You must know that on leaving the port of [Quanzhou] you sail west-south-west for 1500 miles, and then you come to a country called Champa, a very rich region, having a king of its own. The people are Idolaters and pay a yearly tribute to the Great Kaan, which consists of elephants and nothing but elephants.
You have heard that the king of this land was old and had no stomach for the fight which Kublai Khan’s commanders brought into his lands, and that he lacked the forces to oppose them. Or perhaps, you think, he instead had wisdom to see that peace could be more cheaply bought in elephants than in blood.
The king, in fear or in wisdom, sent his messengers to the khan, offering to submit to his rule, and asking him to call upon his general to withdraw and leave in peace the realms that the king had long ruled in peace. Moved by pity, or perhaps relief at the ease with which his cause was won, Kublai Khan accepted this proposal, and from then on received “every year a tribute of 20 of the greatest and finest elephants that were to be found in the country.”
There are very great numbers of elephants in this kingdom, and they have [eagle-wood] in great abundance. They have also extensive forests of the wood called [ebony], which is jet-black, and of which chessmen and pen-cases are made. But there is nought more to tell, so let us proceed.
Hello, and welcome back. I’m Devon, and this is Human Circus: Journeys in the Medieval World. A quick reminder before we get going that that you can find me online at humancircuspodcast.com and on twitter at circus_human, and that rating, review, subscribing, and signing up for the podcast Patreon is how we keep our astonishingly large fleet afloat in terrible weather. And on that note, a huge thank you to Alan T and Juan Alvarez, my newest patrons. Thank you both very much.
My initial plan for this episode had been the theme of Yuan failure in Southeast Asia and Kublai’s ongoing inability to effectively extend his power into its jungles and heat, and in the face of persistent and occasionally brilliant resistance. I felt like doing something different though, having just talked about Kublai’s problems with imperial overreach during the last episode, so I’m putting that aside.
One of the areas of the Marco Polo text I really haven’t done justice to yet is his description of the world outside of China, so that’s what I’m doing today: talking about the images he brought back to Venice and Europe. It’s Marco the travel guide; it’s one late 13th-century understanding of the world, or at least that part of it between Southeast Asia and the African coast.
I’m doing something slightly different today. It’s not the usual format. It’s you as Marco, so when I say, for example, that you think of a people as beasts, I am neither saying that I think they are beasts nor saying that I think you think they are beasts. It’s only that Marco thought so, or at least the text said so, which is maybe not the same thing. Anyways, what I’m trying to do here is present a picture of the world as he reported it, the things he found interesting to relate to his European audience. So that’s why you’re going where he went. Some of today’s destinations he visited himself, others most definitely not.
Your journey starts as you sail from Champa and arrive at the island of Java. It is vast, held by the most knowledgeable navigators you’ve met to be maybe the largest island in the world, and it is ruled by one king who is beholden to no other power, not even to the great khan himself. You do notice that the people here worship idols, but your attention is drawn quickly to the abundance of pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubebs, cloves, and all manner of other drugs and spices which are to make their way around the world from this place. Ships come laden with other goods to trade for those spices and make their owners a rich profit, or to collect the gold which is produced here (a likely confusion with Borneo) and take it back to China. You yourself find a way aboard one of these ships, but you are not bound for China.
Your destination is much closer at hand. Java the Lesser, which some know as Sumatra, sits just to the northwest, and its name belies its great size. Like the one you have just left, this island produces spices, some of which are not to be found anywhere else in the world, and the perfumed eagle-wood too. Unlike Java, it is not united. You find fractured kingdoms and peoples, some friendly to you, but others less so. In one area of coastal towns you find mostly those converted by the frequent visits of Muslim merchants, living according to the laws of Muhammed, while up the in the hills and away from the water, the people live like beasts. You find that they worship for a day the very first thing they had set their eyes on that morning, and, significantly more worrisome, they eat human flesh. You don’t linger long, but then the neighbouring kingdom is little more to your taste.
