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.

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.

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 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.


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 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.

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's Crew in Indonesia

During the round the world voyage by his ships and crew, 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.

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

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.

Last updated June 2015

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