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In the month of November, in the year 1295, there appeared in the beautiful city of Venice three strangers, who were clothed in an outlandish and shabby garb of a Tartar cut. They claimed to be of Venice, but, according to one of their biographers, one Ramusio, "through the many worries and anxieties they had undergone, they were quite changed in aspect, and had got a certain indescribable smack of the Tartar both in air and accent, having, indeed, all but forgotten their Venetian tongue." They went to the house of the Polo family, demanding entrance and claiming to be Nicolo Polo, Maffeo, his brother, and Marco, son of the elder of the two brothers, Nicolo. They were laughed to scorn as pretenders and impostors; for the three missing members of the Polo family had been gone away from Venice some twenty-odd years; it was in 1271 that the Polos were last heard from, then at Acre, journeying into the Far East.
But the three somehow gained access to their own house, then in the possession of one of their relations. And the news of their home-coming was presently noised abroad throughout the city of Venice; so much so that the people for days talked of little else save the reappearance in the land of the living of the long-lost travellers. Many, however, doubted if these really were the brothers Polo and young Marco; this last was a mere lad of seventeen when he went away, and now was grown to be a portly man of forty-odd years. So incredulous were the townsfolk that the brothers hit upon a scheme to convince the doubting ones. They made a grand feast to which all the gentry were invited, for the Polo family were of noble birth and had held station in the state. The entertainment was served in great splendor with gold and silver dishes, and the three travellers, when they sat down, were dressed in robes of the richest crimson satin flowing down to the ground. After some of the courses had been eaten, they retired to their chamber and came forth again dressed in other robes of crimson silk damask, very rich, and the satin garments were cut up and divided among the servants. Again, later on in the repast, they retired, and when they came again to the table they wore other robes, of the richest crimson velvet, and the second garments were cut up and divided as the others had been. When the dinner was over they took off the velvet robes, and these were disposed of in like manner. "These proceedings," says the honest Ramusio, "caused much wonder and amazement among the guests," which we can well imagine.
Next, dismissing all the servants, the younger one of the three, Marco Polo, went to an inner chamber and brought forth to the table the coarse and shabby dresses in which the three had arrived in Venice. Then, taking sharp knives, the travellers ripped open the seams and welts of the garments, and shook from them a vast profusion of diamonds, rubies, sapphires, carbuncles, emeralds, and other precious stones. The guests were dumfounded and amazed. "And now," says Ramusio, "they recognized that in spite of all former doubts, these were in truth those honored and worthy gentlemen of the Casa Polo that they claimed to be; and so all paid them the greatest honor and reverence." Furthermore, we are told that when the story got wind in Venice, straightway the whole city, gentle and simple, flocked to the house to embrace the three travellers, and to make much of them with every conceivable demonstration of affection and respect.
This was the wonderful home-coming of the three Polos, who for twenty-four years had been wandering in the East, and who, when they set out on their homeward journey, a journey beset with untold difficulties and dangers, took the precaution to conceal in their garments, as above told, the wealth which they had accumulated while they were at the court of the Great Khan of Tartary. It reads like a romance, a story out of "The Arabian Nights' Entertainments." But it is all true, and the archives of Venice corroborate pretty nearly all the details herein set forth. Indeed, as a prophet is not without honor save in his own country and among his own kindred, it must be said that the later generation of Venetians found less difficulty in believing the tales of the three travellers than did those who first heard them. In telling these tales, they had frequent occasion to use the word "millions," a word not then common among the Venetians, as to say that the Great Khan had revenues amounting to ten or fifteen millions of gold, and so on. And the people gave Marco, who seems to have been the story-teller of the party, the nickname of Messer Marco Millioni. Curiously enough, this name appears in the public records of old Venice.
Of the final exit of the elders of the Polo family, Nicolo and Maffeo, we have no trustworthy account. As they were well stricken in years when they returned from their long sojourn in Cathay, we may suppose that they did not live long after their return to Venice. But the younger Marco had a busy and stirring life. At that time the republics of Venice and Genoa were rivals for the ruling of the seas and the monopoly of maritime trade everywhere. A Venetian galley could not meet one from Genoa without a fight, and the fleets of the two states were continually at war.
