MARCO POLO, 1253-1324.
III.Tso-cheu—Tai-yen-fou—Pin-yang-fou—The Yellow River—Signan-fou—Szu-tchouan—Ching-tu-fou—Thibet—Li-kiang-fou—Carajan—Yung-tchang—Mien—Bengal—Annam—Tai-ping—Cintingui—Sindifoo—Té-cheu—Tsi-nan-fou—Lin-tsin-choo—Lin-sing—Mangi—Yang-tcheu-fou—Towns on the coast—Quin-say or Hang-tcheou-foo—Fo-kien.
When Marco Polo had been at Cambaluc some time, he was sent on a mission that kept him absent from the capital for four months. Ten miles southwards from Cambaluc, he crossed the fine river Pe-ho-nor (which he calls the Pulisanghi), by a stone bridge of twenty-four arches, and 300 feet in length, which was then without parallel in the world. Thirty miles further on he came to the town of Tso-cheu, where a large trade in sandal-wood is carried on; at ten days' journey from hence he came to the modern town of Tai-yen-fou, which was once the seat of an independent government. All the province of Shan-si seemed rich in vines and mulberry-trees; the principal industry in the towns was the making of armour for the emperor's use.
A fine bridge of stone built on twenty-four arches.
Seven days' journey further on they came to the beautiful commercial city of Pianfou, now called Pin-yang-foo, where the manufacture of silk was carried on. He soon afterwards came to the banks of the Yellow River, which he calls Caramoran or Black River, probably on account of its waters being darkened by the aquatic plants growing in them; at two days' journey from hence he came to the town of Cacianfu, whose position is not now clearly defined. He found nothing remarkable in this town, and leaving it he rode across a beautiful country, covered with towns, country-houses, and gardens, and abounding in game.
In eight days he reached the fine city of Quangianfoo, the ancient capital of the Tâng dynasty, now called Signanfoo, and the capital of Shensi; here reigned Prince Mangalai, the emperor's son, an upright and amiable prince, much loved by his people. He lived in a magnificent palace outside the town, built in the midst of a park, of which the battlemented wall cannot have been less than five miles in circumference.
From Signanfoo, the traveller went towards Thibet, across the modern province of Szu-tchouan, a mountainous country intersected by deep valleys, where lions, bears, lynxes, &c., abounded, and after twenty-eight days' march he found himself on the borders of the great plain of Acmelic-mangi. This is a fertile country and produces all kinds of vegetation; ginger is especially cultivated; there is sufficient to supply all the province of Cathay, and so fertile is the soil that according to a French traveller, M. E. Simon, an acre is now worth 15,000 francs, or three francs the metre. In the thirteenth century this plain was covered with towns and country-houses, and the inhabitants lived upon the fruits of the ground, and the produce of their flocks and herds, while the large quantity of game furnished hunters with abundant occupation.
Marco Polo next visited the town of Sindafou (now Tching-too-foo), the capital of the province of Se-tchu-an, whose population at the present day exceeds 1,500,000 souls. Sindafu, measuring at that time twenty miles round, was divided into three parts, each surrounded with its own wall, and each part had a king of its own before Kublaï-Khan took possession of the town. The great river Kiang ran through the town: it contained large quantities of fish, and from its size resembled a sea more than a river; its waters were covered by a vast number of vessels. Five days after leaving this busy, thriving town Marco Polo reached the province of Thibet, which he says "is very desolate, for it has been destroyed by the war."
Thibet abounds in lions, bears, and other savage animals, from which the travellers would have much difficulty in defending themselves had it not been for the quantity of large thick canes that grow there, which are probably bamboos: he says, "the merchants and travellers passing through these countries at night collect a quantity of these canes and make a large fire of them, for when they are burning they make such a noise and crackle so much, that the lions, bears, and other wild beasts take flight to a distance, and would not approach these fires on any account; thus both men, horses, and camels are safe. In another way, too, protection is afforded by throwing a number of these canes on a wood fire, and when they become heated and split, and the sap hisses, the sound is heard at least ten miles off. When any one is not accustomed to this noise, it is so terrifying that even the horses will break away from their cords and tethers; so their owners often bandage their eyes and tie their feet together to prevent their running away." This method of burning canes is still used in countries where the bamboo grows, and indeed the noise may be compared to the loudest explosion of fire-works.
