The Travels of Marco Polo/Book 3/Chapter 9

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Concerning the Island of Java the Less. The Kingdoms of Ferlec and Basma[edit]

When you leave the Island of Pentam and sail about 100 miles, you reach the Island of JAVA THE LESS. For all its name 'tis none so small but that it has a compass of two thousand miles or more. Now I will tell you all about this Island.[1]

You see there are upon it eight kingdoms and eight crowned kings. The people are all Idolaters, and every kingdom has a language of its own. The Island hath great abundance of treasure, with costly spices, lign-aloes and spikenard and many others that never come into our parts.[2]

Now I am going to tell you all about these eight kingdoms, or at least the greater part of them. But let me premise one marvellous thing, and that is the fact that this Island lies so far to the south that the North Star, little or much, is never to be seen!

Now let us resume our subject, and first I will tell you of the kingdom of FERLEC.

This kingdom, you must know, is so much frequented by the Saracen merchants that they have converted the natives to the Law of Mahommet--I mean the townspeople only, for the hill-people live for all the world like beasts, and eat human flesh, as well as all other kinds of flesh, clean or unclean. And they worship this, that, and the other thing; for in fact the first thing that they see on rising in the morning, that they do worship for the rest of the day.[3]

Having told you of the kingdom of Ferlec, I will now tell of another which is called BASMA.

When you quit the kingdom of Ferlec you enter upon that of Basma. This also is an independent kingdom, and the people have a language of their own; but they are just like beasts without laws or religion. They call themselves subjects of the Great Kaan, but they pay him no tribute; indeed they are so far away that his men could not go thither. Still all these Islanders declare themselves to be his subjects, and sometimes they send him curiosities as presents.[4] There are wild elephants in the country, and numerous unicorns, which are very nearly as big. They have hair like that of a buffalo, feet like those of an elephant, and a horn in the middle of the forehead, which is black and very thick. They do no mischief, however, with the horn, but with the tongue alone; for this is covered all over with long and strong prickles [and when savage with any one they crush him under their knees and then rasp him with their tongue]. The head resembles that of a wild boar, and they carry it ever bent towards the ground. They delight much to abide in mire and mud. 'Tis a passing ugly beast to look upon, and is not in the least like that which our stories tell of as being caught in the lap of a virgin; in fact, 'tis altogether different from what we fancied.[5] There are also monkeys here in great numbers and of sundry kinds; and goshawks as black as crows. These are very large birds and capital for fowling.[6]

I may tell you moreover that when people bring home pygmies which they allege to come from India, 'tis all a lie and a cheat. For those little men, as they call them, are manufactured on this Island, and I will tell you how. You see there is on the Island a kind of monkey which is very small, and has a face just like a man's. They take these, and pluck out all the hair except the hair of the beard and on the breast, and then they dry them and stuff them and daub them with saffron and other things until they look like men. But you see it is all a cheat; for nowhere in India nor anywhere else in the world were there ever men seen so small as these pretended pygmies.

Now I will say no more of the kingdom of Basma, but tell you of the others in succession.




[4] [5]




  1. 1.0 1.1 Java the Less is the Island of SUMATRA. Here there is no exaggeration in the dimension assigned to its circuit, which is about 2300 miles. The old Arabs of the 9th century give it a circuit of 800 parasangs, or say 2800 miles, and Barbosa reports the estimate of the Mahomedan seamen as 2100 miles. Compare the more reasonable accuracy of these estimates of Sumatra, which the navigators knew in its entire compass, with the wild estimates of Java Proper, of which they knew but the northern coast.

    Polo by no means stands alone in giving the name of Java to the island now called Sumatra. The terms Jawa, Jawi, were applied by the Arabs to the islands and productions of the Archipelago generally (e.g., Luban jawi, "Java frankincense," whence by corruption Benzoin), but also specifically to Sumatra. Thus Sumatra is the Jawah both of Abulfeda and of Ibn Batuta, the latter of whom spent some time on the island, both in going to China and on his return. The Java also of the Catalan Map appears to be Sumatra. Javaku again is the name applied in the Singalese chronicles to the Malays in general. Jau and Dawa are the names still applied by the Battaks and the people of Nias respectively to the Malays, showing probably that these were looked on as Javanese by those tribes who did not partake of the civilisation diffused from Java. In Siamese also the Malay language is called Chawa; and even on the Malay peninsula, the traditional slang for a half-breed born from a Kling (or Coromandel) father and a Malay mother is Jawi Pakan, "a Jawi (i.e. Malay) of the market." De Barros says that all the people of Sumatra called themselves by the common name of Jauijs. (Dec. III. liv. v. cap. 1.)

