On his journey home from China to Italy in 1291, Marco Polo was forced to spend five months on “Java the Less”—Sumatra—waiting for the monsoon winds to change direction so he could sail to Ceylon and India. Marco Polo reported described accurately that cannibals lived in Sumatra but then went on to describe strange beasts, including enormous unicorns, in size “not all by any means less than an elephant.” On Sumatra, Polo said: “I tell you quite truly that there are men who have tails more than a palm in size.

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “His account of the major ports, products and trade routes is remarkably accurate, despite some understandable geographical confusion and unreliable estimates of distances. Above all, he conveys a sense of wonder and enthusiasm for this world in which “everything is different”—a phrase he repeats frequently. He is alive to human, linguistic and zoological diversity, and this explains the great charm of his book. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 >>>]

“The number of islands in the Indian Ocean, Marco Polo wrote, is 12,700, “as shown by the maps and writings of the practiced seamen who ply in these waters.” He added the disclaimer: “There is no man in all the world who could tell the truth about all the islands of the Indies.” He is also perhaps the first European writer since classical times to mention the monsoon: “I must tell you that it takes a full year to complete the voyage, setting out in winter and returning in summer. For only two winds blow in these seas, one that wafts them out and one that brings them back; and the former blows in winter, the latter in summer.” >>>

Marco Polo’s Journey to Indonesia

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “His voyage began with a sailing from Zaitun (Quanzhou) to the kingdom of Champa in South Vietnam, a distance he estimates at 2400 kilometers (1500 mi). Champa was a main source of aloeswood, ‘ud in Arabic, much sought after throughout Islamic lands to this day as an aromatic, and ebony, used for making chessmen and pencases. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 >>>]

“Marco Polo sailed from South Vietnam to the Malay Peninsula, where “gold is so plentiful that no one who did not see it could believe it. There are elephants and wild game in profusion.” There was also brazilwood, which produced a red dye for the textile industry and which Marco tried, unsuccessfully, to transplant to Venice. >>>

“He then sailed through the Strait of Malacca, which he is the first to describe, to Sumatra, which he calls “Java the Lesser.” This was, he wrote, divided into eight kingdoms, each with its own language. One of the kingdoms was “Ferlec”—probably Periak in northern Sumatra. There, he says, the people used to be Hindus, but have converted to Islam through contact with Muslim merchants. He adds that this was true only of the inhabitants of the city, the mountain people being cannibals. The process of Islamization—at the hands of traders from India and mainland Southeast Asia, rather than from Arabia—was just beginning: This is the earliest reference to a Muslim sultanate in the Indonesian archipelago. He spent five months in Samudra waiting for the northeast monsoon so he could continue his voyage west to Sri Lanka.”

Marco Polo’s Observations on Indonesia

Although Marco Polo did not visit Java, he mentions it is “the biggest island in the world,…a very rich island, producing pepper, nutmegs, spikenard, galingale, cubebs and cloves and all the precious spices…. It is visited by great numbers of ships and merchants who buy a great range of merchandise, reaping handsome profits and rich returns…. It is from this island that the merchants of Zaitun and Manzi [southern China] in general have derived and continue to derive a great part of their wealth, and this is the source of most of the spice that comes into the world’s markets.”[Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 >>>]

Sumatran city-dwellers, Marco Polo wrote, used to be Hindus, but had converted to Islam through contact with Muslim merchants from India and mainland Southeast Asia.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. >>>

Marco Polo says Khubilai Khan had never been able to conquer Java. In fact, he attacked the year after Marco’s visit, following attempts against Burma, Champa and Annam. The Yuan sought to impose their power at sea as well as on land, but they were dogged by failure, beginning with the destruction of the great fleet sent against Japan in 1274. Their persistent and costly attempts at naval domination nevertheless show their determination to control not only the overland routes to China, but the maritime ones as well—an ambition encouraged by Muslim traders in the Yuan empire, who would have welcomed the elimination of non-Muslim competition in Japan and South and Southeast Asia. >>


The Arab traveler Muhammad ibn-'Abdullah ibn-Battuta visited the Islamic town of Perlak in Sumatra in 1345-46 and wrote that its monarch was a Sunni rather than a Shia Muslim. Marco Polo visited the same town in 1292.

Ibn Battuta (1304-1369) is regarded as the greatest traveler of all time. He was an Islamic scholar from Tangier in present-day Morocco who traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000 miles) through more than 40 present-day countries Africa, the Middle East and Asia during a 27 year period 700 years before trains and automobiles. He described his adventures in Travels in Asia and Africa. Ibn Battuta was a contemporary of Marco Polo (1254-1324). His journeys preceded those of Columbus by about 150 years. Although he is little known in the West he is as well known as Marco Polo and Columbus in the Arab world.

