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.

Leaving the peninsula of Cambodia, the fleet went in the direction of Java, the rich island that Kublaï-Khan had never been able to subjugate, where abundance of pepper, cloves, nutmegs, &c., grew. After putting into port at Condor and Sandur, at the extremity of the peninsular of Cochin China, they reached the island of Pentam (Bintang), situated near the eastern entrance of the straits of Malacca, and the island of Sumatra, called Little Java. "This island is so much in the south," he says, "that they never see there the polar star," which is true as far as the inhabitants of the southern part are concerned. It is very fertile, aloes growing most luxuriantly; and here wild elephants and rhinoceroses (called by Marco Polo unicorns) are found, and apes, too, in large numbers. The fleet was detained five months on these shores by contrary winds, and the traveller made the most of his time in visiting the principal provinces of the island, such as Samara, Dagraian, and Labrin (which boasts a great number of men with tails—evidently apes), and the island of Fandur or Panchor, where the sago-tree grows, from which a kind of flour is obtained that makes very good bread.

At last the wind changed, and enabled the vessels to leave Little Java, and after touching at Necaran, which must be one of the Nicobar Islands, and at the Andaman group, whose inhabitants are still cannibals, as they were in the time of Marco Polo, the fleet took a south-westerly course and arrived on the coast of Ceylon. "This island," says the traveller in his narrative, "was once much larger, for according to the map of the world that the pilots of these seas carry, it was once 3600 miles in circumference but the north wind blows with such force in these parts that it caused a part of the island to be submerged." This tradition is still held by the inhabitants of Ceylon. Here are collected in abundance, rubies, sapphires, topaz, amethysts, and other precious stones, such as garnets, opals, agates, and sardonyx. The king of the country was the possessor at this time of a most splendid ruby as long as the palm of the hand, as thick as a man's arm, and red as fire, which excited the envy of the grand khan, who vainly tried to induce its possessor to part with it, offering a whole city in exchange, but that could not tempt the King to let him have the jewel.

Sixty miles west of Ceylon the travellers came to Maabar, a great province on the coast of India. This must not be mistaken for Malabar, which is situated on the west coast of the Indian peninsula. This Maabar forms the southern part of the Coromandel coast, and is celebrated for its pearl fisheries. Here the magicians are at work, and are said to render the monsters of the deep harmless to the fishermen; they are astrologers whose race is perpetuated even to modern times. Marco Polo gives some interesting details of the customs of the natives, one is that when a king dies, the nobles throw themselves into the fire in his honour; another strange custom is that of the religious purifications twice every day, and their blind faith in astrologers and diviners; he also speaks of the frequency of religious suicides, and the sacrifice of widows whom the funeral pile awaits on the death of their husbands. He also notices the skill in physiognomy evinced by the natives.

The next resting-place of the fleet was Muftili, of which the capital is now called Masulipatam, the chief city of the kingdom of Golconda. This country was well governed by a queen, a widow for forty years, who desired to remain faithful to the memory of her husband. The country contained many valuable diamond mines, but these were unfortunately among mountains where serpents abounded; the miners had recourse to a strange device when collecting the precious stones, to protect themselves from these reptiles, which we may believe or not as we choose. Marco Polo says: "They take several pieces of meat, and throw them among the pointed rocks, where no man can go, and the meat, falling upon the diamonds, they become attached to it. Now, among these mountains live a number of white eagles, who hunt the serpents, and when they see the meat at the foot of the precipices they swoop down and carry it away. At the moment the men who have been following the eagles' movements see them alight to eat the meat, they raise fearful cries, the meat is dropped and the eagles take to flight, and thus the men have no difficulty in taking the diamonds that are attached to the meat. Diamonds are often found on the mountains, mingled with the excrement of the eagles."

After visiting the small town of St. Thomas, situated some miles to the south of Madras, where St. Thomas the apostle is said to be buried, the travellers explored the kingdom of Maabar and especially the province of Lar, from whence spring all the "Abrahamites" of the world, probably the Brahmins. These men, he says, live to a great age, owing to their abstinence and sobriety; some have been known to attain 150 and even 200 years of age; their diet is principally rice and milk, and they drink a mixture of sulphur and quicksilver. These "Abrahamites" are clever merchants, superstitious, however, but remarkably sincere, and never guilty of theft of any kind; they never kill any living thing, and they worship the ox, which is a sacred animal among them.

