Friday, 29 April 2016

Zheng He, Gavin Menzies, and the supposed Ming Dynasty circumnavigation of the world

Fantasy masquerading as history

Between 1405 and 1433, during the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese eunuch admiral Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho) led a large fleet on seven voyages to South-East Asia, India, Arabia, and the African coast, to extend Chinese influence in the area. They dispensed and received gifts, made diplomatic contacts, brought back to ostriches, camels, zebras and a giraffe, and defeated notorious pirates. By the end of his final voyage, state policy had changed. Travel abroad was now discouraged, and China turned in upon herself.

Some years ago I came across a book by Gavin Menzies called 1421: The Year China Discovered the World, an account of how Zheng He’s voyages were more far reaching than had previously been thought. I finally got round to reading on board the sailing vessel Europa, on a voyage from the Azores to Amsterdam, where the book was in the ship’s library.

The author described how his research, along with personal insights from his time in the Royal Navy, had led him to conclude that Zheng He and his ships had, in the course of their voyages, worked out a way to calculate longitude, visited Australia and New Zealand, North and South America, sailed round Cape Horn, circumnavigated the globe, and even landed in Antarctica, leaving behind traces of their visits, as well as settlers from whom some indigenous populations were said to be descended. This was pretty incredible stuff. It was an interesting story, although there did seem to be a lot of conjecture as well.

When I got back to England and to internet access, I thought I’d look into this a little more. It turned out that Menzies had attracted quite a lot of attention from academics in the field. His claims have been refuted in exhaustive detail, collated in the website .

Map showing the supposed voyages of the Ming fleet, according to Menzies

There are, it would appear, no records of any Ming Dynasty voyages beyond Asia, the Middle East or the East coast of Africa. Menzies describes various wrecks, as well as structures constructed by the Chinese visitors all over the world. None of these have ever been found. He claims that the Venetian, Nicolò da Conti, travelled with the Chinese fleet, and brought Chinese maps back to Europe, which were used by the Portuguese when they set out on their voyages of discovery. Yet da Conti, who left copious accounts of his travels, mentions none of this. And so on.

The whole business reminds me of Erich von Däniken who wrote a whole series of books, starting with Chariots of the Gods?, in which he claimed that aliens from outer space had visited Earth and influenced early human culture. He believed that structures like Stonehenge and the Easter Island statues could not have been built by humans at the time without assistance from more technologically advanced civilisation, i.e. his extra-terrestrial visitors. I read a couple of his books in the 1970s as a teenager, and I remember they were quite popular at that time. Not that I believed him for a minute. Perish the thought.

Skilful alternative practitioners, whether of medicine or history, always seem to attract a substantial following. The notion that early Chinese voyagers might have visited and settled every continent on earth before the Europeans, in the largest wooden sailing ships ever built, seems to find a ready audience. Not only are the the Chinese explorers supposed to have circumnavigated the globe and provided the maps that enabled the Europeans to set out on their subsequent trans-oceanic ventures, but in his subsequent book, 1434: The Year a Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed to Italy and Ignited the Renaissance, Menzies claims that in that year, a Chinese fleet arrived in Tuscany, with ambassadors who met with the Pope Eugenius IV. The Chinese are supposed to have provided knowledge that led to the Renaissance. As in 1421, there is no evidence for this. Nevertheless, Menzies is an honorary professor at Yunnan University, has spoken at a conference organised by the Library of Congress, and has a keen following. His books are to be found on the history shelves of bookshops, rather than in the fiction section.

Zheng He seems to have become a bit of a cult figure in recent years, adopted by the Chinese communist party as a national hero, and a symbol of China’s openness to the world. The innovations of Chinese marine technology, such as watertight compartments and balanced rudders, are well known. The junk rig is highly efficient, and has been adopted on many modern cruising yachts. Zheng He did lead an enormous fleet of a few hundred ships all the way to Africa. But it is pretty certain that they did not circumnavigate the globe, visit Greenland and Antarctica, or provide the impetus for the Portuguese voyages of discovery, or the impetus for the Italian Renaissance.