Marco, being one of the representatives of the noble Venetian families who were required to come to the support of the state with at least one galley, entered the naval service of Venice in command of a war galley, and was engaged in the great battle between Venice and Genoa near Curzola, off the Dalmatian coast, in 1298, three years after his return from Cathay. The Venetians were beaten ignominiously, and 7,000 of them were taken prisoners and carried to Genoa. It was a lucky thing for the world that Marco Polo was thus put into enforced idleness, and that he had for a companion in confinement an educated gentleman, one Rusticiano, of Pisa. Otherwise, most likely we never would have heard of the travels of Marco Polo, whom some of the later chroniclers have likened to Columbus, the discoverer of America.
To beguile the tedium of their imprisonment, Marco was wont to tell his traveller's tales to his companion, Rusticiano, and this worthy gentleman conceived the notion of writing out the marvellous adventures and observations of his fellow-prisoner. We must bear in mind that the Italian gentry of that time did not hold in high esteem the art of writing, and although Marco was not inferior to any man in daring or adventurousness, he was willing to leave to the scriveners the task of writing about such matters. But, in the end, the advice of Rusticiano prevailed, and the Pisan gentleman set down from the dictation of Marco "The Book of Ser Marco Polo Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East." This was, up to that time, the most important book of travels and voyages ever written. Indeed, it was the most important book of any kind written during the Middle Ages.
The book contributed more new facts toward a knowledge of the earth's surface, says one skilled authority, than any book that had been written before. The writer was the first to describe China, or Cathay, in its vastness of territory, its wonderfully rich and populous cities, and the first to tell of Tartary, Thibet, Burmah, Siam, Cochin-China, the Indian Archipelago, the Andaman Islands, of Java and Sumatra, of the fabled island of Cipangu, or Japan, of Hindustan, and that marvellous region which the world learned to know as Farther India. From far-voyaging sailors he brought home accounts of Zanzibar and Madagascar, and the semi-Christian country of Abyssinia, where some accounts located that mysterious potentate called Prester John. He had traversed Persia and had picked up a vast amount of information concerning the country of Siberia, with its polar snows and bears, its dog-sledges, and its almost everlasting winter. He traversed the entire length of Asia.
Surely, Europe might well be dazed when this account of regions, until then unknown, was unrolled before the scholars and explorers who could read the few precious books then in circulation. For it should be remembered that the art of printing was then unknown, and only in manuscript did any book make its appearance. Rusticiano wrote in a very poor sort of French; for then, as now, that language was commonest in all the cities of Europe. How much of the language of the book of Marco Polo's travels was Marco's, and how much was the worthy Rusticiano's, we are unable to decide. The facts in that famous book were duly vouched for by Marco. The opening chapter, or prologue, inflated and wordy, after the fashion of the times, was undoubtedly Rusticiano's. He began thus: "Great Princes, Emperors, and Kings, Dukes and Marquises, Counts, Knights, and Burgesses! and People of all degree who desire to get knowledge of the various races of mankind and of the diversities of the sundry regions of the World, take this Book and cause it to be read to you. For ye shall find therein all kinds of wonderful things, and the divers histories of the Great Hermenia, and of Persia, and of the Land of the Tartars, and of India, and of many another country of which our Book doth speak, particularly and in regular succession, according to the description of Messer Marco Polo, a wise and noble citizen of Venice, as he saw them with his own eyes."
This portentous prologue ends with these great swelling words: "And I may tell you that in acquiring this knowledge he spent in those various parts of the World good six-and-twenty years. Now, being thereafter an inmate of the Prison at Genoa, he caused Messer Rusticiano, of Pisa, who was in the same Prison likewise, to reduce the whole to writing; and this befell in the year 1298 from the birth of Jesus."
One year later, in the summer of 1299, Marco Polo was set at liberty and returned to Venice, where he died peacefully in 1324. His last will and testament, dated January 9, 1323, is preserved among the archives of Venice, and a marble statue in his honor was set up by the Venetians, in the seventeenth century, and may be seen unto this day in the Palazzo Morosini-Gattemburg, in the Campo S. Stefano of that city.
