Marco Polo’s description of Bangala (Bengal) consists of many errors that lead to serious doubts about not only his actual appearance in this place, but also the validity of any information he presents in his chapters mentioning Bangala. Major questions include the geographical location of the province of Bangala, the doubtful supremacy of the King of Mien in Bangala, and certain details presented in the description such as the currency and the elephants. Currently, it is widely agreed that Marco Polo derived most information about Bangala from others instead of visiting the place himself, but scholars have divided opinion about whether the seamen on his return journey or in-landers in Yun-nan told him about it. In either case, Marco Polo was receiving exaggerated and inaccurate information that would later be told in the book. Overall, Marco Polo’s description of Bangala in Chapter Three misses several vital facts and is thus not accurate. However, certain details (whether accurate or not) could not possibly be observed by Marco Polo were he not in places approximating Southern China. However, faithfully and scholarly recording the exact truth of the travel was neither his, nor the actual author’s objective. Even in places where he went in-person, the addition of Christian tales and stories gathered from hearsay compromises Marco Polo’s accuracy in his accounts.

 

Was Marco Polo in Bangala?

 

The very first evidence that Marco Polo did not personally travel to Bangala is his false sense of its geographical location. Marco Polo’s vague mention of Bangala’s location largely disagrees with where it actually was. In the text, Bangala is supposed to be to the south of Mien (Burma), although modern day Bangladesh should be exactly west of Burma (Myanmar). Looking at the structure of the book, Marco Polo devotes an entire section to “the great province of Bangala,” considering it to have the same significance as Zardandan, Mien, Caugigu, and Aniu (Anin). Bangala is most certainly a part of India, but in The Book of Marco Polo he describes it to be an Indo-Chinese region, in that the section is between Mien and Caugigu. Besides, corresponding Caugigu and Aniu to in-land and coastal Northern Vietnam respectively, Marco Polo certainly attempts to describe from west to east the regions south of Qarajang (Yun-nan), and from this perspective Bangala’s perceived and actual locations again render it out of place and out of order. Pelliot theorizes this chaos to be a result of Marco Polo not knowing even the relative positions of these places outside of China. Frances Wood also reminds of why Bangala is mentioned: Marco Polo began his journey from Peking as an emissary toward the West, reaching Bengal and returning back, spending about a total of four months. Unfortunately, “the trip from Peking to Bengal and back would have taken far longer than four months,” not to mention traveling the route inland and not by boat, so he most likely didn’t actually reach Bangala (34). In fact, most scholars accept that Marco Polo did not reach Bengal. After all, his false notion of Bengal’s position make actually visiting the place unlikely.

Whose Story is Marco Polo telling?

So, from whom did Marco Polo learn about these places outside of China? Pelliot attributes Marco Polo’s knowledge of Bangala to the in-landers of Yun-nan and not the seamen during his return trip via boat on the Indian Ocean. He points out the existence of “a land route leading directly from Bengal to Yün-nan via Burma,” described also by Rašīdu-‘d-Din (Rashid al-Din), and thus the likelihood for Marco Polo to hear of Bengal in Yun-nan (73). In addition, Sir Henry Yule in The Book of Ser Marco Polo (II) points out the name “Bangálah” was used by Mahomedan foreigners, from whom Marco Polo adopted this name for Bengal. This reinforces the idea that in-landers in Yun-nan provided Marco Polo his knowledge of Bangala.

 

Schrödinger’s Mongol Occupation of Bangala

 

The most obvious discrepancy in the chapters mentioning Bangala is perhaps between Khubilai Khan’s occupation of Mien and Bangala in 1272 and the ongoing effort for the Mongol Empire to conquer Bangala in 1290, both appearing in the texts of ”The Description of the World.” Both dates, similar to all other dates mentioned in the book, carry high risks of being corrupt, but the order of these events still cannot occur as Marco Polo describes.

First of all, both events — Khubilai Khan’s expedition of Mien and Bangala remaining independent of the Mongol Empire — are indisputable facts, despite serious doubts about the details.

Two very important invasions by the Mongols are recorded in both Burmese and Chinese Annals: the 1287 invasion that created “the kinds of conditions that drove the Pagan court to flee the capital” and the ultimate 1300 invasion that finally rendered the government of Mien a puppet (Aung-Thwin 11). Preceding these two major threats were a series of less significant invasions, with the one in 1277 being recorded in the Chinese Annals only, corresponding to this battle mentioned by Marco Polo (the year 1272 was most likely text corruption). A major discrepancy of Marco Polo’s account of this battle was whether Nasir al-Din led the campaign. While Kinoshita in The Description of the World agrees with it in a general sense, stating that “Nasir al-Din led military expansions against Zardandan and Pagan,” the footnote in Yule’s translation shows that the Chinese text about this war “does not mention Nasr-uddin in connection with this battle,” but appears in a 4000-men Mongol attack with little result several months later ({103}, 903). With no corresponding record found in the Burmese Annals, even though comparisons between Chinese and Burmese Annals consistently shows the trustworthiness of the Chinese Annals, the event happened much differently than what Marco Polo presents: Nasir al-Din shouldn’t have played any role in the story, nor should the outcome be mixed with the actual grand-scale invasion taken place in 1287, when the Mongol finally advanced significantly in Mien.

Marco Polo’s second statement about Bangala’s independence from the Mongol Empire in 1290 is also partially true. In fact, the Mongol Empire never had much interest in conquering India (Bangala is in India) except for in 1295 when “the governor of Yün-nan asked to have garrisons and postal relays established among the Chin-ch’ih to keep them quiet,” possibly suggesting a scheme to invade India which Marco Polo heard of (Pelliot 74). Surprisingly, Marco Polo is correct this time if time is disregarded.

