Mongol Group c4

Marco Polo’s Description in The Book of India



Marco Polo’s journey to Asia along the Silk Route in the thirteenth century and his return to Venice after twenty-four years have created a treasure trove of information concerning the lands and people of those times. Beginning his trip in 1271, Polo first reached China, where he became the favorite of the Mongol emperor, Kublai Khan. He spent most of the time in China extensively exploring the vast territories under the control of Khan. He then became the foreign emissary of Khan and was part of several diplomatic missions to different Asian regions. Polo also offered to accompany a Mongol princess to Persia,where he eventually returned to Venice through this mission. During these expeditions, he visited territories, such as India, South-East Asia, Japan, and Persia, among others, and collected detailed information which was only used to write his travelogue during his prison days. Among the several territories he visited in South East Asia, Java was one of the prominent ones. Polo visited both Major Java and Minor Java with the latter being the home to varied groups of people with unique lifestyles. Both islands cultivated a wide variety of spices due to their favorable climate and terrain. They traded those spices and other precious commodities with distant territories thus becoming financially well-off regions.



Major Java and Minor Java were two important islands in South East Asia and were home to different types of people since they practiced their religion in distinct ways. Located as part of the present-day Indonesian archipelago, Major Java is now called Java, while Minor Java is currently called Sumatra. Suarez validates this aspect by stating that “Java Major and Java Minor were popularized by Marco Polo, and almost certainly refer to Java and Sumatra respectively”. Since there are several islands constituting the Indonesian archipelago, there were some ambiguities regarding those islands’ location and name. It was Polo who popularized Java and Sumatra albeit in an incorrect way.

As Polo explained in his work, he first went to Major Java and was astounded by its vast size and natural beauty. He even mistakenly claimed that Java could be the largest island in the world, though there were even larger islands, such as Minor Java. There are some doubts whether Polo actually landed in Major Java and explored it in a detailed manner, but based on his descriptions it appears that he indeed had a tryst with it. Nevertheless, the extent of his stay and interactions with local people are not clearly known. He journeyed for more than 1,500 miles south and southeast of Champa. The territories of Champa are located in the present-day Vietnam. The lost kingdom of Champa was a collection of independent organized Cham societies that existed along the coast of Vietnam from the second century CE till the nineteenth century. After traveling south of Champa, Polo landed in Major Java. “One comes to a very large island called Java which, according to what good sailors say who know it well, is the largest island in the world, for it is more than three thousand miles around”. Polo particularly mentioned that the size of Major Java was estimated be around 3,000 miles and that makes it the largest island in the world. However, it is important to note that that estimation was not based on accurate measurement methods and instead, depended on the estimation provided by the local people. Polo’s description of Minor Java also focuses on its dimensions but in an erroneous way. “When one leaves the island of Bintan and one went southeast about 100 miles, then one finds the island of Lesser Java: but know that it is not so small as to be any less than 2,000 miles around”. When describing Minor or Lesser Java, Polo stated that he traveled from Bintan to Lesser Java. Bintan is another prominent island in the present-day Indonesian archipelago. After reaching Minor Java, Polo estimated that it is a large island measuring around 2,000 miles around. Here again, it is possible to state that Polo did not employ any valid measurement methods to correctly estimate the size of the island. Consequently, he could not consider the possibility that it could be larger than Major Java. Since Polo regarded Major Java to be the largest island in the world, he considered Minor Java to be smaller than the former. However, based on current geographical estimates, Minor Java or Sumatra is the largest Indonesian island, while Java is actually the fourth largest. Apart from this difference, those islands were different with regard to their inhabitants and their lifestyles. According to Polo, the people of Major Java were idolators who worshipped idols of Hindu gods. They were not exposed to Islam, so they followed their ancient religious customs. When describing Minor Java, Polo mentioned that it had eight kingdoms and thus 8 crowned kings. Similar to Major Java, a segment of the population were idolators. However, other segments, particularly the inhabitants of the kingdom of Perlak, were Muslims. They were converted to Islam by the Arab merchants who often visited the region for trading. “Know that this kingdom of Perlak converted to Muhammad’s law as a result of Saracen merchants who often came there by ship”. However, historian and Arabist, Paul Lunde, states that this process of Islamization was conducted by “traders from India and mainland Southeast Asia, rather than from Arabia”. Nevertheless, he proceeds to indicate that the presence of Muslims in Minor Java could be the “earliest reference to a Muslim sultanate in the Indonesian archipelago”. Polo then pointed out that only the inhabitants in urban areas adopted Islam and lived a cultured lifestyle, while the people in mountains remained as cannibals. “Only the city people; the mountain people are like animals, for I tell you in truth that they eat human flesh and all other flesh—good and bad”. Through this quote, Polo indicated the contrast between the city and the mountain people, particularly their eating habits. Out of the eight kingdoms in Lesser Java, Polo visited six. When describing the kingdom of Basma, he briefly mentioned about its inhabitants. In Minor Java descriptions, Polo mostly focused on the various animals residing there instead of humans. He spent around five months there waiting for the monsoon to subside so he can continue his journey to Sri Lanka. The above comparison demonstrates that though Major and Minor Java were two similar large islands, their people displayed different ways of life.