How came Marco Polo to be drawn so far into the vague and shadowy East? Somewhere about the middle of the thirteenth century, certain members of the Polo family had established a trading-house in Constantinople, then pretty near the end of the world from Europe. These adventurous Venetians, in 1260, sent the two brothers, Nicolo and Maffeo, still further to the eastward on a trading journey to the Crimea. Led on by one adventure and another, and lured by the hope of new and greater gains, they ascended the Volga northward and eastward, crossed Bokhara, and finally broke into one of the northwestern provinces of China, or Cathay, then faintly known in Europe by various names, the most classic of which was Seres.
Here they made their way to the capital city of the Great Mongol Empire, the seat of government where ruled the Great Khan, a very mighty potentate, Kublai Khan, grandson of the famous conqueror, Ghenghis Khan. Kublai Khan resided at the wonderful city of Cambuluc, which we now know as Pekin. North of the Great Wall, and some one hundred and eighty miles from Cambuluc, was the Great Khan's summer palace, one of the wonders of the world, reading of which in Purchas' account of Marco Polo's travels, it is said that Coleridge fell asleep and dreamed the famous poem beginning:
"In Xanadu did Kublai Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree,
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran,
Through caverns measureless to man,
Down to a sunless sea."
These Polo brothers were the first Europeans that the Great Khan had ever seen; but before this time, Friar Plano Carpini, in 1246, and Friar William Rubruquis, in 1253, had penetrated into Mongolia on some errand not now distinctly understood, but far enough to learn that a great and civilized country existed somewhere in the eastern extremity of Asia. They also learned that beyond this extremity of the continent there was a sea; people had until then believed that the eastern end of Asia disappeared in a vast and reedy bog, beyond which was deep and impenetrable darkness. More exact knowledge of that far eastern sea was subsequently acquired by the Venetian travellers. From these wandering friars the Great Khan had heard, at second-hand, doubtless, of European princes, potentates, and powers, and of the Pope of Rome.
He was mightily taken with the noble Venetians, and we are told that he treated them with every courtesy and consideration. He was anxious to secure through them the aid of the Sovereign Pontiff, of whose functions he entertained high respect, in the civilizing of the hordes that had lately been added to the Mongol Empire by wars of conquest. And he entreated the good offices of the polished and cultivated Venetians in securing for him the good offices of the Pope for that end. Accordingly, the two brothers, after satisfying to some degree their curiosity, set out for home, full of tales of their strange adventure, we doubt not; and they reached Venice in 1269, only to find that the Pope Clement IV. was dead, and that no successor had been chosen in his place.
There was a long interregnum, and the brothers, taking with them the son of Nicolo, the young Marco, then a stout lad, began to retrace their steps to Cathay, despairing of being able to enlist the one hundred priests which the Great Khan had asked them to borrow for missionary purposes from the Pope.
At Acre, then held by European powers that had been engaged in the crusades for the recovery of the Holy Sepulchre, they took counsel with one Tebaldo Visconti, an eminent prelate, who was Archdeacon of Liege and a person of great consequence in the Eastern church. At their request, he wrote letters to the Great Khan, authenticating the causes of their failure to fulfil the wishes of the Khan in the matter of obtaining the missionaries whom he desired. Then they pushed on toward the farther East, and while waiting for a vessel to sail from the port of Ayas, on the Gulf of Scanderoon, then the starting-point for the Asiatic trade, they were overtaken by the news that their friend the Archdeacon Tebaldo had been chosen Pope, under the title of Gregory X. They at once returned to Acre, and were able to present to the newly elected pontiff the request of the Great Khan and get a reply. But instead of one hundred teachers and preachers, they were furnished with only two Dominican friars; and these lost heart and drew back before the journey was fairly begun. It may be said here that the Great Khan, being disappointed by the Roman Church, subsequently applied to the Grand Llama of Thibet, and from that source secured the teachers whom he so greatly desired. The Great Khan appears to have been an enlightened and liberal sovereign, and, according to his lights, was willing to furnish to his people the best form of religion that was to be had. He preferred the religion of the elegant and polished Italians, but, failing to get this, he naturally turned his eyes in the direction of Thibet, then an unknown land to all Europeans, but regarded in Mongolia as a region of some considerable civilization.
