The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xii.

Concerning the Island of Necuveran.

When you leave the Island of Java (the less) and the kingdom of Lambri, you sail north about 150 miles, and then you come to two Islands, one of which is called NECUVERAN. In this Island they have no king nor chief, but live like beasts. And I tell you they go all naked, both men and women, and do not use the slightest covering of any kind. They are Idolaters. Their woods are all of noble and valuable kinds of trees; such as Red Sanders and Indian-nut and Cloves and Brazil and sundry other good spices. 1

There is nothing else worth relating; so we will go on, and I will tell you of an Island called Angamanain.

NOTE 1. — The end of the last chapter and the commencement of this I have taken from the G. Text. There has been some confusion in the notes of the original dictation which that represents, and corrections have made it worse. Thus Pauthier’s text runs: “I will tell you of two small Islands, one called Gauenispola and the other Necouran,” and then: “You sail north about 150 miles and find two Islands, one called Necouran and the other Gauenispola.” Ramusio does not mention Gauenispola, but says in the former passage: “I will tell you of a small Island called Nocueran”— and then: “You find two islands, one called Nocueran and the other Angaman.”

Knowing the position of Gauenispola there is no difficulty in seeing how the passage should be explained. Something has interrupted the dictation after the last chapter. Polo asks Rusticiano, “Where were we?” “Leaving the Great Island.” Polo forgets the “very small Island called Gauenispola,” and passes to the north, where he has to tell us of two islands, “one called Necuveran and the other Angamanain.” So, I do not doubt, the passage should run.

Let us observe that his point of departure in sailing north to the Nicobar Islands was the Kingdom of Lambri. This seems to indicate that Lambri included Achin Head or came very near it, an indication which we shall presently see confirmed.

As regards Gauenispola, of which he promised to tell us and forgot his promise, its name has disappeared from our modern maps, but it is easily traced in the maps of the 16th and 17th centuries, and in the books of navigators of that time. The latest in which I have observed it is the Neptune Oriental, Paris 1775, which calls it Pulo Gommes. The name is there applied to a small island off Achin Head, outside of which lie the somewhat larger Islands of Pulo Nankai (or Nási) and Pulo Brás, whilst Pulo Wai lies further east.1 I imagine, however, that the name was by the older navigators applied to the larger Island of Pulo Bras, or to the whole group. Thus Alexander Hamilton, who calls it Gomus and Pulo Gomuis, says that “from the Island of Gomus and Pulo Wey . . . the southernmost of the Nicobars may be seen.” Dampier most precisely applies the name of Pulo Gomez to the larger island which modern charts call Pulo Bras. So also Beaulieu couples the islands of “Gomispoda and Pulo Way” in front of the roadstead of Achin. De Barros mentions that Gaspar d’Acosta was lost on the Island of Gomispola. Linschoten, describing the course from Cochin to Malacca, says: “You take your course towards the small Isles of GOMESPOLA, which are in 6°, near the corner of Achin in the Island of Sumatra.” And the Turkish author of the Mohit, in speaking of the same navigation, says: “If you wish to reach Malacca, guard against seeing JÁMISFULAH ([Arabic]), because the mountains of LÁMRI advance into the sea, and the flood is there very strong.” The editor has misunderstood the geography of this passage, which evidently means “Don’t go near enough to Achin Head to see even the islands in front of it.” And here we see again that Lambri is made to extend to Achin Head. The passage is illustrated by the report of the first English Voyage to the Indies. Their course was for the Nicobars, but “by the Master’s fault in not duly observing the South Star, they fell to the southward of them, within sight of the Islands of Gomes Polo.” (Nept. Orient. Charts 38 and 39, and pp. 126–127; Hamilton, II. 66 and Map; Dampier, ed. 1699, II. 122; H. Gén. des Voyages, XII. 310; Linschoten, Routier, p. 30; De Barros, Dec. III. liv. iii. cap. 3; J.A.S.B. VI. 807; Astley, I. 238.)

The two islands (or rather groups of islands) Necuveran and Angamanain are the Nicobar and Andaman groups. A nearer trace of the form Necuveran, or Necouran as it stands in some MSS., is perhaps preserved in Nancouri, the existing name of one of the islands. They are perhaps the Nalo-kilo-chéu (Narikela-dvipa) or Coco-nut Islands of which Hiuen Tsang speaks as existing some thousand li to the south of Ceylon. The men, he had heard, were but 3 feet high, and had the beaks of birds. They had no cultivation and lived on coco-nuts. The islands are also believed to be the Lanja bálús or Lankha bálús of the old Arab navigators: “These Islands support a numerous population. Both men and women go naked, only the women wear a girdle of the leaves of trees. When a ship passes near, the men come out in boats of various sizes and barter ambergris and coco-nuts for iron,” a description which has applied accurately for many centuries. [Ibn Khordâdhbeh says (De Goeje’s transl., p. 45) that the inhabitants of Nicobar (Alankabâlous), an island situated at ten or fifteen days from Serendib, are naked; they live on bananas, fresh fish, and coco-nuts; the precious metal is iron in their country; they frequent foreign merchants. — H.C.] Rashiduddin writes of them nearly in the same terms under the name of Lákváram, but read NÁKAVÁRAM opposite LAMURI. Odoric also has a chapter on the island of Nicoveran, but it is one full of fable. (H. Tsang, III. 114 and 517; Relations, p. 8; Elliot, I. p. 71; Cathay, p. 97.)