Here too, you find beasts, this time lacking either law or religion. They call themselves the khan’s subjects, yet they pay no tribute nor receive any emissaries. However, the area does not lack for wildlife. There are wild elephants in great numbers, and you see unicorns too. You find they are nearly as large as elephants and hairy as buffaloes, with heads like wild boars, and equipped in the middle of their foreheads with a thick black horn. They are altogether uglier than you’d imagined, and not at all like in the stories, generally mired in mud when you see them, not in maidens’ laps. There are also monkeys in the area, and the thought occurs to you that these are probably the pygmies that people bring home and claim are brought from India; really there is no such thing, just Sumatran monkeys, hair plucked but for the beard, and skin dried and then treated with saffron and other substances. Satisfied at least to have solved this mystery, you move along.
In the next kingdom, contrary winds detain you for five months, but fortunately you are not alone for you fall in with a company of 2,000 men. You’re able to dig in deep ditches and fell trees for walls, and good thing too, for some the people are fearsome and wild, and well known to be eaters of men. Others are less unfriendly and keep you well supplied. They have the best fish in the world here. They have coconuts. They have bread made of flour that is found under the bark of a tree. They have an excellent wine derived from trees which remind you of date palms, and in a pleasant haze, the months pass quickly enough.
However, you meet savage men in the hills with tails the thickness of dogs, and you meet others whose practices disturb you more than that. When one of them is sick, they call on a sorcerer to determine if the patient is to live or die. If the sorcerer foretells that they won’t recover, then they the matter is not left to play out as it will. They are promptly suffocated with cloth, cooked, and consumed by all their kin, down to the last of the marrow, and the remains of their bones are carried off in a chest. Captured enemies who cannot afford the ransom receive similar treatment. This, of Sumatra, you won’t be missing.
To the north, you encounter small islands. At one, the people go entirely naked in stark contrast to the high prices which the spices and wood will fetch. At another, the people’s faces put you in mind of large dogs, as does their cruelty. You do not stay long.
From these islands, you sail south by southwest for a time, covering nearly a thousand miles of water and crossing the Bay of Bengal until at last, you come to Ceylon (Sri Lanka). It is a large island, but you’ve heard it was once even larger, and that the strong north wind and the low and flat nature of the island at that end have conspired to submerge much of it.
The people are idolaters and scarcely clothed. They live on rice, meat, and milk, and drink tree-wine much like that you’ve had before. But none of that is what interests you most, for you know what interests Kublai Khan. He has sent embassies on multiple occasions asking after a great ruby. No other country in the world produces rubies, but this one does, and sapphire, and topaz, and amethyst besides, and the island’s king has a ruby unlike any other. It is thick as a man’s arm and without flaw, and it seems, in the light, to be a piece of flame. Many times, Kublai has asked what price he might pay to possess it, and many times, the king has said it is not to be had for any price. Still, it seems there may be an even greater treasure on the island, and this one Kublai has sought more successfully.
There is a large mountain at the island’s centre, difficult enough to approach that massive iron chains are fixed to its sides to make it at all possible; however, many do make the climb. They come in pilgrimage to the sepulchre at its peak though there is some disagreement over whose relics are within. There are those who say that they are the remains of Adam, the first man, others, that they are of the very first of the idolaters, the son of a wealthy and powerful king.
This prince, you are told, would not be moved by worldly affairs, even when tempted by all the king would offer, and seeing his steadfastness, the king built a wonderful palace to be his prison, for he had no other sons to name as heirs. Within that palace, the prince was ensconced in beauty and untroubled by illness or aging or any of the ugliness of the world, until one day, when he went outside and he saw a dead man, and then a very old man, and both sights troubled him terribly. He was greatly disturbed, and asked after what he had seen: do all people age so? Do they all die? The prince refused to return to his comforts. He went on to live the life of a great saint, to take himself to mountains lofty and pathless where he endured many hardships. And he did not die only once. He died fourscore times and more, as a man and then an ox, and then a horse, and so on, and on, until after his 84th life he became a god. This is the story you have heard, and you know too that your khan has acquired some of those relics for himself, whether they be of Adam or the Buddha, that his envoys have paid a rich price to bring back two teeth, some hair, and dish from their resting place to the court of Kublai.