Book: Travels with a Tangerine: A Journey in the Footnotes of Ibn Battutah by Tim Mackintosh-Smith (Welcome Rain Publishers, 2001). Battuta’s journal is available in Arabic under the title The Precious Gift of Lookers Into the Marvels of Cities and Wonders of Travel.

Ibn Battuta's Life and Character

Ibn Battuta was born in Tangiers, Morocco. His full name was Sheikh Abu Abdallah Muhammed ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammed inb Ibrahim al-Lawati. He had the education of typical affluent Muslim child. He is believed to have memorized the Koran by the age of 12. Ibn Battuta has been honored in his hometown with the Hotel Ibn Battuta, the Ibn Battuta ferry to Spain and the Ibn Battuta Café, which offers an Ibn Battuta hamburger.

Ibn Battuta was described as a "flatterer of grandness" and a "bigot interested only in the lives of Muslims, dismissive of all 'infidels.'” His biographer Tim Mackintosh-Smith wrote he had”a soft heart, a big head, a huge libido” and was “enthralled by saints” but shocked by nude bathing. No one knows what he looked like. The only clue from his journals was that he had a beard. Paintings created long after he was dead usually depicted him with a turban, Moroccan robe and traveler's staff.

Ibn Battuta's Journey

Ibn Battuta traveled 120,000 kilometers (75,000) miles through 44 modern-day countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia between 1325 and 1354. He stopped in Mecca four times and traveled four times the distance of Marco Polo. Despite this Ibn Battuta suffered from blisters and complained about staying in tents. According to Tim Mackintosh-Smith, he “escaped pirates, storms and shipwrecks,” “dodged the Black Death,” and “survived the near-fatal consequences of uncooked yams.”

Ibn Battuta originally set out for Mecca from his home in Tangiers, Morocco. Guided by the Koran he traveled through the Sahara, the Middle East, Europe, the East African coast, and Central Asia. He made it as far east as China, where he had been sent as an ambassador by a Delhi Sultan, and returned to his home via Southeast Asia, Indonesia, India, the Mediterranean, West Africa and the Sahara.

Describing the world of Ibn Battuta, Thomas Abercrombie wrote National Geographic, "It is an Arabian Nights world of caravans, veiled harems, sailing dhows, whirling dervishes, and forbidden cities—a world of brigands and bow-and-arrow wars, of banquets with turbaned sultans and mirages wrought by threadbare fakirs."

During his journey, Ibn Battuta served as a pilgrim, diplomat, explorers, courier, jurist, courtier and politician. He married and divorced several times and often traveled with slave girls or concubines. Ibn Battuta sought out famous rulers, high-profile religious figures and well-known Muslim intellectuals, all of whom welcomed him with open arms and hospitality. He seemed particularly comfortable with Sufis (Muslims mystics). In return Ibn Battuta imparted his wisdom about the Koran and told tales of his travels. It has been said that the Koran was his guide, his consolation, his inspiration, the source of his wisdom and his occupation. The Koran says: "Allah has laid out the earth for you like a vast carpet so that you will travel to endless roads."

Ibn Battuta in Indonesia

Near Sumatra, Ibn Battuta's ship was plunder by pirates. Earlier another ship was shipwrecked in the Indian Ocean. He arrived in Sumatra in present-day Aceh. By some estimates Islam had only arrived about a a half century earlier in Sumatra. The ruler there, Malik al-Zahir, Ibn Battuta wrote is a "humble-hearted man who walks on foot to the Friday prayer. His subjects...take a pleasure in warring for the Faith...They have the upper hand over all the infidels in their vicinity."

Ibn Battuta wrote that he visited "Muljawa" and the port of "Tawalisi," neither of whom have been found. In Tawalisi he wrote he met an Amazon princess who lead an army of slave girl warriors "who fight like men." She gave him lemons, rice, peppers, and two buffalos.

Ibn Battuta made it as far east as China In 1344, Ibn Battuta arrived at Quanzhou in China, just across a strait from Taiwan. The port here he wrote was "one of the largest. I saw in it about a hundred large junks." Later he traveled to Guangzhou (Canton). Ibn Battuta was amazed by China. He wrote: "China is the safest and best regulated of countries for a traveler. A man may go by himself on a nine-month journey, carrying with him large sums of money, without any fear...Silk is used for clothing even by poor monks and beggars." Porcelain is "the finest of all makes of pottery...The hens in China are...bigger than the geese in our country.” Ibn Battuta was also shocked by what he saw in China. "The Chinese themselves are infidels, who worship idols and burn their dead like the Hindus...eat the flesh of swine and dogs, and sell it in their markets." Ibn Battuta returned home via Indonesia, India, the Persian Gulf, Arabia, Egypt and the Mediterranean.