Gavin Menzies' website
The '1421' myth exposed
(Judge for yourself)

Friday, 22 April 2016

Book Review: City of Fortune: How Venice won and lost a naval empire, by Roger Crowley

A well-written and engrossing account of the rise and decline of the Venetian empire
As this year’s birthday present from my wife, I will be receiving in the post one book every month from Daunt Books, selected personally by their staff, based on the things that interest me. The first book to arrive was City of Fortune, by Roger Crowley, the story of “How Venice won and lost a naval empire”
Venice grew from a small settlement built on marshy islands in a lagoon, to become a wealthy trading city, controlling much of the trade between East and West. This was inextricably linked with sea power, and Venice was in the middle ages the greatest naval power in Europe and the Mediterranean. There are lots of books about Venice, but I don't know of any other popular (i.e. non-academic) histories that tell the story of the Venetian maritime empire.
The book covers the period from around 1000 to around 1500. In the early years, the Venetians subdued the pirates around the Adriatic and became the dominant naval power in their area. Then in the early 1200s they got involved in the notorious Fourth Crusade, when they were engaged to transport the crusaders to the Holy Land. As part of the deal, they stopped along the way of to reassert their authority over their possessions in the Adriatic. As a result of various intrigues, involving rival claimants to the Byzantine throne, the crusader force ended up at Constantinople, at that time the greatest and richest Christian city on earth. Constantinople was attacked, sacked and plundered in 1204. The crusaders never made it to Jerusalem. The Byzantine Empire was fatally weakened, while Venice became rich on the loot, acquired more colonies, and became even more powerful.
It goes on to tell the story of how the Venetians overcame other rivals in the Mediterranean, notably the Genoese, who came close to conquering and occupying Venice itself. Ultimately Venice triumphed. Although the Genoese were more than a match for them militarily, the Venetian state was better organised and more stable, which made all the difference in the long run. Then the Ottoman Turks became the dominant power in the Mediterranean and by the 1500s, the days of Venetian naval supremacy were over. Venice would still be prosperous for many years, until Napoleon invaded in 1797, but the days of glory were over, and the slow decline had begun.
The book is written in a fast-paced style, at times almost like a novel, and I found it an easy and entertaining read. Incidentally, although it might look like a naval history, it's aimed at the general reader, not the naval enthusiast. There were several things about it which made an impression on me. 
I had known the story of the Fourth Crusade in outline. The Venetians were at that time the only people with the resources to transport a large crusader force by sea across the Mediterranean However I had not appreciated the extent to which for Venice it had been such a high-risk undertaking. More or less the entire economy of the Republic had to be diverted towards the enterprise.
I knew of the Venetian possessions in the Mediterranean, which even today have Venetian buildings and clock towers, and which display the winged lion of St Mark, the emblem of Venice. However, I had not appreciated how badly the local inhabitants in their colonies were treated. We are often told how, compared to the chaotic despotism elsewhere in Italy, Venice was a model of enlightened good government (for that time). This did not apply in their colonies, which were regarded as purely economic and military resources. In their colony of Crete, the Venetians were hated by the locals. There were frequent revolts, which were put down harshly.
We live in troubled times today, with unpleasant conflicts around the world, in which innocent civilians are bombed and killed. Reading this book reminded me that things in the past were much worse. They may not have had the means to wreak death and destruction on a massive industrial scale as we do today, but they were pretty horrid. Wholesale massacres seem to have been the norm during warfare. Torture was accepted as routine. Prisoners captured by the Turks might be impaled or sawn in half. Turkish pirate chiefs who were captured by the Venetians were roasted alive at the end of an oar.
We might talk of cut-throat business practices, but this was often literally true for merchants in the middle ages. Life for them could be dangerous, with the constant threat of piracy at sea, periodic fights between merchants from different countries, and the risk of imprisonment, or worse, if they were abroad when the political climate changed. Being an aristocrat was no protection. Venice in the middle ages might have been one of the richest and most powerful states, but even for the well-off, things were pretty tough and precarious.
City of Fortune: How Venice won and lost a naval empire, by Roger Crowley.
This the sort of subscription I received for my birthday:

