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3 September 2011

1421 (2002)

On my recent trip to New Zealand I half-remember reading somewhere that the first Westerners to arrive in Asian countries were a traveling circus shipwrecked on the shore. Unable to converse with their rescuers, they expressed their gratitude by performing... and so the story goes... this is why Asians thought that all Westerners were clowns. What a load of tosh! But also... what a great story!

Build your own Chinese Junk


It's been a while, but I've got a book review for you...

1421 talks about the pioneers of Chinese exploration. Gavin Menzies, an ex-Navy captain, sifts through old maps and historic records in an attempt to figure out which clever people it might have been to chart most of the world's seas prior to Columbus and Cook. As you might have guessed, the answer is the Chinese, but few written records of the time exist to support this. Enter Gav to convince us with page after page of detailed evidence. It's excruciating at times to wade through it. As I read this book, I did start to get a feel for how long some of those first journeys must have taken... this felt like real-time story telling. To give you a feel... the book weights in at almost 500 pages... and that's excluding another 150 pages of appendices!

Has Gav convinced me? Yep, but to be honest, it doesn't feel like that much of a revelation.

Chinese map of the world

Marine navigators or 'Hydrographers' might get more from this book than I did. Like I said, this didn't feel like an Earth-shattering revelation to me. Wasn't this public knowledge anyway? I had to laugh at one bit where Gav tells us of him breaking the news to Australian academics that it was the Chinese rather than Cook that that were the first to charter Australian waters. They already knew! There have already been over a thousand books published on the subject. Doh! Gav takes all this in his stride and is pleased to have further evidence to support his theory... Oh dear!

So, did I get anything out of this book then? Yes... the odd snippet here and there... the bits that most people would most likely have skipped over...

I was intrigued to learn about the Carib cannibals of Satanazes (Guadeloupe).

Carib cannibals prepare a feast
"Limbs of human bodies hung up in houses as if curing for provisions; the head of a youth so recently severed from the body that the blood was yet dripping from it, and parts of his body were roasting before the fire..."

The Carib cannibals drank from human skulls and fashioned arrowheads from human bones... and of course, ate humans. If they weren't eating visiting explorers then they could often be found raiding nearby islands, capturing women for concubines and men for dinner.

Chinese concubines

The topic of concubines crops up a fair bit in the book. Concubines were apparently a big thing for the Chinese, as was sex generally. But the Malaccans took things to a whole new level:

"When a man has attained his twentieth year, they take the skin which surrounds the penis (membrum virile), and with a fine knife shaped like an onion they open it up and insert a dozen tin beads [hollow, containing a grain of sand] inside the skin... After these have been inserted, when they walk there is a tinkling sound which is considered beautiful."

I've got to get me one of those!

A ship's bell reputedly found at Ruapuke

I was intrigued to read about the references to New Zealand. Gav is convinced that the Chinese visited on their return from Campbell Island suggesting that a wreck found at Ruapuke beach (Whaingaroa) in 1875 was in fact a Chinese junk and that the mysterious sighting of otter-like creatures on the South Island are in fact sea otters that escaped from Chinese ships that sunk there; Sea otters were used for fishing by the Chinese fleet. I'm not sure that I buy all this, but It's an interesting idea.

The elusive sea otter

The whole New Zealand part of the book isn't going to be well received. Gav's parting shot is that the Maoris are descended from ship-wrecked Chinese concubines taken prisoner by the recently arrived Melanesians. His theory is that the Maoris were not the first people to settle in New Zealand. No shit Sherlock! Again, I thought everyone knew this.

As an aside: I remember once speaking with a Maori girl at Waitomo who explained to me how quick the Japanese tourists were to pick up and say Maori words. I never thought much of it, but perhaps there is an Asian link after all... some sort of genetic bond... Stop! This is far too deep a thought for the Ukulele Blog! Rewind!

Let's finish this review off...

1421 is an easy, if long and dusty read. Gav writes well, but it's an ordeal to get through it. There's way too much detail for my liking with little along the way to spark the imagination. The book flows very much like an academic read. What was I expecting? I don't know... something more... something different...

On the Triple-B I'm going to shake my hips 3 times so you can listen to my beautiful tinkle.


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