History Book Club
Explorers and Adventurers in History
before the 20th Century
Wednesday, February 28. 2018
Polo, Marco;. The Travels of Marco Polo, Edited and with an Introduction by Milton Rugoff. Signet, 2001
Map of Marco Polo’s travels
When Marco Polo published “Description of the World” people took it as fantastic fiction.
After all, his tales of Kings and Emperors with fabulous riches, clothed in bejeweled garments, with brigades of beautiful women all waiting to please his majesty; thousands of elephants, marching in formation, all wearing cloth of gold…mighty mountain ranges, so high that birds could not fly…deserts where dead bodies turned to dust…black stones (coal) that burned… pools of liquid (petroleum) that burned…a cloth that withstands fire (asbestos), natives that ate human flesh.. widows who were burned alive with their dead husbands…and paper money!
Who could believe such tales?
Nicolo and Maffeo Polo actually started all this with their travels in search of better products to sell. They spent a lot of time in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), but then they moved up to the Black Sea and the Crimean Peninsula, then on up into Muslim territory, avoiding troubles with one marauding band of Tartars after another.
In 1265 the two Polo brothers made it to the court of Kublai Khan. Kublai Khan was quite a genial leader who tolerated all kinds of religions in his midst, and, intrigued about Christianity, asked the two Polos to see the Pope when they returned home and ask that 100 teaching monks be sent to Cathay.
The Polos returned home to Venice, and while still near the Holy Land passed along Khan’s invitation to the Pope. The Pope managed to find two friars to send, but then one dropped out and the last one, when he saw how dangerous this mission could be, dropped out. However, this time the two Polos brought Nicolo’s 17-year-old son, Marco.
It was Marco who was alert enough to see the richness of each culture and each city and province, and to record it for all these centuries. It’s amazing that we had the Greeks and the Romans visiting the Far East, and bringing back exotic spices, food, fabrics, jewels and more… and then travel and trade between Europe and Asia became almost non-existent until the Portuguese and the Spaniards, Dutch and Englishmen began their sea voyages in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Marco was born in 1254, and started on his first journey – to Persia, Tibet, Burma and China in 1271.
I had the privilege of visiting cities along the Silk Road in the 1960s through the 1980s--- Samarkand, Isfahan, Shiraz, Istanbul, Ashkhabad, Dushanbe, Bokhara (Marco spent three years here), Tbilisi, Beirut, and even up to the area around Lake Baikal. (Genghis Khan’s first capitol, in Karakorum). Often, we visited parts of those cities that had seen little change since Marco Polo.
Marco, his father and uncle arrived in Shangdu, the capital of Cathay, which had recently installed its first non-Chinese emperor, the Mongol Kublai Khan. The Song dynasty ended, and the Yuan dynasty began in 1264. This was good luck for Marco, because Kublai was an intelligent leader, very curious and interested in the rest of the world, and he took the Venetians under his wing. The fact that in all their travels in Asia minor they had learned the Turkic language, that of the Khan, was essential to their success.
Marco spent most of his time in Cathay, or China today, in Lanzhou, Peiping, Chengdu and Hangchow. He told about the marvelous riches, the elegant jewels and fabrics, and the flora and fauna in each place he visited or lived. He was most impressed with the Mongol horseman, who could stay on his horse over a day if required, sleeping in the saddle while the horse grazed. Horsemen and horses worked together seamlessly. Horsemen were trained to attack fiercely, to maneuver in groups of ten, one thousand or 100,000. Horsemen could get instant energy from tapping a vein on their horse and drinking the blood.
As the years wore on, and Kublai Khan, their sponsor was growing old, the three Polos asked to be released to return to Venice, but each time the Khan refused, telling them that they would surely be killed on the trip home. Finally, after 17 years on this trip, after the Polos had acquired great wealth, the Khan agreed for them to accompany a Mongol princess, on a sea journey to marry a Persian prince.
They departed on this trip in a four-masted ship with a crew of 600, bamboo sails, and oarsmen. The Khan gave Marco a gold “passport”, the size of one’s palm, which authorized the travelers free passage in bandit-ridden lands, food, lodging--- a 13th century American Express Black Card.
The trip took the Polos two years, as they cruised down the coast from Cathay, past Zipango (Japan), the Philippines, Sumatra, into the Indian Ocean, landing at the Straits of Hormuz in the Persian Gulf with only 18 people remaining, including all three Polos and the Princess. By that time the Prince had died, so the Princess married his son.
