The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter xxiii.

[Concerning the Oppressions of Achmath the Bailo, and the Plot that was Formed Against Him.1]

You will hear further on how that there are twelve persons appointed who have authority to dispose of lands, offices, and everything else at their discretion. Now one of these was a certain Saracen named ACHMATH, a shrewd and able man, who had more power and influence with the Grand Kaan than any of the others; and the Kaan held him in such regard that he could do what he pleased. The fact was, as came out after his death, that Achmath had so wrought upon the Kaan with his sorcery, that the latter had the greatest faith and reliance on everything he said, and in this way did everything that Achmath wished him to do.

This person disposed of all governments and offices, and passed sentence on all malefactors; and whenever he desired to have any one whom he hated put to death, whether with justice or without it, he would go to the Emperor and say: “Such an one deserves death, for he hath done this or that against your imperial dignity.” Then the Lord would say: “Do as you think right,” and so he would have the man forthwith executed. Thus when people saw how unbounded were his powers, and how unbounded the reliance placed by the Emperor on everything that he said, they did not venture to oppose him in anything. No one was so high in rank or power as to be free from the dread of him. If any one was accused by him to the Emperor of a capital offence, and desired to defend himself, he was unable to bring proofs in his own exculpation, for no one would stand by him, as no one dared to oppose Achmath. And thus the latter caused many to perish unjustly.2

Moreover, there was no beautiful woman whom he might desire, but he got hold of her; if she were unmarried, forcing her to be his wife, if otherwise, compelling her to consent to his desires. Whenever he knew of any one who had a pretty daughter, certain ruffians of his would go to the father, and say: “What say you? Here is this pretty daughter of yours; give her in marriage to the Bailo Achmath (for they called him ‘the Bailo,’ or, as we should say, ‘the Vicegerent’),3 and we will arrange for his giving you such a government or such an office for three years.” And so the man would surrender his daughter. And Achmath would go to the Emperor, and say: “Such a government is vacant, or will be vacant on such a day. So-and-So is a proper man for the post.” And the Emperor would reply: “Do as you think best;” and the father of the girl was immediately appointed to the government. Thus either through the ambition of the parents, or through fear of the Minister, all the beautiful women were at his beck, either as wives or mistresses. Also he had some five-and-twenty sons who held offices of importance, and some of these, under the protection of their father’s name, committed scandals like his own, and many other abominable iniquities. This Achmath also had amassed great treasure, for everybody who wanted office sent him a heavy bribe.

In such authority did this man continue for two-and-twenty years. At last the people of the country, to wit the Cathayans, utterly wearied with the endless outrages and abominable iniquities which he perpetrated against them, whether as regarded their wives or their own persons, conspired to slay him and revolt against the government. Amongst the rest there was a certain Cathayan named Chenchu, a commander of a thousand, whose mother, daughter, and wife had all been dishonoured by Achmath. Now this man, full of bitter resentment, entered into parley regarding the destruction of the Minister with another Cathayan whose name was Vanchu, who was a commander of 10,000. They came to the conclusion that the time to do the business would be during the Great Kaan’s absence from Cambaluc. For after stopping there three months he used to go to Chandu and stop there three months; and at the same time his son Chinkin used to go away to his usual haunts, and this Achmath remained in charge of the city; sending to obtain the Kaan’s orders from Chandu when any emergency arose.

So Vanchu and Chenchu, having come to this conclusion, proceeded to communicate it to the chief people among the Cathayans, and then by common consent sent word to their friends in many other cities that they had determined on such a day, at the signal given by a beacon, to massacre all the men with beards, and that the other cities should stand ready to do the like on seeing the signal fires. The reason why they spoke of massacring the bearded men was that the Cathayans naturally have no beard, whilst beards are worn by the Tartars, Saracens, and Christians. And you should know that all the Cathayans detested the Grand Kaan’s rule because he set over them governors who were Tartars, or still more frequently Saracens, and these they could not endure, for they were treated by them just like slaves. You see the Great Kaan had not succeeded to the dominion of Cathay by hereditary right, but held it by conquest; and thus having no confidence in the natives, he put all authority into the hands of Tartars, Saracens, or Christians who were attached to his household and devoted to his service, and were foreigners in Cathay.

