The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter vi.

Concerning the Great Island of Java.

When you sail from Chamba, 1500 miles in a course between south and south-east, you come to a great Island called Java. And the experienced mariners of those Islands who know the matter well, say that it is the greatest Island in the world, and has a compass of more than 3000 miles. It is subject to a great King and tributary to no one else in the world. The people are Idolaters. The Island is of surpassing wealth, producing black pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs, cloves, and all other kinds of spices.

Illustration: View in the Interior of Java.

“Une grandissune Ysle qe est avellé Java. Ceste Ysle est de mont grant richesse.”

This Island is also frequented by a vast amount of shipping, and by merchants who buy and sell costly goods from which they reap great profit. Indeed the treasure of this Island is so great as to be past telling. And I can assure you the Great Kaan never could get possession of this Island, on account of its great distance, and the great expense of an expedition thither. The merchants of Zayton and Manzi draw annually great returns from this country.1

NOTE 1. — Here Marco speaks of that Pearl of Islands, Java. The chapter is a digression from the course of his voyage towards India, but possibly he may have touched at the island on his previous expedition, alluded to in note 2, ch. v. Not more, for the account is vague, and where particulars are given not accurate. Java does not produce nutmegs or cloves, though doubtless it was a great mart for these and all the products of the Archipelago. And if by treasure he means gold, as indeed Ramusio reads, no gold is found in Java. Barbosa, however, has the same story of the great amount of gold drawn from Java; and De Barros says that Sunda, i.e. Western Java, which the Portuguese regarded as a distinct island, produced inferior gold of 7 carats, but that pepper was the staple, of which the annual supply was more than 30,000 cwt. (Ram. I. 318–319; De Barros, Dec. IV. liv. i. cap. 12.)

Illustration: Ship of the Middle Ages in the Java Seas. (From Bas-relief at Boro Bodor.)

“En ceste Ysle vienent grant quantité de nés, e de mercanz qe hi acatent de maintes mercandies et hi font grant gaagne”

The circuit ascribed to Java in Pauthier’s Text is 5000 miles. Even the 3000 which we take from the Geog. Text is about double the truth; but it is exactly the same that Odoric and Conti assign. No doubt it was a tradition among the Arab seamen. They never visited the south coast, and probably had extravagant ideas of its extension in that direction, as the Portuguese had for long. Even at the end of the 16th century Linschoten says: “Its breadth is as yet unknown; some conceiving it to be a part of the Terra Australis extending from opposite the Cape of Good Hope. However it is commonly held to be an island” (ch. xx.). And in the old map republished in the Lisbon De Bairos of 1777, the south side of Java is marked “Parte incognita de Java,” and is without a single name, whilst a narrow strait runs right across the island (the supposed division of Sunda from Java Proper).

The history of Java previous to the rise of the Empire of Majapahit, in the age immediately following our Traveller’s voyage, is very obscure. But there is some evidence of the existence of a powerful dynasty in the island about this time; and in an inscription of ascertained date (A.D. 1294) the King Uttungadeva claims to have subjected five kings and to be sovereign of the whole Island of Java (Jawa-dvipa; see Lassen, IV. 482). It is true that, as our Traveller says, Kúblái had not yet attempted the subjugation of Java, but he did make the attempt almost immediately after the departure of the Venetians. It was the result of one of his unlucky embassies to claim the homage of distant states, and turned out as badly as the attempts against Champa and Japan. His ambassador, a Chinese called Meng-K’i, was sent back with his face branded like a thief’s. A great armament was assembled in the ports of Fo-kien to avenge this insult; it started about January, 1293, but did not effect a landing till autumn. After some temporary success the force was constrained to re-embark with a loss of 3000 men. The death of Kúblái prevented any renewal of the attempt; and it is mentioned that his successor gave orders for the re-opening of the Indian trade which the Java war had interrupted. (See Gaubil, pp. 217 seqq., 224.) To this failure Odoric, who visited Java about 1323, alludes: “Now the Great Kaan of Cathay many a time engaged in war with this king; but the king always vanquished and got the better of him.” Odoric speaks in high terms of the richness and population of Java, calling it “the second best of all Islands that exist,” and describing a gorgeous palace in terms similar to those in which Polo speaks of the Palace of Chipangu. (Cathay, p. 87 seqq.)

[We read in the Yuen-shi (Bk. 210), translated by Mr. Groeneveldt, that “Java is situated beyond the sea and further away than Champa; when one embarks at Ts’wan-chau and goes southward, he first comes to Champa and afterwards to this country.” It appears that when his envoy Mêng-K’i had been branded on the face, Kúblái, in 1292, appointed Shih-pi, a native of Po-yeh, district Li-chau, Pao-ting fu, Chih-li province, commander of the expedition to Java, whilst Ike–Mese, a Uighúr, and Kau–Hsing, a man from Ts’ai-chau (Ho-nan), were appointed to assist him. Mr. Groeneveldt has translated the accounts of these three officers. In the Ming-shi (Bk. 324) we read: “Java is situated at the south-west of Champa. In the time of the Emperor Kúblái of the Yuen Dynasty, Mêng-K’i was sent there as an envoy and had his face cut, on which Kúblái sent a large army which subdued the country and then came back.” (l.c. p. 34.) The prince guilty of this insult was the King of Tumapel “in the eastern part of the island Java, whose country was called Java par excellence by the Chinese, because it was in this part of the island they chiefly traded.” (l.c. p. 32.)— H.C.]

The curious figure of a vessel which we give here is taken from the vast series of mediaeval sculptures which adorns the great Buddhist pyramid in the centre of Java, known as Boro Bodor, one of the most remarkable architectural monuments in the world, but the history of which is all in darkness. The ship, with its outrigger and apparently canvas sails, is not Chinese, but it undoubtedly pictures vessels which frequented the ports of Java in the early part of the 14th century,1 possibly one of those from Ceylon or Southern India.

1 1344 is the date to which a Javanese traditional verse ascribes the edifice. (Crawford’s Desc. Dictionary.)

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