The fleet now returned to Ceylon, where in 1284 Kublaï-Khan had sent an ambassador who had brought him back some pretended relics of Adam, and among other things two of his molar teeth; for, if we can believe the Saracen traditions, the tomb of our first father must have been on the summit of one of the precipitous mountains, which forms the highest ground in the island. After losing sight of Ceylon, Marco Polo went to Cail, a port that we do not find marked on any of the modern maps, but a place where all the vessels touched coming from Ormuz, Kiss, Aden, and the coasts of Arabia. Thence doubling Cape Comorin they came to Coilum, now Quilon, which was a very thriving city in the thirteenth century. It is there that a great quantity of sandal-wood and indigo is found, and merchants come in large numbers from the Levant and from the West to trade in both. The country of Malabar produces a great quantity of rice, and wild animals are found there, such as leopards, which Marco Polo calls "black lions," also peacocks of much greater beauty than those of Europe, as well as different kinds of parroquets.

The fleet, leaving Coilum, and advancing northwards along the Malabar coast, arrived at the shores of the kingdom of Maundallay, which derives its name from a mountain situated on the borders of Kanara and Malabar; here pepper, ginger, saffron, and other spices abound. To the north of this kingdom extended that country which the Venetian traveller calls Melibar, and which is situated to the north of Malabar proper. The vessels of the Mangalore merchants came here to trade with the natives of this part of India for cargoes of spices, a fine kind of cloth called buckram and other valuable wares; but their vessels were frequently attacked, and too often pillaged by the pirates who infested these seas, and who were justly regarded as formidable enemies. These pirates principally inhabit the peninsula of Gohourat, now called Gujerat, where the fleet was on its way after calling at Tana—a country where is collected the frankincense—and Canboat, now Kambay, a town where there is a great trade in leather. Visiting Sumenath, a city of the peninsula, whose inhabitants are cruel, ferocious, and idolaters, and Kesmacoran, the modern city of Kedje, the capital of Makran, situated on the Indus near the sea, and the last town in India on the northwest, Marco Polo went westward across the sea of Oman, instead of going to Persia, which was the destination of the princess.

His insatiable love of exploration led him 500 miles away to the shores of Arabia, where he stopped at the Male and Female Islands, so called from the men usually living on one island, and their wives on the other. Thence they sailed to the south towards the island of Socotra, at the entrance of the Gulf of Aden, which, Marco Polo partially explored. He speaks of the inhabitants of Socotra as clever magicians, who, by their enchantments, obtain the fulfilment of all their wishes as well as the power of stilling storms and tempests. Then, taking a southerly course of 1000 miles, he arrived at the shores of Madagascar. This island appeared to him to be one of the grandest in the world. Its inhabitants are very much occupied with commerce, especially in elephants' tusks. They live principally upon camels' flesh, which is better and more wholesome food than any other. The merchants on their way from the coast of India are usually only twenty days crossing the Sea of Oman; but when they return they are often three months on the voyage on account of the opposing currents which take them always southwards. Nevertheless, they visit Madagascar very constantly, for there are whole forests of sandal-wood, and amber is also found there, from which they can obtain great profit by bartering it for gold and silk stuffs. Wild animals and game are plentiful; according to Marco Polo, leopards, bears, lions, wild boars, giraffes, wild asses, roebucks, deer, stags, and cattle were to be found in great numbers; but what seemed most marvellous of all to him was the fabulous griffin, the roc, of which we hear so much in the "Thousand and one Nights," which is not, he says, "an animal, half-lion and half-bird, able to raise and carry away an elephant in its claws." It was probably the "epyornis maximus," for some eggs of this bird are still to be found in Madagascar.

This wonderful bird was probably the epyornis maximus
This wonderful bird was probably the epyornis maximus.

From this island Marco Polo went in a north-westerly direction to Zanzibar and the coast of Africa. The inhabitants seemed to him remarkably stout, but strong and able to carry the burdens of four ordinary men, "which is not strange," he says, "for they each eat as much as five other men;" these natives were black and wore no clothing, they had large mouths and turned-up noses, thick lips, and large eyes, a description that agrees exactly with that of the natives of that part of Africa now. They live upon rice, meat, milk, and dates, and make a kind of wine of rice, sugar, and spices. They are brave warriors and fearless of death; they are usually in war mounted on camels and elephants, and armed with a leathern shield, a sword, and a lance; they give their animals an intoxicating drink to excite them on going into action.