According to Marco Polo, Thibet is a very large province, having its own language; and its inhabitants, who are idolaters, are a race of bold thieves. A large river, the Khin-cha-kiang, flows over auriferous sands through the province; a quantity of coral is found in it which is much used for idols, and for the adornment of the women. Thibet was at this time under the dominion of the great khan.
The traveller took a westerly direction when he left Sindafou, and crossing the kingdom of Gaindu he must have come to Li-kiang-foo, the capital of the country that is now called Tsi-mong. In this province he visited a beautiful lake which produces pearl-oysters; the fishing is the emperor's property; he also found great quantities of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and other spices under cultivation.
After leaving the province of Gaindu, and crossing a large river, probably the Irrawaddy, Marco Polo took a south-easterly course to the province of Carajan, which probably forms the north-western part of Yunnan. According to his account all the inhabitants of this province, who are mostly great riders, live on the raw flesh of fowls, sheep, buffaloes, and oxen; the rich seasoning their raw meat with garlic sauce and good spices. This country is infested with great adders, and serpents, "hideous to look upon." These reptiles, probably alligators, were ten feet long, had two legs armed with claws, and with their large heads and great jaws could at one gulp swallow a man.
Five days' journey west of Carajan, Marco Polo took a new route to the south, and entered the province of Zardandan, whose capital Nocian, is the modern town of Yung-chang. All the inhabitants of the city had teeth of gold; that is to say, they covered their teeth with little plates of gold which they removed before eating. The men of this province employed themselves only in hunting, catching birds, and making war, the hard work all devolving upon the women and slaves. These Zardanians have neither idols nor churches, but they each worship their ancestor, the patriarch of the family. Their tradesmen carry their goods about on barrows like the bakers in France. They have no doctors, but only enchanters, who jump, dance, and play musical instruments around the invalid's bed till he either dies or recovers.
Marco Polo in the midst of the forests.
Leaving these people with gilded teeth, Marco Polo took the great road which conveys all the traffic between India and Indo-China, and passed by Bhamo, where a market is held three times a week, which attracts merchants from the most distant countries. After riding for fifteen days through forests filled with elephants, unicorns, and other wild animals, he came to the great city of Mien; that is to say, to that part of Upper Burmah, of which the present capital, of recent erection, is called Amarapura. This city of Mien, which may be, perhaps, the old town of Ava now in ruins, or the old town of Paghan situated on the Irrawaddy, possessed a veritable architectural marvel, in two towers, one built of fine stone, and entirely covered with a coating of gold about an inch in thickness, and the other, also of stone, coated with silver, both intended to serve as a tomb for the king of Mien, before his kingdom fell under the dominion of the khan. After visiting this province, the traveller went to Bangala, the Bengal of the present day, which at this time, 1290, did not belong to Kublaï-Khan. The emperor's forces were then engaged in trying to conquer this fertile country, rich in cotton plants, in sugar-canes, &c., and whose magnificent oxen were like elephants in height. From thence, the traveller ventured as far as the city of Cancigu, in the province of the same name, probably the modern town of Kassaye. The natives here tattooed their bodies, and with needles drew pictures of lions, dragons, and birds on their faces, necks, bellies, hands, legs, and bodies, and he who had the greatest number of these pictures they considered the most beautiful of human beings.
