The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxii.

Concerning the Island of Scotra.

When you leave those two Islands and go about 500 miles further towards the south, then you come to an Island called SCOTRA. The people are all baptized Christians; and they have an Archbishop. They have a great deal of ambergris; and plenty also of cotton stuffs and other merchandize; especially great quantities of salt fish of a large and excellent kind. They also eat flesh and milk and rice, for that is their only kind of corn; and they all go naked like the other Indians.

[The ambergris comes from the stomach of the whale, and as it is a great object of trade, the people contrive to take the whales with barbed iron darts, which, once they are fixed in the body, cannot come out again. A long cord is attached to this end, to that a small buoy which floats on the surface, so that when the whale dies they know where to find it. They then draw the body ashore and extract the ambergris from the stomach and the oil from the head.1]

There is a great deal of trade there, for many ships come from all quarters with goods to sell to the natives. The merchants also purchase gold there, by which they make a great profit; and all the vessels bound for Aden touch at this Island.

Their Archbishop has nothing to do with the Pope of Rome, but is subject to the great Archbishop who lives at Baudas. He rules over the Bishop of that Island, and over many other Bishops in those regions of the world, just as our Pope does in these.2

A multitude of corsairs frequent the Island; they come there and encamp and put up their plunder to sale; and this they do to good profit, for the Christians of the Island purchase it, knowing well that it is Saracen or Pagan gear.3

And you must know that in this Island there are the best enchanters in the world. It is true that their Archbishop forbids the practice to the best of his ability; but ’tis all to no purpose, for they insist that their forefathers followed it, and so must they also. I will give you a sample of their enchantments. Thus, if a ship be sailing past with a fair wind and a strong, they will raise a contrary wind and compel her to turn back. In fact they make the wind blow as they list, and produce great tempests and disasters; and other such sorceries they perform, which it will be better to say nothing about in our Book.4

NOTE 1. — Mr. Blyth appears to consider that the only whale met with nowadays in the Indian Sea north of the line is a great Rorqual or Balaenoptera, to which he gives the specific name of Indica. (See J.A.S.B. XXVIII. 481.) The text, however (from Ramusio), clearly points to the Spermaceti whale; and Maury’s Whale–Chart consists with this.

“The best ambergris,” says Mas’udi, “is found on the islands and coasts of the Sea of Zinj (Eastern Africa); it is round, of a pale blue, and sometimes as big as an ostrich egg. . . . These are morsels which have been swallowed by the fish called Awál. When the sea is much agitated it casts up fragments of amber almost like lumps of rock, and the fish swallowing these is choked thereby, and floats on the surface. The men of Zinj, or wherever it be, then come in their canoes, and fall on the creature with harpoons and cables, draw it ashore, cut it up, and extract the ambergris” (I. 134).

Kazwini speaks of whales as often imprisoned by the ebb tide in the channels about Basra. The people harpooned them, and got much oil out of the brain, which they used for lamps, and smearing their ships. This also is clearly the sperm whale. (Ethé, p. 268.)

After having been long doubted, scientific opinion seems to have come back to the opinion that ambergris is an excretion from the whale. “Ambergris is a morbid secretion in the intestines of the cachalot, deriving its origin either from the stomach or biliary ducts, and allied in its nature to gall-stones, . . . whilst the masses found floating on the sea are those that have been voided by the whale, or liberated from the dead animal by the process of putrefaction.” (Bennett, Whaling Voyage Round the Globe, 1840, II. 326.)

[“The Pen ts’ao, ch. xliii. fol. 5, mentions ambergris under the name lung sien hiang (dragon’s saliva perfume), and describes it as a sweet-scented product, which is obtained from the south-western sea. It is greasy, and at first yellowish white; when dry, it forms pieces of a yellowish black colour. In spring whole herds of dragons swim in that sea, and vomit it out. Others say that it is found in the belly of a large fish. This description also doubtless points to ambergris, which in reality is a pathological secretion of the intestines of the spermaceti whale (Physeter macrocephalus), a large cetaceous animal. The best ambergris is collected on the Arabian coast. In the Ming shi (ch. cccxxvi.) lung sien hiang is mentioned as a product of Bu-la-wa (Brava on the east coast of Africa), and an-ba-rh (evidently also ambergris) amongst the products of Dsu-fa-rh (Dsahfar, on the south coast of Arabia).” (Bretschneider, Med. Res. I. p. 152, note.)— H.C.]

