Front Matter A Little Old World Early Mariners Is the World Flat Herodotus the Traveller Alexander Explores India Pytheas Finds British Isles Julius Caesar as Explorer Strabo's Geography The Roman Empire and Pliny Ptolemy's Maps Pilgrim Travellers Irish Explorers After Mohammed Vikings Sail Northern Seas Arab Wayfarers Travellers to the East Marco Polo Mediaeval Exploration Ends Mediaeval Maps Prince Henry of Portugal Bartholomew Diaz Christopher Columbus A Great New World Vasco da Gama Reaches India Discovery of Spice Islands Balboa Sees Pacific Ocean Magellan Sails Round World Cortes Conquers Mexico Explorers in South America Cabot Sails to Newfoundland Cartier Explores Canada Search for a Northwest Passage Frobisher Searches for Passage Drake's Famous Voyage Davis Straight Barents Sails to Spitzbergen Hudson Finds His Bay Baffin Finds His Bay Raleigh Searches for El Dorado Champlain and Lake Ontario Discoverers of Australia Tasman Finds Tasmania Dampier Discovers a Straight Behring Finds his Straight Cook Discovers New Zealand Cook's Third Voyage Bruce in Abyssinia Mungo Park and the Niger Vancouver and his Island Mackenzie and his River Parry and Lancaster Sound The Frozen North Franklin's Land Voyage Parry's Polar Voyage The Search for Timbuktu Landers Discover the Niger Ross Discovers North Pole Flinders Names Australia Sturt's Discoveries in Australia Ross in the Antarctic Seas Franklin Discovers Passage David Livingstone Burton and Speke in Africa Livingston Traces Nyassa Expedition to Victoria Nyanza Baker Finds Albert Nyanza Livingstone's Last Journey Through the Dark Continent Nordenskiold's NE Passage The Exploration of Tibet Nansen Reaches Farthest North Peary Reaches the North Pole The Quest for the South Pole Dates of Chief Events

Book of Discovery - M. B. Synge

The End of Mediaeval Exploration

The two names of Ibn Batuta and Sir John Mandeville now conclude our mediŠval period of travel to the Eastward. Both the Arab and the Englishman date their travels between the years 1325 and 1355; but while Ibn Batuta, the traveller from Tangiers, adds very valuable information to our geographical knowledge, we have to lay the travel volumes of Sir John Mandeville aside and acknowledge sadly that his book is made up of borrowed experiences, that he has wantonly added fiction to fact, and distorted even the travel stories told by other travellers. And yet, strange to say, while the work of Ibn Batuta remains entirely disregarded, the delightful work of the Englishman is still read vigorously to-day and translated into nearly every European language. In it we read strange stories of Prester John, "the great Emperor of India, who is served by seven kings, seventy-two dukes, and three hundred and sixty earls"; he speaks of the "isle of Cathay": he repeats the legend of the island near Java on which Adam and Eve wept for one hundred years after they had been driven from Paradise; he speaks of giants thirty feet high, and of Pigmies who came dancing to see him.

We turn to the Arab traveller for a solid document, which rings more true, and we cannot doubt his accounts of shipwreck and hardships encountered by the way. Ibn Batuta left Tangiers in the year 1324 at the early age of twenty-one on a pilgrimage to Mecca. He made his way across the north of Africa to Alexandria. Here history relates he met a learned and pious man named Imam.

"I perceive," said Imam, "that you are fond of visiting distant countries?"

"That is so," answered Ibn Batuta.

"Then you must visit my brother in India, my brother in Persia, and my brother in China, and when you see them present my compliments to them."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


Ibn Batuta left Alexandria with a resolve to visit these three persons, and indeed, wonderful to say, he found them all three and presented to them their brother's compliments.

He reached Mecca and remained there for three years, after which he voyaged down the Red Sea to Aden, a port of much trade. Coasting along the east coast of Africa, he reached Mombasa, from which port, so soon to fall into the hands of the Portuguese, he sailed to Ormuz, a "city on the seashore," at the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Here he tells us of the head of a fish "that might be compared to a hill: its eyes were like two doors, so that people could go in at one eye and out at the other." Crossing central Arabia and the Black Sea, he found himself for the first time in a Christian city, and was much dismayed at all the bells ringing. He was anxious to go north through Russia to the Land of Darkness, of which he had heard such wonderful tales. It was a land where there were neither trees, nor stones, nor houses, where dogs with nails in their feet drew little sledges across the ice. Instead he went to Constantinople, arriving at sunset when the bells were ringing so loud "that the very horizon shook with the noise." Ibn was presented to the Emperor as a remarkable traveller, and a letter of safe conduct was given to him.

He then made his way through Bokhara and Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, over the Hindu Koosh and across the Indus to Delhi, "the greatest city in the world." But at this time it was a howling wilderness, as the inhabitants had fled from the cruelty of the Turkish Emperor. Into his presence our traveller was now called and graciously received.

"The lord of the world appoints you to the office of judge in Delhi," said the Emperor; "he gives you a dress of honour with a saddled horse and a large yearly salary."