Cancigu was the most southerly point visited by Marco Polo, during this journey. Leaving this city, he went towards the north-east, and by the country of Amu, Anam, and Tonkin, he reached Toloman, now called Tai-ping, after fifteen days' march. There he found that fine race of men, of dark colour, who have crowned their mountains with strong castles, and whose ordinary food is the flesh of animals, milk, rice, and spices.
On leaving Toloman, he followed the course of a river for twelve days, and found numerous towns on its banks. Here, as M. Charton truly observes, the traveller is leaving the country known as India beyond the Ganges, and returning towards China. In fact, Marco Polo after leaving Toloman visited the province of Guigui with its capital of the same name, and what struck him most in this country, (and we cannot but think that the bold explorer was also a keen hunter) was the great number of lions that were to be seen about its mountains and plains. Only, commentators are of opinion that the lions he speaks of must have been tigers, for no lions are found in China, but we will give his own words: he says, "There are so many lions in this country, that it is not safe to sleep out of doors for fear of being devoured. And when you are on the river and stop for the night, you must be careful to anchor far from land, for otherwise the lions come to the vessel, seize upon a man, and devour him. The inhabitants of this part of the country are well aware of this, and so take measures to guard against it. These lions are very large and very dangerous, but there are dogs in this country brave enough to attack these lions; it requires two dogs and a man to overcome each lion."
From this province Marco Polo returned to Sindifu, the capital of the province of Se-chuen, whence he had started on his excursion into Thibet; and retracing the route by which he had set out, he returned to Kublaï-Khan, after having brought his mission to Indo-China to a satisfactory termination. It was probably at this time that the traveller was first entrusted by the emperor with another mission to the south-east of China. M. Pauthier, in his fine work upon the Venetian traveller, speaks of this south-easterly part of China as "the richest and most flourishing quarter of this vast empire and that also about which, since the 16th century, Europeans have had the most information."
As we return to the route that M. Pauthier has traced on his map, we find that Marco Polo went southwards to Ciangli, probably the town of Ti-choo, and at six days' journey from thence he came to Condinfoo, the present city of Tsi-nan, the capital of the province of Shan-tung, the birthplace of Confucius. It was at that time a fine town and much frequented by silk-merchants, and its beautiful gardens produced abundance of excellent fruit. Three days' march from hence, the traveller came to the town of Lin-tsing, standing at the mouth of the Yu-ho canal, the principal rendezvous for the innumerable boats that carry so much merchandise to the provinces of Mangi and Cathay. Eight days afterwards he passed by Ligui, which seems to correspond to the modern town of Lin-tsin, and the town of Piceu, the first city in the province of Tchang-su; then by the town of Cingui, he arrived at Caramoran, the Yellow River, which he had crossed higher up when he was on his way to Indo-China; here Marco Polo was not more than a league from the mouth of this great river. After crossing it he was in the province of Mangi, a territory included in the Empire of the Soongs.
Before this province of Mangi belonged to Kublaï-Khan it was governed by a very pacific king, who shunned war, and was very merciful to all his subjects. Marco Polo describes him so well that we will quote his own words. "This last emperor of the Soong dynasty was most generous, and I will cite but two noble traits to show this; every year he had nearly 20,000 infants brought up at the royal charge, for it was the custom in these provinces, when a poor woman could not bring up a child herself, to cast it away as soon as it was born, to die. The king had all these children taken care of, and a record kept of the sign and the planet under which each was born, and then they were sent to different places to be brought up, for there are a quantity of nurses. When a rich man had no sons, he came to the king and asked of him some of his wards, who were immediately given to him. As the children grew up they intermarried, and the king gave them sufficient incomes to live upon. When he went through his dominions and saw a small house among several much larger ones, he inquired why this house was smaller than those near it, and if he found it was on account of the poverty of the owner, he immediately had it made as large as the others at his own expense. He was always waited upon by a thousand pages and a thousand girls. He kept up such rigorous discipline throughout his kingdom that there was never any crime; at night, houses and shops remained open, and nothing was taken from them, and travelling was as safe by night as by day."
