The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxxiii.

Concerning the Island of Madeigascar.

Madeigascar is an Island towards the south, about a thousand miles from Scotra. The people are all Saracens, adoring Mahommet. They have four Esheks, i.e. four Elders, who are said to govern the whole Island. And you must know that it is a most noble and beautiful Island, and one of the greatest in the world, for it is about 4000 miles in compass. The people live by trade and handicrafts.

In this Island, and in another beyond it called ZANGHIBAR, about which we shall tell you afterwards, there are more elephants than in any country in the world. The amount of traffic in elephants’ teeth in these two Islands is something astonishing.

In this Island they eat no flesh but that of camels; and of these they kill an incredible number daily. They say it is the best and wholesomest of all flesh; and so they eat of it all the year round.1

They have in this Island many trees of red sanders, of excellent quality; in fact, all their forests consist of it.[NOTE 2] They have also a quantity of ambergris, for whales are abundant in that sea, and they catch numbers of them; and so are Oil-heads, which are a huge kind of fish, which also produce ambergris like the whale.3 There are numbers of leopards, bears, and lions in the country, and other wild beasts in abundance. Many traders, and many ships go thither with cloths of gold and silk, and many other kinds of goods, and drive a profitable trade.

You must know that this Island lies so far south that ships cannot go further south or visit other Islands in that direction, except this one, and that other of which we have to tell you, called Zanghibar. This is because the sea-current runs so strong towards the south that the ships which should attempt it never would get back again. Indeed, the ships of Maabar which visit this Island of Madeigascar, and that other of Zanghibar, arrive thither with marvellous speed, for great as the distance is they accomplish it in 20 days, whilst the return voyage takes them more than 3 months. This (I say) is because of the strong current running south, which continues with such singular force and in the same direction at all seasons.4

’Tis said that in those other Islands to the south, which the ships are unable to visit because this strong current prevents their return, is found the bird Gryphon, which appears there at certain seasons. The description given of it is however entirely different from what our stories and pictures make it. For persons who had been there and had seen it told Messer Marco Polo that it was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its wings covered an extent of 30 paces, and its quills were 12 paces long, and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air, and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him the bird gryphon swoops down on him and eats him at leisure. The people of those isles call the bird Ruc, and it has no other name.5 So I wot not if this be the real gryphon, or if there be another manner of bird as great. But this I can tell you for certain, that they are not half lion and half bird as our stories do relate; but enormous as they be they are fashioned just like an eagle.

The Great Kaan sent to those parts to enquire about these curious matters, and the story was told by those who went thither. He also sent to procure the release of an envoy of his who had been despatched thither, and had been detained; so both those envoys had many wonderful things to tell the Great Kaan about those strange islands, and about the birds I have mentioned. [They brought (as I heard) to the Great Kaan a feather of the said Ruc, which was stated to measure 90 spans, whilst the quill part was two palms in circumference, a marvellous object! The Great Kaan was delighted with it, and gave great presents to those who brought it. 6] They also brought two boars’ tusks, which weighed more than 14 lbs. apiece; and you may gather how big the boar must have been that had teeth like that! They related indeed that there were some of those boars as big as a great buffalo. There are also numbers of giraffes and wild asses; and in fact a marvellous number of wild beasts of strange aspect.7

NOTE 1. — Marco is, I believe, the first writer European or Asiatic, who unambiguously speaks of MADAGASCAR; but his information about it was very incorrect in many particulars. There are no elephants nor camels in the island, nor any leopards, bears, or lions.

