Marco Polo (c. 1254-1324), the Venetian, was greatest of medieval travellers. The exact chronology of his life a times is somewhat obscure, but the main points are quite clear. Marco Polo was a native of Venice, who, in the thirteenth century, made a journey into the remote, and, at that time, largely obscure regions of tne East, and filled Christendom with curiosity by his account of the countries he had visited. In the 14th century not only were missions of the Roman Church established in some of the chief cities of eastern China, but a regular overland trade was carried on between Italy and China, by way of Tana (Azov), Astrakhan, Otrar, Kamul (Hami) and Kanchow.
The story of Marco Polo is important for several reasons. He did not pioneer a new path to the East but rather took the well established Silk Road to China. One remarkable element of this journey is that he journied all the way to China, whereas the normal practice of merchants was to journey some distance, then sell their merchandise to other merchants who would carry it further towards its ultimate destimation. How many Europeans made the full journey is not known, but the number was small. His story is also remarkable because his return journey followed the Silk Route, the southern sea route that followed coastwise along the south of Asia back to landfall at Hormuz in Persia. Possibly he was not the first to make such a circumnavigation, but it was surely exceptional. The third remarkable element of his trip was that his story was written down. The narratives not only of Marco Polo but of several other famous medieval travellers (e.g. Ibn Batuta, Friar Odoric, Nicolo Conti) seem to have been extorted from them by a kind of pressure, and committed to paper by other hands.
Marco Polo was preceded in his travels by his father Nicholas and his uncle Maffeo Polo. These two brothers were of an illustrious family in Venice. About 1260, and even perhaps as early as 1250, Nicolo and Maffeo were at Constantinople. Here they disposed of their Italian merchandise, and, having purchased a stock of jewellery, departed on an adventurous expedition to trade with the western Tartars. Embarking on a commercial voyage to the East, a succession of chances and openings carried them to the court of Barka Khan at Sarai, further north up to Bolghar (Kazan), and eventually across the steppes to Bokhara. Here they fell in with certain envoys who had been on a mission from the great Khan Kublai to his brother Hulagu in Persia, and by them were persuaded to make the journey to Cathay in their company.
After a march of several months, being delayed by snow-storms and inundations, they arrived at the court of Cublai, otherwise called the Great Khan, which signifies King of Kings, being the sovereign potentate of the Tartars. This magnificent prince received them with great distinction ; he made inquiries about the countries and princes of the West.
He entreated the two brothers to go on his part as ambassadors to the pope, to entreat him to send a hundred learned men well instructed in the Christian faith, to impart a knowledge of it to the sages of his empire. On their taking leave he furnished them with a tablet of gold on which was engraved the royal arms; this was to serve as a passport, at sight of which the governors of the various provinces were to entertain them, to furnish them with escorts through dangerous places, and render them all other necessary services at the expense of the Great Khan. Their golden passport procured them every attention and facility throughout the dominions of the Great Khan. They arrived safely at Acre, in April, 1269.
Marco Polo's father took him along on another voyage, which must have started about November 1271, when he was but 17 years old. At first they went down to Hormuz (Hurmuz) at the mouth of the Persian Gulf, with the purpose of going on to China by sea; but that, abandoning their naval plans (perhaps from fear of the flimsy vessels employed on this navigation from the Gulf eastwards), they returned northward through Persia.
The Venetian travelers then passed through Persia, Armenia, Turkestan, Cashmere, the Pamir or "Roof of the World," and Kashgar. They afterward crossed the desert of Shomo, or Gobi, to Karakorum. Marco Polo describes this celebrated capital of Tartary as three miles in circumference and fortified with earthen ramparts. After a journey of three years they arrived, in 1275, at the court of Kublai, in Cambaluc (Peking), and were graciously received.
For seventeen years Marco Polo remained with his father and uncle at the court of Kublai Khan. He adopted the Chinese dress and manners and learned to speak the four languages used in the Khan's empire. He became so great a favorite and proved himself so capable that he was made governor of a large Chinese city, and a number of times he went to countries far and near, on business of the Khan, visiting regions utterly unknown to Europeans. Wherever he went he took note of the appearance of the people and of their manners and ways of living, and upon his return related it all to the great Khan, who particularly delighted in hearing things of that sort.