Marco Polo came first to the town of Coigangui, now called Hoang-fou, on the banks of the Yellow River, where the principal industry is the preparation of the salt found in the salt marshes. One day's journey from this town he came to Pau-in-chen, famous for its cloth of gold, and the town of Caiu, now Kao-yu, whose inhabitants are clever fishermen and hunters, then to the city of Tai-cheu, where numerous vessels are generally to be found, and at last to the city of Yangui.
This town of Yangui, of which Marco Polo was the governor for three years, is the modern Yang-tchou; it is a very populous and busy town, and cannot be less than two leagues in circumference. It was from Yangui that the traveller set out on the various expeditions which enabled him to see so much of the inland and sea-coast towns.
First, the traveller went westward to Nan-ghin, which must not be confounded with Nan-kin of the present day. Its modern name is Ngan-khing, and it stands in the midst of a remarkably fertile province. Further on in the same direction he came to Saianfu, which is now called Siang-yang, and is built in the northern part of the province of Hou-pe. This was the last town in the province of Mangi that resisted the dominion of Kublaï-Khan; he besieged it for three years, and he owed his taking it at last to the help of the three Polos, who constructed some powerful balistas and crushed the besieged under a perfect hail-storm of stones, some of which weighed as much as three hundred pounds. From Saianfu Marco Polo retraced his steps that he might visit some of the towns on the sea-coast. He visited Kui-kiang on the river Kiang, which is very broad here, and upon which 5000 ships can sail at the same moment; Kain-gui, which supplies the Emperor's palace with corn; Ching-kiang where are two Nestorian Christian churches; Ginguigui, now Tchang-tcheou, a busy thriving city; and Singui, now called Soo-choo, a large town, which, according to the very exaggerated account of the Venetian traveller, has no less than 6000 bridges.
After spending some time at Vugui, probably Hou-tcheou, and at Ciangan, now Kia-hing, Marco Polo reached the fine city of Quinsay, after three days' march. This name means the "City of Heaven," but it is now called Hang-chow-foo. It is six leagues round; the river Tsien-tang-kiang flows through it, and by its constant windings, makes Quinsay almost a second Venice. This ancient capital of the Soongs is almost as populous as Pekin; its streets are paved with stones and bricks, and if we may credit Marco Polo's statement, it contained "600,000 houses, 4000 bathing establishments, and 12,000 stone bridges." In this city dwell the richest merchants in the world with their wives, who are "beautiful and angelic creatures." It is the residence of a viceroy, who has besides, 140 other cities under his dominion. Here was to be seen also the palace of the Mangi sovereigns surrounded by beautiful gardens, lakes, and fountains, the palace itself containing more than a thousand rooms. Kublaï-Khan draws immense revenues from this town and province, and it is by tens of thousands of pounds we must reckon the income derived from the sugar, salt, spices, and silk, which form the principal productions of this country. At one day's journey south from Quinsay, Marco Polo visited Chao-hing, Vugui, or Hou-tcheou, Ghengui or Kui-tcheou, Cianscian or Yo-tcheou-fou (according to M. Charton), and Sonï-tchang-fou (according to M. Pauthier), and Cugui or Kiou-tcheou, the last town in the kingdom of Quinsay; thence he entered the kingdom of Fugui, whose chief town of the same name is now called Fou-tcheou-foo, the capital of the province of Fo-kien. According to Marco Polo, the inhabitants of this province are a cruel warlike race, never sparing their enemies, of whom, after they have killed them, they drink the blood and eat the flesh. After passing by Quenlifu, now Kien-ning-foo, and Unguen, the traveller entered Fugui, probably the modern town of Kuant-tcheou (called Canton amongst us), and the chief town of the province, where a large trade in pearls and precious stones was carried on, and in five days he reached the port of Zaitem, probably the Chinese town of Tsiuen-tcheou, which was the extreme point reached by him in this exploration of south-eastern China.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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