Posts Tagged ‘Marco Polo’


It is 1417 when Prince Henry, son of King João of Portugal, accepts the governorship of the Order of Christ. This order, set up in 1319 following the suppression of the Templar’s by Pope Clement in 1311, provides the resources for Prince Henry to change the future of ocean going exploration.

Following the conquest of Ceuta  in Northern Africa, Henry begins a personal mission to extend the reach of the Holy Faith of Jesus Christ. With his spurs won in battle, he is pushes for further expansion. The Azores, the Canary Islands and more specifically down the West African coast. But he first sets his sights on going past Cape Bojador, just south of the Canaries, whose reefs and currents are the limit of previous expeditions. Finally Henry’s urgings (and promises of rewards) drive Gil Eannes (originally his household servant) past this psychological barrier hence opening up the rest of the Atlantic African coast.

In the 1420’s, with an increasing mercantile motive, Henry drives Portuguese exploration down the coast of Africa at the same time bringing cartographers and instrument makers to the town of  Sagres in southern Portugal to boulster the expeditions he sponsors.

Soon after, his brother, Prince Pedro returns from a wide ranging European trip, with a copy of Marco Polo’s Travels which he translates for Henry. Does it excite him with a vision to reach India and far of lands? The truth is unclear. But we do know Henry continues to use his resources to innovate and seed the exploration of West Africa. He adopts the use of the caravel as his vehicle of exploration and in 1444 a vessel finally returns with 200 slaves – a hint of the wealth to come.

Sierra LeoneHowever, by the time of Henry’s death in 1460 Portugal has probably only reached as far as Sierra Leone.

But Portugal is about to launch forth into the oceans with even more vigor…


Read Full Post »

Marco PoloThe last byte introduced the logical argument for a Southern Land. Let’s move to more earthly and tactile experiences.

We commence our physical journey of the discovery & colonisation of the Great Southern Land in an unusual place, in Lyon, where Friar Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, (c.1180-1252) becomes one of the first great explorers to write of lands outside Christendom.

It’s the start of the 13th century. A time of Crusades, Kings and Moorish conflict on the Iberian peninsula.

This is the time when Giovanni Carpine sets off in 1245 to Mongolia and the Court of the Great Khan. Tasked with delivering a letter to the Great Khan by Pope Innocent IV, he makes a  3000 miles journey into unknown lands across Rus and into Mongolia (when he is well into his 60’s).

It is an arduous journey of great hardships traveling north of the Caspian sea. It’s an amazing feat of endurance. But it is what he does on his return that counts. He writes a book, Historia Mongolorum based on his travels. In it he describes the Tartar peoples, the lands, the customs and even how to wage war on them. This is one of the first books to open the eyes of many to the world outside Europe.

William of Rubruck follows soon after and similarly travels to, and  writes of, crossing the whole of central Asia traveling to far away Mongolia.  Although, it must be said, not all of the observations written of were necessarily accurate, or there was some “tongue in the cheek” employed by locals in the stories they told him.

Take for example this story repeated by  Friar Rubruck…

“On one occasion there sat by me a priest from Cathay, wearing a rede material of a very fine hue, and when I asked him where he got such as colour from, he told me that in the eatern district of Cathay there are lofty crags in which dwell creatures having in every respect human form except that do not bend their knees but walk hopping… they are but a cubit high and the woke of their small bodies is covered with hairs… when men go hunting them they carry withy them… very intoxicating mean (mead), and they set traps among the rocks in the shape of cups and they fill them with mean…”

It gets better… so continues William of Rubruck…

“…(then) these animals come out of the caves and toast the drink and they cry out “Chinchin;” from this shout they got their name, for they are called Chinchins. Then they assemble in vast numbers and drink the mean and, becoming intoxicated, they fall asleep… the hunters… bind them hand and foot as they sleep. NExt they open a vein in their necks and… extract three or four drops of blood… and that blood, so I am told is most valuable for dying purple.”

(Before European Hegemony, JL Abu-Lughod, p 162)

Soon it is Marco Polo’s turn to open peoples eyes to what lies out of Christendom. He journeys far and wide throughout Asia for over 20 years, ending up at the court of Kublai Khan in far distant China. His book Travels, like Giovanni Carpine ‘s book, helps Europe in later years lift the shroud of darkness on the outside world.

Europe is reaching out. The spirit of exploration is beginning…

Read Full Post »

%d bloggers like this: