Builders of Our Country: Book I  by Gertrude van Duyn Southworth

Marco Polo

The Adventures of Nicolo and Maffeo Polo

OF course this round world of ours has not grown any larger or any smaller in the last seven hundred years. What really has grown very much in that time is the amount known about it.

In the year 1200, two hundred years after Leif Ericson had explored one little part of the earth, the people of Eastern Europe really knew very little about geography. They believed, however, that they knew all there was to know. They felt sure that the earth was a great square. On the four sides of the square anyone could see the four blue walls of sky. And resting on the four blue walls were the heavens where dwelt God and His angels. The lands that they knew formed the center of the square. On the west the lands ended in water. On the east lay Cathay, and about Cathay the people of Eastern Europe knew nothing. They thought of it as a great bog or swamp, full of dreadful beasts, hobgoblins, bugaboos, and monsters, which roamed about howling in a way to make one's hair fairly stand on end. And so it is no wonder that few of these people ventured into Cathay.

Now just as they were all wrong about the shape of the earth, so they were all wrong about Cathay. What they called Cathay, we call China; and in 1200 China was no more a swamp than it is to-day.

A mighty people lived in China, and they had a mighty empire and a mighty ruler. Their lands were rich in mines of coal and gold; ebony, bamboo, corn, silk, and spices were plentiful; and game of many sorts made hunting a favorite pastime. The subjects of the mighty Emperor journeyed in all directions, extending his power on every side by conquering the lands they visited.

While the Chinese Empire was thus spreading out north, east, south, and west, the merchants of Italy began, during the thirteenth century, to work gradually farther and farther east in order to increase their commerce.

In 1260 two merchant brothers of Venice, named Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, started on an eastern journey. To travel through the East, or even around the world, takes only a few weeks or months in this twentieth century. But in the thirteenth century traveling was a very different matter. There were no ships better than those of the Northmen, and a railroad was undreamed of. To journey by sea meant to be at the mercy of winds and tides, with no compass. To journey by land, one must go on foot or ride a mule or a horse.

So when the Polo brothers left home they said good-by for a long time—how long no one could tell. They were not bound for any particular point. They merely traveled on and on, making money by trading, seeing new and interesting sights, and still not coming to even the edge of the dreadful swamp which was supposed to lie to the east. They went so far that at last they found themselves before the very palace gates of the Emperor of China.

In those days the Chinese were willing and anxious to learn, and their doors were open to all who might come. The Emperor, whose name was Kublai Khan, was a wise and good ruler. He had never seen any Europeans before, and he welcomed Nicolo and Maffeo Polo to his court with great honor and was delighted to hear all they could tell him. He questioned them about their rulers, how they lived, how they fought. He asked the brothers all about their religion, about the Pope and about Rome. And as Nicolo and Maffeo told him all these things, he grew so interested that he wanted to have his subjects learn about the Christian faith.

Accordingly he urged the two Polos to go back to their own country, carrying a letter from him to the Pope. This letter begged that the Pope would send Kublai Khan one hundred Christians who could teach their faith to his people. One of the Emperor's barons was to go with the Polo brothers. The two merchants willingly undertook the mission and promised to obey all the Emperor's commands.

When they were ready to leave the palace, the Emperor gave them a Tablet of Authority. This was a tablet made of gold, such as was carried by the Emperor's army officers or messengers. On it was engraved Kublai Khan's order to supply them with all they might need in any country they were crossing.

On the long journey home all went well with Nicolo and Maffeo Polo, but the Chinese baron was taken ill and had to be left behind.

In 1269 the two merchants reached Italy, only to find that the Pope was dead. They could not deliver Kublai Khan's letter until a new pope was elected; so, while they waited, they went home to Venice to see their families.

Nicolo's wife, too, had died while he was away, leaving their son, Marco Polo, a boy fifteen years old. For two years Maffeo and Nicolo stayed in Venice with the boy. Then, a new pope being elected, they set out once more on their travels. And this time they took young Marco with them.

Marco Polo in China

FIRST, the Polos went to Rome to see the new Pope. But although he was very gracious and willing to oblige Kublai Khan, he could furnish only two friars instead of the one hundred asked for as teachers. And these two at the last moment were so frightened at the idea of going into Cathay that they would not start.

In the fall of 1271, without a single friar, Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco Polo and a few followers left Italy to carry the Pope's answer to Kublai Khan.

They crossed Turkey and came to the city of Bagdad. From Bagdad they went on to Persia. They had to be well armed as they traveled along, for in certain parts of Persia the people were very cruel and savage. They would stop at nothing, and often killed a whole party of merchants simply to get their wares.