You leave the island and its mountaintop sepulchre behind you, and you go west but not far, only until you reach the mainland, and the coast of India. There, you learn something of the local pearl industry, how in the months of April and May, the divers work all day on and under the water for the shells, and how they are protected by fish-charmers who keep the more dangerous sea-life at bay. The merchants must pay both groups from their profits, and another 10% for the king, and you chance to see that king yourself. He’s a striking figure, with a cloth around his waist, a necklace of gems, and a silk thread strung with 104 pearl and ruby prayer beads. When you see him, he is astride his horse but bound by a circle that has been traced in the ground. The people here will not cross outside of a circle drawn about them by one who they owe until they have made good on that debt, and you see the king himself so confined, a credit to his sense of justice. You also see a man paraded on a cart through the streets. He has 12 knives, and he takes one up, shouting that he is slaying himself for the love of his god, and runs it through his arm. You gather that he is a condemned criminal who has been permitted to sacrifice himself to his chosen deity rather than be slain by the king’s men for his crime, and you turn away after the fourth knife.
You find the climate here difficult to endure at times. It is hot beyond measure, hot enough, that were you to put an egg in one of the rivers, the very heat of the sun would boil it before you could leave it far behind. The rains come only a quarter of the year, saving what would otherwise be an entirely uninhabitable country, and then there are the pests. Light cane-work beds which can be lifted by cord to the ceiling are necessary or else you will be bitten by tarantulas, fleas, and other vermin. Meanwhile, outside, the poor sleep on the ground.
In this region also is a small town. It’s largely unvisited by merchants but pilgrims both Muslim and Christian go there, you’ll be going there too. Pilgrims come to take up red earth from the ground, for it is known for its healing properties, and particularly for its power in curing fevers. It was here in this small Indian town that Saint Thomas came and eventually died, and you’re told the story of that tragic accident. The saint was praying outside his hermitage one day, surrounded by the peacocks which are so plentiful in the region, when a local hunter, who would claim to have seen nothing but peacocks, fired an arrow which struck Thomas in the side. The saint would quickly succumb to his wound, but it was not the last he was seen in the town.
Apparently, a local baron was stuffing all the Christians’ houses with his rice so that no pilgrim could find shelter. Though the people pleaded with him to move his rice and no longer hinder their devotions, he ignored their entreaties. This bitter situation went on unchanged until one night the saint himself was suddenly there before the baron. He was in his home, pressing a fork to his throat and promising an evil death if the man did not empty his rice from the houses. In the morning the baron submitted, and Saint Thomas is said to have here worked many more great miracles since.
Further to the north is a place you hear of where the king has been dead for forty years, but he is not missed, for the queen, who rules still, is more beloved than ever any other lord or lady. In her realm, diamonds are abundant beyond belief, but they are hard to come by. You are told that they often lie in unreachable valleys and amongst the most venomous of snakes. Fortunately, the people of the region have contrived a solution to this. They throw pieces of meat down into valleys and gullies, and then watch as white eagles swoop down to take the meat, now pebbled with gems from the valley floor. All that remains to be done is then drive the eagles from their nests, or else wait longer and take the eagles themselves or, later still, sort through their droppings for the diamonds. But that’s not where you’re going. You’re headed west from the hermitage of Saint Thomas, and into Kerala, and in just a moment, we’ll be going there too.
The Indian province of Kerala is where you understand all Brahmans to come from. You identify the Brahmans as the best and most honest traders of the world, and unswayed by temptation. However, they are also, to your way of thinking, excessively swayed by signs and omens, seeing them everywhere. The length and character of their shadow in the morning sun on a particular day of the week, the path of a bird seen as they walk, the source of a tarantula on the wall: any of these might be seen by a Brahman as a good or bad omen and acted on accordingly.
In Kerala, you meet merchants whose ships have come from the west, from Hormuz, Aden, and elsewhere, and from all about the country, people come to trade with them, bringing a thriving business to the region. And in the city of Kollam, there are more merchants still, from China, Arabia, and the Levant. They come for the pepper, the brazilwood, the ginger, and the indigo, a herb which is prepared in large vessels that boil beneath the sun. They find, as you do, a population mostly of idolaters, but with some Christians and Jews, and they find, as you do, people everywhere chewing at a certain leaf, sometimes prepared with spices and quicklime, and spitting out the saliva that plentifully results.