    There is some reason to believe that the application of the name Java to Sumatra is of very old date. For the oldest inscription of ascertained date in the Archipelago which has yet been read, a Sanskrit one from Pagaroyang, the capital of the ancient Malay state of Menang-kabau in the heart of Sumatra, bearing a date equivalent to A.D. 656, entitles the monarch whom it commemorates, Adityadharma by name, the king of "the First Java" (or rather Yava). This Mr. Friedrich interprets to mean Sumatra. It is by no means impossible that the Iabadiu, or Yavadvipa of Ptolemy may be Sumatra rather than Java.

    An accomplished Dutch Orientalist suggests that the Arabs originally applied the terms Great Java and Little Java to Java and Sumatra respectively, not because of their imagined relation in size, but as indicating the former to be Java Proper. Thus also, he says, there is a Great Acheh (Achin) which does not imply that the place so called is greater than the well-known state of Achin (of which it is in fact a part), but because it is Acheh Proper. A like feeling may have suggested the Great Bulgaria, Great Hungary, Great Turkey of the mediaeval travellers. These were, or were supposed to be, the original seats of the Bulgarians, Hungarians, and Turks. The Great Horde of the Kirghiz Kazaks is, as regards numbers, not the greatest, but the smallest of the three. But the others look upon it as the most ancient. The Burmese are alleged to call the Rakhain or people of Arakan Mranma Gyi or Great Burmese, and to consider their dialect the most ancient form of the language. And, in like manner, we may perhaps account for the term of Little Thai, formerly applied to the Siamese in distinction from the Great Thai, their kinsmen of Laos.

    In after-days, when the name of Sumatra for the Great Island had established itself, the traditional term "Little Java" sought other applications. Barbosa seems to apply it to Sumbawa; Pigafetta and Cavendish apply it to Bali, and in this way Raffles says it was still used in his own day. Geographers were sometimes puzzled about it. Magini says Java Minor is almost incognita.

    (Turnour's Epitome, p. 45; Van der Tuuk, Bladwijzer tot de drie Stukken van het Bataksche Leesboek, p. 43, etc.; Friedrich in Bat. Transactions, XXVI.; Levchine, Les Kirghiz Kazaks, 300, 301.)

  2. 2.0 2.1 As regards the treasure, Sumatra was long famous for its produce of gold. The export is estimated in Crawford's History at 35,530 ounces; but no doubt it was much more when the native states were in a condition of greater wealth and civilisation, as they undoubtedly were some centuries ago. Valentyn says that in some years Achin had exported 80 bahars, equivalent to 32,000 or 36,000 Lbs. avoirdupois (!). Of the other products named, lign-aloes or eagle-wood is a product of Sumatra, and is or was very abundant in Campar on the eastern coast. The Ain-i-Akbari says this article was usually brought to India from Achin and Tenasserim. Both this and spikenard are mentioned by Polo's contemporary, Kazwini, among the products of Java (probably Sumatra), viz., Java lign-aloes (al-' Ud al-Jawi), camphor spikenard (Sumbul), etc. Narawastu is the name of a grass with fragrant roots much used as a perfume in the Archipelago, and I see this is rendered spikenard in a translation from the Malay Annals in the Journal of the Archipelago.

    With regard to the kingdoms of the island which Marco proceeds to describe, it is well to premise that all the six which he specifies are to be looked for towards the north end of the island, viz., in regular succession up the northern part of the east coast, along the north coast, and down the northern part of the west coast. This will be made tolerably clear in the details, and Marco himself intimates at the end of the next chapter that the six kingdoms he describes were all at this side or end of the island: "Or vos avon contee de cesti roiames que sunt de ceste partie de scele ysle, et des autres roiames de l'autre partie ne voz conteron-noz rien." Most commentators have made confusion by scattering them up and down, nearly all round the coast of Sumatra. The best remarks on the subject I have met with are by Mr. Logan in his Journal of the Ind. Arch. II. 610.