Zheng He

The great Chinese eunuch-explorer Zheng He visited Indonesia in the early 15th century. His memory has been kept alive there in several ways. His expedition led to wave of Chinese emigration to southeast Asia. In some places in Indonesia he is regarded as a deity and temples have been launched to honor him.

Zheng He (also known as Chêng Ho, Cheng Ho, Zheng Ho, and the Three-Jewel Eunuch) is a Chinese navigator without a penis or a set of testicles whose achievements as an explorer rank with those of Columbus and Magellan but who has been largely forgotten because his travels had little impact on history. [Source: Frank Viviano, National Geographic, July 2005]

Zheng He (pronounced “jung huh”) embarked from China with a huge fleet of ships and journeyed as far west as Africa, through what the Chinese called the Western seas, in 1433, sixty years before Columbus sailed to America and Vasco de Gama sailed around Africa to get to Asia. Zheng also explored India, Indonesia, Southeast Asia, and Arabia with about 75 times as many ships and men as Columbus took with him on his trans-Atlantic journey.

Zheng He was very tall and a man of incredible ambition. Some descriptions say he stood seven feet tall, possessed a waist that was five feet in circumference and had “a voice as loud as a huge bell." He was a devout Muslim and supposedly earned his nickname “Three Jewel Eunuch” for the gems he gave out as gifts. His lack of recognition as a great explorer is partly because the Chinese never went to any length to declare he was a great explorer.

Book: Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne by Louise Levathes.

Zheng He's Life

Zheng He was born into a Central Asian Muslim family in Kunyang, a town in the landlocked Yunnan Province, several weeks away from the nearest port. He was given the name Ma He at birth. His father was a devout Muslim who did the hajj to Mecca and was a rural official when Yunnan was a Mongol Province. He was killed in the Ming Chinese invasion of Yunnan in 1382 that ousted the Mongols. Ma is the Chinese transcription for Mohammed.

Zheng was captured in the same Ming army invasion of Yunnan that left his father dead. The Ming General Fu Youde and his troops encountered the 10-year-old Zheng on a road and questioned him about the whereabouts of a Mongol leader. The boy said, “He jumped into a pond.” The general thought the boy was either cleverly concealing the truth or was quite brave. He took the boy prisoner.

After Zheng He was ritually castrated and trained as an imperial eunuch he was placed in the household of the 25-year-old Zhu Di, the forth son of the emperor and the Prince of Yan. Over the next 20 years Zheng He advanced in the court of Zhu Di as the prince advanced and became one of the princes most important aides. Zheng was a key strategist in the rebellion that allowed Zhu Di to overthrow his nephew, the Emperor, and become the Yongle Emperor. Ma He was renamed Zheng He after distinguishing himself in the battle of Zhengluba, near Beijing, and given a 72-room mansion in the Ming capital of Nanjing. One of the first things the Emperor Yongle did after he seized power was sponsor Zheng He's voyages.

Zheng He's Castration

In 1385, Zheng He was ritually castrated and trained as an imperial eunuch. The castrations were usually performed with one slash of a small knife in a hut outside the Forbidden City for a fee of six silver pieces. The eunuchs lost their testicles and penis ("the three preciouses"). The only local anesthetic used was hot chili sauce. After the procedure a plug was placed in the wound and the urethra and left there for three days. If urine poured out of the wound after the plug was removed the operation was considered a success. If it didn’t the patient usually died a painful death. During the Ming dynasty, the Forbidden City contained a special eunuch clinic where candidates had their genitals removed while sitting on a special chair with a hole in it. Candidates that didn't survive were carried away with their penis and testicles in a pouch for reunification in the afterlife.

Many eunuchs were orphans or sons of prisoners or poor parents. In her book on Zheng He, Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne , Louise Levathes wrote: "As was the custom, young sons of prisoners were castrated. Thousands of young boys’some no more than 9 or 10 years of age---were stripped naked, subjected to one brutal stroke of a curved knife...Hundreds never recovered, dying of infection and exposure. Those who did were taken to the capital to serve as court eunuchs."

