The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter lii.

Of the Battle that was Fought by the Great Kaan’s Host and His Seneschal, Against the King of Mien.

And when the Captain of the Tartar host had certain news that the king aforesaid was coming against him with so great a force, he waxed uneasy, seeing that he had with him but 12,000 horsemen. Natheless he was a most valiant and able soldier, of great experience in arms and an excellent Captain; and his name was NESCRADIN.1 His troops too were very good, and he gave them very particular orders and cautions how to act, and took every measure for his own defence and that of his army. And why should I make a long story of it? The whole force of the Tartars, consisting of 12,000 well-mounted horsemen, advanced to receive the enemy in the Plain of Vochan, and there they waited to give them battle. And this they did through the good judgment of the excellent Captain who led them; for hard by that plain was a great wood, thick with trees. And so there in the plain the Tartars awaited their foe. Let us then leave discoursing of them a while; we shall come back to them presently; but meantime let us speak of the enemy.

After the King of Mien had halted long enough to refresh his troops, he resumed his march, and came to the Plain of Vochan, where the Tartars were already in order of battle. And when the king’s army had arrived in the plain, and was within a mile of the enemy, he caused all the castles that were on the elephants to be ordered for battle, and the fighting-men to take up their posts on them, and he arrayed his horse and his foot with all skill, like a wise king as he was. And when he had completed all his arrangements he began to advance to engage the enemy. The Tartars, seeing the foe advance, showed no dismay, but came on likewise with good order and discipline to meet them. And when they were near and nought remained but to begin the fight, the horses of the Tartars took such fright at the sight of the elephants that they could not be got to face the foe, but always swerved and turned back; whilst all the time the king and his forces, and all his elephants, continued to advance upon them.2

And when the Tartars perceived how the case stood, they were in great wrath, and wist not what to say or do; for well enough they saw that unless they could get their horses to advance, all would be lost. But their Captain acted like a wise leader who had considered everything beforehand. He immediately gave orders that every man should dismount and tie his horse to the trees of the forest that stood hard by, and that then they should take to their bows, a weapon that they know how to handle better than any troops in the world. They did as he bade them, and plied their bows stoutly, shooting so many shafts at the advancing elephants that in a short space they had wounded or slain the greater part of them as well as of the men they carried. The enemy also shot at the Tartars, but the Tartars had the better weapons, and were the better archers to boot.

And what shall I tell you? Understand that when the elephants felt the smart of those arrows that pelted them like rain, they turned tail and fled, and nothing on earth would have induced them to turn and face the Tartars. So off they sped with such a noise and uproar that you would have trowed the world was coming to an end! And then too they plunged into the wood and rushed this way and that, dashing their castles against the trees, bursting their harness and smashing and destroying everything that was on them.

So when the Tartars saw that the elephants had turned tail and could not be brought to face the fight again, they got to horse at once and charged the enemy. And then the battle began to rage furiously with sword and mace. Right fiercely did the two hosts rush together, and deadly were the blows exchanged. The king’s troops were far more in number than the Tartars, but they were not of such metal, nor so inured to war; otherwise the Tartars who were so few in number could never have stood against them. Then might you see swashing blows dealt and taken from sword and mace; then might you see knights and horses and men-at-arms go down; then might you see arms and hands and legs and heads hewn off: and besides the dead that fell, many a wounded man, that never rose again, for the sore press there was. The din and uproar were so great from this side and from that, that God might have thundered and no man would have heard it! Great was the medley, and dire and parlous was the fight that was fought on both sides; but the Tartars had the best of it.3

In an ill hour indeed, for the king and his people, was that battle begun, so many of them were slain therein. And when they had continued fighting till midday the king’s troops could stand against the Tartars no longer; but felt that they were defeated, and turned and fled. And when the Tartars saw them routed they gave chase, and hacked and slew so mercilessly that it was a piteous sight to see. But after pursuing a while they gave up, and returned to the wood to catch the elephants that had run away, and to manage this they had to cut down great trees to bar their passage. Even then they would not have been able to take them without the help of the king’s own men who had been taken, and who knew better how to deal with the beasts than the Tartars did. The elephant is an animal that hath more wit than any other; but in this way at last they were caught, more than 200 of them. And it was from this time forth that the Great Kaan began to keep numbers of elephants.