And perhaps they too are struck by the creatures of this country, for all its birds and beasts are altogether strange, most unlike your own. It must be that incredible heat which makes them so. The peacocks are beautiful and larger than you’ve seen and the lions black all over. There are parrots of all colours, kinds, and sizes, and even the rooster and hen is different here. From, fowl to fruit, everything differs from what you know, and is finer, and better. The palm-sugar wine is excellent also, and strong, and you rub at your eyes as you look at monkeys so peculiar, you would take them for men.
Further north and west along the Arabian coast of India, you see the North Star, which had been hidden from Java, rise to two cubits above the horizon, and you come to Mangalore. It has language and king all its own, and it offers tribute to no other ruler.
To this place, ships come in from all quarters, but especially from China, bringing copper, gold, and silk, cloves, and spikenard. They take back pepper, ginger, and cinnamon. And from here, one hundred vessels of corsairs set out every year, the pirates even bringing their families with them. They form up in fleets and spread out in cordons across the water, sometimes as long as 100 miles. When one corsair has sighted a vessel to be taken, they signal the rest with smoke, so that the surrounding pirates will close in too and join them in the plunder. They do not kill unnecessarily though, and when they then let the ship go, considerably lighter than before, they bid its masters to go out and amass still more wealth so that it may be brought back to them again. At your next destination, you hear that the pirates force their victims to drink a preparation of tamarind and sea water to make them vomit up any gems or other valuables they might have swallowed and thought hidden.
That next province is Gujarat, home, you’re told, to the most desperate pirates in existence. The people here grow pepper, ginger, indigo, and great quantities of cotton. They produce the skins of goats, oxen, buffaloes, and unicorns, all to be shipped off to Arabia, and they make lovely mats in blue and red leather, with figures of animals and birds worked into them, and gold and silver wire embroidery.
Soon, you’ll be coming to the end of your travels in mainland India. As the land curves west into Makran, and the people are less and less likely to be idolaters and more and more to be Muslims, you will put once more to sea. You regret that you cannot see or indeed describe all the islands of India, for there are said 12,700 of them. For now, you are going 500 miles south to the islands of Female and Male.
The islands, 30 miles apart, are very much out of stories you have heard of places elsewhere in the world, but never seen yourself. As the names of islands imply, on one live the men and on the other the women, all Christians who follow the Old Testament. Only for three months of the year - March, April, and May - do the men move over to women’s island, returning with the coming of June to their own island, and their work. They fish most productively, drying their catch to provide ample food for the year and more to trade with besides. Chief among them is a bishop who answers to the archbishop of another island, where you are going next.
That is the island of Socotra, near the mouth of the Gulf of Aden. Its archbishop answers to Baghdad, not Rome. The people, Christians, are practised in spearing whales with a cord and float attached, so that when the whale dies they may easily locate it and bring the whale to shore where they take oil from the head and, in great quantity, ambergris from the stomach. However, though the population is Christian, the island also produces the greatest enchanters in the world. They have spells which will turn the wind and confound passing ships, that will produce terrible storms and disasters, and that will have much viler effects than you care to recall.
Trade comes to island, picking up gold, cotton, ambergris, and salted fish, and there are pirates in abundance too, who come to sell their plunder to willing buyers. And among all these travellers and traders from near and far, you hear stories of other lands.
You are told of Madagascar, a noble and beautiful island 1,000 miles to the south where four elders govern over a Muslim populace. Due to the curious nature of the currents, ships rush south to the island in three days over distances that will take them twenty to return, but still they make the trip with gold and silk which they trade for the ambergris, sandalwood, and elephant tusks produced there. They can go no further south though; those currents are such that if they go any further, they will not be able turn back north, in any season.
On the island are elephants in quantities beyond those in any other country; there are camels, whose meat the people eat exclusively; there are leopards, bears, and lions; and there is another creature, which you had heard of at the court of Kublai Khan. It is said that there is a gryphon, though not of the kind you have read of before. Not half-lion and half-bird, it looks more like an eagle but of such great size and strength that the bird apparently swoops down to snatch up an elephant in its talons, carry it high into the air, and then send it smashing to the ground and its death, to be eaten at the bird’s leisure. The bird is known as the rukh, and word of it had reached the great khan himself.
