Marco Polo’s Secret Voyages to the New World
Marco Polo is renowned as the World’s Most Famous Traveler. However, his greatest achievement—mapping of the Americas in the 13th century—has remained virtually unknown to modern historians. His own contemporaries regarded him as an enigma. He was seldom at home; his reputation was abysmal; and his loyalties were questionable. His Travelogue, written in 1299, was rumored to be a collection of Far Eastern fables. Few Italians were ever inclined to give it a read.
Marco’s fortunes changed the day that his eldest daughter persuaded him to reveal his greatest secret. The reason for his frequent absences, he confessed, was that he served the Venetian Council as a spy. In this capacity, he was forbidden to reveal details about his secret voyages to the “new lands” overseas.
During the last days of his life, Bellela Polo listened to his incredible stories that were never mentioned in the infamous Travelogue. Several years later, the three Polo Sisters used these exciting tales of New World natives and exotic vistas to entertain the aristocratic ladies of northern Italy. By so doing, they helped to create the social milieu that gave birth to the Proto Renaissance; and they began the early traditions that popularized adventure travel entertainment. Marco Polo became famous not because of what he said in his book, but because of what his daughters said about him.
The 13th century was the most desperate of times for medieval Europe. With Mongol barbarians threatening to annihilate Christian Civilization, doomsday fanatics argued that the Apocalypse had begun. A few innovative popes and the Mystic Franciscans refused to capitulate; they introduced the heretical notion that it was possible to use espionage and science not only to stop the Mongols but also to end forever the threat of the Apocalypse.
An arrangement between the Vatican and the Venetian Secret Service resulted in the brothers Niccoló and Maffeo Polo being sent to Mongol China. Niccoló brought along his son, Marco, with the expectation that the lad would undertake some of the more arduous espionage activities. He trained Marco in the linguistic, diplomatic, and espionage skills he would need during the four-year trip to China. The training was a success: Kublai Khan and Queen Chabi felt an immediate affection for the young Venetian.
As Kublai Khan’s Special Diplomat and as the protégé of Queen Chabi, Marco led expeditions along America’s West Coast from Alaska to Peru. The multiethnic teams of sailors, surveyors, and marines sailed in fleets of Asian junks. The explorers were charged with making an inventory of valuable exports, gathering samples of unusual flora and fauna, establishing diplomatic relations with native tribes, and making maps.
The first expedition explored Alaska and Arctic Canada—reaching as far as east as Devon Island (north of Hudson Bay). Marco identified the passage that they followed as “the Strait of Anian.” Subsequent chapters recount Marco’s encounters with native tribes in Puget Sound, California, Mexico, and Peru. Each chapter describes the cultural scene as well as evidence of Asian contact from archeology, folklore, and linguistics.
Contact between Chinese mariners and the Native Peoples had profound consequences. Mixtec natives and the Nez Pérce made effective use of the Mongolian bow. When Pizarro invaded Peru, he found the Inca wearing silk robes and Chinese crowns. A Spanish chronicle mentions lemons and pomegranates (both Asian plants) growing in the Inca orchards. Chinese merchants sailed home with Appaloosa horses, maize, chilies, cochineal, emeralds, jade, and cocaine. Kublai Khan was pleased.
The Polos returned to Venice in 1295 carrying a variety of Chinese and Persian inventions such as astrolabes, mechanical clocks, telescopes, paper, and muskets. In the secret laboratories of Franciscan scientists, these inventions enabled Europeans to build overseas colonial empires in the 16th century. Marco Polo surrendered his New World maps to Venetian authorities. Within a few years, the Council sent him on an expedition across the Atlantic Ocean to map “new lands” in the West. His survey of the Carolinas and Florida was included in the Petrus Vesconte Map of 1310.
During the Renaissance, thousands of copies of Marco’s Travelogue were published using the Gutenberg Press. It was at this point in time that Marco’s formula for scientific adventure travel became the standard for all subsequent explorers. The Portuguese used Marco Polo’s secret maps to win the race to the Spice Islands. Meanwhile, they issued bogus maps in order to mislead Columbus and all the rest of their European rivals. The secret New World maps played a role in the search for the Northwest Passage. Hundreds of sailors perished in a search that lasted for 300 years. As late as the 18th century, the British Admiralty issued a reward; and they sent James Cook and George Vancouver on a futile effort to find Marco Polo’s “Strait of Anian” (a.k.a., the Northwest Passage).
In 1907, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen followed the Northwest Passage across the Canadian Arctic. He proved that Marco Polo’s Passage was not a myth. Marco’s 1295 Map showing that Passage is presently in a vault at the Library of Congress. It was donated by Marcian Rossi who was a descendant of a friend of Marco Polo.
Modern travel writers and explorers continue to follow “in the footsteps” of Marco Polo and his daughters. They pioneered the genre of Adventure Travel Entertainment.