Indeed, I have no doubt that Marco, combining information from different sources, made some confusion between Makdashau (Magadoxo) and Madagascar, and that particulars belonging to both are mixed up here. This accounts for Zanghibar being placed entirely beyond Madagascar, for the entirely Mahomedan character given to the population, for the hippopotamus-teeth and staple trade in ivory, as well for the lions, elephants, and other beasts. But above all the camel-killing indicates Sumáli Land and Magadoxo as the real locality of part of the information. Says Ibn Batuta: “After leaving Zaila we sailed on the sea for 15 days, and arrived at Makdashau, an extremely large town. The natives keep camels in great numbers, and they slaughter several hundreds daily” (II. 181). The slaughter of camels for food is still a Sumáli practice. (See J.R.G.S. VI. 28, and XIX. 55.) Perhaps the Shaikhs (Esceqe) also belong to the same quarter, for the Arab traveller says that the Sultan of Makdashau had no higher title than Shaikh (183); and Brava, a neighbouring settlement, was governed by 12 shaikhs. (De Barros, I. viii. 4.) Indeed, this kind of local oligarchy still prevails on that coast.

We may add that both Makdashau and Brava are briefly described in the Annals of the Ming Dynasty. The former Mu-ku-tu-su, lies on the sea, 20 days from Siao–Kolan (Quilon?), a barren mountainous country of wide extent, where it sometimes does not rain for years. In 1427 a mission came from this place to China. Pu-la-wa (Brava, properly Baráwa) adjoins the former, and is also on the sea. It produces olibanum, myrrh, and ambergris; and among animals elephants, camels, rhinoceroses, spotted animals like asses, etc.1

It is, however, true that there are traces of a considerable amount of ancient Arab colonisation on the shores of Madagascar. Arab descent is ascribed to a class of the people of the province of Matitánana on the east coast, in lat. 21°-23° south, and the Arabic writing is in use there. The people of the St. Mary’s Isle of our maps off the east coast, in lat. 17°, also call themselves the children of Ibrahim, and the island Nusi–Ibrahim. And on the north-west coast, at Bambeluka Bay, Captain Owen found a large Arab population, whose forefathers had been settled there from time immemorial. The number of tombs here and in Magambo Bay showed that the Arab population had once been much greater. The government of this settlement, till conquered by Radama, was vested in three persons: one a Malagash, the second an Arab, the third as guardian of strangers; a fact also suggestive of Polo’s four sheikhs (Ellis, I. 131; Owen, II. 102, 132. See also Sonnerat, II. 56.) Though the Arabs were in the habit of navigating to Sofala, in about lat. 20° south, in the time of Mas’udi (beginning of 10th century), and must have then known Madagascar, there is no intelligible indication of it in any of their geographies that have been translated.2

[M. Alfred Grandidier, in his Hist. de la Géog. de Madagascar, p. 31, comes to the conclusion that Marco Polo has given a very exact description of Magadoxo, but that he did not know the island of Madagascar. He adds in a note that Yule has shown that the description of Madeigascar refers partly to Magadoxo, but that notwithstanding he (Yule) believed that Polo spoke of Madagascar when the Venetian traveller does not. I must say that I do not see any reason why Yule’s theory should not be accepted.

M.G. Ferrand, formerly French Agent at Fort Dauphin, has devoted ch. ix. (pp. 83–90) of the second part of his valuable work Les Musulmans à Madagascar (Paris, 1893), to the “Etymology of Madagascar.” He believes that M. Polo really means the great African Island. I mention from his book that M. Guët (Origines de l’île Bourbon, 1888) brings the Carthaginians to Madagascar, and derives the name of this island from Madax–Aschtoret or Madax–Astarté, which signifies Isle of Astarté and Isle of Tanit! Mr. I. Taylor (The origin of the name ‘Madagascar,’ in Antananarivo Annual, 1891) gives also some fancy etymologies; it is needless to mention them. M. Ferrand himself thinks that very likely Madagascar simply means Country of the Malagash (Malgaches), and is only a bad transcription of the Arabic Madagasbar. — H.C.]

NOTE 2. — There is, or used to be, a trade in sandal-wood from Madagascar. (See Owen, II. 99.) In the map of S. Lorenzo (or Madagascar) in the Isole of Porcacchi (1576), a map evidently founded on fact, I observe near the middle of the Island: quivi sono boschi di sandari rossi.

