Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

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Author: Marco Polo  | Date: 1279

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Marco Polo’s Account of Japan and Java

CHIPANGU is an island toward the east in the high seas, 1,500 miles distant from the continent; and a very great island it is.

The people are white, civilized, and well-favored. They are idolaters, and are dependent on nobody. And I can tell you the quantity of gold they have is endless; for they find it in their own islands [and the king does not allow it to be exported. Moreover], few merchants visit the country because it is so far from the main land, and thus it comes to pass that their gold is abundant beyond all measure.

I will tell you a wonderful thing about the Palace of the Lord of that island. You must know that he hath a great palace which is entirely roofed with fine gold, just as our churches are roofed with lead, insomuch that it would scarcely be possible to estimate its value. Moreover, all the pavement of the palace, and the floors of its chambers, are entirely of gold, in plates like slabs of stone, a good two fingers thick; and the windows also are of gold, so that altogether the richness of this palace is past all bounds and all belief.

They have also pearls in abundance, which are of a rose color, but fine, big, and round, and quite as valuable as the white ones. [In this island some of the dead are buried, and others are burned. When a body is burned, they put one of these pearls in the mouth, for such is their custom.] They have also quantities of other precious stones.

Cublay, the Grand Kaan, who now reigneth, having heard much of the immense wealth that was in this island, formed a plan to get possession of it. For this purpose he sent two of his barons with a great navy, and a great force of horse and foot. These barons were able and valiant men, one of them called Abacan and the other Vonsainchin, and they weighed with all their company from the ports of Zayton and Kinsay, and put out to sea. They sailed until they reached the island aforesaid, and there they landed, and occupied the open country and the villages, but did not succeed in getting possession of any city or castle. And so a disaster befell them, as I shall now relate.

You must know that there was much ill-will between those two barons, so that one would do nothing to help the other. And it came to pass that there arose a north wind which blew with great fury, and caused great damage along the coasts of that island, for its harbors were few. It blew so hard that the Great Kaan’s fleet could not stand against it. And, when the chiefs saw that, they came to the conclusion that, if the ships remained where they were, the whole navy would perish. So they all got on board and made sail to leave the country. But, when they had gone about four miles, they came to a small island, on which they were driven ashore in spite of all they could do; and a great part of the fleet was wrecked, and a great multitude of the force perished, so that there escaped only some 30,000 men, who took refuge on this island.

These held themselves for dead men, for they were without food, and knew not what to do, and they were in great despair when they saw that such of the ships as had escaped the storm were making full sail for their own country, without the slightest sign of turning back to help them. And this was because of the bitter hatred between the two barons in command of the force; for the baron who escaped never showed the slightest desire to return to his colleague who was left upon the island in the way you have heard, though he might easily have done so after the storm ceased, and it endured not long. He did nothing of the kind, however, but made straight for home. And you must know that the island to which the soldiers had escaped was uninhabited: there was not a creature upon it but themselves.

Now we will tell you what befell those who escaped on the fleet, and also those who were left upon the island.

WHAT FURTHER CAME OF THE GREAT KAAN’S EXPEDITION AGAINST CHIPANGU

YOU see those who were left upon the island, some 30,000 souls, as I have said, did hold themselves for dead men, for they saw no possible means of escape. And when the king of the great island got news how the one part of the expedition had saved themselves upon that isle, and the other part was scattered and fled, he was right glad thereat; and he gathered together all the ships of his territory and proceeded with them, the sea now being calm, to the little isle, and landed his troops all round it. And when the Tartars saw them thus arrive, and the whole force landed, without any guard having been left on board the ships (the act of men very little acquainted with such work), they had the sagacity to feign flight. [Now the island was very high in the middle, and, while the enemy were hastening after them by one road, they fetched a compass by another, and] in this way managed to reach the enemy’s ships and to get aboard of them. This they did easily enough, for they encountered no opposition.