At length the travelers reached a great plain where the heat was intense. Here and there they came upon a village surrounded by high walls of mud, built to shut out the bands of robbers which were a terror to the whole region.

Now these robbers were supposed to be able to bring such darkness over the plain that men riding side by side could hardly see each other. Then in this darkness the robbers would form long lines of many hundreds of men abreast and ride out over the plain. No one could see them coming, and whoever might be traveling on that part of the plain would be pretty sure to run into the lines and be taken.

Once Marco Polo himself was all but caught in this manner, but he got away and rushed to a nearby village. Only seven others of his party escaped. All the rest were caught and either sold for slaves or put to death.

Marco fully believed the robbers had the power to bring about the dreaded darkness. What really happened were dust storms. The dust of the great plain would rise so thick that no one could see through it. And the robbers, knowing the plains so well that they had no fear of being lost, used the storms to serve their wicked purposes.

Out of the heat of the plain the travelers rode on day after day until they came, after much climbing, to the Pamir Plateau. This plateau was so high that the people of that country named it "The Roof of the World." Here it was as cold as the plain was hot. Twelve days' riding was needed to cross the plateau, and during all that time the travelers had only what food they had brought with them. It was so cold that no people lived here, nothing green could grow, and even no birds were seen.

When Nicolo, Maffeo, Marco, and their followers reached the city of Lob, they stopped for a week's rest. And well they might, for ahead of them lay the great sandy desert of Gobi. It would take a month to ride over even the small part of it which they must cross. All their supplies must be carried, as they could expect nothing from the desert except here and there fresh water from a spring.

The journey was much to be dreaded, for the desert was believed to be haunted. Spirits were supposed to be on the watch for any traveler who might fall behind his party. If one of the party loitered, the spirits would call to him, making him think he heard the voice of his friends, but really leading him off to die alone. The voices were in truth nothing but the blowing of the winds across the sands. But in the silence of the desert and in the fear of being lost, it is no wonder that travelers often fancied themselves called, and rushed off toward the sounds. However, by keeping close together, by tying bells on the necks of their horses, and by putting up a sign at night to show which way they must go in the morning, the Polos crossed the desert in safety.

Finally, after having been nearly four years on the way, they reached Kaipingfu or the City of Peace. Here was the beautiful cane palace where the Emperor spent the summer months, and here the travelers now found the great Kublai Khan.

Kneeling before him, they addressed him with all respect and gave him the letter from the Pope, which said that, although the Polos had not succeeded in doing all that the Emperor wished, still they had faithfully done their best. Kublai Khan was much pleased to see Nicolo and Maffeo again and gave them a cordial welcome. Then, noticing Marco, he asked, "Who is this with you?"

"Sire, this is my son and your liegeman," promptly answered Nicolo.

"Welcome is he too," graciously replied the Emperor. And from that time he took a lively interest in the young man.

At once Marco set himself to learn all he could in this new land. He was soon able to speak several languages, and he quickly came to understand the customs and manners of the Chinese court.

Oftentimes Marco was with the Emperor when some ambassador to a distant province reached home, and nearly always the ambassador would report on just what he had been sent to do and no more. When the Emperor would ask questions about other matters, he would learn little. Then he would say, "I had far rather hear about the strange things and manners of the different countries you have seen than merely to be told of the business you went upon."

Marco Polo remembered this point; and when the Emperor began sending him as ambassador to various parts of the kingdom, he took pains to notice all that was new and strange. On his return, therefore, he could tell Kublai Khan much that was interesting and valuable which he had either seen or learned by asking questions.

He told of a queer way in which bamboo was used in Tibet. He said: "In this region you find quantities of canes, full three palms in girth and fifteen paces in length, with some three palms interval between the joints. And let me tell you that merchants and other travelers are wont at nightfall to gather these canes and make fires of them; for as they burn they make such loud reports that the lions and bears and other wild beasts are greatly frightened and make off as fast as possible—in fact, nothing will induce them to come near a fire of that sort. . . . In fact, but for the help of these canes, which make such a noise in burning that the beasts are terrified and kept at a distance, no one would be able even to travel through the land."

In another province Marco saw crocodiles for the first time. He called them "great serpents" and told of their huge mouths, large enough to swallow a man whole, and of the terrible fear the people had of them.

In still another province Marco found that the men had their teeth covered with cases of gold, which they took off when they ate; and that their arms were tattooed in broad black bands. Excepting in time of war these men did nothing but hunt and take their ease, leaving all the work to their wives and slaves.

