Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562

Author: John Fiske  | Date: 1260-1324

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The Travels of Marco Polo

IN the middle of the thirteenth century, some members of the Polo family, one of the aristocratic families of Venice, had a commercial house at Constantinople. Thence, in the year 1260, the brothers Nicolo and Maffeo Polo started on a trading journey to the Crimea, whence one opportunity after another for making money and gratifying their curiosity with new sights led them northward and eastward to the Volga, thence into Bokhara, and so on until they reached the court of the Great Khan, in one of the northwestern provinces of Cathay. The reigning sovereign was the famous Kublai Khan, grandson of the all-conquering Jenghis. Kublai was an able and benevolent despot, earnest in the wish to improve the condition of his Mongol kinsmen. He had never before met European gentlemen, and was charmed with the cultivated and polished Venetians. He seemed quite ready to enlist the Roman Church in aid of his civilizing schemes, and entrusted the Polos with a message to the Pope, asking him for a hundred missionary teachers. The brothers reached Venice in 1269, and found that Pope Clement IV. was dead and there was an interregnum. After two years Gregory X. was elected and received the Khan’s message, but could furnish only a couple of Dominican friars, and these men were seized with the dread not uncommonly felt for "Tartareans," and at the last moment refused to go. Nicolo and his brother then set out in the autumn of 1271 to return to China, taking with them Nicolo’s son Marco, a lad of seventeen years. From Acre they went by way of Bagdad to Hormuz, at the mouth of the Persian gulf, apparently with the intention of proceeding thence by sea, but for some reason changed their course, and traveled through Kerman, Khorassan, and Balkh, to Kashgar, and thence by way of Yarkand and Khotan, and across the desert of Gobi into northwestern China, where they arrived in the summer of 1275, and found the Khan at Kaipingfu, not far from the northern end of the Great Wall.

It has been said that the failure of Kublai’s mission to the Pope led him to apply to the Grand Lama, at Thibet, who responded more efficiently and successfully than Gregory X., so that Buddhism seized the chance which Catholicism failed to grasp. The Venetians, however, lost nothing in the good Khan’s esteem. Young Marco began to make himself proficient in speaking and writing several Asiatic languages, and was presently taken into the Khan’s service. His name is mentioned in the Chinese Annals of 1277 as a newly-appointed commissioner of the privy council. He remained in Kublai’s service until 1292, while his father and uncle were gathering wealth in various ways. Marco made many official journeys up and down the Khan’s vast dominions, not only in civilized China, but in regions of the heart of Asia seldom visited by Europeans to this day,—"a vast ethnological garden," says Colonel Yule, "of tribes of various race and in every stage of uncivilization." In 1292 a royal bride for the Khan of Persia was to be sent all the way from Peking to Tabriz, and as war that year made some parts of the overland route very unsafe, it was decided to send her by sea. The three Polos had for some tame been looking for an opportunity to return to Venice, but Kublai was unwilling to have them go. Now, however, as every Venetian of that day was deemed to be from his very cradle a seasoned seadog, and as the kindly old Mongol sovereign had an inveterate land-lubbers misgivings about ocean voyages, he consented to part with his dear friends, so that he might entrust the precious princess to their care. They sailed from the port of Zaiton (Chinchow) early in 1292, and after long delays on the coasts of Sumatra and Hindustan, in order to avoid unfavorable monsoons, they reached the Persian gulf in 1294. They found that the royal bridegroom, somewhat advanced in years, had died before they started from China; so the young princess became the bride of his son. After tarrying awhile in Tabriz, the Polos returned, by way of Trebizond and the Bosphorus, to Venice, arriving in 1295. When they got there, says Ramusio, after their absence of four and twenty years, "the same fate befell them as befell Ulysses, who, when he returned to his native Ithaca, was recognized by nobody." Their kinsfolk had long since given them up for dead; and when the three wayworn travelers arrived at the door of their own palace, the middle-aged men now wrinkled graybeards, the stripling now a portly man, all three attired in rather shabby clothes of Tartar cut, and "with a certain indescribable smack of the Tartar about them, both in air and accent," some words of explanation were needed to prove their identity. After a few days they invited a party of old friends to dinner, and bringing forth three shabby coats, ripped open the seams and welts, and began pulling out and tumbling upon the table such treasures of diamonds and emeralds, rubies and sapphires, as could never have been imagined, "which had all been stitched up in those dresses in so artful a fashion that nobody could have suspected the fact." In such wise had they brought home from Cathay their ample earnings; and when it became known about Venice that the three long-lost citizens had come back, "straightway the whole city, gentle and simple, flocked to the house to embrace them, and to make much of them, with every conceivable demonstration of affection and respect."

Three years afterward, in 1298, Marco commanded a galley in the great naval battle with the Genoese near Curzola. The Venetians were totally defeated, and Marco was one of the 7,000 prisoners taken to Genoa, where he was kept in durance for about a year. One of his companions in captivity was a certain Rusticiano, of Pisa, who was glad to listen to his descriptions of Asia, and to act as his amanuensis. French was then, at the close of the Crusades, a language as generally understood throughout Europe as later, in the age of Louis XIV.; and Marco’s narrative was duly taken down by the worthy Rusticiano in rather lame and shaky French. In the summer of 1299 Marco was set free and returned to Venice, where he seems to have led a quiet life until his death in 1324.

"The Book of Ser Marco Polo concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East is one of the most famous and important books of the Middle Ages. It contributed more new facts toward a knowledge of the earth’s surface than any book that had ever been written before. Its author was "the first traveler to trace a route across the whole longitude of Asia"; the first to describe China in its vastness, with its immense cities, its manufactures and wealth, and to tell, whether from personal experience or direct hearsay, of Thibet and Burmah, of Siam and Cochin China, of the Indian archipelago, with its islands of spices, of Java and Sumatra, and of the savages of Andaman. He knew of Japan and the woful defeat of the Mongols there, when they tried to invade the island kingdom in 1281. He gave a description of Hindustan far more complete and characteristic than had ever before been published. From Arab sailors, accustomed to the Indian ocean, he learned something about Zanzibar and Madagascar and the semi-Christian kingdom of Abyssinia. To the northward from Persia he described the country of the Golden Horde, whose khans were then holding Russia in subjection; and he had gathered some accurate information concerning Siberia as far as the country of the Samoyeds, with their dog-sledges and polar bears.

Here was altogether too much geographical knowledge for European ignorance in those days to digest. While Marco’s book attracted much attention, its influence upon the progress of geography was slighter than it would have been if addressed to a more enlightened public.


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Chicago: John Fiske, "The Travels of Marco Polo," Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562 in America, Vol.1, Pp.74-79 Original Sources, accessed April 14, 2024,

MLA: Fiske, John. "The Travels of Marco Polo." Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562, in America, Vol.1, Pp.74-79, Original Sources. 14 Apr. 2024.

Harvard: Fiske, J, 'The Travels of Marco Polo' in Discovery and Exploration, 1000-1562. cited in , America, Vol.1, Pp.74-79. Original Sources, retrieved 14 April 2024, from