Thursday, 14 April 2016

The beating heart of the modern sailing ship: the engine room

A tall ship, a star to steer her by, perhaps … but never without the engine these days
If you have the inclination to re-live the great age of sail, you can sign on as paying crew on board a tall ship. By this I mean a sailing vessel, with several masts, and square sails, like this one. 
You participate sailing the ship, steer it, and take your turn on watch. You also get to climb up the mast to handle the sails (optional, I hasten to add). No experience is required, as you will be taught the skills necessary. I’ve been on three trips in three different vessels, and they were very different, but all were run by people of great skill and dedication, who clearly loved what they were doing.
While at the wheel, pulling on a rope, or up aloft furling the sails, you might almost imagine that you were on the Cutty Sark, racing to carry tea back to England from China. However there is one important difference. Until the 20th century, these ships were engineless. Today, every tall ship has an engine, and could not function without it. The engine might be something that some sailing enthusiasts try to ignore, but it’s absolutely indispensable. 
Engine room of the Pelican
It’s not just required to get in and out of crowded modern moorings, or to get out of calm spells in order to keep to the advertised schedule. Today’s sailing vessels all require electricity for a host of functions, and this has to be generated by the engine. There’s all the navigational equipment required by law in passenger-carrying vessels: satnav to fix the position of the ship at sea, echo sounders to measure the depth of water below, and equipment to receive weather forecasts. I don't think anyone these days uses a sextant for navigation, or uses a lead line to determine the depth of the water, except as a training exercise or for fun.
Even a basic task like steering the ship is often done with mechanical assistance these days. Many of today's tall ships have hydraulically assisted steering wheels. In the old vessels, a lot of force was required to turn the wheel of a large ship, and in strong winds, when the forces on the rudder were greater, more than one crew member would be required. On larger ships, there was a double wheel.
In the old engineless sailing ships, raising the anchor was a labour-intensive task, that could take several hours, with the crew at the capstan bars. 
In the ships I sailed in this was always done by machine. There are some ships where they weigh anchor in the old fashioned way, but I’m guessing that they all have a machine to do it when they are short-handed, or need to make a quick getaway. 
In the past, the washing up could be done in sea water, and the waste thrown over the side. These days, standards of hygiene are more stringent. Environmental concerns mean that all waste is stored on board, for disposal at a suitable facility. That includes waste from the toilets. Nothing is thrown into the sea, not even an orange peel. In my experience, the only time that anything could be chucked over the side was when someone was seasick. Water is also used much more lavishly than in the past. A daily shower is the norm, even though the responsible crew member will try to keep water consumption to a minimum. Many ships have equipment to generate fresh water from sea water. All this of course requires electricity.
I've had a fantastic time on all the tall ship voyages I've undertaken. I'd thought about it for ages, and then, a few years ago, I broke my shoulder during a fall. After I recovered I decided that it was time to give it a go. I suspect that most of us who do it do feel that in a small way we are experiencing something of what it was like to go to sea in a sailing ship in the olden days. However the constant hum of the engine in the background, even when under sail should remind us that we are very much in our own time.
So far I have sailed on the following tall ships, and I'd recommend all of them:

Friday, 8 April 2016

2 Willow Road: Goldfinger's 1939 modernist house in Hampstead

Behind the well known facade, a marvellous interior

a blog about an architectural study of the house

Two years ago, we visited an apartment in Balfron Tower, a famous block of council flats designed by Erno Goldfinger. The National Trust had arranged for the flat to be done up and opened to the public for a brief period before the entire building was closed for refurbishment.