[Mr. G. Phillips writes (J.R.A.S., July 1895, P. 529) that the name Tsui-lan given to the Nicobars by the Chinese is, he has but little doubt, “a corruption of Nocueran, the name given by Marco Polo to the group. The characters Tsui-lan are pronounced Ch’ui-lan in Amoy, out of which it is easy to make Cueran. The Chinese omitted the initial syllable and called them the Cueran Islands, while Marco Polo called them the Nocueran Islands.”— H.C.]

[The Nicobar Islands “are generally known by the Chinese under the name of Râkchas or Demons who devour men, from the belief that their inhabitants were anthropophagi. In A.D. 607, the Emperor of China, Yang-ti, had sent an envoy to Siam, who also reached the country of the Râkchas. According to Tu-yen’s T’ung-tien, the Nicobars lie east [west] of Poli. Its inhabitants are very ugly, having red hair, black bodies, teeth like beasts, and claws like hawks. Sometimes they traded with Lin-yih (Champa), but then at night; in day-time they covered their faces.” (G. Schlegel, Geog. Notes, I. pp. 1–2). — H.C.]

Mr. Phillips, from his anonymous Chinese author, gives a quaint legend as to the nakedness of these islanders. Sakya Muni, having arrived from Ceylon, stopped at the islands to bathe. Whilst he was in the water the natives stole his clothes, upon which the Buddha cursed them; and they have never since been able to wear any clothing without suffering for it.

[Professor Schlegel gives the same legend (Geog. Notes, I. p. 8) with reference to the Andaman Islands from the Sing-ch’a Shêng-lan, published in 1436 by Fei-sin; Mr. Phillips seems to have made a confusion between the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. (Doolittle’s Vocab. II. p. 556; cf. Schlegel, l.c. p. 11.)— H.C.]

The chief part of the population is believed to be of race akin to the Malay, but they seem to be of more than one race, and there is great variety in dialect. There have long been reports of a black tribe with woolly hair in the unknown interior of the Great Nicobar, and my friend Colonel H. Man, when Superintendent of our Andaman Settlements, received spontaneous corroboration of this from natives of the former island, who were on a visit to Port Blair. Since this has been in type I have seen in the F. of India (28th July, 1874) notice of a valuable work by F.A. de Roepstorff on the dialects and manners of the Nicobarians. This notice speaks of an aboriginal race called Shob’aengs, “purely Mongolian,” but does not mention negritoes. The natives do not now go quite naked; the men wear a narrow cloth; and the women a grass girdle. They are very skilful in management of their canoes. Some years since there were frightful disclosures regarding the massacre of the crews of vessels touching at these islands, and this has led eventually to their occupation by the Indian Government. Trinkat and Nancouri are the islands which were guilty. A woman of Trinkat who could speak Malay was examined by Colonel Man, and she acknowledged having seen nineteen vessels scuttled, after their cargoes had been plundered and their crews massacred. “The natives who were captured at Trinkat,” says Colonel Man in another letter, “were a most savage-looking set, with remarkably long arms, and very projecting eye-teeth.”

The islands have always been famous for the quality and abundance of their “Indian Nuts,” i.e. cocos. The tree of next importance to the natives is a kind of Pandanus, from the cooked fruit of which they express an edible substance called Melori, of which you may read in Dampier; they have the betel and areca; and they grow yams, but only for barter. As regards the other vegetation, mentioned by Polo, I will quote, what Colonel Man writes to me from the Andamans, which probably is in great measure applicable to the Nicobars also! “Our woods are very fine, and doubtless resemble those of the Nicobars. Sapan wood (i.e. Polo’s Brazil) is in abundance; coco-nuts, so numerous in the Nicobars, and to the north in the Cocos, are not found naturally with us, though they grow admirably when cultivated. There is said to be sandal-wood in our forests, and camphor, but I have not yet come across them. I do not believe in cloves, but we have lots of the wild nutmeg.”2 The last, and cardamoms, are mentioned in the Voyage of the Novara, vol. ii., in which will be found a detail of the various European attempts to colonise the Nicobar Islands with other particulars. (See also J.A.S.B. XV. 344 seqq.) [See Schlegel’s Geog. Notes, XVI., The Old States in the Island of Sumatra. — H.C.]

1 It was a mistake to suppose the name had disappeared, for it is applied, in the form Pulo Gaimr, to the small island above indicated, in Colonel Versteeg’s map to Veth’s Atchin (1873). In a map chiefly borrowed from that, in Ocean Highways, August, 1873, I have ventured to restore the name as Pulo Gomus. The name is perhaps (Mal.) Gamás, “hard, rough.”

2 Kurz’s Vegetation of the Andaman Islands gives four myristicae (nutmegs); but no sandal-wood nor camphor-laurel. Nor do I find sappan-wood, though there is another Caesalpinia (C. Nuga).

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