Mien Ruled Bangala?

Even though the many errors present in these two contradicting statements resolve some logical conflicts present in the texts, especially the fact that the Mongol Empire conquered neither Mien nor Bangala, the name “King of Mien and Bangala,” who unquestionably refers to the king of Mien in Marco Polo’s text, still cannot rule Bangala, which had its own king.

One theory is that the “King of Mien and Bangala” did not own the Bengal “Bangala,” but “Pegu” instead (Bagoh in Burmese, essentially a part of Mien), and “Bangala” is simply a text corruption. Both Yule and Professor Benedetto favor this explanation, with the latter even claiming the later section devoted to the province of Bangala to actually be describing Pegu, just as how “Bangala” refers to “Pegu” in the “King of Mien and Bangala.” Of course, previous paragraphs have ruled out the possibility for “the great province of Bangala” to be a mere part of Mien. Moreover, whether Marco Polo visited Pegu during his return journey by sea is still in huge question, so Benedetto is arguing for a case with pretty low probability.

Despite the conveniences of accepting the corrupted text explanation, Pelliot points out a counterargument: while “there are no parallel passages in Z, so that provisionally at least, we can but keep the text as it stands.” Besides, putting this theory aside, it is still possible for the king of Mien to appear as the king of Bengal. The second possible explanation relies on the relative closeness of these two kingdoms at the time. Yule cites from the Burmese Chronicle a story showing the close relationship between the ruling classes of Burma and Bengal, thus presenting the possibility that “at the close of the 13th century of the Christian Era the kings of Pegán called themselves kings of Burma and of Bangala (898).”

Cowry Money

A detail that should call for attention is Marco Polo’s description of Bengal’s currencies: “all these provinces—that is, Bangala, Cangigu, and Aniu—spend gold and cowries ({115}).” Hans Vogel in Marco Polo Was in China specifically explains how “the most important and oldest cowry-money zone was, doubtless, India, especially the region of Bengal (229).” Jan Hogwndorn and Marion Johnson in The Shell Money of the Slave Trade agrees with the wide use of cowry-monies in Bengal, quoting other sources such as Tabakat-i-Nasiri calling cowries the currency of India and Minhaj-us-Siraj saying around 1242-1244 that in Bengal nothing circulated except cowries (14). Pelliot also refers to Chinese texts about Bengal using silver coins and cowries in trade, and further identifies the Maldives, which also applied Siam, as their supplier of cowry monies, and that the depreciation of cowries recorded in Orissa in India corresponds to that in Bengal, proving Marco Polo to be correct in identifying this detail: Bengal used shells for trade.

Infinitely Large Elephants

Another tiny yet important detail mentioned about the war between the Mongols and King of Mien and Bangala is Marco Polo’s exaggerated account of war-elephants. This war was perhaps the first Mongol encounter of large numbers of elephants in warfare, and The Description of the World confirmed a Chinese account of Nasir al-Din, the governor or commander of Yun-nan, “[coming] to court with a gift of twelve tame elephants” after the war ({111}). In the book, Marco Polo without doubt gave a spectacular exaggeration of the numbers of men carried by war-elephants, just like many other ancient writers’ accounts of elephants did. He describes the war-elephants as follows: “now know in all truth that he had 2,000 very large elephants; and atop each of these elephants, he had a very strong, very well made wooden castle made and fitted out for combat; and on each castle there were at least 12 fighting men; some had 16 and some more (Sharon Kinoshita {114}).” Showing the same pattern, The Third Book of Maccabees states an elephant to carry “32 stout men, besides the Indian Mahaut,” Ibn Batuta, a traveler preceding Marco Polo, speaks “of about 20,” and Christopher Borri gives a rather detailed account of how “in Cochin China the elephant did ordinarily carry 13 or 14 persons, 6 on each side in two rows of 3 each, and 2 behind (898).” On the contrary, some local accounts gave accurate numbers of people, of about four, on each elephant, yet another evidence proving Marco Polo’s information to be at least second-hand.

Conclusion

Up till now it is quite clear that Marco Polo not only never went to Bangala in person but also fails to make an accurate account of Bangala based on hearsay. Marco Polo’s bizarre exaggeration of the capacity of elephants indicates his personal absence from Southeast Asia, yet his ability to identify Nasir al-Din as the governor of Yun-nan and the identification of cowry-monies are quite solid proofs of his presence in southern parts of China. Almost no information related to the important aspects of Bangala appears to be entirely correct, although in some sense these mixed-up, often faulty statements still require Marco Polo to be present somewhere locally. In the end, Marco Polo undeniably fails to make an accurate account of Bangala in Chapter Three.

 

 

Work Cited

Aung-Thwin, Michael A. Myanmar in the Fifteenth Century: A Tale of Two Kingdoms. University of Hawai’i Press, 2017. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvvn2pv. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.

Pelliot, Paul, 1878-1945. Notes On Marco Polo: Ouvrage Posthume. Paris: Impr. nationale, 19591973.

Polo, Marco. The Description of the World, Hackett Publishing Company, Incorporated, 2016. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=4426656.

Polo, Marco, 1254-1323?, Amy Frances Yule, Henri Cordier, and Henry Yule. The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian: Concerning the Kingdoms And Marvels of the East.

Hogendorn, J., & Johnson, M. (1986). The cowrie. In The Shell Money of the Slave Trade (African Studies, pp. 5-19). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9780511563041.003

Vogel, Hans Ulrich. Marco Polo Was in China : New Evidence from Currencies, Salts and Revenues, BRILL, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/nyulibrary-ebooks/detail.action?docID=1081631.

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996.