Although he never visited Japan, young Polo was much impressed with all he heard about the vast amount of gold, the great number of pearls, the fine woods, and the spices to be found in that empire. Indeed, so glowing were the tales he repeated of these riches, as well as of the diamonds of India, that the reports were never forgotten. After centuries they still influenced explorers looking for wealth.

Year after year Marco Polo, his father, and uncle lived in China. While Marco served the Emperor, the other two gathered riches in various ways. Often they longed to return to their own country, but whenever they talked of leaving, Kublai Khan urged them not to go. However, when they had been in his court for seventeen years, their chance came.

The Khan of Persia was a great nephew to Kublai Khan. He wanted a wife and asked the Chinese Emperor to send him one. A beautiful girl of seventeen was chosen to be his bride. But then came the question of how to get her to Persia. Wars which were being carried on made it unsafe to go by land, and the Chinese were not great sailors. Therefore, when the three Venetians offered to take the little bride by sea, Kublai Khan could not say no.

In 1292 they sailed away from China. The voyage was so stormy that they did not reach the Persian Gulf for twenty-six months, and by that time the Khan who had sent for a wife had died. What became of the poor little princess? She was married offhand to the old Khan's son.

Marco Polo's Return to Venice—His Book

ONE day in the year 1295 the people of Venice were surprised to see coming into their city three wayworn travelers. The strangers were dressed in rather shabby and very queerly cut clothes, and judging from their manner and accent, they came from far away. Who were they and what could they want in Venice?

On they went until they came to the beautiful house which belonged to the ancient family of Polo. Here they stated that they were members of that family and had come home to live. They said that they were Nicolo, Maffeo, and Marco Polo just returning from Cathay. This seemed hardly probable. To be sure many years ago two robust men and a boy, all named Polo, had gone off to that unknown country, but they had been given up for lost long since. Two of these men were old and wrinkled, and the youngest was forty-one. Was it possible that they could have lived twenty-four years in a land supposed to be so terrible?

In some way the strangers convinced their family that they were really Marco, his father, and his uncle; and they were allowed to take possession of their old home.

Still there were friends who doubted. So, to settle these questions for good and all, they invited these friends to a banquet. Everything was of the finest, and the guests were deeply impressed. But when the last course had been served and the servants had left the room, a wonderful sight was in store for them. Marco left the table, went into another room for a moment, and came back carrying the shabby coats which he, Nicolo, and Maffeo had worn on their return to Venice. With sharp knives the three began ripping up the seams. Out rolled rubies, diamonds, emeralds, carbuncles, and sapphires, until the table was covered with so many treasures that no one could even guess at their value. Seeing such wealth the guests were easily convinced that their hosts must indeed have been in the service of the great Emperor they told about.

The story of the dinner and the jewels spread rapidly. Soon all the Venetians flocked to see the great travelers, to pay them every respect, and to hear from them tales of the wonders of the East. Some of these were believed, but many were not, simply because they seemed too unreal to be true.

In the thirteenth century the city of Venice was a republic. So was the city of Genoa. The two republics were deadly rivals and were almost constantly at war with each other. In the year 1298 there was a great naval battle between the two, and Marco Polo was the commander of a powerful galley for the Venetians. The Genoese won the battle and took seven thousand prisoners, one of whom was Marco.

For a year he was imprisoned in Genoa. When he was released he went back to Venice. There he lived for twenty-five years, and there he died in 1324.

But to return to the year Marco Polo spent in the prison in Genoa. This was in truth a most important period of his life. Shut up in the prison with him was a man named Rusticiano. He and Marco became friends; and, to while away the time, Marco told Rusticiano of his adventures in the East. It happened that Rusticiano knew how to write—a rare accomplishment at that time. He was deeply interested in all Marco had to tell of his wonderful travels, and offered to write them in book form. So Marco began over again at the beginning, and as he told the story Rusticiano patiently wrote down all he said.

As there were no printing presses in those days, the book when finished had all been done by hand. But that was not the remarkable part of it. Its great value lay in the fact that it carefully described for the first time a route which had actually been traveled across the entire length of Asia. Here were true stories of the great Chinese Empire, of the wealth of all the Eastern provinces; and, most important of all perhaps, here was the account of a journey taken on a great ocean which lay even beyond those Eastern provinces.

The people of Marco Polo's own time could not make themselves believe all his tales. But in the centuries which followed, the influence of his book was very great.

Years afterwards wise men came gradually to understand that the earth is round. And from this knowledge grew the belief that the ocean to the west of Europe and Marco's ocean to the east of China were all one. So, perhaps for the reason that he was the first to describe the Eastern sea, much credit is due directly to Marco Polo that, sailing west to reach India, two hundred years later, Columbus discovered the American continent.