The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter I.

Of the Merchant Ships of Manzi that Sail Upon the Indian Seas.

Having finished our discourse concerning those countries wherewith our Book hath been occupied thus far, we are now about to enter on the subject of INDIA, and to tell you of all the wonders thereof.

And first let us speak of the ships in which merchants go to and fro amongst the Isles of India.

These ships, you must know, are of fir timber.1 They have but one deck, though each of them contains some 50 or 60 cabins, wherein the merchants abide greatly at their ease, every man having one to himself. The ship hath but one rudder, but it hath four masts; and sometimes they have two additional masts, which they ship and unship at pleasure.2

[Moreover the larger of their vessels have some thirteen compartments or severances in the interior, made with planking strongly framed, in case mayhap the ship should spring a leak, either by running on a rock or by the blow of a hungry whale (as shall betide ofttimes, for when the ship in her course by night sends a ripple back alongside of the whale, the creature seeing the foam fancies there is something to eat afloat, and makes a rush forward, whereby it often shall stave in some part of the ship). In such case the water that enters the leak flows to the bilge, which is always kept clear; and the mariners having ascertained where the damage is, empty the cargo from that compartment into those adjoining, for the planking is so well fitted that the water cannot pass from one compartment to another. They then stop the leak and replace the lading.3]

The fastenings are all of good iron nails and the sides are double, one plank laid over the other, and caulked outside and in. The planks are not pitched, for those people do not have any pitch, but they daub the sides with another matter, deemed by them far better than pitch; it is this. You see they take some lime and some chopped hemp, and these they knead together with a certain wood-oil; and when the three are thoroughly amalgamated, they hold like any glue. And with this mixture they do paint their ships.4

Each of their great ships requires at least 200 mariners [some of them 300]. They are indeed of great size, for one ship shall carry 5000 or 6000 baskets of pepper [and they used formerly to be larger than they are now]. And aboard these ships, you must know, when there is no wind they use sweeps, and these sweeps are so big that to pull them requires four mariners to each.5 Every great ship has certain large barks or tenders attached to it; these are large enough to carry 1000 baskets of pepper, and carry 50 or 60 mariners apiece [some of them 80 or 100], and they are likewise moved by oars; they assist the great ship by towing her, at such times as her sweeps are in use [or even when she is under sail, if the wind be somewhat on the beam; not if the wind be astern, for then the sails of the big ship would take the wind out of those of the tenders, and she would run them down]. Each ship has two [or three] of these barks, but one is bigger than the others. There are also some ten [small] boats for the service of each great ship, to lay out the anchors, catch fish, bring supplies aboard, and the like. When the ship is under sail she carries these boats slung to her sides. And the large tenders have their boats in like manner.

When the ship has been a year in work and they wish to repair her, they nail on a third plank over the first two, and caulk and pay it well; and when another repair is wanted they nail on yet another plank, and so on year by year as it is required. Howbeit, they do this only for a certain number of years, and till there are six thicknesses of planking. When a ship has come to have six planks on her sides, one over the other, they take her no more on the high seas, but make use of her for coasting as long as she will last, and then they break her up.6

Now that I have told you about the ships which sail upon the Ocean Sea and among the Isles of India, let us proceed to speak of the various wonders of India; but first and foremost I must tell you about a number of Islands that there are in that part of the Ocean Sea where we now are, I mean the Islands lying to the eastward. So let us begin with an Island which is called Chipangu.

NOTE 1. — Pine [Pinus sinensis] is [still] the staple timber for ship-building both at Canton and in Fo-kien. There is a very large export of it from Fu-chau, and even the chief fuel at that city is from a kind of fir. Several varieties of pine-wood are also brought down the rivers for sale at Canton. (N. and Q., China and Japan, I. 170; Fortune, I. 286; Doolittle.)

NOTE 2. — Note the one rudder again. (Supra, Bk. I. ch. xix. note 3.) One of the shifting masts was probably a bowsprit, which, according to Lecomte, the Chinese occasionally use, very slight, and planted on the larboard bow.

NOTE 3. — The system of water-tight compartments, for the description of which we have to thank Ramusio’s text, in our own time introduced into European construction, is still maintained by the Chinese, not only in sea-going junks, but in the larger river craft. (See Mid. Kingd. II. 25; Blakiston, 88; Deguignes, I. 204–206.)

NOTE 4. — This still remains quite correct, hemp, old nets, and the fibre of a certain creeper being used for oakum. The wood-oil is derived from a tree called Tong-shu, I do not know if identical with the wood-oil trees of Arakan and Pegu (Dipterocarpus laevis).

