Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. — John Adams

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo in Africa

From Zanzibar, Marco ventured into a famous African country, very ancient in its history, and remarkable as the early sea of Christianity on the "dark continent." This was Abyssinia; a land which, in our own time, has attracted a great deal of attention, as the scene of a war between the English and the savage King Theodore.

In Marco's time, Abyssinia was called "Middle India," and was renowned as a great kingdom, inhabited by a bold and warlike race. He was therefore naturally very anxious to visit it, especially as he knew the Abyssinians to be Christians.

The journey thither from Zanzibar was long, difficult and dangerous. The wild, black tribes of the coast constantly menaced him and his party; and sometimes, as he proceeded up the rivers in the rude canoes furnished to him by friendly natives, he was assailed by showers of arrows and javelins, some of which did fatal work among his escort.

Nor were the menaces of the wild beasts to be despised. In the night, especially, the deep and awful stillness of the misty African jungle was roughly broken by the roaring of hungry lions, and the bellowing of hippopotami and rhinoceroses. A constant watch was the only safety from the fell assaults of these half-famished monsters.

But Marco and his companions had now become quite used to "roughing it." His experience in the remotest parts of Tartary and China, his adventures in the islands and in the depths of Hindoostan, had not only hardened his sense of peril, but had taught him how to pass through the dangers of the jungle and the forest. In due time, the Tartar train crossed the confines of Abyssinia, and found themselves on the way to its capital.

Polo in Africa
MARCO POLO IN AFRICA.


Marco at once made himself known as an European and a Christian; and his light complexion and regular features showed the Abyssinians that he was not deceiving them, in spite of his Oriental dress and company. No sooner did they recognize him as a brother in religion, than the natives overwhelmed him with the warmth of their welcome. They entertained him on such rude fare as their huts provided; they guided him, in strong companies, through dangerous parts of the country; and they paddled him in their biggest canoes across the lakes and up the reed-bordered rivers.

The young traveller observed all that he saw and heard with the keenest interest; for he wished to carry back as minute an account as possible of this land of sable Christians. He soon learned that it was ruled over by a powerful emperor, under whom there were six kings, each of whom reigned over the six large provinces into which Abyssinia was divided. Three of these kings were Christians, and three were Mohammedans, the subjects of each being of the same faith as their sovereign. The emperor himself was a Christian. Marco also found that there were many Jews in Abyssinia; but they were not a all like the long-nosed, keen-eyed, heavily-bearded Jews whom he remembered at Venice.

Very different, were the Christian customs of this half-savage country from those to which he was accustomed at home. The Christians distinguished themselves from the Mohammedans and Jews, by having three marks branded on their faces; one from the forehead to the middle of the nose, and one on each cheek and it was the branding of these marks with a red-hot iron which constituted their baptism.

It was soon evident to Marco that he was in the midst of a very warlike people. Everywhere there appeared troops of soldiers and very often he passed large camps teeming with warriors. Nearly the whole male population seemed to be expert in the use of arms, and ready at a moment's warning to obey a summons to the battle-field. On the Abyssinian frontier were two other warlike nations, Adel and Nubia; and the emperor was almost constantly at war with one or the other.

Not many years before Marco's visit, the Abyssinian monarch had engaged in a terrific contest with the king of Adel. The cause of this war was a singular one but showed Marco, when he heard it related, how devoted the Abyssinians were to their religion. A Christian bishop was sent by the emperor on a pilgrimage to Christ's Sepulchre at Jerusalem. Having safely performed his errand at the Holy City, the bishop set out on his return. His way lay through Adel. Now it happened that the king and people of that country were intense Mohammedans, and bitterly hated the Christians; so when the bishop came along, he was seized and brought before the governor of the province. The latter urged him to desert his religion, and become a follower of the prophet. But the bishop stuck firmly to his faith. Then the governor ordered that he should be taken out and circumcised. Thus cruelly outraged, the venerable prelate returned to Abyssinia, and lost no time in apprizing the emperor of what had happened.

The Abyssinian monarch was so enraged at the bishop's sad tale, that he wept and gnashed his teeth; and calling out to his courtiers, swore that the bishop should be avenged as never injured man was before. Collecting an immense army he advanced at the head of it into the heart of Adel, where he met the opposing forces of his mortal foe. The battle was long and terrific; but it ended in a sweeping victory for the invaders. The army of Adel broke and fled; and the Abyssinians, infuriated and intoxicated by their triumph, laid waste and destroyed the largest towns and fairest fields of Adel, and put many of the people to the sword. Having thus wreaked his vengeance for the bishop's wrong, the emperor returned to his own country.

