MARCO POLO, 1253-1324, IV

 

Japan—Departure of the three Venetians with the Emperor's daughter and the Persian ambassadors—Sai-gon—Java—Condor—Bintang—Sumatra—The Nicobar Islands—Ceylon—The Coromandel coast—The Malabar coast—The Sea of Oman—The island of Socotra—Madagascar—Zanzibar and the coast of Africa—Abyssinia—Yemen—Hadramaut and Oman—Ormuz—The return to Venice—A feast in the household of Polo—Marco Polo a Genoese prisoner—Death of Marco Polo about 1323.

Marco Polo returned to the court of Kublaï-Khan when he had finished the expedition of which we spoke in the last chapter. He was then entrusted with several other missions, in which he found his knowledge of the Turkish, Chinese, Mongolian, and Mantchorian languages of the greatest use. He seems to have taken part in an expedition to the islands in the Indian Ocean, and he brought back a detailed account of this hitherto little known sea. There is a want of clearness as to dates at this part of his life, which makes it difficult to give a correct narrative of these voyages in their right order. He gives a circumstantial account of the Island of Cipango, a name applying to the group of islands which make up Japan; but it does not appear that he actually entered that kingdom. This country was famous for its wealth, and about 1264, some years before Marco Polo arrived at the Tartar court, Kublaï-Khan had tried to conquer it and sent his fleet there with that purpose. They had taken possession of a citadel and put all its valiant defenders to the edge of the sword, but just at the moment of apparent victory a storm arose and dispersed all the enemy's fleet, and thus the expedition was useless. Marco Polo gives a long account of this attempt, and adds many curious particulars as to Japanese customs.

Marco Polo, with his father and uncle, had now been seventeen years in the service of Kublaï-Khan, and even longer absent from their own country; they had a great wish to revisit it, but the Emperor had become so much attached to them, and valued their services so highly, that he could not make up his mind to part with them. He tried in every way to shake their resolution, offering them riches and honour if only they would remain with him, but they still held to their plan of returning to Europe; the Emperor then absolutely refused to allow them to go, and Marco Polo could find no means of eluding the surveillance of which he was the object, until circumstances arose which quite changed Kublaï-Khan's resolution.

A Mongol prince, named Arghun, whose dominions were in Persia, had sent an ambassador to the Emperor to ask one of the princesses of the blood royal, in marriage. Kublaï-Khan acceded to his request and sent off his daughter Cogatra to Prince Arghun, attended by a numerous suite; but the countries by which they endeavoured to travel were not safe; the caravan was soon stopped by disturbances and rebellions, and after some months was obliged to return to the Emperor's palace. The Persian ambassadors had heard Marco Polo spoken of as a clever navigator who had had some experience of the Indian Ocean, and they begged the Emperor to confide the Princess Cogatra to his care, that he might conduct her to her future husband, thinking that the voyage by sea would probably be attended by less danger than a land journey.

After some demur Kublaï-Khan acceded to their request, and equipped a fleet of forty four-masted vessels, provisioning them for two years. Some of these were very large, having a crew of 250 men, for this was an important expedition worthy of the opulent Emperor of China. Matteo, Nicolo, and Marco Polo set out with the Chinese princess and the Persian ambassadors, and it was during this voyage, which lasted eighteen months, that it seems most probable that Marco Polo visited the islands of Sunda and other islands in the Indian Ocean, as well as Ceylon and the towns on the coast of India. We will follow him in his voyage and give his description of the places that he visited in this hitherto little known portion of the globe.

Kublaï-Khan equips a fleet
Kublaï-Khan equips a fleet.

It must have been about 1291 or 1292 that the fleet left the port of Zaitem, under the command of Marco Polo. He steered first for Tchampa, a great country situated at the south of Cochin China, and which contains the present province of Saïgon, belonging to France. This was not a new country to Marco Polo, as he had visited it about 1280, when he was on a mission for the Emperor. At this time, Tchampa was under the dominion of the grand khan, and paid him an annual tribute in elephants; when Marco Polo visited this country before its conquest by Kublaï-Khan, he found the reigning king had no less than 326 children, of whom 150 were old enough to carry arms.