Wherefore, on the day appointed, the aforesaid Vanchu and Chenchu having entered the palace at night, Vanchu sat down and caused a number of lights to be kindled before him. He then sent a messenger to Achmath the Bailo, who lived in the Old City, as if to summon him to the presence of Chinkin, the Great Kaan’s son, who (it was pretended) had arrived unexpectedly. When Achmath heard this he was much surprised, but made haste to go, for he feared the Prince greatly. When he arrived at the gate he met a Tartar called Cogatai, who was Captain of the 12,000 that formed the standing garrison of the City; and the latter asked him whither he was bound so late? “To Chinkin, who is just arrived.” Quoth Cogatai, “How can that be? How could he come so privily that I know nought of it?” So he followed the Minister with a certain number of his soldiers. Now the notion of the Cathayans was that, if they could make an end of Achmath, they would have nought else to be afraid of. So as soon as Achmath got inside the palace, and saw all that illumination, he bowed down before Vanchu, supposing him to be Chinkin, and Chenchu who was standing ready with a sword straightway cut his head off. As soon as Cogatai, who had halted at the entrance, beheld this, he shouted “Treason!” and instantly discharged an arrow at Vanchu and shot him dead as he sat. At the same time he called his people to seize Chenchu, and sent a proclamation through the city that any one found in the streets would be instantly put to death. The Cathayans saw that the Tartars had discovered the plot, and that they had no longer any leader, since Vanchu was killed and Chenchu was taken. So they kept still in their houses, and were unable to pass the signal for the rising of the other cities as had been settled. Cogatai immediately dispatched messengers to the Great Kaan giving an orderly report of the whole affair, and the Kaan sent back orders for him to make a careful investigation, and to punish the guilty as their misdeeds deserved. In the morning Cogatai examined all the Cathayans, and put to death a number whom he found to be ringleaders in the plot. The same thing was done in the other cities, when it was found that the plot extended to them also.

After the Great Kaan had returned to Cambaluc he was very anxious to discover what had led to this affair, and he then learned all about the endless iniquities of that accursed Achmath and his sons. It was proved that he and seven of his sons (for they were not all bad) had forced no end of women to be their wives, besides those whom they had ravished. The Great Kaan then ordered all the treasure that Achmath had accumulated in the Old City to be transferred to his own treasury in the New City, and it was found to be of enormous amount. He also ordered the body of Achmath to be dug up and cast into the streets for the dogs to tear; and commanded those of his sons that had followed the father’s evil example to be flayed alive.4

These circumstances called the Kaan’s attention to the accursed doctrines of the Sect of the Saracens, which excuse every crime, yea even murder itself, when committed on such as are not of their religion. And seeing that this doctrine had led the accursed Achmath and his sons to act as they did without any sense of guilt, the Kaan was led to entertain the greatest disgust and abomination for it. So he summoned the Saracens and prohibited their doing many things which their religion enjoined. Thus, he ordered them to regulate their marriages by the Tartar Law, and prohibited their cutting the throats of animals killed for food, ordering them to rip the stomach in the Tartar way.

Now when all this happened Messer Marco was upon the spot.]5

NOTE 1. — This narrative is from Ramusio’s version, and constitutes one of the most notable passages peculiar to that version.

The name of the oppressive Minister is printed in Ramusio’s Collection Achmach. But the c and t are so constantly interchanged in MSS. that I think there can be no question this was a mere clerical error for Achmath, and so I write it. I have also for consistency changed the spelling of Xandu, Chingis, etc., to that hitherto adopted in our text of Chandu, Chinkin, etc.