NOTE 3. —“The coast of this province” (Ivongo, the N.E. of the Island) “abounds with whales, and during a certain period of the year Antongil Bay is a favourite resort for whalers of all nations. The inhabitants of Titingue are remarkably expert in spearing the whales from their slight canoes.” (Lloyd in J.R.G.S. XX. 56.) A description of the whale-catching process practised by the Islanders of St. Mary’s, or Nusi Ibrahim, is given in the Quinta Pars Indiae Orientalis of De Bry, p. 9. Owen gives a similar account (I. 170).

The word which I have rendered Oil-heads is Capdoilles or Capdols, representing Capidoglio, the appropriate name still applied in Italy to the Spermaceti whale. The Vocab. Ital. Univ. quotes Ariosto (VII. 36):—

    —“I Capidogli co’ vecchi marini

Vengon turbati dal lor pigro sonno.”

The Spermaceti-whale is described under this name by Rondeletius, but from his cut it is clear he had not seen the animal.

NOTE 4. — De Barros, after describing the dangers of the Channel of Mozambique, adds: “And as the Moors of this coast of Zanguebar make their voyages in ships and sambuks sewn with coir, instead of being nailed like ours, and thus strong enough to bear the force of the cold seas of the region about the Cape of Good Hope,.. they never dared to attempt the exploration of the regions to the westward of the Cape of Currents, although they greatly desired to do so.” (Dec. I. viii. 4; and see also IV. i. 12.) Kazwini says of the Ocean, quoting Al Biruni: “Then it extends to the sea known as that of Berbera, and stretches from Aden to the furthest extremity of Zanjibar; beyond this goes no vessel on account of the great current. Then it extends to what are called the Mountains of the Moon, whence spring the sources of the Nile of Egypt, and thence to Western Sudan, to the Spanish Countries and the (Western) Ocean.” There has been recent controversy between Captain A.D. Taylor and Commodore Jansen of the Dutch navy, regarding the Mozambique currents, and (incidentally) Polo’s accuracy. The currents in the Mozambique Channel vary with the monsoons, but from Cape Corrientes southward along the coast runs the permanent Lagullas current, and Polo’s statement requires but little correction. (Ethé pp. 214–215; see also Barbosa in Ram. I. 288; Owen, I. 269; Stanley’s Correa, p. 261; J.R.G.S. II. 91; Fra Mauro in Zurla, p. 61; see also Reinaud’s Abulfeda, vol. i. pp. 15–16; and Ocean Highways, August to November, 1873.)

Illustration: The Rukh (from Lane’s “Arabian Nights”), after a Persian drawing.

NOTE 5. — The fable of the RUKH was old and widely spread, like that of the Male and Female Islands, and, just as in that case, one accidental circumstance or another would give it a local habitation, now here now there. The Garuda of the Hindus, the Simurgh of the old Persians, the ’Angka of the Arabs, the Bar Yuchre of the Rabbinical legends, the Gryps of the Greeks, were probably all versions of the same original fable.

Bochart quotes a bitter Arabic proverb which says, “Good–Faith, the Ghul, and the Gryphon (’Angka) are three names of things that exist nowhere.” And Mas’udi, after having said that whatever country he visited he always found that the people believed these monstrous creatures to exist in regions as remote as possible from their own, observes: “It is not that our reason absolutely rejects the possibility of the existence of the Nesnás (see vol. i. p. 206) or of the ’Angka, and other beings of that rare and wondrous order; for there is nothing in their existence incompatible with the Divine Power; but we decline to believe in them because their existence has not been manifested to us on any irrefragable authority.”

Illustration: Frontispiece showing the Bird Rukh.

The circumstance which for the time localized the Rukh in the direction of Madagascar was perhaps some rumour of the great fossil Aepyornis and its colossal eggs, found in that island. According to Geoffroy St. Hilaire, the Malagashes assert that the bird which laid those great eggs still exists, that it has an immense power of flight, and preys upon the greater quadrupeds. Indeed the continued existence of the bird has been alleged as late as 1861 and 1863!