Marco found in Abyssinia the greatest abundance and variety of production, and the richest and most profuse vegetation. The natives lived on rice, wild game, milk and sesame. Among the animals he saw giraffes, lions, leopards and huge apes, the largest and most intelligent he had yet encountered. The feathered creation, as it appeared in Abyssinia struck him with wonder and admiration. The domestic fowls he thought the most beautiful in the world; the ostriches seemed "as large as asses;" and the parrots exceeded in variety of color and splendor of plumage anything he had ever imagined. He passed through many thriving towns in some of which he observed manufactories of cotton and other cloths; and by many lofty, though rudely built castles, perched on high cliffs, or on the slopes of wooded hills.

Marco would have liked to linger long in Abyssinia, which was a country that greatly attracted him on many accounts. He would have liked, also, to push on further, and explore all the wonders of Egypt and the Nile. But he had now been away from the court of the khan much longer than he had intended and he knew that both the khan, and his father and uncle, must by this time be looking anxiously for his return.

He was forced, therefore, reluctantly, to turn his face eastward again. During his travels, he had gathered many curiosities of the strange places he had visited; and he had lost a number of the Tartars who had formed a part of his train. He had now with him only enough men to bear his baggage, and to act as a guard. Seeking a port whence to embark, he found it necessary to proceed to the great and flourishing city of Aden, the port which was the centre of all the commerce of the African and Indian seas. Arriving at Aden, Marco was surprised at its wealth and the vast amount of shipping that lay in its harbor and at the magnificence of the sultan who ruled the city and the country round about. He had no difficulty, in so busy a place, in chartering a vessel to take him and his company back to Tartary; and ere many days once more found himself on the great deep, full on the way to Kambalu.

The voyage was a long, tedious, and stormy one. Sometimes Marco despaired of ever seeing the land again, so furious were the cyclones and tempests of wind and rain; sometimes they were becalmed for days and weeks. Marco landed at many of the islands he had visited on his outward voyage, and saw some of which he had before passed by; but he did not, throughout the long transit, often touch at points on the mainland.

At last, however, the long voyage was over. The coast of Cathay appeared in a long, dim line at the horizon; then familiar cities and towns came into view; finally, the good ship neared the port whence Marco had set out and it was with a full heart that he jumped upon the shore, and knew that ere long he would be clasped in his father's arms, and receive the welcome and the praises of the great khan.

His return to Kambalu was celebrated by rejoicings in which the whole court took part; for the Tartar nobles had never known of so great and indefatigable a traveller as Marco had proved himself to be. His exploits, the dangers by sea, savages and beasts through which he had passed, the wonderful countries and curious customs he had witnessed, and the valuable services he had rendered to the khan made him a real hero, even among generals who had fought great battles, and nobles who wielded powers inferior only to those of Kublai Khan himself.

Nicolo was proud of his son's achievements, and was never done praising him. The khan grew fonder than ever of Marco, and lavished the costliest gifts and the rarest favors upon him. He made him a noble of his empire; he called him almost daily to sup with him; he offered to marry him to one of the most beautiful, rich and high-born maidens of his realm; he gave him a stable full of beautiful horses; and consulted him upon the most important affairs of state.

By and by the warmth of the khan's affection for Marco began to fill the proud and fierce breasts of the Tartar barons with jealousy; and now Marco had to feel the bitterness as well as the sweets of good fortune. He was constantly threatened with snares and assassination. He was forced to go armed, and protected by a strong guard, lest a secret attack should be made upon him. So his life at the court, surrounded as it was with every luxury and privilege that heart could wish, became anything but a comfortable one.

Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, as well as Marco, aroused the hostility of many of the barons; and so unpleasant did their position at the court begin to be, despite the fondness and favor of the monarch, that they often talked together anxiously about the prospect of their being able to return to Venice.

Sixteen years had elapsed since the day on which they had bidden farewell to their native city. The two elder Polos were growing old; their hair was gray, their faces were wrinkled, and their strength was waning. Marco himself, who had departed from Venice a stripling, was now a stalwart, broad-shouldered man, between thirty and forty, with a heavy brown beard and the strength of a lion. Their, mission in Cathay had been accomplished for they had persuaded the khan to be a Christian, had converted many of his subjects, and had acquired great wealth for themselves.