You remember how Kublai had heard tell of the rukh even from his capital, and had sent out an envoy to ask after the matter, and then another when the first became detained. His men returned safely and with strange stories to tell, chiefly of the rukh, but they didn’t bring only stories. They brought two boar’s tusks weighing more than 14 pounds each, from creatures big as buffaloes, and they brought a feather of the rukh far beyond the proportions of any known bird. How delighted had Kublai been, and what gifts he had given those who had brought it to him. But you are far away from all of that now.
Some thousand miles northwest of Madagascar is the island of Zanzibar. You drink wine there made of dates, rice, good spices, and sugar. You watch the trading in elephant tusks and ambergris. You admire the giraffes at length, for they really are beautiful. You note the strength of the people, that they may carry for four and eat for five. But you write at length that they are hideously ugly, in a way you have not throughout your other travels, that the men “look like very devils,” and the women are a “disgusting site.” Your customary cosmopolitanism seems to be slipping.
Eventually, you reach the mainland coast of Africa and the great province of Ethiopia with its elephants and ostriches, lions, apes, and leopards, its six kingdoms and its six kings, three Muslim and three Christian. Its Christians are marked on their faces with hot iron as part of their baptism, and their history in the region traces back to the preaching of St Thomas the Apostle as he passed on towards India. Here, the people are skilled soldiers and practised horsemen, and they have no shortage of practice in struggle with the Nubians and the Sultan of Aden.
Actually, you hear one particular story of how the greatest king of Ethiopia, a Christian, had recently thought to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, there “to adore the Holy Sepulchre of Our Lord God Jesus Christ the Saviour.” But his advisors would not have it. Were he to go himself, they counselled, he would be far too vulnerable to the predation of his enemies, who were powerful. Instead, he ought to send a holy man in his stead.
The advice seemed good, and the king selected a bishop who would make the trip on his behalf. And that bishop did set out and arrive at the sepulchre and there pay it honour and make a generous offering on the king’s behalf. It was on his return journey though that the sense of the king’s men was born out. As the bishop passed through Aden, its sultan heard word of his passing, a Christian, a bishop, and an envoy of the Ethiopian king. He was seized, questioned, and forcibly circumcised; you have been put to shame in spite of your king he was told, and then he was released.
Time it took to recover and to make his way home to the king, but he did recover and make it home. His king greeted him with happiness, and listened with delight as the bishop told of all he had seen in Jerusalem and of every detail as to the sepulchre itself, but then the tale turned to return journey, to his mistreatment at the hands of the sultan, and to the sultan’s parting words. Then the king was not so pleased. Such was his grief and wrath over this offence that “he was like to die of vexation. And at length his words waxed so loud that all those round about could hear what he was saying. He vowed that he would never wear crown or hold kingdom if he took not such [fitting] vengeance on the Soldan of Aden that all the world should ring therewithal, even until the insult had been well and thoroughly redressed.”
The Ethiopian king mustered men, horses, and elephants with castles on their backs. He gathered these around him and made over land and gulf for the Kingdom of Aden in great force, and the sultan’s men came forward to meet the Ethiopians at a strong point, a pass near their frontier where they thought they could hold the invaders. But you’re told that vengeful king would not be stopped, that his were better soldiers and slew a “marvelous number” of their enemies and drove them back into their own land. Repeatedly, they were attacked in the narrows of the pass but each time prevailed, killing more. You’re told that the king entered his enemy’s land and remained there for a month, killing and destroying until his appetite was satisfied, and then he returned in triumph and joy to his own country, his rival humbled, his bishop and his honour avenged. As for you, you will be travelling on to Aden yourself.
At the port of Aden, you marvel at the traffic, and at the volume of goods which pass through. Ships carry horses out to India, where they’ll fetch a higher price than anywhere else, and others arrive with pepper and spice. The incoming ships are often unloaded onto smaller boats to continue on for seven days before the goods are transferred onto camels for a further journey of 30 and so come to Alexandria; that is how all that city’s spices arrive.
No wonder then that the sultan is counted one of the richest princes of this world. On all of this traffic, he collects duties, and you detect no sign that he has been damaged significantly or set back in wealth or influence by the Ethiopian invasion you’d heard so much about.