On the great map of Fra Mauro (1459) near the extreme point of Africa which he calls Cavo de Diab, and which is suggestive of the Cape of Good Hope, but was really perhaps Cape Corrientes, there is a rubric inscribed with the following remarkable story: “About the year of Our Lord 1420 a ship or junk of India in crossing the Indian Sea was driven by way of the Islands of Men and Women beyond the Cape of Diab, and carried between the Green Islands and the Darkness in a westerly and south-westerly direction for 40 days, without seeing anything but sky and sea, during which time they made to the best of their judgment 2000 miles. The gale then ceasing they turned back, and were seventy days in getting to the aforesaid Cape Diab. The ship having touched on the coast to supply its wants, the mariners beheld there the egg of a certain bird called Chrocho, which egg was as big as a butt.3 And the bigness of the bird is such that between the extremities of the wings is said to be 60 paces. They say too that it carries away an elephant or any other great animal with the greatest ease, and does great injury to the inhabitants of the country, and is most rapid in its flight.”

G.-St. Hilaire considered the Aepyornis to be of the Ostrich family; Prince C. Buonaparte classed it with the Inepti or Dodos; Duvernay of Valenciennes with aquatic birds! There was clearly therefore room for difference of opinion, and Professor Bianconi of Bologna, who has written much on the subject, concludes that it was most probably a bird of the vulture family. This would go far, he urges, to justify Polo’s account of the Ruc as a bird of prey, though the story of it’s lifting any large animal could have had no foundation, as the feet of the vulture kind are unfit for such efforts. Humboldt describes the habit of the condor of the Andes as that of worrying, wearying, and frightening its four-footed prey until it drops; sometimes the condor drives its victim over a precipice.

Bianconi concludes that on the same scale of proportion as the condor’s, the great quills of the Aepyornis would be about 10 feet long, and the spread of the wings about 32 feet, whilst the height of the bird would be at least four times that of the condor. These are indeed little more than conjectures. And I must add that in Professor Owen’s opinion there is no reasonable doubt that the Aepyornis was a bird allied to the Ostriches.

We gave, in the first edition of this work, a drawing of the great Aepyornis egg in the British Museum of its true size, as the nearest approach we could make to an illustration of the Rukh from nature. The actual contents of this egg will be about 2.35 gallons, which may be compared with Fra Mauro’s anfora! Except in this matter of size, his story of the ship and the egg may be true.

A passage from Temple’s Travels in Peru has been quoted as exhibiting exaggeration in the description of the condor surpassing anything that can be laid to Polo’s charge here; but that is, in fact, only somewhat heavy banter directed against our traveller’s own narrative. (See Travels in Various Parts of Peru, 1830, II. 414–417.)

Recently fossil bones have been found in New Zealand, which seem to bring us a step nearer to the realization of the Rukh. Dr. Haast discovered in a swamp at Glenmark in the province of Otago, along with remains of the Dinornis or Moa, some bones (femur, ungual phalanges, and rib) of a gigantic bird which he pronounces to be a bird of prey, apparently allied to the Harriers, and calls Harpagornis. He supposes it to have preyed upon the Moa, and as that fowl is calculated to have been 10 feet and upwards in height, we are not so very far from the elephant-devouring Rukh. (See Comptes Rendus, Ac. des Sciences 1872, p. 1782; and Ibis, October 1872, p. 433.) This discovery may possibly throw a new light on the traditions of the New Zealanders. For Professor Owen, in first describing the Dinornis in 1839, mentioned that the natives had a tradition that the bones belonged to a bird of the eagle kind. (See Eng. Cyc. Nat. Hist. sub. v. Dinornis.) And Sir Geo. Grey appears to have read a paper, 23rd October 1872,4 which was the description by a Maori of the Hokiol, an extinct gigantic bird of prey of which that people have traditions come down from their ancestors, said to have been a black hawk of great size, as large as the Moa.