NOTE 2. — The remarks of a Chinese historian on Kúblái’s administration may be appropriately quoted here: “Hupilai Han must certainly be regarded as one of the greatest princes that ever existed, and as one of the most successful in all that he undertook. This he owed to his judgment in the selection of his officers, and to his talent for commanding them. He carried his arms into the most remote countries, and rendered his name so formidable that not a few nations spontaneously submitted to his supremacy. Nor was there ever an Empire of such vast extent. He cultivated literature, protected its professors, and even thankfully received their advice. Yet he never placed a Chinese in his cabinet, and he employed foreigners only as Ministers. These, however, he chose with discernment, always excepting the Ministers of Finance. He really loved his subjects; and if they were not always happy under his government, it is because they took care to conceal their sufferings. There were in those days no Public Censors whose duty it is to warn the Sovereign of what is going on: and no one dared to speak out for fear of the resentment of the Ministers, who were the depositaries of the Imperial authority, and the authors of the oppressions under which the people laboured. Several Chinese, men of letters and of great ability, who lived at Hupilai’s court, might have rendered that prince the greatest service in the administration of his dominions, but they never were intrusted with any but subordinate offices, and they were not in a position to make known the malversations of those public blood-suckers.” (De Mailla, IX. 459–460.)

AHMAD was a native of Fenáket (afterwards Sháh-Rúkhia), near the Jaxartes, and obtained employment under Kúblái through the Empress Jamui Khatun, who had known him before her marriage. To her Court he was originally attached, but we find him already employed in high financial office in 1264. Kúblái’s demands for money must have been very large, and he eschewed looking too closely into the character of his financial agents or the means by which they raised money for him. Ahmad was very successful in this, and being a man of great talent and address, obtained immense influence over the Emperor, until at last nothing was done save by his direction, though he always appeared to be acting under the orders of Kúblái. The Chinese authorities in Gaubil and De Mailla speak strongly of his oppressions, but only in general terms, and without affording such particulars as we derive from the text.

The Hereditary Prince Chingkim was strongly adverse to Ahmad; and some of the high Chinese officials on various occasions made remonstrance against the Minister’s proceedings; but Kúblái turned a deaf ear to them, and Ahmad succeeded in ruining most of his opponents. (Gaubil, 141, 143, 151; De Mailla, IX. 316–317; D’Ohsson, II. 468–469.)

[The Rev. W. S. Ament (Marco Polo in Cambaluc, 105) writes: “No name is more execrated than that of Ah-ha-ma (called Achmath by Polo), a Persian, who was chosen to manage the finances of the Empire. He was finally destroyed by a combination against him while the Khan was absent with Crown Prince Chen Chin, on a visit to Shang Tu.” Achmath has his biography under the name of A-ho-ma (Ahmed) in the ch. 205 of the Yuen-shi, under the rubric “Villanous Ministers.” (Bretschneider, Med. Res. I. p. 272.)— H. C.]

NOTE 3. — This term Bailo was the designation of the representative of Venetian dignity at Constantinople, called Podestà during the period of the Latin rule there, and it has endured throughout the Turkish Empire to our own day in the form Balios as the designation of a Frank Consul. [There was also a Venetian bailo in Syria. — H. C.] But that term itself could scarcely have been in use at Cambaluc, even among the handful of Franks, to designate the powerful Minister, and it looks as if Marco had confounded the word in his own mind with some Oriental term of like sound, possibly the Arabic Wáli, “a Prince, Governor of a Province, . . . a chief Magistrate.” (F. Johnson.) In the Roteiro of the Voyage of Vasco da Gama (2nd ed. Lisbon, 1861, pp. 53–54) it is said that on the arrival of the ships at Calicut the King sent “a man who was called the Bale, which is much the same as Alquaide.” And the Editor gives the same explanation that I have suggested.

I observe that according to Pandit Manphúl the native governor of Kashgar, under the Chinese Amban, used to be called the Baili Beg. [In this case Baili stands for beilêh. — H. C.] (Panjab Trade Report, App. p. cccxxxvii.)