The operation cut off the supply of male hormones to the body and gave the eunuchs high voices and soft demeanors. It also left them with less control of their bladder. Eunuchs often wet their beds and their clothes, the source of the old Chinese expression “as smelly as a eunuch.” The operation also left them too weak to perform hard physical work such as farm labor. Eunuchs traditionally preserved their genitals in a jar and carried them in a bag hung on their belt. This way, if a eunuch died he had his genitals on him and could be buried with them and be reincarnated as a "full man"

Zheng He's Expeditions

Sponsored by the Yongle Emperor to show the world the splendor of the Chinese empire, the seven expeditions led by Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 were by far the largest martime expeditions the world had ever seen, and would see for the next five centuries. Not until World War I did there appear anything comparable.

The largest expedition utilized a crew of 30,000 men and a fleet of 317 ships, including a 444-foot-long teak-wood treasury ship with nine masts, the largest wooden ship ever made; 370-foot, eight-masted “galloping horse ships,” the fastest boats in the fleet; 280-foot supply ships; 240-foot troop transports; 180-foot battle junks, a billet ship, patrol boats and 20 tankers to carry fresh water. The expedition was nothing less than a floating city that stretched across several kilometers of sea. By contrast to Columbus' expedition consisted for three ships with 90 men. The largest ship was 85 feet long. The largest ships in Vasco de Gama's fleet had four masts and were about 100 feet long.

The crew included sailors and mariners, seven grand eunuchs, hundreds of Ming officials, 180 physicians, geomacers, sail makers, blacksmiths, carpenters, tailors, cooks, merchants, accountants, interpreters that spoke Arabic and other languages, astrologers that predicted the weather, astronomers that studied the stars, pharmacologists that collected plants, ship repair specialists, and even protocol specialist that were responsible for organizing official receptions. To guide the massive ships, Chinese navigators used compasses and elaborate navigational charts with detailed compass bearings.

During the seven expeditions the treasure ships carried more than a million tons of Chinese silk, ceramics and copper coins and traded them for tropical species, gemstones, fragrant woods, animals, textiles and minerals. Among the things that the Chinese coveted most were medicinal herbs, incense, pepper, tropical hardwoods, peanuts, opium, bird’s nests, African ivory and Arabian horses. The Chinese were not interested in Europe, which only had wool and wine to offer---things the Chinese could produce for themselves.

Zheng He's Ships

Early European explorers to China were amazed by how much larger the Chinese ships were than their counterparts in the West. The smallest vessels were five-masted combat ships that measured 180 by 68 feet. The largest were colossal multi-storied ships, 400 feet long, 170 feet across at the beam, with nine masts, a 50,000 square foot main deck and a displacement of 3,000 tons. All the ships of Columbus and de Gama would have fit on the deck of Zheng He’s largest ship.

For centuries, historians thought stories of enormous Chinese ships had to be exaggerations. In 1962, workers unearthed a 36-foot-long wooden steering post in a trench in the Yangtze River in Nanjing. The post was large enough to connect to a rudder that covered an astonishing 452 square feet, large enough to steer Zheng He’s 400-foot-long treasure ship.

The vessels in Zheng He's fleet contained watertight compartments that prevented water in one part of the hull from flooding the whole ship---an advancement first developed by the Chinese in the Han period that would not appear in European vessels for several hundred after Zheng He. The compartments were created from bulkheads, a series of upright partitions that divided the ship's hold and prevented the spread of leakage or fire.

Zheng He's Voyages

Sea travel between China and the West was dictated by seasonal wind and ocean currents, the most important of which was the monsoons which decided when ships could travel from east to west and visa versa. Wind and ocean currents along the east African coast determined how far south ships could travel and still make it back to Arabian ports in a single season.

The amateur historian Gavin Menzies wrote a book called 1421, in which he asserts that Zheng He discovered America 70 years before Columbus and then continued across the Pacific back to China. Menzies bases his claim on Asian jade found in Aztec tombs, Chinese ideograms found on pre-Columbian pottery and a purported rendering of San Francisco Bay on a map made in 1507, which Menzies claimed was made with the help of an Italian who had hitched a ride of Zheng He’s fleet. While Menzies” book has sold well most historians reject his claims as frivolous at best.

The official records of Zheng He's voyages were destroyed after the death of Yongle Emperor. Most of what historian know about the voyages is based on three self- serving accounts by participants of the expeditions, the most notable of which is The Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shore, an account by a Chinese Muslim named Ma Huan, who served as an interpreter on at least three of the voyages.

