, yet he is not abandoned in his quest for the Truth. His unique solution is to eat a surfeit of bacon sandwiches while seeking divine guidance from the Virgin Mary. Visions come to him with equal facility in murky Lisbon bars or on the Great Wall of China.
Menzies as the Scholarly Scribe
Eventually he turned his attention to what he described as “a consuming passion for me, medieval history, and in particular the maps and charts of early explorers”. He became engrossed, as many before him, in the forerunners of extant maps from early times and became convinced that every European explorer, from Christopher Columbus to Captain James Cook, sailed with charts already showing them they way.
Interestingly in a section called ‘Portugal Inherits the Crown’, Menzies imagines unrecorded settlements from that nation’s ventures into the Atlantic during the 15th-century starting from the 1420s. Menzies thus provides a more reasonable, although unproven, explanation for the precursors of the known explorers.
In apparently the first ever newspaper article about his hypothetical revisionist history, it was said “he originally intended to write a book about the significance of the year 1421 around the world”. But, according to the TV documentary Junk History, when he produced a massive manuscript to a literary agent, it was unmarketable. It had to be cut and rewritten so the agent, Luigi Bonomi, hit upon the idea to “let's just look at this one episode and let's make the whole book the story of how China discovered America.”
In the United States this later was the title but in the first instance it was 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. The original manuscript on which he laboured so long was discarded. In a supreme effort within weeks the publisher produced an enlarged rewritten book on this theme. Transworld bought the idea following upon Menzies’ promotional revelation in the middle of March 2002 and by the first week in November published 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Almost immediately after Menzies was in Nanjing making his sales pitch mixed audiences, which included many bemused Chinese scholars.
It is said that Menzies spent as much time on his original manuscript as he served in the navy. Both periods appear to have been elastic but he spent either 10 or 15 years researching the facts on his first book, “which never got published”. Depending upon the dates that he made these assertions he started his task either as early as 1988 or as late as 1991.
With some pardonable exaggeration, we are informed that after leaving the Royal Navy while “researching 1421 he has visited 120 countries, over 900 museums and libraries and every major seaport of the late Middle Ages”. That would have meant almost every country fronting the ocean world-wide.
This doesn’t fit the profile from other sources, several reporting a favourable impression upon coming across him at the British Library Map Room. Nor indeed does this fit the newspaper image of a “quiet studious life” in Islington before the media circus took over.
Only a few of these institutions and places are identified and it is pertinent that he later admitted that he “did no research at any library, museum or university in China before writing his book”. Of those actually named, one was the James Ford Bell Library, although, as noted below, Menzies had not visited Minnesota in person.
Along the same line, Professor Stephen Jett in a review of 1421 commented; “A curious matter is that a number of individuals whom he mentions in his acknowledgements do not remember rendering him any assistance”. Junk History also looked into this aspect and “contacted twelve of these scholars - and most say either that the help they gave Mr Menzies was very limited, or, that they actively disagree with his views”.
Moreover, Professor Robert Finlay, giving a number of examples, flatly stated Menzies “misrepresents the scholarship of others and he frequently fails to cite those from whom he borrows”. To use a colloquialism, Menzies had fudged his yarn. So what about the grizzled sea captain image?
The Old Sea Dog
Indeed, much is contradicted by Menzies himself in various interviews as well as in his book and in his own ‘Deep Thought’. Of the choice bits he chooses to divulge from his time in the Royal Navy, several are not in accord with Navy Lists.
So what qualifications does Menzies have to pontificate on imagined global voyages? By his own account he had little advanced education as he says he was educated for the first five years of his life by his Chinese amah and ten years later he joined the Royal Navy. Then he became “indebted first to those in the Royal Navy who educated me in seamanship, cartography (!) and astro-navigation”. It is a surprise to find he listed ‘cartography’, which does not appear in the usual navigator’s curriculum. Chart work, which is coastal navigation, is not the same as either cartography or hydrographic surveying.
