Discovery of New Worlds - M. B. Synge

The Story of Marco Polo

"I cannot rest from travel. I will drink

Life to the lees: all times I have enjoyed

Greatly and suffered greatly."


The Crusades had brought about a contact of East and West. But though they had raised the general standard of life, and made the riches of the East—gold, silks, spices, and jewels—familiar throughout Europe, yet the geography of the East was strangely misty and undefined. To the men of the Middle Ages the world was still very limited. The great Atlantic, which was soon to open out a new world, was yet known as the Sea of Darkness, and many attempts to fathom its mysteries had ended in dismal failure. Still more alarming was the idea of a Sea of Pitchy Darkness, which was supposed to lie to the East of Asia.

In the north the old Vikings, having discovered Iceland and sailed by the northern shores of America without knowing it, had become a settled people, and no longer terrified the world by their coasting raids. Africa, except for the strip of northern coast and Egypt, was still a closed book, and nothing was known of the south and west.

This was somewhat the state of affairs when Marco Polo arose, travelled away to the far East, sailed on the Sea of Pitchy Darkness, and returned home, after many years, travel-stained and unrecognisable, to give the world an account of his wonderful doings.

It seems somewhat natural to find that Venice was the birthplace of this early explorer, for Venice, as we have seen, had the enterprise of the whole world at this time.

The very year that Marco Polo was born in Venice—1254—his father and uncle had started forth on a trading enterprise to Constantinople. They were away for some fifteen years, and when they came back they had some wonderful stories to tell to the young Marco. They told him how they had reached China and been at the court of the Chinese ruler, the Great Khan, as he was called. The boy was fired with enthusiasm to go to this distant country, and to see for himself the wonders of the mysterious new land.

Two years later, when the father and uncle started off again, they took young Marco with them. They sailed from Venice to Acre; but nothing is related of their journey except that they travelled towards the north-east and north, till, after three and a half years, they reached the city of the Great Khan, who was at his summer home among the hills to the north of Pekin. The great man, "Lord of all the Earth," as he was called, was very glad to see them, and asked at once who was the young man with them.

"Sire," answered his father, " 'tis my son, and your liegeman."

"Welcome is he too," said the Great Khan.

Marco soon picked up the language and customs of the Chinese, and became a great favourite at this strange foreign court. Once the Great Khan sent him on a journey—"a good six months' journey distant." Marco returned safely; and so ably did he state all he had seen and heard that the Great Khan cried, "If this young man live, he will become a person of great worth and ability."

For seventeen years the three Polos stayed in China, and Marco explored countries which to this day are hardly understood. He was the first traveller to cross Asia, describing kingdom after kingdom that he had seen with his own eyes. He was the first to explore the deserts and the flowering plains of Persia, to tell the Western world of China, with its mighty rivers, its multitudes of people, its huge cities and great manufactures. He first told us of Thibet, Burmah, Japan, Siberia, and the frozen ocean beyond. So the years passed on, the Great Khan was growing old, and the Venetians yearned for home; but whenever they hinted at leaving China, the Khan growled refusal.

At last their chance came. A relation of the Great Khan was King of Persia. He had lately lost his wife, and now sent to China for a wife of his own nationality. The Polos were chosen to take her to Persia, because they were hardy and adventurous, and the lady must be sent by sea to Persia.

Fourteen ships were built by the Great Khan, each having four masts and able to carry nine sails, with some two hundred and fifty sailors in each. In these ships the Polos sailed away from China with the bride-elect on board. They took a sorrowful leave of the Great Khan, who gave them numbers of rubies and precious stones. After sailing for three months in the unknown China Sea they came to the island of Java, and after another eighteen months on the high seas they reached Persia, to find that the bridegroom was dead. But his son, the new king, married the lady without more ado, and the Venetians sailed on for home.

So one day, in the year 1295, three men appeared in the streets of Venice. They were dressed in Asiatic clothes and spoke with a foreign accent. It was therefore no great matter of surprise when they were refused admission to the family house of the Polos.

"We have been in the service of the Great Khan in China," they urged, but no one believed them.

So they invited a number of friends to a banquet prepared with great magnificence, and when the hour arrived for sitting down to table, all three came forth clothed in long crimson satin robes, after the fashion of the times. When the guests were seated, they took off these robes and put on others of crimson damask, whilst the first suits were cut up and divided among their servants. Soon after they again changed, this time to crimson velvet, while the damask robes were divided as before.

Dinner over, Marco rose, and fetched the three shabby garments in which they had arrived. With sharp knives they then slit up the seams, and from them took the most priceless jewels—rubies, diamonds, emeralds, and sapphires. So their astonished guests knew they spoke the truth, and all Venice came rushing to do them honour.

They stayed at home for a time, and then Marco Polo was made commander of a great and powerful galley to fight against Venice's rival seaport, Genoa. He was taken prisoner and shut up in Genoa. Here Marco Polo wrote his book of travels, which are interesting reading to-day; and we cannot do better than follow the good advice at the beginning of his book.

"Great Princes, Emperors, and Kings," he says, "and people of all degrees who desire to get knowledge of the various races of mankind and of sundry regions of the world, take this book and cause it to be read to you."

He was an old man when he had finished dictating his travels to his fellow captive, and he returned to Venice to die.