Saturday, February 12, 2005

Voyage to Cipangu

Marco Polo's confusion of Japan and the easternmost Indies had a lasting effect on European geographers up until the time of Columbus' voyages.

Mapmakers tended to show Cipangu as a vast island covering sometimes more than 30 degrees of latitude from near the equator to 35 degrees north or more. In other words, Cipangu included most of Taiwan, the Philippines and the Moluccas. That this was the case is evident in the fact that many maps including the Behaim Globe show locations known as the Nutmeg Forest and the Pepper Forest in the extreme south of Cipangu. Neither of these spices, or the gold or pearls the island was famous for were abundant, if existent at all, in Japan.

Furthermore Cipangu was shown always in the "Indian Ocean" usually off the coast of Champa, or off the coast between Champa and Manzi.

The world according to Paolo Toscanelli, 1474, reconstructed by Hapgood.

A reconstruction from the Laon Globe of 1493

A section from the Waldseemüller map showing the southern end of Cipangu at about 5 degrees North with the north end at about 35 degrees North.

Toscanelli recreated by Hapgood showing how close Europe thought Cipangu was from the West

As one can see from the last map, European geographers of the time thought the East Indies were much closer to the West than was actually the case. This was due in large part to the incorrect distance assigned to a degree of longitude. As noted earlier, this fault extends back to Marinus and Ptolemy. According to my theory, it would have been in the interests of the Dragon and Bird Clan to allow this error to persist.

Columbus is said to have corresponded with Paolo Toscanelli, and he carried a globe with him during his journeys. The two surviving globes from the period just prior to his journey -- the Laon and Behaim globes -- both show Cipangu in very much the same position as Toscanelli.

Apparently, Columbus also believed that Cipangu was the ancient source of spices like nutmeg, cloves, cassia and Indonesian cinnamon. He expressly stated that he was destined for that island in search of these types of aromatics.

The expedition first made landfall in the New World while cruising at 24 degrees North longitude. Columbus then sailed southwest in his search for Cipangu. He believed that the fabled golden kingdom was that of Cibao, located in the modern nation of the Dominican Republic at about 19 1/2 degrees North latitude. This shows quite clearly that the explorer believed Cipangu was located in the tropics although he greatly underestimated its distance to the West. As you may remember, navigators at this time could accurately determine latitude but not longitude.

There is one important thing we must note regarding Columbus' explorations. Paolo Toscanelli is said to have been the first person to suggest a westward voyage to the Indies and Cipangu. The first documentation of this is a letter by Toscanelli to the confessor Canon Ferdam Martins of Lisbon, which Columbus had read. This started a correspondence between the two geographers.

The important link here is the man generally known as one of Toscanelli's main informants -- Nicolo de Conti. This Venetian traveler had spent many years traveling throughout the East including the island regions of Southeast Asia. Most importantly, de Conti claimed to have had a close personal relationship with Prester John of the Indies!

Pero Tafur, a Spanish traveler met de Conti along the Red Sea near the Sinai during one of his journeys. The Venetian nobleman explained how he had gotten lost in India and finally ended up in the court of Prester John in India Major (Greater India):

When I arrived in India I was taken to see Prester John, who received me very graciously and showed me many favours, and married me to the woman I now have with me, and she bore me these children.

Unfortunately, de Conti does not give any specific details on just where in Greater India Prester John was located. However, he does provide some details of his kingdom:

I asked him concerning Prester John' and his authority, and he told me that he was a great lord, and that he had twenty-five kings in his service, although they were not great rulers, and also that many people who live without law, but follow heathen rites, are in subjection to him.

Notice that the number of kings under Prester John is reduced from the 72 monarchs claimed in his 1165 letter.

De Conti also tells Tafur that the king had a great interest in the Chrisitan kingdoms of Europe and that he had twice witnessed emissaries sent to "Christian princes" but was unaware if they had ever completed their mission:

I learnt from Nicolo de' Conti that Prester John kept him continuously at his court, enquiring of him as to the Christian world, and concerning the princes and their estates, and the wars they were waging, and while he was there he saw Prester John on two occasions dispatch ambassadors to Christian princes, but he did not hear whether any news of them had been received

Many of the items related by Tafur are confirmed by accounts given to Poggio Bracciolini, the papal secretary. Pope Eugenius IV had ordered de Conti to furnish his history in penance for his renunciation of Christianity during his wanderings.

As for de Conti as a source his accounts are generally considered the best journals of the East during the entire 15th century. He was the first person in Europe to clearly distinguish Sri Lanka from Sumatra. He also was known to have suggested traveling to the East by sailing around Africa. While there is no direct evidence that de Conti ever suggested a westward voyage, the connection with Toscanelli leaves this as an irresistable possibility.

Paul Kekai Manansala