As Menzies transferred to submarines rather than the Hydrography Service it is unclear what training he could have received in cartography. He doesn’t appear to have absorbed too much about the subject, because he confuses the criss-cross lines on medieval sea-charts with the modern surveyor’s land measurements. Only of historical interest, he amusingly refers to “what navigators call ‘portolan lines’ used in portolan navigation, also known as triangulation”. A fine example of the Menzies’ touch, it is just so much pseudo-technical jargon.
Menzies, of course, began his nautical studies at the Royal Naval College, where he recalls being well founded in the world’s religions, customs and philosophy. However, he joined those who “did not wish to sail or indulge in nautical activities” and took up flying light aircraft.
In view of the numerous elementary errors revealed in his 1421, he probably didn’t fare too well in marine subjects at the College. A laughable example is, in what has been described as “a farrago of different elements”, where Menzies equates a nautical mile with a second of longitude. It is not - a nautical mile is measured from a minute (or 60 seconds) of latitude.
Apparently Meteorology for Mariners was not among the subjects he was taught. Nor was his knowledge improved by practical experience, despite his pretensions of knowing “the winds, currents and navigational problems’ of the Chinese. A prime example is that he doesn’t know the monsoons seasons, which set in motion the schedule for his 1421 global voyages. Nor was he well founded in the general pattern of ocean currents, upon which these travels were dependent. The alternative is, of course, that he deliberately distorted seasons, winds and currents to fit his tale.
He describes Atlantic currents that carry the Chinese fleets hugging the west coast of Africa from Cape Town to the Cape Verde Islands, then across the Atlantic and down the east coast of South America from Venezuela to the Falkland Islands. These bear no resemblance to reality; in fact, the currents along the tracks he depicts would have opposed the junks in their coasting passages. So Menzies fabricates descriptions of Atlantic Currents and distorts sailing directions from the Admiralty Ocean Passages of the World to fit his flights of fancy.
It seems he was a late bloomer in navigation with his interest deriving from ‘mystery tours’ to the Russian coast. During these, he also lays claim to special skills where “training was in periscope photography and the obscure art of constructing charts from near sea level”. This seems another Menzies’ touch. It has long been routine for the Navy to draw or take photographs of ‘views’ of prominent coastal features to supplement the written directions of Admiralty Pilots. These scenes, however, differ fundamentally from topographical surveys and were not used for chart construction. .
Menzies puts this talent to use when he found “a clue hidden in an ancient map” that he identifies as a 1424 chart “of Zuane Pizzigano” mentioned above). What caught his fancy were two boldly coloured islands, whose identity had long puzzled scholars. With his trained eye and unique experience, he identified these as Guadeloupe and Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately for him, this apparently brilliant analysis was exposed on Discovery TV. It showed that to make his identification work, he had manipulated the islands, rotating and even transposing them. In typical fashion, he blamed the long dead cartographer for drawing them incorrectly.
He further reveals that on these undersea patrols came his “lifelong addiction to the construction of charts and to astronavigation, for in those days there was no satellite navigation and we found our way by looking at bright stars through the periscope and deducing our position mathematically”.
Menzies presumably means taking ‘sights’ for celestial or astro-navigation rather than star-gazing. He makes it sound like standard RN procedure, but another Dartmouth graduate, who in 1965 served aboard Porpoise, a sister of Rorqual, advises “I don’t know of anyone who did astro via periscope when submerged, though clearly some tried . . . . Normally any astro was done when surfaced”.
Menzies seems to have mixed coastal and celestial navigation because “deducing our position mathematically” is another skill altogether. The mathematics is reduced to simple arithmetic by use of Traverse Tables. Based on plane trigonometry, with courses steered and distances steamed a ship’s new position can be found. This is called a D.R., or Dead Reckoning, Position, where according to some the ‘Dead’ is derived from “De’d” for “Deduced”.
With an apparent weakness in ordinary mathematics, this sums up his stellar navigation. Along with statements making the North Pole coincide with the terrestrial North Pole, which roams about together with an equator wobbling around like a hula-hoop, the basics of geography, never mind astronavigation, appear to have eluded him.
That any further special skills relevant to his 1421 were imparted in his naval career is not revealed in the Navy Lists nor did he undertake any other pertinent specialist courses such as Navigation. Like father like son, he became a submariner, but his only extra qualifications, noted in the Navy List, were surprisingly in TAS (Torpedo Anti-Submarine) and as Barrister. This last was part of his further self-education, while it has been said that TAS was not “a classy specialism (sic)” at that time.
In 1970 the London newspaper, The Times, had reported of the parliamentary hopeful that his time “under the waves” had not been wasted, because in evolving his political theory “he studied economics and enough law in his spare time to be called to the bar”. Neither subject bolsters his self proclaimed role as a pundit on the 15th-century world.
Yet 1421 brought in the rewards, including movie rights, of a best-seller and a media circus for Menzies’ carnival side show. So it was farewell to a “quiet studious life” in which Menzies revealed “My wife, Marcella, is the breadwinner. I do the cooking”. The New Age housemate was practically overnight turned into a Guru of New Age history. A cult following was spawned excited by the Gospel of Gavin and his First Book of Revelations. Bolstered by bacon sandwiches and prayers to the Virgin Mary from Menzies, there was whole series of anecdotes of how he came to his epiphany, but these are not without some inconsistencies.
But The Daily Telegraph also reported that at some unstated time “Menzies felt he was on to something” when examining “a planisphere” in Venice , with a drawing of a possible Chinese junk and a note that someone had reported sailing into the Atlantic from the Indian Ocean.
In another newspaper account, a lifelong interest with China was developed from his infancy with an amah, from whom, as noted above, he parted at age two, five, or six, with still remembered sorrow. Later he returned to travel around China slowly absorbing its glorious past until “he embarked on a global search to unearth evidence of Chinese voyages”. During these travels he dreams up a wintry day in the James Ford Bell Library at the University of Minnesota where examining the Pizzigano Map he found another source of inspiration in some brightly coloured islands “far out in the western Atlantic”. Some remarks on his identification of these islands are given above.
The Caribbean Sea is not mentioned in the Introduction to 1421. “Over ten years ago I stumbled upon an amazing discovery” when he found “a clue hidden in an ancient map”. These were scarcely hidden and had long attracted the attention of scholars. Menzies tells us that he “asked the owners of the Pizzigano chart for help”, but it was from the Royal Geographical Society in London, that he obtained a relevant pamphlet summarising the debates. These are all concerned with pre-Columbus voyagers across the Atlantic but by his reasoning he uniquely deduced that the Chinese had circumnavigated the world.
In a different more romantic version, once more unsure of his footing, he relates that “I stumbled upon this strange story entirely by accident. My wife and I went to China to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. We had a lovely cold morning on the Great Wall". He said it was “then that we learnt about Zheng He and his huge fleet” inspiring his fantasy.
Cold weather had that effect on him, even a “misty evening sitting in bar on Lisbon’s waterfront” was enough to induce a revelation of “the identity of the master hand” which allowed Patagonia and Antarctica “to be drawn with remarkable accuracy” on yet another “enigmatic chart”. Of course this can only have been Chinese.
On these “perfectly plausible” claims, Menzies remarked “for years we’ve all been barking up the wrong tree”. But one notable, who had been listed in Menzies’ ‘Acknowledgements’, told TV reporters "The man is barking mad".
Newly converted acolytes claimed to have found remains of Chinese junks atop 300-foot cliffs in New Zealand and a naval base, two-thirds the size of the Forbidden City, on Cape Breton Island near the mouth of the St Lawrence River. Never noticed before and now examined and rejected by experts, these add to so-called ‘evidence’.
A plethora of world maps including some newly discovered from Gengkis Khan, the di Virga possibly of 1414, an alleged 1763 reproduction of a 1418 ‘original’, and the Korean Kangnido from 1404 referred to in !421, of course, seemingly predate Columbus. But they also predate Menzies’ fantasy 1421 and although flaunted as “proofs” of his flagship, they effectively scuttle it.
After all, his book is not about Chinese contacts outside their normal trade limits but that they all occurred during his imagined voyages during 1421-3. It is not history that should be rewritten but 1421: The Year China Discovered the World.
