There is no kind of dishonesty into which otherwise good people more easily and frequently fall than that of defrauding the government. — Benjamin Franklin

Travels and Adventures of Marco Polo - George Towle




Marco Polo in the Eastern Seas

On a hot summer morning, Marco set foot for the first time on an Oriental ship. Once more he was on his travels; and this time the greater part of his journey was to be by sea. The ship on whose deck he found himself was, to his eyes, a very curious affair; rude, when compared with European craft, yet not without its features of comfort, safety, and convenience. It was evidently constructed of fir wood, and it had but a single deck.

Marco wandered over the vessel, eager to examine its every part. He observed that the space below the deck was divided into no less than sixty cabins, very cozily fitted and furnished, most of them being used for sleeping purposes. The ship had one rudder and four masts. In the hold was a number of compartments made of very thick planks, and water-tight, so that if the vessel sprang a leak in one of them the goods might be removed to another, into which the water from the first could not penetrate. He was told that not seldom vessels were struck so hard by whales as to force in the bottom. If a leak followed the water ran on to a well, and passed out again.

The ship was very strongly built. The planks were thick, held together with stout nails, and were thickly plastered but not with pitch, of the use of which the Tartars appeared to be quite ignorant. The vessel was propelled by oars, each of which required four sailors. In all the crew numbered two hundred men. A number of small boats, for fishing and other purposes, were hung at the sides. Marco's first destination was to the large group of flourishing islands, which lay several hundred miles off the coast of Cathay, and with which we are now familiar as Japan. It was a long and wearisome voyage, and for the first few days Marco felt all the discomforts of seasickness. After recovering from this, he began to enjoy the sea transit and gazed with much interest at the many strange-looking craft that passed and repassed within sight of his ship.

It appeared that, not many years before, the khan had attacked the Japanese islands with a large fleet and a strong army under two of his ablest generals. They landed on one of the islands, but it again, were forced to embark from it again, on account of dangerous storms and winds that threatened the destruction of their vessels. They repaired to another island, where they sought refuge from the fury of the elements. Soon after some of their ships sailed for home, and others were destroyed by tempests. The Japanese now descended with a large fleet upon the island to make an end of the invaders; and disembarking, advanced to attack them. The Tartars, perceiving that the enemy had left their ships, ran down to the coast and, boarding them, set sail for the largest island, leaving the Japanese in dismay and helplessness behind.

The inhabitants of the large island, seeing their own ships return, thought of course that they brought back the Japanese army. They therefore left their principal city undefended, and the Tartars entered it and held it. But soon the Japanese who had been left on the smaller island recovered their senses. The collected other ships, besieged their city, held as it was by the Tartars, and at last compelled the khan's forces to surrender. Thus the khan's expedition had failed, and the Japanese were still, when Marco made this voyage, independent of his rule. Satisfied to recover their natural liberty, the Japanese had been willing to live ever since on terms of peace and friendship with the khan and his subjects; and when Marco arrived at their islands, he found himself free to land and wander in their towns at will.

He found them a people with lighter complexions than those who dwelt on the main land, and better looking. Their pleasant manners, too, pleased him. Like the Tartars and the Chinese, they seemed very rich, and especially to have an abundance of gold. He saw a palace on the first island at which he landed which appeared to be fairly plated with gold. Even the pavements of the palace blazed with the rich metal. The Japanese also had plenty of precious stones; and among them Marco saw for the first time red pearls, which struck him a very beautiful.

Marco observed that the Japanese were idolaters, and that they worshipped idols having the heads of dogs, sheep, and pigs, and an immense number of arms and hands spreading out from the bodies in every direction. On his asking one of them why his countrymen had such strange idols, the reply was that "our ancestors left them to us, and we shall leave them to our children."

Marco's stay in Japan was brief, for he had still a long voyage to take. His ship sailed thence southward into the sea of China, and stopped at many groups of islands, on which the young traveller landed, and where he saw many novel sights.

He was greatly struck with the number and delicious fragrance of the spice trees and shrubs that grew on these islands; and also with the abundance of gold and other precious metals which seemed to exist everywhere. At last he reached a large island called Ciampa, which was ruled over by a king who paid tribute to the khan, and who therefore welcomed Marco with such semi-barbarous hospitality as he could. The khan had some years before invaded Ciampa with a large army, and had laid waste the territory whereupon the king had agreed to pay yearly a tribute, in the shape a number of large elephants. Every year, therefore, there arrived at the khan's court a group of these lordly beasts, which he valued more than any others he had.

