— Précis —

Secret Voyages to the New World

Although he is revered as the “World’s Most Famous Traveler,” Marco Polo’s greatest journeys and his most important achievements have remained virtually unknown for the past seven centuries. Contrary to popular belief, he was not simply an innocent journalist when he traveled about the Far East during the 13th century. Indeed, his primary activity and his vocation were anything but “innocent.” Using the ruse of writing a Travelogue as justification for his journeys throughout the Mongol Empire, Marco Polo effectively concealed his role as an espionage agent for the Vatican.

Sent by a desperate pope to spy on Kublai Khan, his vital mission was to learn the technical and geographic secrets of the Mongol Empire. While thus involved in espionage activities, he became the first European to explore and map the West Coast of the New World. His exploits along American shores preceded by nearly two centuries the voyages of Europe’s traditional heroes of New World discovery.

The 13th century was the very darkest of times for Europeans and for Western Civilization. Many feared that the Biblical Apocalypse was already beginning. If that were true, then “God’s Creation” was finished, and the end of life on earth was at hand.

Mongol invaders under Genghis Khan had reached the eastern bastions of Christian Europe. They butchered millions of farmers, city-dwellers and Christian soldiers who impeded their quest for world domination. Each time they conquered a new province, they immediately forced the survivors to fight on the front lines of their ruthless army. In this manner, the immense legions of vicious killers continued to increase. Armed with the latest Chinese weapons, such as portable guns, cannon, and rockets, and mounted on sturdy ponies, the Mongol cavalry easily outmaneuvered the cumbersome, armored knights of Christian Europe. The slaughter of Europe’s champions along the eastern frontier was relentless. What could possibly stop the invincible Mongol hordes from pushing all that remained of Christian Europe into the Atlantic Ocean?

While Christian kings fought amongst themselves for minuscule parcels of farmland, and while cardinals and bishops argued over the futility of resisting the “inevitable doom,” the pope turned in desperation to his trusted spies in the Venetian Secret Service. From among the ranks of the most notorious and unscrupulous organization in Europe, he selected the bravest and most trustworthy he could find. Two Venetian brothers, Niccoló and Maffeo Polo, answered his call for what seemed a suicidal mission.

During their first expedition to Mongol China, from about 1253 to 1269, the Polo Brothers established themselves as confidants of Kublai Khan. Subsequently, they returned to Venice as the Khan’s special envoys. In his famous Travelogue, Description of the World, Marco Polo characterized his father and uncle as clever jewel peddlers who just happened to find their way to Mongol China. Supposedly, they had the incredibly good fortune of gaining the Khan’s favor; and then he happened to appoint them to positions of great influence within his government. However, this dubious rationale fails to conceal the real motives of the illustrious Polo Brothers. The nature of their prior association with Pope Clement IV, their involvement with the Franciscan Order, and their subsequent actions as special agents at the highest levels betray the real hidden agenda behind their travels to the Orient. Essentially, the brothers were double-agents.

When they returned to Venice in 1269, they had a new concern. They were getting too old for the kinds of espionage activities that were demanded of them in the Far East. It was therefore essential for them to identify a suitable protégé who would be able to carry on their espionage mission to a successful conclusion. As it turned out, Niccoló’s son, Marco, who was merely a teenager at the time, seemed like the ideal candidate for the job. So this lad of barely fifteen years of age was recruited into the Venetian Secret Service. He was asked to risk his life in the most hazardous undertakings imaginable in the distant realm of Kublai Khan. His most likely reward would be an early grave.

The mission of the Venetian spies was twofold. First, they were expected to obtain critical manufacturing specifications and actual working examples of Chinese guns, rockets, and propellants. Second, they were expected to learn everything they could about the geography of the distant ocean beyond the Far East.

Ever since Kublai Khan had gained possession of the enormous Sung Dynasty Navy, following the surrender of Chinese forces and the Imperial Family, Europeans feared the possibility of a Mongol invasion from the West. In modern times, we realize that the presumed threat was a practical impossibility because China was over ten thousand miles away. Furthermore, there were two enormous oceans and a continent that effectively served as a barrier to travel between Asia and Western Europe. However, biblical scholars in the 13th century believed that China and the realm of the apocalyptic giant, Gog-Magog, were situated directly west of Europe. Most scholars presumed that China was only 3,000 miles west—making a Mongol maritime invasion a very plausible scenario for Doomsday.

Many European mariners had sailed to lands in the West, although religious dogma made them hesitant to discuss what they had found. Indeed, among Church authorities, the Western Land was regarded as “Forbidden Territory.” It was sometimes known as the “Land of Darkness” conjuring up nightmarish fantasies that it was inhabited by the legions of Satan. It was also called “Dusky Norway” or “Hell.” The idea that the Mongol hordes (or “Tartars”) were in league with Satan was sufficient to give credibility to the delusion of an imminent Doomsday that would arise in the West.

However, a group of more enlightened European intellectuals were not so certain that the so-called “End Days” had actually arrived at the doorstep of Europe. Nor were they at all convinced that Doomsday was inevitable. The notions that earth might include more continents than were mentioned in the Bible and that the Apocalypse might be averted by skillful espionage were heretical in the extreme. Brave men had been tortured and burned at the stake for professing such “deviant” ideas. Nevertheless, there were a few dedicated idealists who dared to think beyond the defeatist envelope of medieval dogma. Niccoló and Maffeo Polo were part of the secret league of Christian Mystics. It was their assignment to learn the secrets of Chinese military technology—so that Europe could turn the advantage of science and technology to its favor. That left Marco Polo with the task of resolving the geographic dilemma of unknown oceans and new continents. In order to accomplish that assignment, he would have to travel overseas—beyond the Far East.

What would he find when he got there? No one could say.

By all estimates, this was indeed an “impossible mission” for a lad who at one time seemed destined to spend his life working as a teller at the local Bank of Venice. Marco Polo boldly faced the challenge with grace, cunning, and tenacity. His incredible story of New World voyages begins to unfold within the pages of his enigmatic Travelogue; and it continues in documents and secret maps that have only recently come to light.

Marco Polo’s travels beyond the Far East altered the course of world history. Eventually, they helped to prepare the Renaissance pathway for the emergence of modern civilization. Revelations about his secret voyages to the New World will forever change the way we think about the past. Quite possibly, they may alter the way we think about the Future.

Gunnar Thompson

On the shores of Marco Polo’s Strait of Anian

Port Townsend, Washington

January, 2005