I have to thank Mr. Arthur Grote for a few words more on that most interesting subject, the discovery of a real fossil Ruc in New Zealand. He informs me (under date 4th December 1874) that Professor Owen is now working on the huge bones sent home by Dr. Haast, “and is convinced that they belonged to a bird of prey, probably (as Dr. Haast suggested) a Harrier, double the weight of the Moa, and quite capable therefore of preying on the young of that species. Indeed, he is disposed to attribute the extinction of the Harpagornis to that of the Moa, which was the only victim in the country which could supply it with a sufficiency of food.”

One is tempted to add that if the Moa or Dinornis of New Zealand had its Harpagornis scourge, the still greater Aepyornis of Madagascar may have had a proportionate tyrant, whose bones (and quills?) time may bring to light. And the description given by Sir Douglas Forsyth on page 542, of the action of the Golden Eagle of Kashgar in dealing with a wild boar, illustrates how such a bird as our imagined Harpagornis Aepyornithon might master the larger pachydermata, even the elephant himself, without having to treat him precisely as the Persian drawing at p. 415 represents.

Sindbad’s adventures with the Rukh are too well known for quotation. A variety of stories of the same tenor hitherto unpublished, have been collected by M. Marcel Devic from an Arabic work of the 10th century on the “Marvels of Hind,” by an author who professes only to repeat the narratives of merchants and mariners whom he had questioned. A specimen of these will be found under Note 6. The story takes a peculiar form in the Travels of Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela. He heard that when ships were in danger of being lost in the stormy sea that led to China the sailors were wont to sew themselves up in hides, and so when cast upon the surface they were snatched up by great eagles called gryphons, which carried their supposed prey ashore, etc. It is curious that this very story occurs in a Latin poem stated to be at least as old as the beginning of the 13th century, which relates the romantic adventures of a certain Duke Ernest of Bavaria; whilst the story embodies more than one other adventure belonging to the History of Sindbad.5 The Duke and his comrades, navigating in some unknown ramification of the Euxine, fall within the fatal attraction of the Magnet Mountain. Hurried by this augmenting force, their ship is described as crashing through the rotten forest of masts already drawn to their doom:—

“Et ferit impulsus majoris verbere montem

Quam si diplosas impingat machina turres.”

There they starve, and the dead are deposited on the lofty poop to be carried away by the daily visits of the gryphons:—

—“Quae grifae membra leonis

Et pennas aquilae simulantes unguibus atris

Tollentes miseranda suis dant prandia pullis.”

When only the Duke and six others survive, the wisest of the party suggests the scheme which Rabbi Benjamin has related:—

—“Quaeramus tergora, et armis

Vestiti prius, optatis volvamur in illis,

Ut nos tollentes mentita cadavera Grifae

Pullis objiciant, a queis facientibus armis

Et cute dissutâ, nos, si volet, Ille Deorum

Optimus eripiet.”

Which scheme is successfully carried out. The wanderers then make a raft on which they embark on a river which plunges into a cavern in the heart of a mountain; and after a time they emerge in the country of Arimaspia inhabited by the Cyclopes; and so on. The Gryphon story also appears in the romance of Huon de Bordeaux, as well as in the tale called ‘Hasan of el-Basrah’ in Lane’s Version of the Arabian Nights.