Goldfinger at Balfron Towers

I had seen Goldfinger’s work from the outside but never been in before, and it was an eye opener. Designed and built in the 1960s, the flat was spacious by today’s standards, and well laid out. Here are some pictures from the Guardian. Subsequently I also visited another Goldfinger building, Haggerston School, the only school he designed, and nowadays used regularly for sales of mid century modern furniture, in case you’re interested (

Last weekend we finally got round to visiting No 2, Willow Road in Hampstead, the house that Goldfinger designed for his family, where he lived until his death in 1987. His wife continued to live in the house, but after she died, it was taken over by the National Trust in 1993.

Born in Hungary, Goldfinger studied architecture in Paris at the Beaux Arts, where he chose as his mentor the early modern architect Auguste Perret. In Paris, he met Ursula Blackwell who was an art student at the time, and later they were married. She was a woman of some means, being from one of the families that ran the Crosse and Blackwell tinned food empire, and so the couple were essentially freed from financial worries.

They moved back to England in the 1930s, and Goldfinger decided to build a house in Hampstead, which in those days was the haunt of left-wing intellectuals and famous modern artists.

If you want to visit 2 Willow Road, you either get shown round on one of their hourly guided visits, or you can go on a self-guided tour later in the day. We chose the former, as we had not been before, and I would recommend this option to anyone visiting for the first time. Much of what follows consists of things I learnt on this visit, plus a bit of peripheral reading afterwards. Photography, by the way is forbidden because many of the items in the house are still under copyright (something to bear in mind if you are thinking of bringing your big SLR). None of the pictures here were taken by me.

Goldfinger was a thorough, hardcore modernist, and he wanted a modern house. There were a few cottages on the site he purchased, and these had to be demolished. The other large houses on Willow Road were Victorian villas, on whose quality I will not comment as I don’t want to cause offence. There was a lot of objection from the locals, as you might imagine. The planners insisted that the Willow Road house had to fit in with the Georgian houses in the adjacent Downshire Hill, although there were no such houses on Willow Road.

At 1-3 Willow Road, a he built a 3-storey house, which was completed in 1939. The Goldfingers lived in no 2. Nos 1 and 3 on either side were to be rented out, a condition imposed by Ursula’s Blackwell family trustees who provided the funds. The building itself is a modern version of a classical Georgian building. The façade is rigorously geometrical, with a grand first floor (or piano nobile), and an attic storey with seven square windows.

where there are more pictures of models of the house

One of Goldfinger’s design principles was that the building materials and the structure of a building should be made visible and not concealed. Hence, the concrete used in the columns on the ground floor is not concealed, but exposed.

We were told that he wanted to reveal the concrete used in the walls of the façade but was compelled by the authorities to cover it in brick, which is what you see today. I have been trying to imagine what the house would be like if the façade had been raw concrete, and whether or not I would have preferred it, but I haven’t been able to figure that out.

The exterior of the house is reasonably well known, but it was the interior that was the real surprise and delight. The entrance hall is small, with a ceiling which the architect lowered so as to allow for a higher ceiling on the first floor, which was the principal living area. On entering, you see an elegant cantilevered spiral staircase within a concrete cylinder.

The concrete cylinders (there is one in each of the three adjoining dwellings) are key structural elements holding up the house. The use of concrete construction means that the internal walls are partitions only, with no load bearing function, so this results in great flexibility in the internal layout.

Illustration from 
where you can also see the plans of the house

The house has been left more or less the way it was when Ursula Goldfinger died, and arranged so as to give the visitor the impression that the Goldfingers have just popped out of the building. There are shelves containing their books, some of their toiletries in the bathroom cabinets, tins of food, and even an actual Christmas pudding in the kitchen dating from the time they were there.