The three members of the Polo family finally set out on their return to Cathay, leaving Acre in November, 1271. They proceeded by the way of Ayas and Sivas to Mardin, Mosul, and Bagdad to Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Here they met with some obstacle and turned from Hormuz, and traversed successively Kerman and Khorassan, Balkh, and Badakhshan, by the way of the upper Oxus, to the plateau of Pamir; thence crossing the steppes of Pamir, the three travellers descended upon Kashgar, whence they proceeded by Yarkand and Khotan to the vicinity of Lake Lob; and, crossing the desert of Gobi, they reached the province of Tangut in the extreme northwestern corner of China, or Cathay. Skirting the northern frontier, they finally reached the actual presence of the Great Khan, who was then at his summer palace of Kaipingfu, before spoken of, situated at the base of the Khingan Mountains, fifty miles north of the Great Wall. One may form some idea of the difficulties of Asiatic travel in those days, as well as the leisurely habits of the time, by considering that this journey occupied the three Venetians three years and a half. They arrived at the palace of the Khan about May, 1275.
The Polos were very cordially and gladly received by the potentate, then ruling over a territory so vast that it has been well said that, "In Asia and Eastern Europe scarcely a dog might bark without Mongol leave, from the borders of Poland and the coast of Cilicia to the Amoor and the Yellow Sea." Kublai Khan regarded the young Marco with especial favor, and soon began to employ him in errands and commissions of importance. "The Young Bachelor," as he is called in his book, took pains to acquire at once an acquaintance with the Chinese alphabet, and to learn the languages and dialects of the countries in which he found profitable and interesting employment.
It appears that the Khan had been greatly annoyed by the stupidity of his own officials and agents. They attended only to the errands on which they were sent, and brought back absolutely no knowledge of the distant countries that they visited, except that which they were specially directed to fetch. Very different was the conduct of the young Venetian. He was shrewdly observant, of a lively disposition, and given to inquiring into the strange and wonderful things which he beheld in those remote parts of the world, hitherto secluded from the observation of Europeans. He made copious and minute notes of all that he saw and heard, for the benefit of his imperial master. These notes afterward served him a good purpose, as we shall see; for they were the basis of the book that has made the name of Marco Polo famous throughout the world. When he returned to the imperial court, we can imagine the satisfaction with which the picturesque and intelligent narrations of what he had seen and heard were received by the Great Khan.
In the records of the Mongol dynasty has been found a minute setting forth the fact that a certain Polo, undoubtedly young Marco, was nominated a second-class commissioner attached to the privy council of the Empire, in the year 1277. His first mission appears to have taken him on public business to the provinces of Shansi, Shensi, Sechuen and Yunnan, in the southern and southwestern part of China, and east of Thibet. Even now, those regions are comparatively unknown to the rest of the world; and one must needs admire the intrepidity of the young Venetian who penetrated their wild mountain fastnesses, traced their mighty rivers, and carried away for the delight of the Great Khan, much novel information concerning the peoples that so numerously flourished in that cradle of the human race.
In his book Marco Polo does not greatly magnify himself and his office, and it is only incidentally, as it were, that we know that he was for three years governor of the great city of Yangchau. Following the details laid down in his book, the accuracy of which we have no reason to doubt, we find him visiting the old capital of the Khans, in Mongolia, employed in Southern Cochin-China, and on a mission to the Indian Seas, when he visited some of the states of India, of which Europeans at that time had only dimly heard the most fabulous and vague accounts. That the Polos were all favorites of the Great Khan is sufficiently evident; but it does not appear that any but Marco was in the employment of the Khan. All three of them doubtless made hay while the sun shone, and gathered wealth as they could, trading with the people and making use of their Venetian shrewdness in dealing with the natives, who were no match for the cunning traders from the Rialto.
Naturally, they longed to carry their wealth and their aged heads--for the two elders were now well stricken in years--safely back to their beloved Venice on the Adriatic, so far away. But Kublai Khan would not listen to any of their suggestions, and turned a deaf ear to their hints. A happy chance intervened to bring them out of the wild, mysterious realm of the Great Khan. Arghun, Khan of Persia, a great-nephew of Kublai, had lost by death his favorite wife, who was of one of the Mongol tribes, and who, dying in 1286, laid a parting injunction on the Khan that he should wed none but a Mongol princess. Sorely mourning her, the Persian Khan sent an embassy to the court of Kublai Khan to solicit a suitable bride for him. The Lady Kuchachin, a damsel of seventeen, beautiful and virtuous, was selected by the Court and was made ready to be sent to Tabriz, then the capital of the Persian Empire. The overland journey was highly dangerous, as it lay through regions tenanted by hostile and warlike tribes, besides being portentously long to be undertaken by a delicate young princess. The Persian envoys, accordingly, entreated the Great Khan to send with them by sea the three foreigners, of whose seamanship they undoubtedly held high opinion, especially as the young Marco had just returned from his distant and venturous voyage to the Indian Seas. With much reluctance the Khan consented, and the argosy set forth.