Marco Polo returned from a voyage to certain of the Indian islands. His representations of the safety of a voyage in those seas, and his private instigations, induced the ambassadors to urge the Grand Khan for permission to convey the princess by sea to the gulf of Persia, and that the Christians might accompany them, as being best experienced in maritime affairs. Cublai Khan consented with great reluctance, and a splendid fleet was fitted out and victualled for two years, consisting of fourteen ships of four masts, some of which had crews of two hundred and fifty men.
On parting with the Venetians the munificent Khan gave them rich presents of jewels, and made them promise to return to him after they had visited their families. He authorized them to act as his ambassadors to the principal courts of Europe, and, as on a former occasion, furnished them with tablets of gold, to serve, not merely as passports, but as orders upon all commanders in his territories for accommodations and supplies.
They set sail therefore in the fleet with the oriental princess and her attendants, and the Persian ambassadors. The ships swept along the coast of Cochin China, stopped for three months at a port of the island of Sumatra near the western entrance of the straits of Malacca, waiting lor the change of the monsoon to pass the Bay of Bengal. Traversing this vast expanse, they touched at the* island of Ceylon, and then crossed the strait to the southern part of the great peninsula of India. Thence sailing up the Pirate coast, as it was called, the fleet entered the Persian gulf and arrived at the famous port of Ormuz, where it is presumed the voyage terminated, after eighteen months spent in traversing the Indian seas. a vast proportion of their suite perished by the way; but the three Venetians survived all perils.
At last, with his father and uncle, Marco Polo returned in the year 1295, safe to Venice. Here, on account of their long absence, their curiously fashioned garments, and their sunburned, weather-beaten faces, they had much difficulty in making themselves known to their friends, who could not believe that these strange-looking persons were the long-absent Polos. It was only after showing the heaps of rubies, sapphires, emeralds, and diamonds which they had brought from Cathay, sewed up for safety in the seams of their clothes, that the Venetians would believe the marvelous stories they told, and receive them with the honors due the Polo family.
In September, 1298, Marco, while commanding a galley, was captured by the Genoese in a naval battle and shut up in prison. During this seclusion from active life he dictated to a fellow-captive the narrative of his adventures and discoveries in the remote East and far Cathay. He was probably liberated when peace was made in July 1299, but some say he was confined four years. In the prison of Genoa Marco Polo fell in with a certain person of writing propensities, Rusticiano or Rustichello of Pisa, also a captive of the Genoese. His name is otherwise known as that of a respectable literary hack, who abridged and recast several of the French romances of the Arthurian cycle, then in fashion. He wrote down Marco's experiences at his dictation.
His book was received as a mere romance, and from the large numbers occurring in it he was nick-named Marco Millioni [of the million lies]. Marco Polo died in 1324. No genuine portrait of Marco Polo exists.
There is now no doubt that the original was French. The use of French was not a circumstance of surprising or unusual nature; for the language had at that time, in some points of view, even a wider diffusion than at present, and examples of its literary employment by writers who were not Frenchmen (like Rusticiano himself, a compiler of French romances) are very numerous. Eighty-five MSS of the book are known, and their texts exhibit considerable differences.
Polo was the first traveller to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia, naming and describing kingdom after kingdom which he had seen; the first to speak of the new and brilliant court which had been established at Peking; the first to reveal China in all its wealth and vastness, and to tell of the nations on its borders; the first to tell more of Tibet than its name, to speak of Burma, of Laos, of Siam, of Cochin-China, of Japan, of Java, of Sumatra and of other islands of the archipelago, of the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, of Ceylon and its sacred peak, of India but as a country seen and partially explored; the first in medieval times to give any distinct account of the secluded Christian Empire of Abyssinia, and of the semi-Christian island of Sokotra, and to speak, however dimly, of Zanzibar, and of the vast and distant Madagascar; whilst he carries us also to the remotely opposite region of Siberia and the Arctic shores, to speak of dog-sledges, white bears and reindeerriding Tunguses.
Columbus possessed a printed copy of the Latin version of Polo's book made by Pipino, and on more than seventy pages of this there are manuscript notes in the admiral's handwriting, testifying, what is sufficiently evident from the whole history of the Columbian voyages, to the immense influence of the work of the Venetian merchant upon the discoverer of the new world.
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