A Slave & a Woman Went Around the
World & Marco Polo Did Get to China
Let’s get something out of the way: we’re not particularly keen in rating people and facts by numbers. So it happens that for every person who’s done something first, there’s probably a crowd who either got there before, or opened the doors for others to do it. As for events, the argument about the chicken and the egg is still cooking.
After all, when was the last time you were told, with a straight face, that Christopher Columbus was the first to land in America? But history does consider Marco Polo, Enrique de Malay, and Jean Baret, pioneers. Marco did get to China, it seems, and Enrique, a slave, and Jean, or rather Jeanne, were first to circumnavigate the world.
We’ll get to their travelogues in a minute, but let’s not make an omelet just yet. Yes, the eggs did come first, because of the dinosaurs and all that. What’s still not completely clear is why, of all sentient creatures, it had to be the chicken the one to cross that contentious road, and become such a scientific ruse. At times, it’s all a mere excuse to win a few rounds of drinks. Whatever.
The point is that most of what we call recorded history commits to paper only the touchdown moment, however precise it may be doing it. All the prep work, and the pep talk, and the agonizing nights spent pondering the what-ifs and the probable consequences are largely ignored, and if there’s no moment to crystalize on the record, chances are, it too will be as good as yesterday news.
In other words, what was last year’s olympic record, may now be a faded footnote, for we’ll be all too eager to see it beaten and rewritten many times over. It may be part of what we are, spoiled with the new the moment that it hits us, and constantly on the lookout for other ways to cover up the boredom.
But we may be telling you all of that just to have your attention for a bit longer, before diving head first on what we’ve learned about those famous trippers, that you may not read anywhere else. Now that you’ve put up with our little self-indulgent reverie, let’s get to them.
DID HE OR HOW DARED HE?
It’s been a while since doubts have been aroused about Marco Polo’s ‘Description of the World,’ the account of his travels through Asia between 1271 and 1291. As archeological digs have uncovered more evidence about life in the 13th century, and more public records are scrutinized, every few years there’s a new theory about whether he really did get to China.
Recently excavated remains, belonging to the fleet of the great Mongol ruler Kublai Khan, who led invasions of Japan in 1274 and 1281, are an example. University of Naples archaeologist Daniele Petrella is convinced that there are too many inconsistencies in Marco’s description of those ships.
The Venetian trader was by then both a capable navigator and, as a professional merchant, well versed in the arts of telling stories to add value to his wares. So up to a few years ago, it had been more or less established that he may have picked up stories from other traders he met around the Black Sea, to embellish his biography.
And yet, new uncovered documents seem to corroborate some aspects of his account. In ‘Marco Polo Was in China,’ University of Tübingen professor of Chinese studies Hans Ulrich Vogel, for one, reexamines the Venetian traveler’s information about currency, economy, and administration, and finds them backed by Chinese sources that hadn’t yet been translated to Italian at that time.
Skeptics have argued that Marco failed to mention some important icons of China’s public life, such as its writing system, tea, chopsticks, and the practice of binding women’s feet, and that his trip was not even recorded in Chinese documents. For a while, even the omission of the Great Wall in his report was also invoked, but new research has shown that it hadn’t been built yet.
In his book, Vogel cites Marco’s contemporary, Giovanni de Marignolli, a papal envoy at the court of the Yuan rulers, who’s also not mentioned in Chinese sources, and nor is the pope himself, to counter such line of argument. In any case, there’s no question that Marco’s trip, along with his father and uncle, considered the first of a Westerner to the Far East, did inspire Columbus and a whole generation of navigators who followed them much later.
THE SLAVE WHO SAW THE WORLD
The convoluted story of Enrique de Malay, captured by the Portuguese navigator Fernão de Magalhães, a.k.a. Ferdinand Magellan, in 1511, during the conquest of Malacca, frames an important element of the narrative of the time. He was one of the many spoils from the desperate attempt by the Europeans to take over the lucrative trade of spices, thriving under Muslin control in Asia.
In fact, what was to become known as the Discovery Era was fueled in great part by the need to get a hold of a crucial culinary item that, in those pre-refrigeration times, would have an enormous impact on the quality of life in the big cities of the West. Spices were valuable for their ability to preserve food from spoilage, effectively extending its shelf life.
So it happened that, in the process, new lands were discovered and dominated, entire peoples were ‘converted’ to the central power of the era, the church, and enslaved to assure free labor, and the riches from such distant and exotic lands were promptly exploited and incorporated to the already wealthy courts of the time.
As many of his contemporaries, Magellan was in a quest to find alternatives to the way of the Indies, and as everybody else then, named every single native he found along the way ‘indian.’ Enrique, whose real name was never recorded, was baptized and became Magellan’s traveling slave, a valuable asset for his multilingual abilities and who knows what other skills too.
By then, the great navigator, who had fought many battles for Portugal, was under the flag of his country’s main rival, Spain, and as such was killed in 1521, in a minor local dispute near the Mariana Islands, in the Pacific, which he’d named.
The two had been traveling together since September of 1519, and Enrique, having outlived his master, would only arrived back in Spain in three years later. He was then part of a terribly depleted crew, who nevertheless managed to deliver plenty of spices to the Spanish crown, which was the reason why he’d been dragged all over in the first place. But as such, history was kind to his legacy as the first slave to have circumvented the world.
The story is way more peripatetic that we’re leading you to believe, with a laundry list of countries and continents they’ve been to, and an impressive record of naval accomplishments. It was the tailend of Portugal’s domination too, as Spain had surpassed it in territory and riches, and they both had to face a formidable adversary that would effectively take over the seas: the British.
SHE DID IT AS A HE, INDEED
Only halfway through Jean Baret‘s travel around the world, in 1766, that it became clear to those close to her that he was a she. Until then, for over two years on a French naval vessel, she had perfected her act as a man, with linen bandages wrapped tightly around her upper body to flatten her chest.
Born Jeanne 26 years earlier, she met and fell in love with an aristocrat, Philibert de Commerson, a botanist studying plants in the Loire Valley, who despite being married, fathered her first child. The baby died, but opportunity knocked soon after, when Commerson was asked to join an expedition to circumnavigate the world, and took Jeanne with him.
The trip’s goal was to collect flora and fauna specimens that could be of commercial value to France. Both being experts in the field, they had to disguise her gender, since women were not allowed on French ships. It’s was probably very hard to fend off suspicions about Jean from the 300-male crew, or even maintaining the bandages and heavy garments clean, specially down south of the Earth’s equator.
They’ve managed it, though. In Rio de Janeiro, she found a woody vine with red flowers, which Commerson named ‘Bougainvillea,’ probably to assure support from the ship’s commander, Louis Antoine de Bougainville. At that point, the sailors had already been given an assortment of explanations for her gender ambiguity, including that she was an eunuch, with a sad story.
The deception lasted until they arrived in Tahiti, where natives immediately realized she was a woman. The revelation was recorded by Bougainville on his logs and, unfortunately, led to some heartbreak a short while later. While on an island near New Guinea, she may have been gang-raped by the crew, according to vague accounts of other officers.
Possibly in consequence of this horrible episode, Jeanne became pregnant and, once they reached Mauritius, a French territory, they both disembarked for good. She had the baby and gave him away to a local plantation owner. Commerson would die there, and she’d remarry and return to France seven years later.
It’d take several years into the new century, after she’d passed away at 67, until women were openly accepted as members of a ship crew. She paid a heavy price to become the first one to do it, but her positive legacy can still be traced to the many plant specimens she brought back from her trip, that now thrive in France and the rest of Europe.