    The "kingdoms" were certainly many more than eight throughout the island. At a later day De Barros enumerates 29 on the coast alone. Crawford reckons 15 different nations and languages on Sumatra and its dependent isles, of which 11 belong to the great island itself.

    (Hist. of Ind. Arch. III. 482; Valentyn, V. (Sumatra), p. 5; Desc. Dict. p. 7, 417; Gildemeister, p. 193; Crawf. Malay Dict. 119; J. Ind. Arch. V. 313.)

  3. 3.0 3.1 The kingdom of PARLAK is mentioned in the Shijarat Malayu or Malay Chronicle, and also in a Malay History of the Kings of Pasei, of which an abstract is given by Dulaurier, in connection with the other states of which we shall speak presently. It is also mentioned (Barlak), as a city of the Archipelago, by Rashiduddin. Of its extent we have no knowledge, but the position (probably of its northern extremity) is preserved in the native name, Tanjong (i.e. Cape) Parlak of the N.E. horn of Sumatra, called by European seamen "Diamond Point," whilst the river and town of Perla, about 32 miles south of that point, indicate, I have little doubt, the site of the old capital. Indeed in Malombra's Ptolemy (Venice, 1574), I find the next city of Sumatra beyond Pacen marked as Pulaca.

    The form Ferlec shows that Polo got it from the Arabs, who having no p often replace that letter by f. It is notable that the Malay alphabet, which is that of the Arabic with necessary modifications, represents the sound p not by the Persian pe ([Arabic]), but by the Arabic fe ([Arabic]), with three dots instead of one ([Arabic]).

    A Malay chronicle of Achin dates the accession of the first Mahomedan king of that state, the nearest point of Sumatra to India and Arabia, in the year answering to A.D. 1205, and this is the earliest conversion among the Malays on record. It is doubtful, indeed, whether there were Kings of Achin in 1205, or for centuries after (unless indeed Lambri is to be regarded as Achin), but the introduction of Islam may be confidently assigned to that age.

    The notice of the Hill-people, who lived like beasts and ate human flesh, presumably attaches to the Battas or Bataks, occupying high table-lands in the interior of Sumatra. They do not now extend north beyond lat. 3 deg. The interior of Northern Sumatra seems to remain a terra incognita, and even with the coast we are far less familiar than our ancestors were 250 years ago. The Battas are remarkable among cannibal nations as having attained or retained some degree of civilisation, and as being possessed of an alphabet and documents. Their anthropophagy is now professedly practised according to precise laws, and only in prescribed cases. Thus: (i) A commoner seducing a Raja's wife must be eaten; (2) Enemies taken in battle outside their village must be eaten alive; those taken in storming a village may be spared; (3) Traitors and spies have the same doom, but may ransom themselves for 60 dollars a-head. There is nothing more horrible or extraordinary in all the stories of mediaeval travellers than the facts of this institution. (See Junghuhn, Die Battalander, II. 158.) And it is evident that human flesh is also at times kept in the houses for food. Junghuhn, who could not abide Englishmen but was a great admirer of the Battas, tells how after a perilous and hungry flight he arrived in a friendly village, and the food that was offered by his hosts was the flesh of two prisoners who had been slaughtered the day before (I. 249). Anderson was also told of one of the most powerful Batta chiefs who would eat only such food, and took care to be supplied with it (225). The story of the Battas is that in old times their communities lived in peace and knew no such custom; but a Devil, Nanalain, came bringing strife, and introduced this man-eating, at a period which they spoke of (in 1840) as "three men's lives ago," or about 210 years previous to that date. Junghuhn, with some enlargement of the time, is disposed to accept their story of the practice being comparatively modern. This cannot be, for their hideous custom is alluded to by a long chain of early authorities. Ptolemy's anthropophagi may perhaps be referred to the smaller islands. But the Arab Relations of the 9th century speak of man-eaters in Al-Ramni, undoubtedly Sumatra. Then comes our traveller, followed by Odoric, and in the early part of the 15th century by Conti, who names the Batech cannibals. Barbosa describes them without naming them; Galvano (p. 108) speaks of them by name; as does De Barros. (Dec. III. liv. viii. cap. I.)