His rule extends to your next destination, whose king is subject to him, the great city of Esher, its lord a Muslim who governs his people justly and well. He makes a good profit on his frankincense monopoly, the product of trees like small firs from which sap is allowed to flow through small cuts and is collected. Aside from frankincense, his lands produce dates, of which wine is made, and fish in something beyond abundance, so much so that two large tuna can be had for a single Venetian silver. Smaller fish are caught in astonishing quantities in the months of spring and then fed to beasts throughout the year, for there is no grass for them here in this place which is perhaps the driest in the world. And in some ways, the people eat little different from their animals: larger fish are cut into pieces of a pound or so, dried, and then eaten like biscuits all year. And the sheep! You will remember those best of all of this place. They are pretty little creatures, but they have no ears, only horns.
With some regret, you leave the lovable sheep behind you and carry on up the Arabian coast, moving northeast, until you come to Qalhat, a noble city with strong fortifications. It sits at the mouth of the Gulf of Oman, where its ruler can choke off trade passing into the gulf and so force his rivals to bend to his will or else lose out on the massive revenues that result from that trade. As you set out over the gulf yourself, bound for Hormuz, you think yourself very tired of salt fish and dates.
You have been to Hormuz before, on your way east, and you think now, as you did then, that the heat is truly horrifying, stiflingly, fatally so. The temperature is only made at all bearable by the cunning ventilation on the windward side of their homes. However, the countryside is home to beautiful birds of kinds not seen elsewhere, and you are able to reacquaint yourself with the city’s good wine of dates and spices. The first drink induces uncontrollable vomiting, but after that, one is all the better for it. You sit by the harbour and sip and you look with alarm on the boats. You have seen boats on the rivers of China, the Ocean of India, and many else besides, but these scarcely deserve the name. They are made of planks stitched together with coconut fibres and then rubbed with fish oil, and you are not in the least surprised to learn that many are lost to storms on the journey to India.
As you move homeward, the end of your journey in sight, you hear stories of other places. You hear, for example, of somewhere to the north known as the Land of Darkness, where it is always night and neither moon nor stars appear. Its people are tall and colourless, unruled by any king, and amass many valuable pelts through hunting. Mongols go there sometimes, raiding upon mares that have left foals behind so that when they are ready to return home they simply allow the horses beneath them to return to their foals, which they do, unerringly, through the darkness. You feel some regret at never having seen such a thing yourself, but only a little. For you have seen many things, not the Land of Darkness and not the great province of Russia with its sable fur, silver mines, and unbearable cold, but much else besides, and you are ready to go home,
You are making your own way overland towards Constantinople from which you will sail for Venice, and as you near your goal, your writings taper off. Many merchants and others have been there, and many of your audience will already know of where you walk now, so you do not bother to record further descriptions. And there you leave me. And there we leave our grand tour.
We’ve seen now some Marco Polo’s broader picture of the world outside of China, and of the networks of trade which he encountered, around Indonesia with its spices, from China to India, or India to Arabia, and on to Egypt and elsewhere. We’ve seen some of the products and practices that interested him, a 13th-century European understanding of the Buddha’s origin story, and the end of Saint Thomas at the hands of an Indian peacock hunter.
There is some misleading information in there to be sure, everything from locations out of any rational order to the rukh and other such myths from off the side of Marco’s path which, as with your own, likely did not cross Madagascar. That said, there was also a lot of quite accurate information that would have been new to his audience, and that was a relatively huge audience. This is pre-printing press we’re talking about, but the book was something of a bestseller in its time. It was written out again and again, and, though we lack a patient zero, we have a multitude of other manuscripts to prove it, 150 surviving medieval and renaissance copies, which, if you’re not sure, is indeed a lot. In its first twenty years alone, the book would be reproduced in Latin, German, Venetian, Tuscan, Franco-Italian, and French.
And I’ll talk more about that next time, when I’ll be back with the final Marco Polo episode, or at least the final one for now. I’ll be following Marco’s adventures on his way back to Venice - his awkward parting with Kublai, the mysterious or maybe not so mysterious Kokochin, the massive loss of life the homeward trip entailed - and I’ll also be taking up the writing of the book itself.