The Polos traveled overland to Constantinople, and then by sea through the Aegean, Mediterranean and Adriatic, back to Venice.
Three years after his return, Marco commanded a Venetian warship in war with Genoa. He was captured and thrown in prison. During his one year there, he dictated his adventures to Rustichello of Pisa, and that account spread far and wide. Many doubted the tales he told, but Christopher Columbus took interest, and Marco’s tales of the richness of Asia doubtless attracted Columbus’ attention.
Imagine Christopher’s surprise when he sailed west to find all those riches and found a whole continent in between!
HISTORY BOOK CLUB TOPICS FOR 2018
Wednesday, February 28, 2018: Famous Travelers and Adventurers before the 20th Century—their lives and stories. Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus, Lewis and Clark, Stanley and Livingstone, more. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, March 28, 2018: The U.S. Navy in Asia. The Asiatic Squadron. The Yangtze Patrol. Patrolling the Philippine Islands, “China Sailors”, World War II, The Seventh Fleet. [Suggested by Walt Frederick]
Wednesday, April 25, 2018: A look at the world and times of Jane Austen. Rockport Public Library is celebrating “Austen in April”. Read about the life of Austen, or focus upon England in the early 1800s, the Royal Navy at that time, the gentle English world Jane lived in. Feel free to read Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, or any of her novels to gather a sense of Jane and her world. [Suggested by Christiann Guibeau]
Wednesday, May 30, 2018: A History of Public Relations. Managing the news, propaganda, image-building. Hitler’s Joseph Goebbels. Ancient persuasive techniques. How information, false. Tainted or factual, can be used to elect leaders, start wars, and more. [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, June 27, 2018: The History of Language. Can you understand the English spoken by Chaucer? [WHAN that Aprille with his shoures soote; The droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote, And bathed every veyne in swich licour,] Choose any language and learn how it grew from its ancient roots, how it absorbed other languages, how it spread, and its variations in use in the world today. Did you know that only one in 40 Italians spoke Italian in 1861? What language is most widely spoken in the world today? How are languages changing in modern times? [Suggested by Sam Coulbourn]
Wednesday, July 25, 2018: Immigration to America. How did we all get here? Read about the history of immigration, at any stage – from first settlers to the great immigration waves of the 19th and early 20th centuries; victims of the Irish Potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Europeans suffering poverty in their countries, Africans brought here as slaves, Chinese brought here to build railroads; Fugitives of war everywhere; Mexicans and Central Americans coming to pick crops. Read about immigration policies and national drives to keep out or encourage immigration. [Suggested by Walt Frederick.]
Wednesday, August 29, 2018. Fighting the U.S. Constitution. Times and events when the Americans and even Presidents went against the freedoms in our Constitution. E, g, Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, Indian Removal Act under Jackson, Mexican American War, suspension of Habeas Corpus under Lincoln, Red Scare in 1920, McCarthyism in 1950’s, and Patriot Act 2001. [Suggested by William Tobin]
Wednesday, September 26: Religion and Politics in America. Religious impact in American political events. E.g.: Puritan Exceptionalism, justification of Slavery through the Bible, Abolition Movement, treatment of Native American Christianization movement, Justification of Imperialism’s Christianization mission. [Suggested by William Tobin]
Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment (Afro-American) at Fort Wagner
Wednesday, October 24, 2018. (vice Oct. 31): African American Warriors and their place in American History. From the American Revolution, during the Civil War to Korean War. E.g.: Contraband to Massachusetts 54th, Buffalo Soldiers and Native American Wars, Spanish American War and Truth about Battle of San Juan Hill, World War I and use of African American soldiers with French combat troops, World War II and Segregated all African American combat units: Armor, Transport, Tuskegee Airmen, Desegregation and Korean War. [Suggested by William Tobin]
Wednesday, November 28, 2018: Guns in American History. E.g. American Revolution and the Minutemen; Going West with new technology: six guns, repeating rifles, Twentieth Century automatic weapons after World War I, : pistols, rifles, Tommy guns, The St. Valentine’s Massacres of 1929 and 2018. Control vs. freedom of gun use. and Machine Gun laws, mass shootings in America: rifles, pistols, military style weapons, Guns laws in 21st century America. [Suggested by William Tobin]
December 2018: No meeting.