Having given leave for the three Venetians to sail, the Great Khan fitted them out nobly and endowed them with handsome presents at parting. They sailed, so far as we can now make out, from the port of Zayton, better known as Chinchau, in Fokien, at the beginning of the year 1292, two hundred years before Columbus set forth upon his voyage across the Ocean Sea.
It was an ill-starred and unfortunate voyage for the three Polos and their precious charge, although all escaped with their lives and treasure. They were detained five months on the coast of Sumatra, and there were even longer detentions off the southern coast of India, so that more than two years had passed since their departure from Fokien, when they arrived at the camp of the then reigning prince of Persia. The Khan of Persia, they found, had died before they set sail from China, and his son, Ghazan Khan, reigned in his stead.
After the custom of the times and the people, however, the princess was married without ado to the successor of the royal person to whom she had been betrothed before leaving far-off Cathay. It is related that she took her leave of the three noble Venetians, to whom she had become like a daughter and sister, with many tears and protestations of affection; for they had been very choice in their care of her, and she lamented their departure with sincere sorrow and many tears.
Leaving the princess at the camp of the Khan (for he was now at war), the Venetians pushed on to Tabriz, where they made a long halt, resting and refreshing themselves after their long and wearisome journey. Then they again took up their line of march westward, and reached Venice, as we have seen, in November, 1295, only to find their identity denied and their stories disbelieved, until, by an artifice, they made themselves truly known to their fellow-townsmen, who had long since given them up for dead.
Marco Polo's book, dictated by him in prison, is remarkable for its reserve and its scantiness of all semblance of ornament in its literary style. Messer Marco evidently did not greatly affect the arts and graces of fine writing. Like most of the Italian gentlefolk of his day and generation, he held the business of writing in low esteem. Some of his chapters are very brief indeed, the text being no greater in bulk than the headings which his amanuensis put over them of his own motion. Of the original manuscript, written in French, copies were made for the use of the learned, the art of printing being as yet not invented. There are now in existence no less than eighty of these manuscripts, in various languages, more or less differing from each other in unimportant details; but all substantially verifying the facts of the wonderful history of Messer Marco Polo as here set forth. The most precious of these is known as the Geographical text, and is preserved in the great Paris Library; from it was printed, in 1824, one of the most valued of the texts now in existence. But the most useful and satisfactory of all the printed editions is that edited and annotated by Colonel Henry Yule, and printed in London in 1871. The first printed edition of Marco Polo's book was in the German text, and was published in 1477.
Many writers have dwelt long on the question, Did Columbus gather any information from the book of Marco Polo that aided him in forming his theory, that one could reach India and Cathay by sailing westward from Spain out into the Sea of Darkness? We cannot satisfactorily answer that question. But we do know that all Europe, at the time of Marco Polo's adventurous journey eastward, resolutely turned its back upon the Atlantic, and looked toward Cathay and the Far Orient for a road to the fabulous diamond mines and spice islands that were believed to exist somewhere in the vague and mysterious East. Many philosophers, among whom was Columbus himself, thought the globe much smaller than it really is; but it was Columbus who was apparently charged with a divine mission to teach the world that sailing due westward from the Pillars of Hercules would bring the voyager to the dominions of Prester John, the Indies, and Cipangu.
When Columbus set sail for his hazardous venture into the Sea of Darkness, he was armed with letters to Prester John, the traditional Christian prince of the Far East; and his first landfall, as we know now, was by him supposed to be an outlying portion of that vast region vaguely known to the explorers who followed Marco Polo, as Farther India. But centuries rolled away before the world saw the facts of geography as we know them, or learned to accept as true the marvellous stories of Marco Polo, whose priceless legacy was first dimly known to the few, and was dubbed the Romance of the Great Khan.