The interior is bright and spacious. The structural elements, like the columns and load-bearing beams, are all painted grey, so that you get a feel for how the house is built, and what holds it up. A brilliant idea, I thought. As we were shown around, we could see how the rooms had been laid out in a clear and sensible way. Because the walls were not load-bearing, the partitions between many of the spaces could be opened out to create larger rooms when needed, for example when entertaining.

Goldfinger thought corridors were a waste of space and a sign of bad design, and in the house there was only one short corridor, which he was obliged to install to give the children’s nanny access to the staircase from her bedroom. Everywhere else, the plan made corridors unnecessary.

The Goldfingers were collectors of art, as well as being good friends with many of the famous artists of the time, and there is lots of evidence of that around the place. The furniture is a delight as well. A lot of the furniture and the light fittings were designed by Erno, often made with industrial materials, like the steel beams used to support tables and consoles.

There were also items of furniture designed by his daughter Elizabeth who was a furniture designer herself. Many of Liz Goldfinger’s items were what she called “postable”: furniture made from flat pieces of wood that could be assembled and slotted together (without any need for the screws and Allen keys that we use for flat pack furniture today).

While utterly modern, there were some aspects of the house which showed how things have changed since then. By today’s standards, the bathrooms looked a bit austere, certainly for a house on that scale. However it is striking that the amenities in the Willow Road bathrooms were similar to those in the Balfron Tower council flat we visited, and the guest bathroom rather smaller than the one at Balfron (shown here).

The house was originally built with quarters for live-in servants in the basement, as would have been the norm for the well-to-do at the time, but after the Second World War, things had changed, and people no longer had servants. We were shown the first floor kitchen where Ursula did her cooking, and is said to have produced marvellous meals for the many guests they entertained. It is tiny by today’s standards. The original plan had been for the staff to do the cooking in the basement, and send the food up via the dumb waiter to the little first floor kitchen. However I thought it interesting that this little kitchen was not enlarged when it became the main kitchen. It was in fact much smaller than the kitchen in the council flat at Balfron Tower (shown here).

On the other hand, the house included a large and spacious studio for Ursula, even though by all accounts she never did any painting after they moved in to Willow Road. It would appear that Erno later took over the studio for himself, though.

The house also demonstrated how the early modernists faced problems because of the technology available to them at the time. The windows were specially designed to maximise the light, and there are spectacular views of Hampstead Heath, just across the road.

However, there was no double-glazing in those days. The building is listed so the windows are still single glazed, and must let out a  lot of heat. In the master bedroom we were shown how the problem of condensation that afflicted the steel-framed Critall windows had been solved. Goldfinger placed air vents in the window sill which did the trick. The down side was that they could not be closed, and let in such a draught that anything placed on them would be blown away. The room can get very cold indeed.

Our guide told us how earlier in the year he had had to go outside to get warm after showing a group around the house.

During the past 30 or so years, modern architecture has from time to time had a bad press. Some of its failures were the result of poor town planning, with cities built for cars. Others were due to poor maintenance. Many modernist public housing estates were blighted by lack of maintenance, only to be sold off to private developers and restored for sale as designer icons. This is happening right now at Balfron Tower, where the existing residents have a campaign against what they describe, with some justicfication, as social cleansing (

Many people today express a preference for “traditional” architecture, by which I suppose they mean anything pre-modernist, and preferably Georgian or Victorian. A visit to 2 Willow Road is an opportunity to see uncompromising modernist architecture and design at its best, and get a feel for how a person of means could, in the latter two-thirds of the 20th century, live in a beautiful house that was utterly of its time, and a match for anything that previous ages had produced.

2 Willow Road
See National Trust website for opening hours

Friday, 1 April 2016

Pith helmets, spine pads and actinic rays

When mad dogs and Englishmen went out in the midday sun, the Englishman needed his pith helmet

From Caro and Johnson (see references below)

When I was a medical student, and idly flicking through ancient medical journals in the library as a diversion from studying, I came across an article in an Indian medical journal from the 1920s comparing different kinds of pith helmets in terms of their ability to protect the wearer from the rays of the sun. I had known that the pith helmet was meant to protect the wearer from the sun, but I hadn’t quite realised how seriously this sort of thing was taken at the time.

