Marco Polo

Venetian Explorer
   

Born: 1254

Died: 1323(?)


In 1298 a Venetian adventurer named Marco Polo wrote a fascinating book about his travels in the Far East. Men read his accounts of Oriental riches and became eager to find sea routes to China, Japan, and the East Indies. Even Columbus, nearly 200 years later, often consulted his copy of 'The Book of Ser Marco Polo'.

In Marco's day the book was translated and copied by hand in several languages. After printing was introduced in the 1440's, the book was circulated even more widely. Many people thought that the book was a fable or a gross exaggeration. A few learned men believed that Marco wrote truly, however, and they spread Marco's stories of faraway places and unknown peoples. Today geographers agree that Marco's book is amazingly accurate.

Marco Polo was born in the city-republic of Venice in 1254. His father and uncles were merchants who traveled to distant lands to trade. In 1269 Marco's father, Nicolo`, and his uncle Maffeo returned to Venice after being away many years. On a trading expedition they had traveled overland as far as Cathay (China). Kublai Khan, the great Mongol emperor of China, asked them to return with teachers and missionaries for his people. So they set out again in 1271, and this time they took Marco.

From Venice the Polos sailed to Acre, in Palestine. There two monks, missionaries to China, joined them. Fearing the hard journey ahead, however, the monks soon turned back. The Polos crossed the deserts of Persia (Iran) and Afghanistan. They mounted the heights of the Pamirs, the "roof of the world," descending to the trading cities of Kashgar (Shufu) and Yarkand (Soche). They crossed the dry stretches of The Gobi. Early in 1275 they arrived at Kublai Khan's court at Cambaluc (Peking). At that time Marco was 21 years old.

At the Court of the Great Khan
Marco quickly became a favorite of Kublai Khan. For three years he governed busy Yangchow, a city of more than 250,000 people. He was sent on missions to far places in the empire: to Indochina, Tibet, Yunnan, and Burma. From these lands Marco brought back stories of the people and their lives.

The Polos became wealthy in Cathay. But they began to fear that jealous men in the court would destroy them when the khan died. They asked to return to Venice. Kublai Khan refused. Then came an envoy from the khan of Persia. He asked Kublai Khan for a young Mongol princess for a bride. The Polos said that the princess' journey should be guarded by men of experience and rank. They added that the mission would enable them to make the long-desired visit to Venice. The khan reluctantly agreed.

Since there was danger from robbers and enemies of the khan along the overland trade routes, a great fleet of ships was built for a journey by sea. In 1292 the fleet sailed, bearing the Polos, the princess, and 600 noblemen of Cathay. They traveled southward along Indochina and the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra. Here the voyage was delayed many months.

The ships then turned westward and visited Ceylon and India. They touched the East African coast. The voyage was hazardous, and of the 600 noblemen only 18 lived to reach Persia. The Polos and the princess were safe. When the Polos landed in Venice, they had been gone 24 years. The precious stones they brought from Cathay amazed all Venice.

Later Marco served as gentleman-captain of a ship. Forces of the rival trading city of Genoa captured it, however, and he was thrown into a Genoese prison. There he wrote his book with help from another prisoner. Marco was released by the Genoese in 1299. He returned to Venice and engaged in trade. His name appears in the court records of his time in many lawsuits over property and money. He married and had three daughters. He died about 1323.


Click on the Piece of Eight to return to the Main Page