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This article appeared in the "Editor's File"
in The Textbook Letter, Volume 12, Number 4.

Discovering 1421

William J. Bennetta

Who discovered the New World? Or, as that question often is phrased: Who discovered America?

The short answer is "Columbus" -- but the short answer is weak because Columbus didn't understand his own achievement, and he never abandoned his belief that the islands which he had found in 1492 lay near the continent of Asia. It was another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, who first understood and reported that those islands attended a new continent -- a continent previously unknown -- which extended far below the equator. Vespucci called that new continent Mundus Novus, which in Latin meant "the New World."

The name America was coined, early in the 16th century, by the cartographer Martin Waldseemüller. Derived from Amerigo Vespucci's baptismal name, America soon replaced Mundus Novus as the name of the landmass that Vespucci had correctly identified as a continent.

By the 1530s, explorers and geographers had deduced that a second new continent lay to the north of America, and they had assigned appropriate names to both -- names that have come into English as North America and South America. The word America then lost its specificity. Instead of denoting a particular continent, it became a collective term that denoted all the lands in the Western Hemisphere. (Much later, America would undergo another change in usage and would acquire the meaning that it bears today. Today, America -- standing alone, without any modifier -- denotes the United States.)

Who, then, discovered the New World? The answer "Columbus" is crudely correct, but here is an answer that is much better: Columbus found it, and Vespucci recognized it for what it was; these two men made it known, initiated the process of describing it, and initiated the process of demonstrating its geographic relationships to Eurasia and Africa.

All of that is settled history, derived from well known and unambiguous records. Yet I recently received a query from a teacher, in Florida, who wondered whether I knew about a book which "proved" that explorers from China had discovered America long before Columbus undertook his great voyage of 1492. The teacher had not seen the book. She merely had heard about it from a student.

I am confident that the student was referring to a book that the William Morrow unit of HarperCollins Publishers issued in the United States, in 2003, under the title 1421: The Year China Discovered America. The book had been published originally, in Great Britain, as 1421: The Year China Discovered the World. Morrow changed the World to America for the American market.

What educators need to know about 1421 can be stated simply: It is rubbish.

The author of 1421, Gavin Menzies, has constructed his book around a real event: In 1421 a Chinese fleet commanded by the renowned admiral Zheng He left China on a voyage of exploration. Menzies uses that event as the spindle for a narrative in which he purports to present evidence that Zheng He's fleet sailed all around the globe, established colonies in the New World, found Australia and Antarctica, and performed other prodigies of navigation and discovery.

Menzies has tried to make 1421 resemble a scholarly inquiry into history, but it is no such thing. It is a sensationalistic trade book fashioned from half-truths, unsupported claims, false insinuations, and distortions of historical, geographical, archaeological and biological facts.

Educators who want to learn more about Menzies and the 1421 scam may consult "Goodbye, Columbus," by Jack Hitt, in The New York Times Magazine for 5 January 2003; and "Bogus Books," by Eric Powell, in the May/June 2003 issue of Archaeology. Another good article is the one that Natalie Danford wrote for Salon.com -- "The Chinese Discovered America!" It was posted on 7 January 2003. Danford describes Menzies's skill in promoting both 1421 and himself, and she relates 1421 to two other trade books that have been cooked up by peddlers of phony "history": The City of Light (a fake diary that allegedly told about a Jewish merchant who had visited China before Marco Polo made his first journey to that land) and The Education of Little Tree (a bogus memoir that was marketed as an account of a Cherokee's boyhood).


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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