Marco was amused with some of the customs of Ciampa. One was, that before any young girl on the island could be married, she must be brought before the king and if he chose to take her for one of his wives, she must be given up to him. Thus his sable majesty had a multitude of wives, the greatest beauties in his realm and more than a hundred sons and daughters.

After a long voyage Marco found himself among that famous group of islands that lies in a long, almost parallel line, along the southern coast of Asia. He landed on Java, which was then a powerful and independent kingdom, with a prosperous trade with India and China. The Java merchants sent their pepper, nutmegs, cloves and other rich spices to the continent, and received back grain and silks. Marco was amazed at the busy aspect of its towns and the wealth of its people. He was still more deeply interested in Sumatra, which he soon afterwards visited, and which seemed to him even richer in commerce and in natural productions. In soma parts of the island he found the people very wild and barbarous; and while sojourning in one of the interior towns, he amused himself by witnessing a wild elephant hunt. The rhinoceroses there were the largest and most ferocious he had ever seen, with big black horns in the middle of their foreheads, and a most forbidding aspect. There, too, he saw the greatest multitude of monkeys of all shapes, sizes and colors, whose antics among the branches of the forest trees he watched with much glee.

Marco observed in Sumatra some mummies which, it was said, were those of a race of pigmies that dwelt in India. On examining them closely, however, he was able to detect that they were really preserved monkeys. These monkeys it appeared, were taken, skinned and shaved, and their limbs pressed so as to resemble human bodies as much as possible; and were then put in jars and sold to credulous people as dwarfs.

Among the tribes inhabiting Sumatra, Marco found some who were cannibals; and so much afraid were the Tartars who came with him that these cannibals would catch and roast them, that they built huts of wood and twigs on the seashore, so as to defend themselves from them if attacked. In one of the tribes, if a man fell sick, his family sent for a magician and asked him if the invalid could recover. The magician, after performing incantations over him, pretended to be able to predict this. If he foretold that the man would die, the relatives made haste to strangle the sufferer, to cook his body, and invite all their friends to feast upon it, They were very careful to eat him completely up, for they believed that otherwise his soul would be in torment; and having collected the bones, they placed them in a large, beautifully ornamented coffin, which they hid away in a cavern in the mountains.

On another island, which Marco visited after leaving Sumatra, he saw some huge orangutans, which, it seemed, the natives believed to be hairy wild men who dwelt in the woods.

After leisurely cruising for some time among the islands in this vicinity, Marco at last came to that famous and lovely island which we know as Ceylon. The loveliness of the place was in striking contrast with the barbarous aspect and character of the natives, who, Marco noticed, went almost naked, and roamed about their picturesque mountains and forests just as if they were wild beasts. They raised no grain except rice, on which, and the flesh of the game they caught in the woods, they wholly subsisted. But savage as these people were, Marco was amazed at the number and beauty of the gems they possessed. Chief among these were the rubies, which were very large and brilliant. The king of the country had a ruby which Marco was sure was the largest in the world. Sapphires, topazes, amethysts and diamonds were also abundant.

While in Ceylon, Marco saw a lofty and jagged mountain rising from the midst of verdant hills, which it seemed impossible to ascend. Its crags rose among the clouds, and were often lost to view amid the shrouds the clouds spread about them. This, he was told, was "Adam's Peak!" and upon it was said to be the tomb of the founder of the Buddhist religion, being situated near the place where he had departed from earth. Kublai Khan had, indeed, sent thither some years before and had obtained two of the teeth, and some of the hair, supposed to belong to the god of his faith. He had also obtained a miraculous cup which had been used by this god, and which when filled with food for one man, speedily contained, it was said, enough for five.

Marco spent a long time in Ceylon, for it was the loveliest island he had yet seen in the eastern seas, and the people, though wild and almost bestial in their habits, were not quarrelsome or unfriendly. He found them, indeed, to be great cowards, who seemed afraid of the weapons which the Tartars carried in their belts and Marco wondered why, with all their riches, they had not long since been conquered by some ambitious potentate from the mainland. He loved to wander in their beautiful groves, and to loiter under the natural avenues of wide spreading palms to eat of the delicious fruit which grew there in richest profusion, and some kinds of which were quite new to him or to ascend some sloping hill, and gaze out upon the sparkling sea.

