Saturday, June 11, 2005

03: “From Caves to Warehouses: The Path of Civilization Through Trade” Part 3

Niccolo and his brother Maffeo Polo began their first trip to “Cathay” in 1255. It took them eleven years before they reached what is now Beijing but was then called Khanbaliq. There they became the emissaries of the Great Kublai Khan, who would send with them a letter to the Pope requesting teachers to show the great Khan’s people what life was like in the West.

In 1271 the Brothers Polo set off on a second journey to the Orient, and this time took along Niccolo’s son, Marco. Marco so enthralled the great Kublai Khan with his stories of the West, that he stayed in China for 17 years before returning to Venice as Kublai Khan’s emissary. Marco’s family finally returned from China and by 1295 had settled in Venice, where they were met with skepticism about their journeys.

In 1298, while serving in a war being fought between Venice and Genoa, Marco became a prisoner in a Genoese prison. Whiling away the months, the largely illiterate merchant dictated his wondrous tale of adventure to an out of work romance novelist named Rusticello, imprisoned with Polo. The book was later published and, as we know it, The Travels of Marco Polo was an instant success. Yet, even on his deathbed in 1324, Marco Polo was still faced with doubters and skeptics. The attending priest asked him to confess that the whole story of the trip to China had been made up, and Polo supposedly replied, "I have not told half of what I saw!"

So, what is contained in it that makes The Travels of Marco Polo such an important book? Polo describes the many sights he claimed to have seen while spending all that time in China. The book, even though greeted with great skepticism about its veracity, was still a huge success, and was quickly translated into many languages and widely circulated throughout Europe. Even today, there are doubters who reason that because Polo did not mention this or that, such as tea, or the Great Wall, and because the court clerks of Kublai Khan never mentioned Polo, he must not have made the trip. Still, there is nothing in his book that puts the lie to it, indeed, he does describe things that he would have seen had he been there, so lacking any evidence to the contrary, we take him at his word.

Most importantly to early 14th Century Europe were the book’s references to spice, silk, and incense. Putting spice into perspective, let’s take a single example, the clove (Syzygium aromaticum). Clove is a dried flower bud, primarily the product of Indonesia. It is one of the rare spices in that it can be used as an aromatic (as incense) even while being used to flavor food being cooked. Ancient Chinese emperors insisted anyone speaking to them chew several before hand to freshen their breath! Roman historian Pliny the Elder recorded, “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces.” That, then, is a measure of the value of the spice even before the birth of Christ.

The cost involved to bring the spice back from the caravan somewhere near the Russian Steppes was exorbitant. Not only did all the tolls, and taxes on the trip drive the price up, but every person who handled spice along the way worked for a piece of the price. By the time the Jewish merchants returned to their European cities, the price was even higher. The royals, and the noble houses, and the Church would pay for the spice, and hope it would last until the next shipment, which might not be for several years. Finally, the quantity shipped was always whittled down to sell some off here for extra cash, and there to buy someone’s way out of trouble, and in the end, by the splitting up and parceling out of the shipment all over Europe and Byzantium. It was almost prohibitively expensive, but every monarch and noble had to have it. The market was there.

Polo’s book told the world where the spice was, and how to get it. Suddenly, the crowned heads of Europe, particularly those around the Mediterranean Sea, got it into their minds that they would no longer need the Jewish merchants, the caravans, or even the Chinese…if they could find a way to go get the spice themselves. And if successful, one single shipment delivered by sea would eclipse all the spice sold in their kingdom in the past one hundred years, thus, dropping the price, even while being dramatically profitable. Never mind their scientists warned them their ships would never make the voyage without falling off the edge of the world. Never mind that none of the houses of Europe had much experience in navigating the great oceans except the Mediterranean. But if that closed sea had ancient established trade routes that had been used for millennia, certainly there had to be ships and ship masters that had ventured off into the unknown, perhaps into the great Atlantic Ocean, far beyond the little fishing boats that worked the coast.

Enter the next major player in this epic drama, Prince Henry of Portugal, also known as Henry the Navigator.

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