Once they were on board, they got under way immediately for the great island, and landed there, carrying with them the standards and banners of the King of the island; and in this wise they advanced to the capital. The garrison of the city, suspecting nothing wrong, when they saw their own banners advancing, supposed that it was their own host returning, and so gave them admittance. The Tartars as soon as they had got in seized all the bulwarks, and drove out all who were in the place except the pretty women, and these they kept for themselves. In this way the Great Kaan’s people got possession of the city.

When the king of the great island and his army perceived that both fleet and city were lost, they were greatly cast down: howbeit, they got away to the great island on board some of the ships which had not been carried off. And the king then gathered all his host to the siege of the city, and invested it so straitly that no one could go in or come out. Those who were within held the place for seven months, and strove by all means to send word to the Great Kaan; but it was all in vain, they never could get the intelligence carried to him. So, when they saw they could hold out no longer, they gave themselves up on condition that their lives should be spared, but still that they should never quit the island. And this befell in the year of our Lord 1279. The Great Kaan ordered the baron who had fled so disgracefully to lose his head. And afterward he caused the other also, who had been left on the island, to be put to death, for he had never behaved as a good soldier ought to do.

But I must tell you a wonderful thing that I had forgotten, which happened on this expedition.

You see, at the beginning of the affair, when the Kaan’s people had landed on the great island and occupied the open country, as I told you, they stormed a tower belonging to some of the islanders who refused to surrender, and they cut off the heads of all the garrison except eight: on these eight they found it impossible to inflict any wound. Now this was by virtue of certain stones which they had in their arms, inserted between the skin and the flesh, with such skill as not to show at all externally. And the charm and virtue of these stones was such that those who wore them could never perish by steel. So, when the barons learned this, they ordered the men to be beaten to death with clubs. And after their death the stones were extracted from the bodies of all, and were greatly prized. But now let us have done with that matter, and return to our subject.

NOW you must know that the idols of Cathay, and of Manzi, and of this island, are all of the same class. And in this island, as well as elsewhere, there be some of the idols that have the head of an ox, some that have the head of a pig, some of a dog, some of a sheep, and some of divers other kinds. And some of them have four heads, while some have three, one growing out of either shoulder. There are also some that have four hands, some ten, some a thousand. And they do put more faith in those idols that have a thousand hands than in any of the others. And when any Christian asks them why they make their idols in so many different guises, and not all alike, they reply that just so their forefathers were wont to have them made, and just so they will leave them to their children, and these to the after generations. And so they will be handed down for ever. And you must understand that the deeds ascribed to these idols are such a parcel of devilries as it is best not to tell. So let us have done with the idols, and speak of other things.

But I must tell you one thing still concerning that island (and ’tis the same with the other Indian islands), that, if the natives take prisoner an enemy who cannot pay a ransom, he who hath the prisoner summons all his friends and relations, and they put the prisoner to death, and then they cook him and eat him, and they say there is no meat in the world so good. But now we will have done with that island and speak of something else.

You must know the sea in which lie the islands of those parts is called the Sea of Chin, which is as much as to say "The Sea over against Manzi." For, in the language of those isles, when they say Chin, ’tis Manzi they mean. And I tell you with regard to that Eastern Sea of Chin, according to what is said by the experienced pilots and mariners of those parts there be 7,459 islands in the waters frequented by the said mariners; and that is how they know the fact, for their whole life is spent in navigating that sea. And there is not one of those islands but produces valuable and odorous woods like the lignaloe, aye, and better, too; and they produce also a great variety of spices. For example, in those islands grows pepper as white as snow, as well as the black in great quantities. In fact, the riches of those islands is something wonderful, whether in gold or precious stones, or in all manner of spicery; but they lie so far off from the main land that it is hard to get to them. And, when the ships of Zayton and Kinsay do voyage thither, they make vast profits by their venture.

It takes them a whole year for the voyage, going in winter and returning in summer. For in that sea there are but two winds that blow, the one that carries them outward and the other that brings them homeward; and the one of these winds blows all the winter, and the other all the summer. And you must know these regions are so far from India that it takes a long time also for the voyage thence.

Though that sea is called the Sea of Chin, as I have told you, yet it is part of the Ocean Sea all the same. But just as in these parts people talk of the Sea of England and the Sea of Rochelle, so in those countries they speak of the Sea of Chin and the Sea of India, and so on, though they all are but parts of the ocean.