In Marco Polo's time, says M. Charton, the countries comprised under the title of India were divided into three parts; Greater India or Hindostan, that is, the country lying between the Indus and the Ganges; Lesser India, that is, all the country lying beyond the Ganges, between the western coast of the peninsula and the coast of Cochin China; lastly, Middle India, that is, Abyssinia and the Arabian coast to the Persian Gulf. After leaving Zanzibar it was Middle India whose coast Marco Polo explored, sailing towards the north, and first Abassy or Abyssinia, a fertile country where the manufacture of fine cotton cloths and buckram is largely carried on. Then the fleet went to Zaila, almost at the entrance of the straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, and at last by the coast of Yemen and Hadramaut they came to Aden, the port frequented by all the ships trading with India and China; then to Escier, whence a great quantity of fine horses are exported; Dafar, which produces incense of the finest quality, and Galatu, now Kalajate, on the coast of Oman; then to Ormuz, that Marco Polo had visited once before when he was on his way from Venice to the court of Kublaï-Khan. This was the furthest point that the fleet had to reach, as the princess was now on the borders of Persia, after a voyage of eighteen months. But on their arrival they were met by the sad news of the death of Prince Arghun, the fiancé of the princess, and they found the country involved in civil war. The poor princess was put under the care of Prince Ghazan, the son of Prince Arghun, who did not ascend the throne until 1295, when his uncle, the usurper, was strangled. What became of the princess we do not hear, but on parting with Nicolo, Matteo, and Marco Polo, she bestowed on them great marks of favour. It was probably during Marco Polo's residence in Persia that he collected some curious documents upon Turkey in Asia; they are disconnected pieces, which he gives at the close of his narrative, and they form a genuine history of the Mongol Khans of Persia. His travels for exploration were at an end, and after taking leave of the Tartar princess, the three Venetians well escorted, and with all expenses paid, set out on their way home. They went to Trebizond, then to Constantinople, and thence to Negropont, where they embarked for Venice.

It was in the year 1295, twenty-four years after leaving it, that Marco Polo and his companions returned to their native town. They were bronzed by exposure to the air and sun, coarsely clad in Tartar costume, and both in manners and language were so much more Mongolian than Venetian, that even their nearest relatives failed to recognize them. Beyond this, a report had been widely spread that they were dead, and it had gained so much credence that their friends never expected to see them again. They went to their own house in the part of Venice called St. John Chrysostom, and found it occupied by different members of the Polo family, who received the travellers with every mark of distrust, which their pitiable appearance did not tend to lessen, and placed no faith in the somewhat marvellous stories related to them by Marco Polo. After some persuasion, however, they gained admittance into their own house. When they had been a few days in Venice, the three travellers gave a magnificent banquet, followed by a splendid fête, to do away with any remaining doubts as to their identity. They invited the nobility of Venice and all the members of their own family, and when all the guests were assembled the three hosts appeared dressed in crimson satin robes; the guests then entered the dining-room, and the feast began. After the first course was over the three travellers retired for a few moments and then reappeared, clad in robes of splendid silk damask, which they proceeded to tear, and to present each of their guests with a piece. After the second course they dressed themselves in even more splendid robes of crimson velvet, which they wore until the feast was over, when they appeared in simple Venetian costume. The astonished guests marvelled at the magnificence of these garments, and wondered what their hosts would next show them; then the coarse rough clothes that they had worn on the voyage were brought in, and when the linings and seams were undone, rubies, sapphires, emeralds, diamonds, and carbuncles of great value were poured forth from them; great riches had been hidden in these rags. This unexpected sight cleared away all doubt; the three travellers were recognized at once as Marco, Nicolo, and Matteo Polo, and congratulations upon their return were showered upon them.

So celebrated a man as Marco Polo could not escape civic honours. He was made first magistrate in Venice, and as he was continually speaking of the "millions" of the Grand Khan, who commanded "millions" of subjects, he gained the soubriquet of Signor Million.

It was about 1296 that a war broke out between Venice and Genoa. A Genoese fleet under the command of Lamba Doria crossed the Adriatic, and threatened the sea coast. The Venetian Admiral Andrea Dandolo immediately manned a larger fleet and entrusted the command of a galley to Marco Polo who was justly considered an able commander. The Venetians were beaten in a naval battle on the 8th of September, 1296, and Marco Polo, badly wounded, fell into the hands of the Genoese, who, knowing and appreciating the value of their prisoner, treated him with great kindness. He was taken to Genoa, and there met with a hearty welcome from the most distinguished people, who were anxious to hear the account of his travels. It was during his captivity, in 1298, that he made acquaintance with Pisano Rusticien, and, tired of repeating his story again and again, dictated his narrative to him.

About 1299 Marco Polo was set at liberty; he returned to Venice, and there married. From this time we hear no more of the incidents of his life, and only know from his will that he left three daughters; he is thought to have died about the 9th of January, 1323, at the age of seventy.

Such is the life of this celebrated traveller, whose narrative had a marked influence on the progress of geographical science. He was gifted with great power of observation, and could see and describe equally well; and all later explorers have confirmed the truth of his statements. Until the middle of the eighteenth century, the documents founded on this narrative formed the basis of geographical books, and were used as a guide in commercial expeditions to China, India, and Central Asia. Posterity will concur in the suitability of the title that the first copyists gave to Marco Polo's work, that of "The Book of the Wonders of the World."