Zheng He's Seven Expeditions

All seven expeditions led by Zheng began and ended in Nanjing and stopped at Qui Nhon in Champa (Vietnam), Surabaya in Indonesia, Palembang and Semudera on Sumatra, Malacca in Malaysia, Galle in Sri Lanka and the Malabar Coast in India, the source of much of the world’s spices and the primary destination of all the voyages. There were side trips to present day Thailand, Bangladesh, eastern Malaysia, and the Maldives.

The first expedition (1405-1407) included 317 ships and 27,870 men. It visited Java, Sumatra, Ceylon and western India. Altogether the voyage from China to India covered 6,000 miles at an average speed of 50 miles a day. Malacca became a home port for the fleet in Southeast Asia, opening the way for the immigration of millions of Chinese to the region over the following centuries.

The second expedition (1407-1409) returned ambassadors from Sumatra, India and other places who traveled to China on the first voyage. This voyage solidified trade links between China and countries around the Indian Ocean. The third expedition (1409-1411) was involved in a land battle in Sri Lanka and presented generous gifts to Buddhist temples. On Dodra Head, the southernmost point in Sri Lanka, Zheng left behind a stelae that paid respect to Buddha, Siva and Allah in Chinese, Tamil and Persian.

The forth expedition (1413-1415) made it as far west as the Persian Gulf. It was the first Chinese ship to travel beyond India across the Arabian Sea. An estimated 18 states sent tributes and envoys to China. The fifth expedition (1417-1419) stopped on the Arabian Peninsula and reached Africa (Kenya) for the first time. The sultan in Aden offered zebras, lions and ostriches as gifts.

The far reaching sixth expedition (1421-22) reached Zanzibar off the East African coast. The seventh expedition (1431-1433) embraced 37,000 men and 316 ships and traded with the African Swahili coat kingdoms of Malidi and Pate and made a side trip to Mecca. Since Zheng was a representative of the Ming Emperor and could not bow before the symbolic throne of a foreign ruler he was unable to make the trip to Mecca himself. Zheng died on this expedition.

Zheng He’s Adventures in Indonesia and Southeast Asia

In 1407, Zheng He” ships encountered the notorious Cantonese pirate Chen Zuyo in the Strait of Malacca. Operating out of Sumatra, Chen used his fleet of armed junks to control the straits. Almost all ships that passed through were either raided or forced to pay tribute. When Zheng arrived he demanded the pirate’s surrender. Chen agreed while secretly planning a surprise attack. Zheng had been alerted to the details of his plan and was ready. In the fierce battle Chen was captured, 5,000 of his men were killed and his fleet was destroyed. Chen was publically executed in Nanjing. The Chinese informant who gave up Chen was made the ruler of Palembang.

Ma Huan wrote about sampling jack fruit with “morsels of yellow flesh, as big as hen’s eggs and tasting like honey” in Vietnam; discovering the “ten different uses” of the coconut in India;and seeing cockatoos, mynahs and parrots—“all of which can imitate human speech”--- in Java. In Java he noted that “little boys of three years to old men of hundred years” carried knives. “If a man touches their head with his hand, or if there is a misunderstanding about money at a sale, or a battle of words when they are crazy with drunkenness, they at once pull out their knives and stab [each other].”

Nicolò dei Conti

One of the first Europeans to reach Indonesia and suggest that it was possible to reach Asia by sailing around Africa was a Venetian merchant named Nicolo de' Conti who traveled for 25 years in the Middle East and South Asia beginning in 1419. At the end of the 15th century maps began showing a sea route around Africa for the first time. Conti resided in coastal port of Pasai (Samudera) on Sumatra for a year but never ventured inland out of fear of being “torn to pieces and devoured by the natives." (Hirosue, 2005)

Paul Lunde wrote in Saudi Aramco World, “Nicolò dei Conti voyaged widely in the Indian Ocean between 1414 and 1439. His itinerary is remarkable: Baghdad–Hormuz–Qalhat–Cambay– Malabar–Madras–Malapur–Sumatra– Burma–Ava–Pegu–Java–Borneo– Champa–Quilon–Cochin–Calicut– Cambay again–Aden–Berbera–Jiddah– Makkah–Cairo–Venice. He spent nine months in Borneo and learned from traders of the existence of the far-off Moluccas, the Spice Islands that the early Arab geographers had known only as bilad manbit al-‘atar, “the country where the spices grow.” He is the first author to refer to the bird of paradise, species of which live only in New Guinea and adjacent islands and whose feathers were much prized by the Chinese and Ottoman Turks. [Source: Paul Lunde, Saudi Aramco World, July-August 2005 >>>]