In 2006 Menzies even appeared heading a panel of experts on DNA. He could now pose as such, because one of his researchers had uncovered a paper by Professor Gabriel Novick, in which, according to him, “Native Americans had Chinese DNA” from the 1421 mariners. The pundit now pontificates on this esoteric subject finding evidence of far-flung Chinese ancestry among such as Gypsies around Granada in Spain and advising Irish and prim Bostonians to check it out.
He even entered the field of racial roots, postulating “junks wrecked Namibia [in Africa], crew got ashore (Chinese Hottentots)”! Overlooked when first outlined it in the revised 1421: The Year China Discovered America he recently created a furor during a visit to New Zealand when the pundit pontificated that Maori, recognised as Polynesians, were according to Menzies a mixture of Melanesians and Chinese whores.
There is a certain Alice-in-Wonderland quality about all this. “Why sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” His latest pronouncements in New Zealand prompted a reader to write “You describe Gavin Menzies (Maori mums were Chinese, July 12) an historian and an author. He is certainly an author. Do you have any evidence of his qualifications in history?”
Well, as Junk History made clear he isn’t even an author. As a historian he is best classified in the words of a cartoonist as “a preconceptual (sic) scientist - It’s the new science of reaching a conclusion before doing research, then simply dismissing anything contrary to your preconceived notions”. Menzies spoke with considerable embellishment when he boasted that during “many years’ experience as a navigator and a commanding officer on the high sea”, he developed valuable insights denied to mere academics enabling him “to trace the voyages of the great fleets in the ‘missing years’ (sic)”.
Despite this self-proclaimed knowledge he did not correctly describe the currents along an “elusive trail of evidence across the globe” of what he rightly calls the incredible journeys. Nor are the claims he makes about his career are not supported by the periodic Navy Lists nor his own accounts of his career.
Menzies is a modern Mandeville, who tells of his own life in a Walter Mitty manner with a touch of Munchausen. “This entertaining amateur ‘detective’ novel, masquerading as revisionist history, may well prove to be the Piltdown Man of literature but should only be classified as fiction”.
“. . . there’s not one chance in a million that I am wrong”.
Gavin Menzies, British author (1937 - ) on his book 1421: The Year China Discovered the World
“The trouble with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts”.
Bertrand Russell, British author (1872-1970).
This article would have been incomplete were it not for the industrious ‘surfing’ of Bill Hartz. His careful researching is displayed in his Gavin’s Fantasy Land: The Year China . . . (http://hallof matt.com). Amongst other things he not only shows how Menzies ‘fiddled’ his references to various inscriptions, the Pire Reis Map and so on but also disposes of the Sacramento Wreck as well as clarifying that the one at Pandanan in the Philippines was not Chinese.
From a number of naval officers who commented on Menzies’ service, a “well done” to an old friend “Tony” Braithwaite, a four-ring Captain RN(R), for plodding through the Navy Lists and Logbooks of HMS Rorqual. Half a century ago, we studied together for our Certificate of Competency as Master Mariner Foreign Going at the University of Southampton’s School of Navigation.
Thanks to Stephen Davies, the Director Hong Kong Maritime Museum, and a graduate of Britannia, Royal Naval College, who served aboard HMS Porpoise, of the same class as Rorqual. In particular he cleared up doubts caused by Menzies implying star sights were taken routinely through a submarine’s periscope.
And last, because he certainly isn’t least, Dr Geoff Wade, Asia Research Institute, University of Singapore, who treats my grey hairs with a respect they don’t deserve and obligingly supplied me with a myriad of material, much useful advice and a contact with the wider world of academia and research.
Rowan Gavin Paton Menzies (b.1937)
Entered Royal Navy College, Dartmouth, January 1955.
Navy List of:
X = Executive Branch S = Supply and Secretariat Branch
The RN Submarine Museum has Menzies appointment in command as 1 February 1969.
Menzies is not listed in the Navy List Spring 71. He had left the Navy and in June 1970 was standing for election. (The Times)
All material (c) Copyright the author, publisher, or 1421exposed.com, 2006-2012