The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxi.

Discourseth of the Two Islands Called Male and Female, and why They are So Called.

When you leave this kingdom of Kesmacoran, which is on the mainland, you go by sea some 500 miles towards the south; and then you find the two Islands, MALE and FEMALE, lying about 30 miles distant from one another. The people are all baptized Christians, but maintain the ordinances of the Old Testament; thus when their wives are with child they never go near them till their confinement, or for forty days thereafter.

In the Island however which is called Male, dwell the men alone, without their wives or any other women. Every year when the month of March arrives the men all set out for the other Island, and tarry there for three months, to wit, March, April, May, dwelling with their wives for that space. At the end of those three months they return to their own Island, and pursue their husbandry and trade for the other nine months.

They find on this Island very fine ambergris. They live on flesh and milk and rice. They are capital fishermen, and catch a great quantity of fine large sea-fish, and these they dry, so that all the year they have plenty of food, and also enough to sell to the traders who go thither. They have no chief except a bishop, who is subject to the archbishop of another Island, of which we shall presently speak, called SCOTRA. They have also a peculiar language.

As for the children which their wives bear to them, if they be girls they abide with their mothers; but if they be boys the mothers bring them up till they are fourteen, and then send them to the fathers. Such is the custom of these two Islands. The wives do nothing but nurse their children and gather such fruits as their Island produces; for their husbands do furnish them with all necessaries.1

NOTE 1. — It is not perhaps of much use to seek a serious identification of the locality of these Islands, or, as Marsden has done, to rationalise the fable. It ran from time immemorial, and as nobody ever found the Islands, their locality shifted with the horizon, though the legend long hung about Socotra and its vicinity. Coronelli’s Atlas (Venice, 1696) identifies these islands with those called Abdul Kuri near Cape Gardafui, and the same notion finds favour with Marsden. No islands indeed exist in the position indicated by Polo if we look to his direction “south of Kesmacoran,” but if we take his indication of “half-way between Mekrán and Socotra,” the Kuria Muria Islands on the Arabian coast, in which M. Pauthier longs to trace these veritable Male and Female Isles, will be nearer than any others. Marco’s statement that they had a bishop subject to the metropolitan of Socotra certainly looks as if certain concrete islands had been associated with the tale. Friar Jordanus (p. 44) also places them between India the Greater and India Tertia (i.e. with him Eastern Africa). Conti locates them not more than 5 miles from Socotra, and yet 100 mile distant from one another. “Sometimes the men pass over to the women, and sometimes the women pass over to the men, and each return to their own respective island before the expiration of six months. Those who remain on the island of the others beyond this fatal period die immediately” (p. 21). Fra Mauro places the islands to the south of Zanzibar, and gives them the names of Mangla and Nebila. One is curious to know whence came these names, one of which seems to be Sanskrit, the other (also in Sanudo’s map) Arabic; (Nabílah, Ar., “Beautiful”; Mangala, Sansk. “Fortunate”).

A savour of the story survived to the time of the Portuguese discoveries, and it had by that time attached itself to Socotra. (De Barros, Dec. II. Liv. i. cap. 3; Bartoli, H. della Comp. di Gesù, Asia, I. p. 37; P. Vincenzo, p. 443.)

The story was, I imagine, a mere ramification of the ancient and wide-spread fable of the Amazons, and is substantially the same that Palladius tells of the Brahmans; how the men lived on one side of the Ganges and the women on the other. The husbands visited their wives for 40 days only in June, July, and August, “those being their cold months, as the sun was then to the north.” And when a wife had once borne a child the husband returned no more. (Müller’s Ps. Callisth. 105.) The Mahábhárata celebrates the Amazon country of Ráná Paramitá, where the regulations were much as in Polo’s islands, only male children were put to death, and men if they overstayed a month. (Wheelers India, I. 400.)

Hiuen Tsang’s version of the legend agrees with Marco’s in placing the Woman’s Island to the south of Persia. It was called the Kingdom of Western Women. There were none but women to be seen. It was under Folin (the Byzantine Empire), and the ruler thereof sent husbands every year; if boys were born, the law prohibited their being brought up. (Vie et Voyages, p. 268.) Alexander, in Ferdúsi’s poem, visits the City of Women on an island in the sea, where no man was allowed.

The Chinese accounts, dating from the 5th century, of a remote Eastern Land called Fusang, which Neumann fancied to have been Mexico, mention that to the east of that region again there was a Woman’s Island, with the usual particulars. (Lassen, IV. 751.) [Cf. G. Schlegel, Niu Kouo, T’oung Pao, III. pp. 495–510. — H.C.] Oddly enough, Columbus heard the same story of an island called Matityna or Matinino (apparently Martinique) which he sighted on his second voyage. The Indians on board “asserted that it had no inhabitants but women, who at a certain time of the year were visited by the Cannibals (Caribs); if the children born were boys they were brought up and sent to their fathers, if girls they were retained by the mothers. They reported also that these women had certain subterranean caverns in which they took refuge if any one went thither except at the established season,” etc. (P. Martyr in Ramusio, III. 3 v. and see 85.) Similar Amazons are placed by Adam of Bremen on the Baltic Shores, a story there supposed to have originated in a confusion between Gwenland, i.e. Finland, and a land of Cwens or Women.

Mendoza heard of the like in the vicinity of Japan (perhaps the real Fusang story), though he opines judiciously that “this is very doubtful to be beleeved, although I have bin certified by religious men that have talked with persons that within these two yeares have beene at the saide ilands, and have seene the saide women.” (H. of China, II. 301.) Lane quotes a like tale about a horde of Cossacks whose wives were said to live apart on certain islands in the Dnieper. (Arab. Nights, 1859, III. 479.) The same story is related by a missionary in the Lettres Édifiantes of certain unknown islands supposed to lie south of the Marian group. Pauthier, from whom I derive this last instance, draws the conclusion: “On voit que le récit de Marc Pol est loin d’être imaginaire.” Mine from the premises would be different!

Sometimes the fable took another form; in which the women are entirely isolated, as in that which Mela quotes from Hanno (III. 9). So with the Isle of Women which Kazwini and Bakui place to the South of China. They became enceinte by the Wind, or by eating a particular fruit [or by plunging into the sea; cf. Schlegel, l.c. — H.C.], or, as in a Chinese tradition related by Magaillans, by looking at their own faces in a well! The like fable is localised by the Malays in the island of Engano off Sumatra, and was related to Pigafetta of an island under Great Java called Ocoloro, perhaps the same.

(Magail. 76; Gildem. 196; N. et Ex. II. 398; Pigafetta, 173; Marsden’s Sumatra, 1st ed. p. 264.)

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Last updated Thursday, March 6, 2014 at 16:24