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Marco Polo’s Report on Horse Trade and Piracy in the Indian Ocean

Marco Polo of Venice (c.1254-1324) is doubtlessly Europe’s most famous pre-modern explorer. His famous book “The Description of the World” of his travel to China from 1271-1295, which he dictated allegedly to a fellow inmate in a prison at Genoa in 1298/99, directly inspired Europe’s imagination and quest to “rediscover the world”. It was translated into various European languages and Columbus carried it on his (assumed) voyage to East Asia and India. But in recent years not only the validity of his authorship but particularly his travel to China was called into question (Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Go to China?, 1995). But assuming the case that further research verifies that Marco Polo’s really used extensively Arabic and Persian sources, his work verifies even more clearly the astonishing abundance of available knowledge about Asia by the north Italian city states already in the late 14th century, when Europe is supposed to have been completely cut-off from Asia by Near Eastern Muslim powers. This is particularly the case with the detailed and well documented reports about South India where Marco Polo claims to have stayed several months on his way back from China.

(see also AHOI, Ch. 2, The International Trade and the Roman Connection)

(Quoted from Henry Yule & Henri Cordier, The Book of Ser Marco Polo, first published 1903-20; reprinted London 1975, Vol. II, pp. 331, 340 and 389-90)

When you leave the Island of Seilan [Sri Lanka] and sail westward about 60 miles, you come to the great province of Maabar [Ma’abar, Muslim name of Tamil Nadu] which is styled India the Greater; it is best of all the Indies and is on the mainland.
You must know that in this province there are five kings, who are own brothers. I will tell you about each in turn. The Province is the finest and noblest in the world.

At this end of the Province reigns one of those five Royal Brothers, who is a crowned King, and his name is Sonder Bandi Davar [Sundara Pandya Deva]. In his kingdom they find very fine and great pearls; and I will tell you how they are got.

Here are no horses bred; and thus a great part of the wealth of the country is wasted in purchasing horses; I will tell you how You must know that the merchants of Kis and Hormes, Dofar and Soer and Aden collect great numbers of destriers and other horses, and these they bring to the territories of this King and of his four brothers, who are kings likewise as I told you. For a horse will fetch among them 500 saggi of gold, worth more than 100 marks of silver, and vast numbers are sold there every year. Indeed this King wants to buy more than 2000 horses every year, and so do his four brothers who are kings likewise. The reason why they want so many horses every year is that by the end of the year there shall not be one hundred of them remaining, for they all die off. And this arises from mismanagement, for those people do not know in the least how to treat a horse; and besides they have no farriers. The horse-merchants not only never bring any farriers with them, but also prevent any farrier from going thither, lest that should in any degree baulk the sale of horses, which brings them in every year such vast gains. They bring these horses by sea aboard ship.

Melibar [Malabar] is a great kingdom lying towards the west. The people are Idolaters; they have a language of their own, and a king of their own, and pay tribute to nobody.

In this country you see more of the North Star, for it shows two cubits above the water. And you must know that from this kingdom of Melibar, and from another near it called Gozurat [Gujarat], there go forth every year more than a hundred corsair vessels on cruise. These pirates take with them their wives and children, and stay out the whole summer. Their method is to join in fleets of 20 or 30 of these pirate vessels together, and then they form what they call a sea cordon, that is, they drop off till there is an interval of 5 or 6 miles between ship and ship, so that they cover something like an hundred miles of sea, and no merchant ship can escape them. For when any one corsair sights a vessel a signal is made by fire or smoke, and then the whole of them make for this, and seize the merchants and plunder them. After they have plundered them they let them go, saying: “Go along with you and get more gain, and that mayhap will fall to us also!” But now the merchants are aware of this, and go so well manned and armed, and with such great ships, that they don’t fear the corsairs. Still mishaps do befall them at times.

 

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