    The practice of worshipping the first thing seen in the morning is related of a variety of nations. Pigafetta tells it of the people of Gilolo, and Varthema in his account of Java (which I fear is fiction) ascribes it to some people of that island. Richard Eden tells it of the Laplanders. (Notes on Russia, Hak. Soc. II. 224.)

  4. 4.0 4.1 Basma, as Valentyn indicated, seems to be the PASEI of the Malays, which the Arabs probably called Basam or the like, for the Portuguese wrote it PACEM. [Mr. J.T. Thomson writes (Proc.R.G.S. XX. p. 221) that of its actual position there can be no doubt, it being the Passier of modern charts.--H.C.] Pasei is mentioned in the Malay Chronicle as founded by Malik-al-Salih, the first Mussulman sovereign of Samudra, the next of Marco's kingdoms. He assigned one of these states to each of his two sons, Malik al-Dhahir and Malik al-Mansur; the former of whom was reigning at Samudra, and apparently over the whole coast, when Ibn Batuta was there (about 1346-47). There is also a Malay History of the Kings of Pasei to which reference has already been made.

    Somewhat later Pasei was a great and famous city. Majapahit, Malacca, and Pasei being reckoned the three great cities of the Archipelago. The stimulus of conversion to Islam had not taken effect on those Sumatran states at the time of Polo's voyage, but it did so soon afterwards, and, low as they have now fallen, their power at one time was no delusion. Achin, which rose to be the chief of them, in 1615 could send against Portuguese Malacca an expedition of more than 500 sail, 100 of which were galleys larger than any then constructed in Europe, and carried from 600 to 800 men each.

    [Dr. Schlegel writes to me that according to the Malay Dictionary of Von de Wall and Van der Tuuk, n. 414-415, Polo's Basman is the Arab pronunciation of Paseman, the modern Ophir in West Sumatra. Gunung Paseman is Mount Ophir.--H.C.]

  5. 5.0 5.1 The elephant seems to abound in the forest tracts throughout the whole length of Sumatra, and the species is now determined to be a distinct one (E. Sumatranus) from that of continental India and identical with that of Ceylon. The Sumatran elephant in former days was caught and tamed extensively. Ibn Batuta speaks of 100 elephants in the train of Al Dhahir, the King of Sumatra Proper, and in the 17th century Beaulieu says the King of Achin had always 900. Giov. d'Empoli also mentions them at Pedir in the beginning of the 16th century; and see Pasei Chronicle quoted in J. As. ser. IV. tom. ix. pp. 258-259. This speaks of elephants as used in war by the people of Pasei, and of elephant-hunts as a royal diversion. The locus of that best of elephant stories, the elephant's revenge on the tailor, was at Achin.

    As Polo's account of the rhinoceros is evidently from nature, it is notable that he should not only call it unicorn, but speak so precisely of its one horn, for the characteristic, if not the only, species on the island, is a two-horned one (Rh. Sumatranus), and his mention of the buffalo-like hair applies only to this one. This species exists also on the Indo-Chinese continent and, it is believed, in Borneo. I have seen it in the Arakan forests as high as 19 deg. 20'; one was taken not long since near Chittagong; and Mr. Blyth tells me a stray one has been seen in Assam or its borders.

    [Ibn Khordadhbeh says (De Goeje's Transl. p. 47) that rhinoceros is to be found in Kameroun (Assam), which borders on China. It has a horn, a cubit long, and two palms thick; when the horn is split, inside is found on the black ground the white figure of a man, a quadruped, a fish, a peacock or some other bird.--H.C.]

    [John Evelyn mentions among the curiosities kept in the Treasury at St. Denis: "A faire unicorne's horn, sent by a K. of Persia, about 7 foote long." Diary, 1643, 12th Nov.--H.C.]