Both Java islands became well-known trading regions due to their abundant cultivation and supply of different types of spices. According to Polo, people in Major Java cultivated a number of spices that were used in cooking, medicinal preparations, and as cosmetics, among others. Some of the spices listed by Polo are “pepper, nutmeg, spikenard, galangal, cubeb, and cloves”. Since there were ample demands for spices in European territories, particularly the ones grown in Major Java, they had a high price tag. Polo mentioned this aspect by stating that “all the expensive spices you can find in the world” were available in Major Java. In those centuries, spices were not grown or available throughout the world. At the same time, they were highly favored by the people because they enhanced taste of their foods. Both these factors made them expensive. As far as Minor Java is concerned, Polo indicated that it was also the home to a diverse range of spices. Similar to the spices of Major Java, they also had high demand in European countries. Consequently, their prices were excessively high. “This island has the very greatest abundance of treasure, costly spices, aloeswood, and spikenard, and many other spices”. As aforementioned, the lack of availability worldwide and people’s preference for them made spices one of the costliest commodities in those times. Apart from these spices, Minor Java was rich in sappan-wood, which was normally used for dyeing clothes and other products. Additionally, people living there cultivated several drug producing plants, which had hallucinatory effects on users. However, Lunde states that not all the aforementioned spices were grown there. They would have been cultivated in neighboring regions and then transported to Java’s markets. “Java did not, of course, produce all the spices he lists: the cloves and nutmegs came from the Moluccas; the pepper may have been imported from Malabar. But all were available in its markets”. For instance, the cloves and nutmegs grown in present-day Maluku province in Indonesia and pepper cultivated in current-day Indian states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu were transported to both islands. Due to the availability of both indigenous and transported numerous spices and other plant-based products, both Major and Minor Java became important trading centers. The primary reasons for the abundance of spices in both islands were favorable climate and natural terrain. Since islands are located in the tropical monsoon zone, they received surplus rainfall. Additionally, most of the terrains there were adjacent to excess water sources. Both these favorable aspects facilitated the cultivation of huge amount of spices. Furthermore, the amplified dampness in both islands along with navigational difficulties to reach them mainly impeded Kublai Khan from attacking and conquering them. In his book, Polo focused on the navigational challenge by stating that “the Great Khan has not brought the island under subjection to him, must be attributed to the length of the voyage and the dangers of the navigation”. Since it would take substantial time to journey from China to Java and threats from other kingdoms and pirates existed during voyage, Khan avoided undertaking that expedition. Morgan also highlights how the unfavorable climatic conditions and terrain could have prevented Khan from successfully invading Java. “Expeditions were mounted into mainland south-east Asia, and even to Java, but the damp jungles of those lands were the last parts of the world to be appropriate to the Mongol style of warfare”. Morgan in the above quote particularly focuses on how the dangerous jungles in Java could have threatened the lives of Khan and his army and physically impeded his progress. Moreover, the absence of a domineering ruler like Khan allowed local kings and businesspersons to conduct trade without impediments.

The availability of large quantities of varied spices in Major and Minor Java as well as the ample demand for them in European markets primarily impelled local traders and foreign merchants to conduct optimal trade in both islands. The increased trade in those islands transformed them into significant trading centers in South East Asia. Merchants from different regions, particularly from Arab territories, converged on both islands to buy those spices. They purchased them at low rates and sold them at exorbitant rates in Middle Eastern markets, especially Aden. “From this port of Aden, ships go to the islands of India with many merchants and much merchandise” and return with loads of spices. Clothes, vases, jewelry, and horses, among others were in high demand in the islands located in the Indian Ocean. People in South and South East Asian territories were highly fascinated by those products from the Middle East. The rulers in particular favored the Arabian horses for their agility and speed. Since there were an increased demand for those commodities, Arab merchants loaded them in their ships before departing from Aden to those islands. Consequently, when purchasing the spices, Arab merchants mostly did not pay the local merchants in some form of currency. On the contrary, they traded their commodities present in the ships for the spices. They will transport those spices and sell in the markets in Aden. Those markets in turn supplied commodities to sellers in European regions. Apart from Arab merchants, spices from both islands were purchased by Chinese merchants coming from the southern Chinese cities of Zaytun and Mangi. As Polo explained in his book, “Merchants from Zaytun and Mangi have already extracted very great treasure from this island, and continue to do so today”. They have been smoothly buying the spices from the traders or forcefully extracting from the island for a long time even before Polo arrived. Along with spices, those Chinese merchants purchased drugs that were produced in both islands. Since those drugs could not remain in an optimal state till they reached their destinations in Europe, they were not traded by Arab merchants. Consequently, Chinese merchants bought them in large numbers and sold them in mainland China and other territories. Polo mentioned this part of the trade by stating that “drugs, which, on account of the length of the voyage and the danger of the navigation, are not imported into our country, but which find their way to the provinces of Manji and Cathay”. The Chinese merchants also traded gold found in Major and Minor Java. Both islands have been rich sources of various metals and minerals, including gold. Since gold has been abundantly found in Major and Minor Java, they were frequently traded. The travelogue of Polo that was edited by Manuel Komroff adds to these points by indicating how this whole trading process was highly profitable to all players. When ships visited both islands, they not only bought spices but also sold their merchandise to local sellers. Those sellers purchased them at reduced prices and sold them to the local population by keeping considerable profit margins. When many ships laden with merchandise landed on the shores of Java to buy spices, local traders and foreign merchants obtained high profits. The trade in Java, therefore, was highly competitive but at the same times a lucrative exercise.





Since both Major and Minor Java were endowed with an abundance of spices, they became major trading centers in South East Asia. Among those two islands, Major Java was mistakenly considered as the world’s largest island by Polo despite Minor Java being the largest based on valid geographical estimates. Major Java was the home to peaceful idolaters who worshiped Hindu gods. On the other hand, the inhabitants of Minor Java were a combination of Muslims and cannibals. Both islands cultivated a wide range of spices and other commercial plants. Since there were increased demands for spices in European regions, Arab and Chinese merchants converged on both islands and participated in amplified trading. They also brought commodities from their territories for selling in both islands. Apart from spices, drugs and gold were also traded from Major and Minor Java. All these trade elevated the socioeconomic conditions in both islands and made those territories an important part of world history.