It is in the China Seas that Ibn Batuta beheld the Rukh, first like a mountain in the sea where no mountain should be, and then “when the sun rose,” says he, “we saw the mountain aloft in the air, and the clear sky between it and the sea. We were in astonishment at this, and I observed that the sailors were weeping and bidding each other adieu, so I called out, ‘What is the matter?’ They replied, ‘What we took for a mountain is “the Rukh.” If it sees us, it will send us to destruction.’ It was then some 10 miles from the junk. But God Almighty was gracious unto us, and sent us a fair wind, which turned us from the direction in which the Rukh was; so we did not see him well enough to take cognizance of his real shape.” In this story we have evidently a case of abnormal refraction, causing an island to appear suspended in the air.6

The Archipelago was perhaps the legitimate habitat of the Rukh, before circumstances localised it in the direction of Madagascar. In the Indian Sea, says Kazwini, is a bird of size so vast that when it is dead men take the half of its bill and make a ship of it! And there too Pigafetta heard of this bird, under its Hindu name of Garuda, so big that it could fly away with an elephant.7 Kazwini also says that the ‘Angka carries off an elephant as a hawk flies off with a mouse; his flight is like the loud thunder. Whilom he dwelt near the haunts of men, and wrought them great mischief. But once on a time it had carried off a bride in her bridal array, and Hamd Allah, the Prophet of those days, invoked a curse upon the bird. Wherefore the Lord banished it to an inaccessible Island in the Encircling Ocean.

The Simurgh or ‘Angka, dwelling behind veils of Light and Darkness on the inaccessible summits of Caucasus, is in Persian mysticism an emblem of the Almighty.

In Northern Siberia the people have a firm belief in the former existence of birds of colossal size, suggested apparently by the fossil bones of great pachyderms which are so abundant there. And the compressed sabre-like horns of Rhinoceros tichorinus are constantly called, even by Russian merchants, birds’ claws. Some of the native tribes fancy the vaulted skull of the same rhinoceros to be the bird’s head, and the leg-bones of other pachyderms to be its quills; and they relate that their forefathers used to fight wonderful battles with this bird. Erman ingeniously suggests that the Herodotean story of the Gryphons, from under which the Arimaspians drew their gold, grew out of the legends about these fossils.

I may add that the name of our rook in chess is taken from that of this same bird; though first perverted from (Sansk.) rath, a chariot.

Some Eastern authors make the Rukh an enormous beast instead of a bird. (See J.R.A.S. XIII. 64, and Elliot, II. 203.) A Spanish author of the 16th century seems to take the same view of the Gryphon, but he is prudently vague in describing it, which he does among the animals of Africa: “The Grifo which some call CAMELLO PARDAL . . . is called by the Arabs Yfrit(!), and is made just in that fashion in which we see it painted in pictures.” (Marmol, Descripcion General de Africa, Granada, 1573, I. f. 30.) The Zorafa is described as a different beast, which it certainly is!

(Bochart, Hierozoica, II. 852 seqq.; Mas’udi, IV. 16; Mem. dell’ Acad. dell’ Instit. di Bologna, III. 174 seqq., V. 112 seqq.; Zurla on Fra Mauro, p. 62; Lane’s Arabian Nights, Notes on Sindbad; Benj. of Tudela, p. 117; De Varia Fortuna Ernesti Bavariae Ducis, in Thesaurus Novus Anecdotorum of Martene and Durand, vol. III. col. 353 seqq.; I.B. IV. 305; Gildem. p. 220; Pigafetta, p. 174; Major’s Prince Henry, p. 311; Erman, II. 88; Garcin de Tassy, La Poésie philos. etc., chez les Persans, 30 seqq.)

[In a letter to Sir Henry Yule, dated 24th March 1887, Sir (then Dr.) John Kirk writes: “I was speaking with the present Sultan of Zanzibar, Seyyed Barghash, about the great bird which the natives say exists, and in doing so I laughed at the idea. His Highness turned serious and said that indeed he believed it to be quite true that a great bird visited the Udoe country, and that it caused a great shadow to fall upon the country; he added that it let fall at times large rocks. Of course he did not pretend to know these things from his own experience, for he has never been inland, but he considered he had ample grounds to believe these stones from what he had been told of those who travelled. The Udoe country lies north of the River Wami opposite the island of Zanzibar and about two days going inland. The people are jealous of strangers and practise cannibalism in war. They are therefore little visited, and although near the coast we know little of them. The only members of their tribe I have known have been converted to Islam, and not disposed to say much of their native customs, being ashamed of them, while secretly still believing in them. The only thing I noticed was an idea that the tribe came originally from the West, from about Manyema; now the people of that part are cannibals, and cannibalism is almost unknown except among the Wadoe, nearer the east coast. It is also singular that the other story of a gigantic bird comes from near Manyema and that the whalebone that was passed off at Zanzibar as the wing of a bird, came, they said, from Tanganyika. As to rocks falling in East Africa, I think their idea might easily arise from the fall of meteoric stones.”]