Ibn held this office for eight years, till one day the Emperor called him and said: "I wish to send you as ambassador to the Emperor of China, for I know you are fond of travelling in foreign countries."

The Emperor of China had sent presents of great value to the Emperor of India, who was now anxious to return the compliment. Quaint, indeed, were the gifts from India to China. There were one hundred high-bred horses, one hundred dancing girls, one hundred pieces of cotton stuff, also silk and wool, some black, some white, blue-green or blue. There were swords of state and golden candle-sticks, silver basins, brocade dresses, and gloves embroidered with pearls. But so many adventures did Ibn Batuta have on his way to China that it is certain that none of these things ever reached that country, for eighty miles from Delhi the cavalcade was attacked and Ibn was robbed of all he had. For days he wandered alone in a forest, living on leaves, till he was rescued more dead than alive, and carried back to Delhi. The second start was also unfortunate. By a circuitous route he made his way to Calicut on the Malabar coast, where he made a stay of three months till the monsoons should permit him to take ship for China. The harbour of Calicut was full of great Chinese ships called junks. These junks struck him as unlike anything he had seen before. "The sails are made of cane reed woven together like a mat, which, when they put into port, they leave standing in the wind. In some of these vessels there will be a thousand men, sailors and soldiers. Built in the ports of China only, they are rowed with large oars, which may be compared to great masts. On board are wooden houses in which the higher officials reside with their wives."

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


The time of the voyage came; thirteen huge junks were taken, and the imperial presents were embarked. All was ready for a start on the morrow. Ibn stayed on shore praying in the mosque till starting-time. That night a violent hurricane arose and most of the ships in the harbour were destroyed. Treasure, crew, and officers all perished, and Ibn was left alone and almost penniless. He feared to return to Delhi, so he took ship, which landed him on one of a group of a thousand islands, which Ibn calls "one of the wonders of the world." The chief island was governed by a woman. Here he was made a judge, and soon became a great personage. But after a time he grew restless and set sail for Sumatra. Here at the court of the king, who was a zealous disciple of Mohammed, Ibn met with a kind reception, and after a fortnight, provided with provisions, the "restless Mohammedan" again voyaged northwards into the "Calm Sea," or the Pacific as we call it now. It was so still, "disturbed by neither wind nor waves," that the ship had to be towed by a smaller ship till they reached China.

"This is a vast country," writes Ibn, "and it abounds in all sorts of good things—fruit, corn, gold, and silver. It is traversed by a great river—the Waters of Life—which runs through the heart of China for a distance of six months' journey. It is bordered with villages, cultivated plains, orchards, and markets, just like the Nile in Egypt."

Ibn gives an amusing account of the Chinese poultry. "The cocks and hens are bigger than our geese. I one day bought a hen," he says, "which I wanted to boil, but one pot would not hold it and I was obliged to take two. As for the cocks in China, they are as big as ostriches."

" 'Pooh,' cried an owner of Chinese fowls, 'there are cocks in China much bigger than that,' and I found he had said no more than the truth."

"Silk is very plentiful, for the worms which produce it require little attention. They have silk in such abundance that it is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars. The people of China do not use gold and silver coin in their commercial dealings. Their buying and selling is carried on by means of pieces of paper about the size of the palm of the hand, carrying the seal of the Emperor." The Arab traveller has much to say about the superb painting of China. They study and paint every stranger that visits their country, and the portrait thus taken is exposed on the city wall. Thus, should a stranger do anything to make flight necessary, his portrait would be sent out into every province and he would soon be discovered.

"China is the safest as well as the pleasantest of all the regions on the earth for a traveller. You may travel the whole nine months' journey to which the Empire extends without the slightest cause to fear, even if you have treasure in your charge. But it afforded me no pleasure. On the contrary, my spirit was sorely troubled within me to see how Paganism had the upper hand."

Troubles now broke out among the Khan's family, which led to civil wars and the death of the Great Khan. He was buried with great pomp. A deep chamber was dug in the earth, into which a beautiful couch was placed, on which was laid the dead Khan with his arms and all his rich apparel, the earth over him being heaped to the height of a large hill.

[Illustration] from Book of Discovery by M. B. Synge


Batuta now hurried from the country, took a junk to Sumatra, thence to Calicut and by Ormuz home to Tangier, where he arrived in 1348. He had done what he set forth to do. He had visited the three brothers of Imam in Persia, India, and China. In addition he had travelled for twenty-four years and accomplished in all about seventy-five thousand miles.

With him the history of mediŠval exploration would seem to end, for within eighty years of his death the modern epoch opens with the energies and enthusiasm of Prince Henry of Portugal.

For the last few centuries we have found all travel undertaken more or less as a religious crusade.

So far during the last centuries, travel had been for the most part by land. Few discoveries had been made by sea. Voyages were too difficult and dangerous. The Phťnicians had ventured far with intrepid courage. The Vikings had tossed fearlessly over their stormy northern seas to the yet unknown land of America, but this was long ago. Throughout the Middle Ages hardly a sail was to be seen on the vast Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, no ships ventured on what was held to be the Sea of Darkness, no man was emboldened to risk life and money on the unknown waters beyond his own safe home.