So thus it was that the king aforesaid was defeated by the sagacity and superior skill of the Tartars as you have heard.

NOTE 1. — Nescradin for Nesradin, as we had Bascra for Basra.

This NÁSRUDDIN was apparently an officer of whom Rashiduddin speaks, and whom he calls governor (or perhaps commander) in Karájáng. He describes him as having succeeded in that command to his father the Sayad Ajil of Bokhara, one of the best of Kúblái’s chief Ministers. Nasr-uddin retained his position in Yun-nan till his death, which Rashid, writing about 1300, says occurred five or six years before. His son Bayan, who also bore the grandfather’s title of Sayad Ajil, was Minister of Finance under Kúblái’s successor; and another son, Hálá, is also mentioned as one of the governors of the province of Fu-chau. (See Cathay, pp. 265, 268, and D’Ohsson, II. 507–508.)

Nasr-uddin (Nasulating) is also frequently mentioned as employed on this frontier by the Chinese authorities whom Pauthier cites.

[Na-su-la-ding [Nasr-uddin] was the eldest of the five sons of the Mohammedan Sai-dien-ch’i shan-sze-ding, Sayad Ajil, a native of Bokhara, who died in Yun-nan, where he had been governor when Kúblái, in the reign of Mangu, entered the country. Nasr-uddin “has a separate biography in ch. cxxv of the Yuen-shi. He was governor of the province of Yun-nan, and distinguished himself in the war against the southern tribes of Kiao-chi (Cochin–China) and Mien (Burma). He died in 1292, the father of twelve sons, the names of five of which are given in the biography, viz. Bo-yen-ch’a-rh [Bayan], who held a high office, Omar, Djafar, Hussein, and Saadi.” (Bretschneider, Med. Res. I. 270–271). Mr. E.H. Parker writes in the China Review, February–March, 1901, pp. 196–197, that the Mongol history states that amongst the reforms of Nasr-uddin’s father in Yun-nan, was the introduction of coffins for the dead, instead of burning them. — H.C.]

[NOTE 2. — In his battle near Sardis, Cyrus “collected together all the camels that had come in the train of his army to carry the provisions and the baggage, and taking off their loads, he mounted riders upon them accoutred as horsemen. These he commanded to advance in front of his other troops against the Lydian horse. . . . The reason why Cyrus opposed his camels to the enemy’s horse was, because the horse has a natural dread of the camel, and cannot abide either the sight or the smell of that animal. . . . The two armies then joined battle, and immediately the Lydian warhorses, seeing and smelling the camels, turned round and galloped off.” (Herodotus, Bk. I. i. p. 220, Rawlinson’s ed.)— H.C.]

NOTE 3. — We are indebted to Pauthier for very interesting illustrations of this narrative from the Chinese Annalists (p. 410 seqq.). These latter fix the date to the year 1277, and it is probable that the 1272 or MCCLXXII of the Texts was a clerical error for MCCLXXVII. The Annalists describe the people of Mien as irritated at calls upon them to submit to the Mongols (whose power they probably did not appreciate, as their descendants did not appreciate the British power in 1824), and as crossing the frontier of Yung-ch’ang to establish fortified posts. The force of Mien, they say, amounted to 50,000 men, with 800 elephants and 10,000 horses, whilst the Mongol Chief had but seven hundred men. “When the elephants felt the arrows (of the Mongols) they turned tail and fled with the platforms on their backs into a place that was set thickly with sharp bamboo-stakes, and these their riders laid hold of to prick them with.” This threw the Burmese army into confusion; they fled, and were pursued with great slaughter.

The Chinese author does not mention Nasr-uddin in connection with this battle. He names as the chief of the Mongol force Huthukh (Kutuka?), commandant of Ta-li fu. Nasr-uddin is mentioned as advancing, a few months later (about December, 1277), with nearly 4000 men to Kiangtheu (which appears to have been on the Irawadi, somewhere near Bhamó, and is perhaps the Kaungtaung of the Burmese), but effecting little (p. 415).

[I have published in the Rev. Ext. Orient, II. 72–88, from the British Museum Add. MS. 16913, the translation by Mgr. Visdelou, of Chinese documents relating to the Kingdom of Mien and the wars of Kúblái; the battle won by Hu-tu, commandant of Ta-li, was fought during the 3rd month of the 14th year (1277). (Cf. Pauthier, supra.)— H.C.]