It was a very short transit—only about sixty miles—from Ceylon to the nearest point on the great peninsula of India; and it was with deep emotion that Marco for the first time caught sight of that famous and mighty empire. People in Europe already knew something about India; although three centuries were to elapse before Vasco da Gama found a way to it by sea, around the Cape of Good Hope. Travellers from Italy had visited its wonderful cities, and had brought back thrilling accounts, which had reached Marco Polo's ears in his boyhood. Of India he had learned still more at the khan's court, for a prosperous trade existed between India and Cathay and all that he had heard of the Hindoo Empire made him very impatient to observe it for himself.

As he approached the coast, he saw a sight which he afterwards remembered with much interest. This was the vast fleet of boats that were engaged in the pearl fishery. Many large vessels were anchored in the sea for miles around, and from these the boats with the divers went out. Marco saw the divers, with their strange gear, plunging into the water, and, after a few moments, drawn up again by their comrades, holding the large shells which they had grasped on the bottom, and in which the pearls were fixed in rows.

Marco landed on the coast of India, which at this point was full of sand banks and coral reefs; and went into the interior, guarded by the train of attendants whom Kublai Khan had sent with him. Ere long he reached the chief town of the province of Maabar, where he rested from his voyage, and employed himself in observing the country and the manners and customs of the people. The king of Maabar, learning that he was from the mighty monarch of Cathay, received him with all honor, and permitted him to wander everywhere at full liberty.

The people, he perceived, went naked, except that they wore a piece of cloth about their middle. The same was true of the king himself; but to make up for want of clothes, the dusky potentate fairly glittered with rich jewelry. He wore an enormous necklace of rubies, sapphires and emeralds; and from this was suspended a long silk cord, on which very large pearls were strung. On both his arms and legs were heavy jewelled and golden bracelets.

This king had no less than five hundred wives, and freely appropriated the wives of any of his subjects when he happened to take a fancy to them; and the despoiled husbands were obliged to submit to their loss with a good grace. The king had a numerous body guard, armed to the teeth, who attended him wherever he went, and protected his palace at night. Marco was told that when a king of Maabar died, a huge funeral pyre was erected, upon which the royal corpse was placed and that as soon as the priests set fire to it, his guards threw themselves upon it, and were burned with their master.

Marco was one day loitering in the streets of the town (which was quite a populous one) when he saw a crowd approaching, and in their midst a wagon drawn by natives. The crowd were shouting in an excited manner and as soon as the wagon came near, he perceived a man standing bolt upright in it, holding some long sharp knives. On asking what this meant, he was told that the man had committed some grave crime, and was being carried to the place of execution. The crowd were calling out, "This brave man is about to kill himself, for the love of the great idol!" Marco followed the crowd, which stopped in an open space in the centre of the town. Then the man in the cart began to stab himself with the knives, first in the arms, then in the legs, and lastly in the stomach, crying the while, "kill myself for love of the idol;" until, pierced by many self-inflicted wounds, he fell expiring in the bottom of the cart, It was supposed that thus he saved his soul.

Soon after, Marco had occasion to witness another ghastly custom of the Hindoos, in which the wife was thrown alive upon the burning pyre with her dead husband. The natives, besides their idols, worshipped oxen and cows, and no power on earth could have induced them to eat beef,

Everybody in Maabar, from the king to his meanest subject, always sat upon the ground; and when Marco asked a Hindoo why they did not sit on chairs or benches, the latter replied, solemnly, "We came from earth, and must return to earth; and we cannot too much honor this common mother.” Though barbarous in many of their ways, this people were at least exceedingly neat. In this respect, there were some European nations that might have taken pattern from them. They never would eat until they had washed all over and every Hindoo took two baths each day. They were also very temperate, rarely or never partaking of wine.

Crimes or offences against their laws were very severely punished. When a Hindoo owed another a debt and would not pay it, the creditor watched his opportunity, and drew a wide circle around the debtor with a pointed stick. If the debtor moved out of this circle without paying what he owed, he condemned himself to death In consequence of this curious method, there were but few debtors in Maabar. Once while Marco was there, the king himself became subject to the custom A foreign merchant, to whom the king owed a large sum, was bold enough to draw a circle around his majesty who finding himself fairly caught by his own law, made haste to pay the debt.

After staying for some time at Maabar, Marco pursued his journey into the interior of Himdoostan, his mind full of the singular sights he had seen, and eager to observe the Hindoo races who dwelt beyond.