The Travels of Marco Polo, by Marco Polo

Chapter lv.

Concerning the Province of Bangala.

Bangala is a Province towards the south, which up to the year 1290, when the aforesaid Messer Marco Polo was still at the Court of the Great Kaan, had not yet been conquered; but his armies had gone thither to make the conquest. You must know that this province has a peculiar language, and that the people are wretched Idolaters. They are tolerably close to India. There are numbers of eunuchs there, insomuch that all the Barons who keep them get them from that Province.1

The people have oxen as tall as elephants, but not so big.2 They live on flesh and milk and rice. They grow cotton, in which they drive a great trade, and also spices such as spikenard, galingale, ginger, sugar, and many other sorts. And the people of India also come thither in search of the eunuchs that I mentioned, and of slaves, male and female, of which there are great numbers, taken from other provinces with which those of the country are at war; and these eunuchs and slaves are sold to the Indian and other merchants who carry them thence for sale about the world.

There is nothing more to mention about this country, so we will quit it, and I will tell you of another province called Caugigu.

NOTE 1. — I do not think it probable that Marco even touched at any port of Bengal on that mission to the Indian Seas of which we hear in the prologue; but he certainly never reached it from the Yun-nan side, and he had, as we shall presently see (infra, ch. lix. note 6), a wrong notion as to its position. Indeed, if he had visited it at all, he would have been aware that it was essentially a part of India, whilst in fact he evidently regarded it as an Indo–Chinese region, like Zardandan, Mien, and Caugigu.

There is no notice, I believe, in any history, Indian or Chinese, of an attempt by Kúblái to conquer Bengal. The only such attempt by the Mongols that we hear of is one mentioned by Firishta, as made by way of Cathay and Tibet, during the reign of Aláuddin Masa’úd, king of Delhi, in 1244, and stated to have been defeated by the local officers in Bengal. But Mr. Edward Thomas tells me he has most distinctly ascertained that this statement, which has misled every historian “from Badauni and Firishtah to Briggs and Elphinstone, is founded purely on an erroneous reading” (and see a note in Mr. Thomas’s Pathan Kings of Dehli, p. 121).

The date 1290 in the text would fix the period of Polo’s final departure from Peking, if the dates were not so generally corrupt.

The subject of the last part of this paragraph, recurred to in the next, has been misunderstood and corrupted in Pauthier’s text, and partially in Ramusio’s. These make the escuillés or escoilliez (vide Ducange in v. Escodatus, and Raynouard, Lex. Rom. VI. 11) into scholars and what not. But on comparison of the passages in those two editions with the Geographic Text one cannot doubt the correct reading. As to the fact that Bengal had an evil notoriety for this traffic, especially the province of Silhet, see the Ayeen Akbery, II. 9–11, Barbosa’s chapter on Bengal, and De Barros (Ramusio I. 316 and 391).

On the cheapness of slaves in Bengal, see Ibn Batuta, IV. 211–212. He says people from Persia used to call Bengal Dúzakh pur-i ni’amat, “a hell crammed with good things,” an appellation perhaps provoked by the official style often applied to it of Jannat-ul-balád or “Paradise of countries.”

Professor H. Blochmann, who is, in admirable essays, redeeming the long neglect of the history and archaeology of Bengal Proper by our own countrymen, says that one of the earliest passages, in which the name Bangálah occurs, is in a poem of Hafiz, sent from Shiraz to Sultan Gbiássuddín, who reigned in Bengal from 1367 to 1373. Its occurrence in our text, however, shows that the name was in use among the Mahomedan foreigners (from whom Polo derived his nomenclature) nearly a century earlier. And in fact it occurs (though corruptly in some MSS.) in the history of Rashiduddin, our author’s contemporary. (See Elliot, I. p. 72.)

NOTE 2. —“Big as elephants” is only a façon de parler, but Marsden quotes modern exaggerations as to the height of the Arna or wild buffalo, more specific and extravagant. The unimpeachable authority of Mr. Hodgson tells us that the Arna in the Nepal Tarai sometimes does reach a height of 6 ft. 6 in. at the shoulder, with a length of 10 ft. 6 in. (excluding tail), and horns of 6 ft. 6 in. (J.A.S.B., XVI. 710.) Marco, however, seems to be speaking of domestic cattle. Some of the breeds of Upper India are very tall and noble animals, far surpassing in height any European oxen known to me; but in modern times these are rarely seen in Bengal, where the cattle are poor and stunted. The Aín Akbari, however, speaks of Sharífábád in Bengal, which appears to have corresponded to modern Bardwán, as producing very beautiful white oxen, of great size, and capable of carrying a load of 15 mans, which at Prinsep’s estimate of Akbar’s man would be about 600 lbs.

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:12