“On his return to Europe, his caravan crossed with that of a Christian knight, Pero Tafur, near Mount Sinai. Nicolò told Pero Tafur that he had left home at 18, lost his inheritance, spent a year at the court of Tamerlane in Samarkand, then set off for India. In India, Nicolò claimed, he had been received by Prester John, “very graciously and [he] showed me many favors, and married me to the woman I now have with me, and she bore me these children.” Prester John, he said, was a great lord with 25 kings in his service, and he had sent two unsuccessful expeditions in search of the sources of the Nile. >>>

“On his return to Italy, Nicolò dictated his travels to the papal secretary and learned humanist Poggio Bracciolini, to whom we owe the survival of so many key works. He toned down his account, producing a short, informative report of his travels. Much of his geographical information was recorded by the Venetian Fra Mauro on his wonderful map of 1459, a map which, incidentally, clearly shows Africa as a peninsula. Yet Nicolò’s conversation in the desert with Pero Tafur shows the medieval side of this remarkable man, whose obsession with Prester John and the sources of the Nile was shared by the Portuguese and spurred them to undertake their punishing voyages. >>>

Nicolò visited present-day Indonesia because the overland routes between Europe and Asia were closed. “Nicolò had been able to travel freely while Tamerlane was alive, but when Tamerlane’s empire crumbled after his death in 1404, the overland routes were no longer safe, and Nicolò was forced to return to Italy by sea. He was not the only one inconvenienced by the death of the Central Asian conqueror, nor was he the only one to turn to the sea.” >>>

European Explorers and the Spice Islands

Early maps of Indonesia showed the archipelago as the place "Where Dragons and Leviathans be." In 1510, a Bolognese traveler named Ludovico di Varthema returned to Italy after a six year trip in the East. He published an account of his journey that drew considerable attention. Among other things he was the first to European to describe nutmeg trees growing in the Banda Islands in what used to be called the Spice Islands and what are now called the Moluccas. They were the only places in the world that nutmeg grew.

The Spice Islands that Columbus was looking for were the Moluccas. After Magellan was killed in the Philippines his crew loaded up with spices in the Moluccas for the journey home. Sir Francis Drake visited the islands of Indonesia and turned an offer of cheap and valuable cloves because his ship was so full of stolen Spanish goods. When he returned on his trans-global voyage one of the items he brought back that caused the biggest stir was a mermaid from Sumatra that looked an awful lot alike the upper half of a monkey glued to the tail of a fish.

Captain Cook lost several men in a fight with Asmat cannibals in what is now the West Papua Province of Indonesia on New Guinea. East Timor was the first landfall for Captain Bligh, of Mutiny on the Bounty fame, after spending 41 days adrift in the South Seas.

Magellan Crew in Indonesia

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521. Afterwards his crew continued on to the Spice Island. At this point in the voyage Magellan's crew still had 17,770 kilometers (11,000 miles) to go to get home. By this time only 100 of the 250 men that left South America remained, and one the three remaining ships was so filled with worm holes that these men decided to squeeze onto to the remaining two ships.

Instead of sailing the short distance between Cebu and the Spice Islands the ships took a more circuitous route, stopping first in Borneo where they encountered an Arab outpost near present-day Brunei. This was their first contact with a race of people of which the new since they left Brazil.

A couple of months later they reached the Spice Islands where the two ships loaded up with cloves. At that time nutmeg and cloves were worth more than gold. "When the cloves sprout," wrote Pigafoote, "they are white; when ripe, red; and when dried, black...Nowhere in the world do good gloves grow except on five mountains of those five islands."

One of the overfilled ships sprang a leak and had to be unloaded again for repairs. The other ship, captained by Juan Sebastián del Cano, decided to leave on its own while the monsoon winds were favorable. The other ship later tried to sail back across the Pacific to Panama, but was forced back and eventually was wrecked.


Ferdinand Magellan was the leader of a group of sailors that the circled the globe in the early 15th century, an amazing feat that perhaps will not be equaled until a human being lands on Mars. Magellan himself did not complete the trip. Of the 300 or so men and five ships that left Portugal with Magellan only one ship and 14 men made it back alive. [Source: Most information in thsi article is from a National Geographic article by Alan Villiers, June 1976 and the book "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

"No other had so much natural wit, boldness, or knowledge," is how one man described Ferdinand Magellan, an "able and ruthless" Portugese soldier-adventurer-seaman with battle-lame leg. "Magellan's feat," wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, "by any measure—moral, intellectual, or physical—would excel even that of Gama or Columbus or Vespucci. he would face rougher seas, negotiate more treacherous passages and find his way across a broader ocean.”