NOTE 2. — Scotra probably represented the usual pronunciation of the name SOCOTRA, which has been hypothetically traced to a Sanskrit original, Dvípa-Sukhádhára, “the Island Abode of Bliss,” from which (contracted Diuskadra) the Greeks made “the island of Dioscorides.”

So much painful interest attaches to the history of a people once Christian, but now degenerated almost to savagery, that some detail maybe permitted on this subject.

The Periplus calls the island very large, but desolate; . . . the inhabitants were few, and dwelt on the north side. They were of foreign origin, being a mixture of Arabs, Indians, and Greeks, who had come thither in search of gain. . . . The island was under the king of the Incense Country. . . . Traders came from Muza (near Mocha) and sometimes from Limyrica and Barygaza (Malabar and Guzerat), bringing rice, wheat, and Indian muslins, with female slaves, which had a ready sale. Cosmas (6th century) says there was in the island a bishop, appointed from Persia. The inhabitants spoke Greek, having been originally settled there by the Ptolemies. “There are clergy there also, ordained and sent from Persia to minister among the people of the island, and a multitude of Christians. We sailed past the island, but did not land. I met, however, with people from it who were on their way to Ethiopia, and they spoke Greek.”

The ecclesiastical historian Nicephorus Callistus seems to allude to the people of Socotra, when he says that among the nations visited by the missionary Theophilus, in the time of Constantius, were “the Assyrians on the verge of the outer ocean towards the East . . . whom Alexander the Great, after driving them from Syria, sent thither to settle, and to this day they keep their mother tongue, though all of the blackest, through the power of the sun’s rays.” The Arab voyagers of the 9th century say that the island was colonised with Greeks by Alexander the Great, in order to promote the culture of the Socotrine aloes; when the other Greeks adopted Christianity these did likewise, and they had continued to retain their profession of it. The colonising by Alexander is probably a fable, but invented to account for facts.

[Edrisi says (Jaubert’s transl. pp. 47, seqq.) that the chief produce of Socotra is aloes, and that most of the inhabitants of this island are Christians; for this reason: when Alexander had subjugated Porus, his master Aristotle gave him the advice to seek after the island producing aloes; after his conquest of India, Alexander remembered the advice, and on his return journey from the Sea of India to the Sea of Oman, he stopped at Socotra, which he greatly admired for its fertility and the pleasantness of its climate. Acting on the advice of Aristotle, Alexander removed the inhabitants from their island, and established in their place a colony of Ionians, to whom he entrusted the care of cultivating aloes. These Greeks were converted when the Christian religion was preached to them, and their descendants have remained Christians. — H.C.]

In the list of the metropolitan Sees of the Nestorian Church we find one called Kotrobah, which is supposed to stand for Socotra. According to Edrisi, Kotrobah was an island inhabited by Christians; he speaks of Socotra separately, but no island suits his description of Kotrobah but Socotra itself; and I suspect that we have here geography in duplicate, no uncommon circumstance. There is an epistle extant from the Nestorian Patriarch Jesujabus (A.D. 650–660), ad Episcopos Catarensium, which Assemani interprets of the Christians in Socotra and the adjacent coasts of Arabia (III. 133).1 Abulfeda says the people of Socotra were Nestorian Christians and pirates. Nicolo Conti, in the first half of the 15th century, spent two months on the island (Sechutera). He says it was for the most part inhabited by Nestorian Christians.

[Professor W.R. Smith, in a letter to Sir H. Yule, dated Cambridge, 15th June, 1886, writes: “The authorities for Kotrobah seem to be (1) Edrisi, (2) the list of Nestorian Bishops in Assemani. There is no trace of such a name anywhere else that I can find. But there is a place called Katar about which most of the Arab Geographers know very little, but which is mentioned in poetry. Bekri, who seems best informed, says that it lay between Bahrain and Oman. . . . Istakhri and Ibn Haukal speak of the Katar pirates. Their collective name is the Kataríya.”]

Some indications point rather to a connection of the island’s Christianity with the Jacobite or Abyssinian Church. Thus they practised circumcision, as mentioned by Maffei in noticing the proceedings of Alboquerque at Socotra. De Barros calls them Jacobite Christians of the Abyssinian stock. Barbosa speaks of them as an olive-coloured people, Christian only in name, having neither baptism nor Christian knowledge, and having for many years lost all acquaintance with the Gospel. Andrea Corsali calls them Christian shepherds of Ethiopian race, like Abyssinians. They lived on dates, milk, and butter; some rice was imported. They had churches like mosques, but with altars in Christian fashion.