NOTE 4. — The story, as related in De Mailla and Gaubil, is as follows. It contains much less detail than the text, and it differs as to the manner of the chief conspirator’s death, whilst agreeing as to his name and the main facts of the episode.

In the spring of 1282 (Gaubil, 1281) Kúblái and Prince Chingkim had gone off as usual to Shangtu, leaving Ahmad in charge at the Capital. The whole country was at heart in revolt against his oppressions. Kúblái alone knew, or would know, nothing of them.

WANGCHU, a chief officer of the city, resolved to take the opportunity of delivering the Empire from such a curse, and was joined in his enterprise by a certain sorcerer called Kao Hoshang. They sent two Lamas to the Council Board with a message that the Crown Prince was returning to the Capital to take part in certain Buddhist ceremonies, but no credit was given to this. Wangchu then, pretending to have received orders from the Prince, desired an officer called CHANG-Y (perhaps the Chenchu of Polo’s narrative) to go in the evening with a guard of honour to receive him. Late at night a message was sent to summon the Ministers, as the Prince (it was pretended) had already arrived. They came in haste with Ahmad at their head, and as he entered the Palace Wangchu struck him heavily with a copper mace and stretched him dead. Wangchu was arrested, or according to one account surrendered, though he might easily have escaped, confident that the Crown Prince would save his life. Intelligence was sent off to Kúblái, who received it at Chaghan–Nor. (See Book I. ch. lx.) He immediately despatched officers to arrest the guilty and bring them to justice. Wangchu, Chang-y, and Kao Hoshang were publicly executed at the Old City; Wangchu dying like a hero, and maintaining that he had done the Empire an important service which would yet be acknowledged. (De Mailla, IX. 412–413; Gaubil, 193–194; D’Ohsson, II. 470.) [Cf. G. Phillips, in T’oung-Pao, I. p. 220. — H. C.]

NOTE 5. — And it is a pleasant fact that Messer Marco’s presence, and his upright conduct upon this occasion, have not been forgotten in the Chinese Annals: “The Emperor having returned from Chaghan–Nor to Shangtu, desired POLO, Assessor of the Privy Council, to explain the reasons which had led Wangchu to commit this murder. Polo spoke with boldness of the crimes and oppressions of Ahama (Ahmad), which had rendered him an object of detestation throughout the Empire. The Emperor’s eyes were opened, and he praised the courage of Wangchu. He complained that those who surrounded him, in abstaining from admonishing him of what was going on, had thought more of their fear of displeasing the Minister than of the interests of the State.” By Kúblái’s order, the body of Ahmad was taken up, his head was cut off and publicly exposed, and his body cast to the dogs. His son also was put to death with all his family, and his immense wealth confiscated. 714 persons were punished, one way or other, for their share in Ahmad’s malversations. (De Mailla, IX. 413–414.)

What is said near the end of this chapter about the Kaan’s resentment against the Saracens has some confirmation in circumstances related by Rashiduddin. The refusal of some Mussulman merchants, on a certain occasion at Court, to eat of the dishes sent them by the Emperor, gave great offence, and led to the revival of an order of Chinghiz, which prohibited, under pain of death, the slaughter of animals by cutting their throats. This endured for seven years, and was then removed on the strong representation made to Kúblái of the loss caused by the cessation of the visits of the Mahomedan merchants. On a previous occasion also the Mahomedans had incurred disfavour, owing to the ill-will of certain Christians, who quoted to Kúblái a text of the Koran enjoining the killing of polytheists. The Emperor sent for the Mullahs, and asked them why they did not act on the Divine injunction? All they could say was that the time was not yet come! Kúblái ordered them for execution, and was only appeased by the intercession of Ahmad, and the introduction of a divine with more tact, who smoothed over obnoxious applications of the text. (D’Ohsson, II. 492–493.)

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59