Compared to what Magellan accomplished, Columbus’s journey was a ride to the park. Columbus followed sunny trade winds to the West Indies and followed the prevailing westerlies back to Europe. Magellan on the other hand traveled about ten times the distance Columbus did: through the crushing winds in the furious fifties latitudes of southern South America and icy seas of north of Antarctica, then traveled across the breadth of the Pacific (a distance about four times what Columbus traveled across the Atlantic), having absolutely no idea where land was or where he was going. Once he achieved that feat he was only halfway home. His objective was cloves and other cooking spices in the Moluccas, or Spice Islands.

Magellan's Early Life

Ferdinand Magellan (1480?-1521) was born to a noble family in a part of Portugal with a climate described as "nine months of winter and three months of hell." He was orphaned at an early age and grew up as a page in the Portuguese court at a time when Dias rounded the cape of Good Hope and de Gama (both Portugese) made it to India.

In 1505, at the age of 25, he sailed to India where he served under Alfonos Albuquerque, founder of the Portuguese empire in Asia, and explored as far east as the Spice Islands (Moluccas) in present-day Indonesia. When he returned to Portugal in 1512 he had attained the rank of captain. He was lamed for life while fighting the Moors in Northern Africa and later fell out of favor with Portugese court and moved onto to Spain.

To gain support for his plan to sail west to the West Indies by locating a westward passage at the southern tip of South America, Magellan married the daughter of Portuguese expatriate who made decisions regarding Spanish voyages to the west. The union helped seal a deal that gave Magellan and a partner one twentieth of all the profits of their voyage and their heirs would be given the governorship to all new lands discovered. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Purpose of Magellan's Voyage

The main reason Magellan circled the globe was to determine where the dividing line between Spain and Portugal— set up by the Treaty of Tordesillas—was. The Treaty of Tordesillas divided the New World between Portugal and Spain. Signed in 1494, the agreement gave Spain all the land to the west of a meridian 370 degrees west of the Cape Verde Islands (off Africa), and the land to the east to Portugul. This agreement is why Brazil ended up being Portuguese and the rest of Latin America became a Spanish possesion.

The line dividing Spanish and Portuguese territory ran 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands on the Atlantic side (46°longitude) and 134° longitude on the Asian side, but nobody knew exactly where that was. With the Treaty of Saragossa in 1529, the Portuguese payed Emperor Charles V of Spain 350,000 ducats of gold (a huge sum of money at that time) to gain possession sole of the Spice Islands. When chronometers were invented they showed that the land was in fact on the Portuguese side anyway. [Source: Merle Severy, National Geographic, November 1992]

Like Columbus, Magellan was also seeking a western route to Spice Islands in Asia, but by this time he knew there was continent in the way and he was determined to get around it. The expedition was payed by the Spanish king (the Portuguese king had refused to back him). Most of the crew was Spanish. Two-and-a-half years before he set off Magellan himself changed his nationality to Spanish.

Magellan's Ship and Crew

Magellan sailed with 300 men and five heavily armed but "barely seaworthy" ships (varying in size between 75 and 125 tons). The largest ship was smaller than the Mayflower, which in turn was smaller than a modern tug-boat.

The ships were were supplied trading goods such as brass bracelets, 500 looking glasses, bolts of velvet, 2,000 pounds of quicksilver and 20,000 hawkbells to barter for spices. Unknown to Magellan was that his suppliers had short-changed him on supplies. He didn't realize until he was about to go through the Straits of Magellan that he had been given six months of supplies instead of the year and a half he agreed to.

Magellan's 250 man crew consisted mainly of foreigners— Portuguese, Frenchmen, Italians, Greeks and Englishmen—because Spaniards were reluctant to embark on such a risky voyage with a foreign captain. The three Spanish captains who accompanied Magellan were suspicious of him from the start and they may have made plans to make sure he didn’t finish the voyage. [Source: Daniel Boorstin, "The Discoverers"]

Most of the details we know about the voyage are from Magellan's log and a journal by one of his crew members, Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian gentleman-adventurer who "came along for the ride." His account of the voyage is one of most of the insightful and vividly written reports in the Age of Discovery. Luckily he was one of the 18 men that finished the voyage. "I am determined," the Italian Knight of Rhodes wrote, "to experience and to go...that it might be told that I made the voyage and saw with my eyes the things hereafter written and that I might win a famous name."

