CAMPAIGNS: William Morrow launches 1421 on historic journey

Gavin Menzies' 1421 offers a new look at world history. And William Morrow was able to raise interest in the book with the knowledge that many are fascinated by exploration and discovery.

Gavin Menzies' 1421 offers a new look at world history. And William Morrow was able to raise interest in the book with the knowledge that many are fascinated by exploration and discovery.

Imagine if, through one man's extensive knowledge and research, vast evidence was uncovered suggesting that our understanding of the spread of mankind to the New World is essentially wrong. That the Chinese, with their wealth, power, and expertise at high-seas navigation, hadn't only arrived in North America 70 years before Columbus, but had circumnavigated the globe decades before Magellan was even born. That's just what happened as interest began to swell in Gavin Menzies' book 1421: The Year China Discovered America. Menzies is a retired Royal Navy submarine commander and amateur historian, familiar with cartography and even the techniques of navigating the seas with only the stars in the sky as one's guide. But while his ideas had received much acclaim, they had their detractors as well. "The older and more prestigious the institution, the more vehement - even apoplectic - the reactions," says Menzies. "Oxford University is a case in point. I asked many history professors to my talk at the Royal Geographic Society last year, enclosing a synopsis of my evidence; none replied. [They] rubbish the book without having read it." For one reason or another (perhaps such academic snubs), the publisher of 1421 in the UK put the international rights up for sale at the London Book Fair. William Morrow reps snatched up the US publishing rights, and the job of promoting 1421 and its May 2003 launch went to assistant director of publicity Suzanne Balaban, a former BBC news producer and director. "There was a decision to give the book to me, as I was new, and just beginning to ramp up the books I was going to be working on," recalls Balaban. However, both William Morrow and Menzies would get more than they bargained for. Strategy Menzies and Balaban met in September 2002, and "I just felt that the courage of his own convictions meant that the book was worthy of investigation and attention," Balaban says. "If Gavin's opened the door to a key part of America's origin story, then that deserves the widest possible airing. "I felt the strategy we needed to adopt," she adds, "had to be one that took this and said, 'This is popular history, and Gavin is not an academic, but he has these rather unique gifts, and he's spent the last 15 years of his life looking into this. So let's put it out there, and see if we can make the American public part of the adventure.'" In other words, "You can't say a big thing in a small voice," she says. Tactics After doing a little research of her own, Balaban found a 1999 New York Times article by Nicholas Kristof, suggesting that one ship under Admiral Zheng He (pronounced Chang Ho) had landed in Africa in the 1400s, with the crew settling there after the ship sank just off the coast of what is now Kenya. "How different would history have been had Zheng He continued on to America?" Kristof wrote. "The mind rebels; the ramifications are almost too overwhelming to contemplate. So consider just one: this magazine would have been published in Chinese." Balaban figured that the Times might be interested in a dramatic conclusion to the story. So she called one of the editors at the New York Times Magazine and, alerting his attention to Kristof's article, explained that Menzies could show that Zheng He quite likely did continue on to America, and even farther. But the editor wasn't convinced. So when Columbus Day came, Balaban sent out a blast e-mail to nearly 1,000 journalists, which said, simply, "Good-bye Columbus, the Chinese were first." One of the first to respond was New York Times Magazine contributor Jack Hitt, who talked the editor into proceeding with the story. However, the book wasn't due to be published in the US until May 2003. "I felt we were making a big mistake publishing next May, because by then it'd be an old story here in the US," says Balaban. "So we crashed our production schedule, and brought it forward to January 7, 2003." Furthermore, Balaban agreed to give the New York Times Magazine an exclusive, with the piece scheduled for the Sunday issue just two days before the book's US release. From there, Balaban knew she was ready to take the book to professional circles. She quickly secured an article in Publisher's Weekly, alerting the book community as to how a minor title had been brought forward in the publishing cycle, and quickly been made a major release. She also contacted the Asia Society Museum on Park Avenue in New York with the idea of holding a January launch event, open to the public and press alike. "Once I had the Asia Society putting their stamp on it, I wasn't just the publicist saying, 'Isn't this a great book?'" Balaban explains. A 19-city SMT followed, along with a presentation by Menzies at the National Press Club, which rarely, if ever, invites first-time authors to speak. "He had a very rigorous, but warm reception," recalls Balaban. "It was a standing-room-only crowd from the AP, Chinese and Taiwan media, and Canadian, Italian, French, and German reporters." Soon thereafter, The Silkroad Foundation in California contacted Balaban, claiming it could round up 500 people for an event in two days if she could get Menzies to speak. She did, and a crowd of more than 500 was waiting to learn more about his life's work. Results After only a few days on the stands, 1421 was eighth on The New York Times bestseller list, and still remains on the extended list, with 75,000 copies of the book shipped to date. "I think it was just a reaction of how curious Americans are about their history, and how receptive they are to new information," says Balaban. "Americans like to figure it out themselves." And join in the discussion, it would seem. Since all the attention began, Menzies has received thousands of e-mails and calls from people around the world, offering up other bits of evidence to support his theories. One such message came from a Virginia schoolteacher who recalled instructing from a '70s textbook that asked students to discuss a submerged Chinese treasure ship just off the state's coast. And one e-mail came from a researcher who suggests that the Native American tribe known as the Mingo was in fact Chinese, and named after Admiral He of the Ming Dynasty (hence Ming He, which may have been mistaken as Mingo). Menzies has also been elected a visiting professor of Yunan University in China. Future More information continues to pour in, while Menzies searches for more evidence in libraries and museums around the world. A PBS documentary is underway, and there's even a movie in the works as well. "The book will shortly be on sale in 23 countries," he says. "Many of the publishers would like fairly major inserts to suit their countries, resulting in "1421: The Year China Discovered Brazil/Argentina/Australia/Peru/Mexico, etc. An enormous workload." As such, Menzies' retirement plans are on hold for now. But the Chinese are, once again, just getting started. "They're very interested in building a replica junk, and sailing it around the world to the places Zheng He stopped," Balaban claims, "and then sail back into Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. That creates a platform for the next six years." One built, it seems, by an ex-submarine commander's insightful curiosity.

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