These affairs of the battle in the Yung-ch’ang territory, and the advance of Nasr-uddin to the Irawadi are, as Polo clearly implies in the beginning of ch. li., quite distinct from the invasion and conquest of Mien some years later, of which he speaks in ch. liv. They are not mentioned in the Burmese Annals at all.

Sir Arthur Phayre is inclined to reject altogether the story of the battle near Yung-ch’ang in consequence of this absence from the Burmese Chronicle, and of its inconsistency with the purely defensive character which that record assigns to the action of the Burmese Government in regard to China at this time. With the strongest respect for my friend’s opinion I feel it impossible to assent to this. We have not only the concurrent testimony of Marco and of the Chinese Official Annals of the Mongol Dynasty to the facts of the Burmese provocation and of the engagement within the Yung-ch’ang or Vochan territory, but we have in the Chinese narrative a consistent chronology and tolerably full detail of the relations between the two countries.

[Baber writes (p. 173): “Biot has it that Yung-ch’ang was first established by the Mings, long subsequent to the time of Marco’s visit, but the name was well known much earlier. The mention by Marco of the Plain of Vochan (Unciam would be a perfect reading), as if it were a plain par excellence, is strikingly consistent with the position of the city on the verge of the largest plain west of Yünnan-fu. Hereabouts was fought the great battle between the ‘valiant soldier and the excellent captain Nescradin,’ with his 12,000 well-mounted Tartars, against the King of Burmah and a large army, whose strength lay in 2000 elephants, on each of which was set a tower of timber full of well-armed fighting men.

“There is no reason to suppose this ‘dire and parlous fight’ to be mythical, apart from the consistency of annals adduced by Colonel Yule; the local details of the narrative, particularly the prominent importance of the wood as an element of the Tartar success, are convincing. It seems to have been the first occasion on which the Mongols engaged a large body of elephants, and this, no doubt, made the victory memorable.

“Marco informs us that ‘from this time forth the Great Khan began to keep numbers of elephants.’ It is obvious that cavalry could not manoeuvre in a morass such as fronts the city. Let us refer to the account of the battle.

“‘The Great Khan’s host was at Yung-ch’ang, from which they advanced into the plain, and there waited to give battle. This they did through the good judgment of the captain, for hard by that plain was a great wood thick with trees.’ The general’s purpose was more probably to occupy the dry undulating slopes near the south end of the valley. An advance of about five miles would have brought him to that position. The statement that ‘the King’s army arrived in the plain, and was within a mile of the enemy,’ would then accord perfectly with the conditions of the ground. The Burmese would have found themselves at about that distance from their foes as soon as they were fairly in the plain.

“The trees ‘hard by the plain,’ to which the Tartars tied their horses, and in which the elephants were entangled, were in all probability in the corner below the ‘rolling hills’ marked in the chart. Very few trees remain, but in any case the grove would long ago have been cut down by the Chinese, as everywhere on inhabited plains. A short distance up the hill, however, groves of exceptionally fine trees are passed. The army, as it seems to us, must have entered the plain from its southernmost point. The route by which we departed on our way to Burmah would be very embarrassing, though perhaps not utterly impossible, for so great a number of elephants.”— H.C.]

Between 1277 and the end of the century the Chinese Annals record three campaigns or expeditions against MIEN; viz. (1) that which Marco has related in this chapter; (2) that which he relates in ch. liv.; and (3) one undertaken in 1300 at the request of the son of the legitimate Burmese King, who had been put to death by an usurper. The Burmese Annals mention only the two latest, but, concerning both the date and the main circumstances of these two, Chinese and Burmese Annals are in almost entire agreement. Surely then it can scarcely be doubted that the Chinese authority is amply trustworthy for the first campaign also, respecting which the Burmese book is silent; even were the former not corroborated by the independent authority of Marco.

Indeed the mutual correspondence of these Annals, especially as to chronology, is very remarkable, and is an argument for greater respect to the chronological value of the Burmese Chronicle and other Indo–Chinese records of like character than we should otherwise be apt to entertain. Compare the story of the expedition of 1300 as told after the Chinese Annals by De Mailla, and after the Burmese Chronicle by Burney and Phayre. (See De Mailla, IX. 476 seqq.; and J.A.S.B. vol. vi. pp. 121–122, and vol. xxxvii. Pt. I. pp. 102 and 110.)

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