Drake in the Spice Islands

The English adventurer Sir Francis Drake sailed across the Pacific ocean from present-day California to Indonesia via Palau in 1579. The journey from California to Palau took 68 days. Drake reportedly used charts captured from the Spanish to navigate his way across the vast ocean. His objective was the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). Drake only stayed on Palau for three days. After a Palaun stole a dagger from a sailor’s belt, Drake ordered his men to open fire on group of Paluans, killing an estimated 20 of them. Drake named Palau the "Island of Thieves."

After loading up with six tons of spices in the Mollucas, the Golden Hind ran aground "upon a desperate shoale" somewhere west of Celebes (the Indonesian island of Sulawesi). Cannons and crates of gloves were thrown overboard but that wasn’t enough. Just as Drake's men were preparing for a slow, agonizing death, a wind and high tide lifted them from the shoal and miraculously the ship sustained so little damage it was able to sail on.

In Java, the Golden Hind loaded up with food and supplies. According to one account Drake commented on the "just dealing people": “We trafficked with them for hens, goats, coccas, plantains, and other kind of victuals, which they offered us in suchrplenty that we might have laden our ship if we had needed.” Drake voyage from Java to Sierre Leone was longest nonstop ocean passage made to that time. The 118 day non-stop journey covered 9,700 miles

Sir Francis Drake

Although he was active about a hundred years after Columbus and he didn't really discover anything, Drake was one of the most important navigators of the age of exploration and conquest. He was first captain to sail his own ship around the world but more importantly he almost single-handedly tipped the global balance of power from Spain to England with his dramatic raids on Spanish ships and ports and his courageous leadership in battles between the two European powers. [Source: Alan Villiers, National Geographic, February; Simon Winchester, Smithsonian]

Before Drake, Britian a relatively small inward country tht battled France from time to time but had relatively little global influence comparted to Spain and Portugal, the great maritime powers. After Drake, England was one of the most powerful nation in the earth. An argument can be made that the British empire began with Drake.

There were no reports of Drake’s voyage for more than a decade after it was completed. Richart Hakluyt's Voiyages and Discoveries of the English Nation made by sea or over land to the most remote and farthest distant quarters of earth, published in 1589 made no mention of the Drake's historic circumnavigation. Part of the reason for this was that the information was marked as "top-secret" and was locked away because it might be useful to foreign competitors.

Most of what we know of Drake's voyage comes from The World Encompassed, an account of the voyage made by Drakes's nephew published in 1628. Drake's personal journal, which was given to Queen Elizabeth, has been lost to history. Perhaps it was destroyed on purpose because it had damaging accounts of piracy or geographical information that could be useful to England's enemies.

Book: 1990 biography by John Sugden; Sir Julian Corbett's fmaous hagiography publsihed in the 1890s.

Drake's Round the World Voyage

Drake set sail from England on December 13, 1577 with five seaworthy ships led by the Pelican. The ship was renamed the Golden Hind in mid-voyage presumably to curry favor with one of Queen Elizabeth's backers (on his coat of arms was a hind, or deer). The Golden Hind was a three-masted ship about the same size as the Mayflower. No one is exactly sure of the Golden Hind's measurements but similar ships of that era were 70 feet long, with a 20-foot beam and a 13-foot draft and 18 cannons.

Drake traveled south to the Cape Verde Island and then across the South Atlantic to present-day Brazil and Argentina. After passing therough the Straits of Magellan in late 1578, the Golden Hind followed the South and North American coast, and set sail from California in June 1579 for 68 day journey across the Pacific to Palau and Indonesia. After traversing the Indian Ocean Drake rounded the Cape of Good Hope in June 1580 and returned to England on Septmebr 16, 1580.

Only one of the five ships, the Golden Hinde, made it around the world (one sank, two were destroyed and an another returned across the Atlantic). Unlike Magellan, who was killed in the Philippines, Drake returned with his ship, making him the first captain to circumnavigate the globe.

Drake didn't inform his crew of the true nature of the mission. Sailors were told the ships were bound for Alexandria, Egypt to trade with Turkish merchants and they were only going to be gone for a short while. Officers were given only enough information to get to the next port. Some of the seaman may have thought the ships were on a voyage to find the mythical southern continent Terra Ausrtalis Incognita or discover a northwest passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

The real mission of Drake's voyage appears to have been to plunder Spanish ports and ships. The expedition was so secret that a report of it didn’t turn up until a decade after the voyage was completed. It is not clear whether Drake intended to sail around the world. His official orders were to "returne...the same way...homewardes, as he went owt.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated June 2015

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