Now let us have done with that region, which is very inaccessible and out of the way. Moreover, Messer Marco Polo never was there. And let me tell you the Great Kaan has nothing to do with them, nor do they render him any tribute or service.

CONCERNING THE GREAT ISLAND OF JAVA

WHEN you sail from Chamba, 1,500 miles in a course between south and south-east, you come to a great island called Java. And the experienced mariners of those islands, who know the matter well, say that it is the greatest island in the world, and has a compass of more than 3,000 miles. It is subject to a great king, and tributary to no one else in the world. The people are idolaters. The island is of surpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves, and all other kinds of spices.

This island is also frequented by a vast amount of shipping, and by merchants who buy and sell costly goods from which they reap great profit. Indeed, the treasure of this island is so great as to be past telling. And I can assure you the Great Kaan never could get possession of this island on account of its great distance and the great expense of an expedition thither. The merchants of Zayton and Manzi draw annually great returns from this country.

CONCERNING THE ISLAND OF JAVA THE LESS. THE KINGDOMS OF FERLEC AND BASMA

WHEN you leave the island of Pentam and sail about 100 miles, you reach the island of Java the Less. For all its name ’tis none so small but that it has a compass of two thousand miles or more. Now I will tell you all about this Island.

You see there are upon it eight kingdoms and eight crowned kings. The people are all idolaters, and every kingdom has a language of its own. The island hath great abundance of treasure, with costly spices, lignaloes and spikenard and many others that never come into our parts.

Now I am going to tell you all about these eight kingdoms, or at least the greater part of them. But let me premise one marvelous thing, and that is the fact that this island lies so far to the south that the North Star, little or much, is never to be seen!

Now let us resume our subject, and first I will tell you of the Kingdom of Ferlec.

This kingdom, you must know, is so much frequented by the Saracen merchants that they have converted the natives to the Law of Mahommet—I mean the townspeople only, for the hill-people live for all the world like beasts, and eat human flesh, as well as all other kinds of flesh, clean or unclean. And they worship this, that, and the other thing; for in fact the first thing that they see on rising in the morning, that they do worship for the rest of the day.

Having told you of the Kingdom of Ferlec, I will now tell of another which is called Basma.

When you quit the Kingdom of Ferlec, you enter upon that of Basma. This also is an independent kingdom, and the people have a language of their own; but they are just like beasts, without laws or religion. They call themselves subjects of the Great Kaan, but they pay him no tribute; indeed they are so far away that his men could not go thither. Still all these islanders declare themselves to be his subjects, and sometimes they send him curiosities as presents. There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. ’Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of; in fact, ’tis altogether different from what we fancied. There are also monkeys here in great numbers and of sundry kinds; and goshawks as black as crows. These are very large birds, and capital for fowling.

I may tell you moreover that, when people bring home pygmies which they allege to come from India, ’tis all a lie and a cheat. For those little men, as they call them, are manufactured on this island, and I will tell you how. You see there is on the island a kind of monkey which is very small, and has a face just like a man’s. They take these, and pluck out all the hair except the hair of the beard and on the breast, and then they dry them and stuff them and daub them with saffron and other things until they look like men. But you see it is all a cheat; for nowhere in India nor anywhere else in the world were there ever men seen so small as these pretended pygmies.

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Chicago: Marco Polo, "Marco Polo’s Account of Japan and Java," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in America, Vol.1, Pp.82-93 Original Sources, accessed December 6, 2021, http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=2LMDAD6ZDB41BT5.

MLA: Polo, Marco. "Marco Polo’s Account of Japan and Java." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in America, Vol.1, Pp.82-93, Original Sources. 6 Dec. 2021. originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=2LMDAD6ZDB41BT5.

Harvard: Polo, M, 'Marco Polo’s Account of Japan and Java' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , America, Vol.1, Pp.82-93. Original Sources, retrieved 6 December 2021, from http://originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=2LMDAD6ZDB41BT5.