[M. Alfred Grandidier (Hist. de la Géog. de Madagascar, p. 31) thinks that the Rukh is but an image; it is a personification of water-spouts, cyclones, and typhoons. — H.C.]

NOTE 6. — Sir Thomas Brown says that if any man will say he desires before belief to behold such a creature as is the Rukh in Paulus Venetus, for his own part he will not be angry with his incredulity. But M. Pauthier is of more liberal belief; for he considers that, after all, the dimensions which Marco assigns to the wings and quills of the Rukh are not so extravagant that we should refuse to admit their possibility.

Ludolf will furnish him with corroborative evidence, that of Padre Bolivar, a Jesuit, as communicated to Thévenot; the assigned position will suit well enough with Marco’s report: “The bird condor differs in size in different parts of the world. The greater species was seen by many of the Portuguese in their expedition against the Kingdoms of Sofala and Cuama and the Land of the Caffres from Monomotapa to the Kingdom of Angola and the Mountains of Teroa. In some countries I have myself seen the wing-feathers of that enormous fowl, although the bird itself I never beheld. The feather in question, as could be deduced from its form, was one of the middle ones, and it was 28 palms in length and three in breadth. The quill part, from the root to the extremity, was five palms in length, of the thickness of an average man’s arm, and of extreme strength and hardness. [M. Alfred Grandidier (Hist. de la Géog. de Madagascar, p. 25) thinks that the quill part of this feather was one of the bamboo shoots formerly brought to Yemen to be used as water-jars and called there feathers of Rukh, the Arabs looking upon these bamboo shoots as the quill part of the feathers of the Rukh. — H.C.] The fibres of the feather were equal in length and closely fitted, so that they could scarcely be parted without some exertion of force; and they were jet black, whilst the quill part was white. Those who had seen the bird stated that it was bigger than the bulk of a couple of elephants, and that hitherto nobody had succeeded in killing one. It rises to the clouds with such extraordinary swiftness that it seems scarcely to stir its wings. In form it is like an eagle. But although its size and swiftness are so extraordinary, it has much trouble in procuring food, on account of the density of the forests with which all that region is clothed. Its own dwelling is in cold and desolate tracts such as the Mountains of Teroa, i.e. of the Moon; and in the valleys of that range it shows itself at certain periods. Its black feathers are held in very high estimation, and it is with the greatest difficulty that one can be got from the natives, for one such serves to fan ten people, and to keep off the terrible heat from them, as well as the wasps and flies” (Ludolf, Hist. Aethiop. Comment, p. 164.)

Abu Mahomed, of Spain, relates that a merchant arrived in Barbary who had lived long among the Chinese. He had with him the quill of a chick Rukh, and this held nine skins of water. He related the story of how he came by this — a story nearly the same as one of Sindbad’s about the Rukh’s egg. (Bochart, II. 854.)

Another story of a seaman wrecked on the coast of Africa is among those collected by M. Marcel Devic. By a hut that stood in the middle of a field of rice and durra there was a trough. “A man came up leading a pair of oxen, laden with 12 skins of water, and emptied these into the trough. I drew near to drink, and found the trough to be polished like a steel blade, quite different from either glass or pottery. ‘It is the hollow of a quill,’ said the man. I would not believe a word of the sort, until, after rubbing it inside and outside, I found it to be transparent, and to retain the traces of the barbs.” (Comptes Rendus, etc., ut supra; and Livre des Merveilles de L’Inde, p. 99.)