They finally resolved to make a vigorous attempt to persuade Kublai Khan to allow them to depart, and to provide them with the means of doing so safely. The first day, they said to each other, that Kublai seemed in a particularly good and indulgent humor, they would proffer their petition.

Not long after this, the khan gave a great feast; and afterwards witnessed, with his court, the exciting sports with which he was wont to beguile the pleasant afternoon hours, after he had eaten and drunk his fill.

Retiring, then, to the shade of his park, Kublai Khan reclined under the trees, and called about him his favorite courtiers and wives. Near him were the three Polos, who observed that the monarch was in high spirits. He jested pleasantly with his companions, and lolled luxuriously on his cushions.

The Polos gave each other significant glances; and at a favorable moment, Nicolo advanced and prostrated himself at the monarch's feet.

"I have an immense favor to ask of your majesty," he said, clasping his hands, and raising his eyes to Kublai's face, "and implore you to listen kindly to it."

"And what favor can you ask, Venetian, that I will not grant? You and your brother, and your brave, stout son, have served me nobly these many years; how can I refuse what you ask?

"But I fear to offend your majesty, by asking for more than you are willing to give. We beg for no more riches, no more honors. These your majesty has lavished upon us far beyond our deserts. You have loaded us with your favors and your gold. It is, indeed, many, many years that we have lived in the sunshine of your royal countenance; so many, that my brother and I have waxed old in your service. And after this long time, sire, our hearts yearn for our native land, for those beloved ones of whom we have not heard a word and we would fain return, to tell Europe of the wonders of your vast realm, and the lofty virtues that dwell in your royal breast. Pray, your majesty, give us permission to go back to Venice; that is the petition we would lay at your feet.

The khan at first frowned, and impatiently shook his head; then smiled, and said:

"Venetian, I cannot let you go. You are too useful to me. Whom could I send as an envoy to my remote provinces, if Marco were not here? Who could teach my people how to be Christians, if you departed? No, no, stay in content, Venetians; and whatever your present possessions may be, they shall be doubled from my treasure-house. Whatever you desire to make you rich, to give you pastime, to afford you ease and content in Cathay, shall be yours. Choose your dwelling, your horses, your servants, your guards, and they shall be granted to you. But think not of going hence; it cannot be,"

Nicolo continued to plead with all the eloquence he could command; but his prayers were quite in vain. The khan was good-naturedly deaf to his entreaties. He then tried another way of gaining his object.

"Sire," said Nicolo, "Our good fortune here, and your bounteous favor, have made us bitter enemies among your barons and courtiers. They are jealous to see the affection of their Monarch bestowed upon foreigners and they hate to perceive all your most secret trusts and counsels confided to us, who are of strange birth and blood. Should we depart, these nobles would no longer entertain feelings so angry and would once more gather, a united band, about your throne. For the sake, then, of peace in your court and palace, grant our prayer."

The khan looked around among his courtiers with lowering and threatening brow.

"Who dares," he cried, "to murmur at my sovereign will; who would forbid my choice of such counsellors as I please to have? Point out, Venetian, the men of whom you speak!

"Sire, I see none among those who are present nor do wish to breed further discontent and quarrels in your palace, by naming those who are jealous of us. But I assure you, there are such; nor will they ever be at rest until we have forever set our faces towards the west."

The khan, however, was obdurate; and although the Polos again and again besought him to let them go, he would not budge an inch from his resolution to keep them with him. There seemed to be no help for them. The Polos could not hope to escape by stealth from Cathay for every highroad was guarded by faithful troops of the khan, and his couriers, with their relays of horses, could travel much more swiftly than they could hope to do.

They once more reluctantly gave up the hope of returning home, and began to say to each other that, in all probability, they were destined never to set eyes on Venice more, but to live and die in Cathay. Marco resumed his idle life at court, finding a relief from its pleasures in writing out an account of his travels. In the early summer, he went in the khan's innumerable train to the imperial hunting grounds in the north; and as he had now become one of the most stalwart and skilful huntsmen of the court, he plunged with new ardor into the lusty sports of the forest and the jungle.

Marco little thought as, the summer over, he was returning again, in the wake of the imperial caravanserai, to Kambalu, that events had happened in his absence which would hasten the return of himself, his father and his uncle to Venice; and on arriving at the palace, was overjoyed to find that good fortune had suddenly opened a way for their final departure.