The pith helmet may have been one of those items of dress that distinguished the white man from the native subject, but it was more than just a tribal headdress for the colonisers. It was at one time regarded as foolish and dangerous for a European to venture out in the day without one, because it was believed that the sun’s rays in the tropics had a harmful effect on his nervous system.

In the age of empire-building, the tropics were dangerous places for Europeans, who often succumbed to illness and death while abroad. Disease was poorly understood, and climate was thought to be one of the important factors.  There was the heat of course, but exposure to heat was not always associated with the same hazards as living in a tropical climate. Factory workers who laboured for many hours by the heat of industrial furnaces, or stokers in feeding the boilers of steamships did not succumb to the same diseases as Europeans in India and Africa.

Injuries to the nervous system or spine sometimes result in alterations in body temperature, so it was thought that the central nervous system had a vital role in regulating body temperature. It was believed that the sun's rays, and in particular "actinic" (utraviolet) rays, could penetrate the skull and body to produce deleterious effects, including sunstroke.

Not everyone’s brain was affected to the same degree. The dark-skinned natives did not suffer in the same way as Europeans, so it was believed that their darker pigmentation had a protective effect. For fair-skinned people, however, protection from the harmful effects of the tropical sun was thought to be essential.

The British in India considered it essential to wear some sort of headgear to protect their brains from actinic radiation, and the pith helmet became the preferred means of protection. This was a lightweight cloth-covered helmet, usually made from the pith of the sola, an Indian swamp plant, with a brim that protected the wearer's face and neck from the sun.

To go out in the sun bareheaded was regarded as genuinely dangerous. The natives wore turbans, and it was believed that this might have a similar protective effect. Interestingly, Indian women did not wear turbans, but did not seem to suffer unduly as a result.

It was also believed that the spinal cord played a role in the regulation of body temperature, and so it followed that the spine should also be protected from solar radiation. This led to the spine pad, a piece of fabric, often padded or quilted, worn over the spine. These were worn by travellers to the tropics, and issued by the British army from 1909.

Around the beginning of the twentieth century it was also reasoned that another way to protect Europeans from the sun would be to use clothing that simulated the supposed protective effect of dark skin. There was a brief vogue for dark coloured clothing and underwear. Some experiments suggested that certain colours might be more effective in blocking out the actinic rays, and there were experiments with red, orange or yellow coloured underclothes and lining for headgear.

TO GUARD AGAINST sunstroke. Press, Volume LXVIII, Issue 14290, 28 February 1912, Page 4

Spine pads had fallen from general use by the 1920s, but remained in production in England until 1940.

The pith helmet lasted longer, but went out of fashion around the second World War. Apart from advances in the understanding of heatstroke, the war also brought to India large numbers of men from Britain who did not bother with it, as well as Americans who had no tradition of wearing pith helmets, all of whom seemed to get on just fine.

References / Further Reading

The Wrong Topi: Personal Narratives, Ritual, and the Sun Helmet as a Symbol
Francis A. de Caro and Rosan A. Jordan
Western Folklore
Vol. 43, No. 4 (Oct., 1984), pp. 233-248

British Army Spine Pads
Stuart Bates

The Spine Pad: A Discarded Item of Tropical Clothing
R.T. Renbourn
Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Vol. 102, No. 3, 31st July 1956

European Cloth and “Tropical” Skin: Clothing Material and British Ideas of Health and Hygiene in Tropical Climates
Ryan Johnson
Bull Hist Med. 2009 Fall : 530-560.

Military Headgear and its Relation to the Health of the Soldier
Harold D. Corbusier
Journal of the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States, Volume 18, No 5, p 342-362 (May 1906)
Available via Google Books

The Effects of Tropical Light on White Men
Major Chas. E.  Woodruff
Rebman (New York and London)