When Francis Xavier visited the island there were still distinct traces of the Church. The people reverenced the cross, placing it on their altars, and hanging it round their necks. Every village had its minister, whom they called Kashís (Ar. for a Christian Presbyter), to whom they paid tithe. No man could read. The Kashís repeated prayers antiphonetically in a forgotten tongue, which De Barros calls Chaldee, frequently scattering incense; a word like Alleluia often recurred. For bells they used wooden rattles. They assembled in their churches four times a day, and held St. Thomas in great veneration. The Kashíses married, but were very abstemious. They had two Lents, and then fasted strictly from meat, milk, and fish.

The last vestiges of Christianity in Socotra, so far as we know, are those traced by P. Vincenzo, the Carmelite, who visited the island after the middle of the 17th century. The people still retained a profession of Christianity, but without any knowledge, and with a strange jumble of rites; sacrificing to the moon; circumcising; abominating wine and pork. They had churches which they called Moquame (Ar. Makám, “Locus, Statio”?), dark, low, and dirty, daily anointed with butter. On the altar was a cross and a candle. The cross was regarded with ignorant reverence, and carried in processions. They assembled in their churches three times in the day, and three times in the night, and in their worship burned much incense, etc. The priests were called Odambo, elected and consecrated by the people, and changed every year. Of baptism and other sacraments they had no knowledge.

There were two races: one, black with crisp hair; the other, less black, of better aspect, and with straight hair. Each family had a cave in which they deposited their dead. They cultivated a few palms, and kept flocks; had no money, no writing, and kept tale of their flocks by bags of stones. They often committed suicide in age, sickness, or defeat. When rain failed they selected a victim by lot, and placing him within a circle, addressed prayers to the moon. If without success they cut off the poor wretch’s hands. They had many who practised sorcery. The women were all called Maria, which the author regarded as a relic of Christianity; this De Barros also notices a century earlier.

Now, not a trace of former Christianity can be discovered — unless it be in the name of one of the villages on the coast, Colesseeah, which looks as if it faintly commemorated both the ancient religion and the ancient language ([Greek: ékklaesía]). The remains of one building, traditionally a place of worship, were shown to Wellsted; he could find nothing to connect it with Christianity.

The social state of the people is much as Father Vincenzo described it; lower it could scarcely be. Mahomedanism is now the universal profession. The people of the interior are still of distinct race, with curly hair, Indian complexion, regular features. The coast people are a mongrel body, of Arab and other descent. Probably in old times the case was similar, and the civilisation and Greek may have been confined to the littoral foreigners. (Müller’s Geog. Gr. Minores, I. pp. 280–281; Relations, I. 139–140; Cathay, clxxi., ccxlv. 169; Conti, 20; Maffei, lib. III.; Büsching, IV. 278; Faria, I. 117–118; Ram. I. f. 181 v. and 292; Jarric, Thes. Rer. Indic. I. 108–109; P. Vinc. 132, 442; J.R.G.S. V. 129 seqq.)

NOTE 3. — As far back as the 10th century Socotra was a noted haunt of pirates. Mas’udi says: “Socotra is one of the stations frequented by the Indian corsairs called Bawárij, which chase the Arab ships bound for India and China, just as the Greek galleys chase the Mussulmans in the sea of Rúm along the coasts of Syria and Egypt” (III. 37). The Bawárij were corsairs of Kach’h and Guzerat, so called from using a kind of war-vessel called Bárja. (Elliot, I. 65.) Ibn Batuta tells a story of a friend of his, the Shaikh Sa’íd, superior of a convent at Mecca, who had been to India and got large presents at the court of Delhi. With a comrade called Hajji Washl, who was also carrying a large sum to buy horses, “when they arrived at the island of Socotra . . . they were attacked by Indian corsairs with a great number of vessels. . . . The corsairs took everything out of the ship, and then left it to the crew with its tackle, so that they were able to reach Aden.” Ibn Batuta’s remark on this illustrates what Polo has said of the Malabar pirates, in ch. xxv. supra: “The custom of these pirates is not to kill or drown anybody when the actual fighting is over. They take all the property of the passengers, and then let them go whither they will with their vessel” (I. 362–363).

NOTE 4. — We have seen that P. Vincenzo alludes to the sorceries of the people; and De Barros also speaks of the feiticeria or witchcraft by which the women drew ships to the island, and did other marvels (u.s.).

1 [Assemani, in his corrections (III. p. 362), gives up Socotra in favour of Bactria.]

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