[“What goes under the name of ‘wood-oil’ today in China is the poisonous oil obtained from the nuts of Elaeococca verrucosa. It is much used for painting and caulking ships.” (Bretschneider, Hist. of Bot. Disc. I. p. 4.)— H.C.]

NOTE 5. — The junks that visit Singapore still use these sweeps. (J. Ind. Arch. II. 607.) Ibn Batuta puts a much larger number of men to each. It will be seen from his account below that great ropes were attached to the oars to pull by, the bulk of timber being too large to grasp; as in the old French galleys wooden manettes or grips, were attached to the oar for the same purpose.

NOTE 6. — The Chinese sea-going vessels of those days were apparently larger than was at all common in European navigation. Marco here speaks of 200 (or in Ramusio up to 300) mariners, a large crew indeed for a merchant vessel, but not so great as is implied in Odoric’s statement, that the ship in which he went from India to China had 700 souls on board. The numbers carried by Chinese junks are occasionally still enormous. “In February, 1822, Captain Pearl, of the English ship Indiana, coming through Caspar Straits, fell in with the cargo and crew of a wrecked junk, and saved 198 persons out of 1600, with whom she had left Amoy, whom he landed at Pontianak. This humane act cost him 11,000l.” (Quoted by Williams from Chin. Rep. VI. 149.)

The following are some other mediaeval accounts of the China shipping, all unanimous as to the main facts.

Friar Jordanus:—“The vessels which they navigate to Cathay be very big, and have upon the ship’s hull more than one hundred cabins, and with a fair wind they carry ten sails, and they are very bulky, being made of three thicknesses of plank, so that the first thickness is as in our great ships, the second crosswise, the third again longwise. In sooth, ’tis a very strong affair!” (55.)

Nicolo Conti:—“They build some ships much larger than ours, capable of containing 2000 butts (vegetes), with five masts and five sails. The lower part is constructed with triple planking, in order to withstand the force of the tempests to which they are exposed. And the ships are divided into compartments, so formed that if one part be shattered the rest remains in good order, and enables the vessel to complete its voyage.”

Ibn Batuta:—“Chinese ships only are used in navigating the sea of China. . . . There are three classes of these: (1) the Large, which are called Jonúk (sing. Junk); (2) the Middling, which are called Zao; and (3) the Small, called Kakam. Each of the greater ships has from twelve sails down to three. These are made of bamboo laths woven into a kind of mat; they are never lowered, and they are braced this way and that as the wind may blow. When these vessels anchor the sails are allowed to fly loose. Each ship has a crew of 1000 men, viz. 600 mariners and 400 soldiers, among whom are archers, target-men, and cross-bow men to shoot naphtha. Each large vessel is attended by three others, which are called respectively ‘The Half,’ ‘The Third,’ and ‘The Quarter.’ These vessels are built only at Zayton, in China, and at Sínkalán or Sín-ul-Sín (i.e. Canton). This is the way they are built. They construct two walls of timber, which they connect by very thick slabs of wood, clenching all fast this way and that with huge spikes, each of which is three cubits in length. When the two walls have been united by these slabs they apply the bottom planking, and then launch the hull before completing the construction. The timbers projecting from the sides towards the water serve the crew for going down to wash and for other needs. And to these projecting timbers are attached the oars, which are like masts in size, and need from 10 to 15 men1 to ply each of them. There are about 20 of these great oars, and the rowers at each oar stand in two ranks facing one another. The oars are provided with two strong cords or cables; each rank pulls at one of these and then lets go, whilst the other rank pulls on the opposite cable. These rowers have a pleasant chaunt at their work usually, singing Lá’ la! Lá’ la!2 The three tenders which we have mentioned above also use oars, and tow the great ships when required.

“On each ship four decks are constructed; and there are cabins and public rooms for the merchants. Some of these cabins are provided with closets and other conveniences, and they have keys so that their tenants can lock them, and carry with them their wives or concubines. The crew in some of the cabins have their children, and they sow kitchen herbs, ginger, etc., in wooden buckets. The captain is a very great Don; and when he lands, the archers and negro-slaves march before him with javelins, swords, drums, horns, and trumpets.” (IV. pp. 91 seqq. and 247 seqq. combined.) Comparing this very interesting description with Polo’s, we see that they agree in all essentials except size and the number of decks. It is not unlikely that the revival of the trade with India, which Kúblái stimulated, may have in its development under his successors led to the revival also of the larger ships of former times to which Marco alludes.

1 Or even 30 (p. 248).

2 Corresponding to the “Hevelow and rumbelow” of the Christian oarsmen.

(See Coeur de Lion in Weber, II. 99.)

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