Fr. Jordanus also says: “In this India Tertia (Eastern Africa) are certain birds which are called Roc, so big that they easily carry an elephant up into the air. I have seen a certain person who said that he had seen one of those birds, one wing only of which stretched to a length of 80 palms” (p. 42).

The Japanese Encyclopaedia states that in the country of the Tsengsz’ (Zinjis) in the South–West Ocean, there is a bird called pheng, which in its flight eclipses the sun. It can swallow a camel; and its quills are used for water-casks. This was probably got from the Arabs. (J. As., sèr. 2, tom. xii. 235–236.)

I should note that the Geog. Text in the first passage where the feathers are spoken of says: “e ce qe je en vi voz dirai en autre leu, por ce qe il convient ensi faire à nostre livre,”—“that which I have seen of them I will tell you elsewhere, as it suits the arrangement of our book.” No such other detail is found in that text, but we have in Ramusio this passage about the quill brought to the Great Kaan, and I suspect that the phrase, “as I have heard,” is an interpolation, and that Polo is here telling ce qe il en vit. What are we to make of the story? I have sometimes thought that possibly some vegetable production, such as a great frond of the Ravenala, may have been cooked to pass as a Rukh’s quill. [See App. L.]

NOTE 7. — The giraffes are an error. The Eng. Cyc. says that wild asses and zebras (?) do exist in Madagascar, but I cannot trace authority for this.

The great boar’s teeth were indubitably hippopotamus-teeth, which form a considerable article of export from Zanzibar8 (not Madagascar). Burton speaks of their reaching 12 lbs in weight. And Cosmas tells us: “The hippopotamus I have not seen indeed, but I had some great teeth of his that weighed thirteen pounds, which I sold here (in Alexandria). And I have seen many such teeth in Ethiopia and in Egypt.” (See J.R.G.S. XXIX. 444; Cathay, p. clxxv.)

1 Bretschneider, On the knowledge possessed by the Ancient Chinese of the Arabs, etc. London, 1871, p. 21.

2 Mas’udi speaks of an island Kanbalú, well cultivated and populous, one or two days from the Zinj coast, and the object of voyages from Oman, from which it was about 500 parasangs distant. It was conquered by the Arabs, who captured the whole Zinj population of the island, about the beginning of the Abasside Dynasty (circa A.D. 750). Barbier de Meynard thinks this may be Madagascar. I suspect it rather to be Pemba, (See Prairies d’Or, I. 205, 232, and III. 31.)

3De la grandeza de una bota d’anfora.” The lowest estimate that I find of the Venetian anfora makes it equal to about 108 imperial gallons, a little less than the English butt. This seems intended. The ancient amphora would be more reasonable, being only 5.66 gallons.

4 The friend who noted this for me, omitted to name the Society.

5 I got the indication of this poem, I think, in Bochart. But I have since observed that its coincidences with Sindbad are briefly noticed by Mr. Lane (ed. 1859, III. 78) from an article in the “Foreign Quarterly Review.”

6 An intelligent writer, speaking of such effects on the same sea, says:

“The boats floating on a calm sea, at a distance from the ship, were magnified to a great size; the crew standing up in them appeared as masts or trees, and their arms in motion as the wings of windmills; whilst the surrounding islands (especially at their low and tapered extremities) seemed to be suspended in the air, some feet above the ocean’s level.” (Bennett’s Whaling Voyage, II. 71–72.)

7 An epithet of the Garuda is Gajakúrmásin, “elephant-cum-tortoise-devourer,” because said to have swallowed both when engaged in a contest with each other.

8 The name as pronounced seems to have been Zangibár (hard g), which polite Arabic changed into Zanjibár, whence the Portuguese made Zanzibar.

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