    What the Traveller says of the animals' love of mire and mud is well illustrated by the manner in which the Semangs or Negritoes of the Malay Peninsula are said to destroy him: "This animal ... is found frequently in marshy places, with its whole body immersed in the mud, and part of the head only visible.... Upon the dry weather setting in ... the mud becomes hard and crusted, and the rhinoceros cannot effect his escape without considerable difficulty and exertion. The Semangs prepare themselves with large quantities of combustible materials, with which they quietly approach the animal, who is aroused from his reverie by an immense fire over him, which being kept well supplied by the Semangs with fresh fuel, soon completes his destruction, and renders him in a fit state to make a meal of." (J. Ind. Arch. IV. 426.) There is a great difference in aspect between the one-horned species (Rh. Sondaicus and Rh. Indicus) and the two-horned. The Malays express what that difference is admirably, in calling the last Badak-Karbau, "the Buffalo-Rhinoceros," and the Sondaicus Badak-Gajah, "the Elephant-Rhinoceros."

    The belief in the formidable nature of the tongue of the rhinoceros is very old and wide-spread, though I can find no foundation for it but the rough appearance of the organ. ["His tongue also is somewhat of a rarity, for, if he can get any of his antagonists down, he will lick them so clean, that he leaves neither skin nor flesh to cover his bones." (A. Hamilton, ed. 1727, II. 24. M.S. Note of Yule.) Compare what is said of the tongue of the Yak, I. p. 277.--H.C.] The Chinese have the belief, and the Jesuit Lecomte attests it from professed observation of the animal in confinement. (Chin. Repos. VII. 137; Lecomte, II. 406.) [In a Chinese work quoted by Mr. Groeneveldt (T'oung Pao, VII. No. 2, abst. p. 19) we read that "the rhinoceros has thorns on its tongue and always eats the thorns of plants and trees, but never grasses or leaves."--H.C.]

    The legend to which Marco alludes, about the Unicorn allowing itself to be ensnared by a maiden (and of which Marsden has made an odd perversion in his translation, whilst indicating the true meaning in his note), is also an old and general one. It will be found, for example, in Brunetto Latini, in the Image du Monde, in the Mirabilia of Jordanus, and in the verses of Tzetzes. The latter represents Monoceros as attracted not by the maiden's charms but by her perfumery. So he is inveigled and blindfolded by a stout young knave, disguised as a maiden and drenched with scent:--

      "'Tis then the huntsmen hasten up, abandoning their ambush;
       Clean from his head they chop his horn, prized antidote to poison;
       And let the docked and luckless beast escape into the jungles."
           --V. 399, seqq.

    In the cut which we give of this from a mediaeval source the horn of the unicorn is evidently the tusk of a narwhal. This confusion arose very early, as may be seen from its occurrence in Aelian, who says that the horn of the unicorn or Kartazonon (the Arab Karkaddan or Rhinoceros) was not straight but twisted ([Greek: eligmous echon tinas], Hist. An. xvi. 20). The mistake may also be traced in the illustrations to Cosmas Indicopleustes from his own drawings, and it long endured, as may be seen in Jerome Cardan's description of a unicorn's horn which he saw suspended in the church of St. Denis; as well as in a circumstance related by P. della Valle (II. 491; and Cardan, de Varietate, c. xcvii.). Indeed the supporter of the Royal arms retains the narwhal horn. To this popular error is no doubt due the reading in Pauthier's text, which makes the horn white instead of black.

    We may quote the following quaint version of the fable from the Bestiary of Philip de Thaun, published by Mr. Wright (Popular Treatises on Science, etc. p. 81):

      "Monosceros est Beste, un corne ad en la teste,
       Purceo ad si a nun, de buc ad facun;
       Par Pucele est prise; or vez en quel guise.
         Quant hom le volt cacer et prendre et enginner,
       Si vent hom al forest u sis riparis est;
       La met une Pucele hors de sein sa mamele,
       Et par odurement Monosceros la sent;
       Dunc vent a la Pucele, et si baiset la mamele,
       En sein devant se dort, issi vent a sa mort
       Li hom suivent atant ki l'ocit en dormant
       U trestout vif le prent, si fais puis sun talent.
       Grant chose signifie."....

    And so goes on to moralise the fable.

  6. 6.0 6.1 In the J. Indian Archip. V. 285, there is mention of the Falco Malaiensis, black, with a double white-and-brown spotted tail, said to belong to the ospreys, "but does not disdain to take birds and other game."