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

Letters of Prester John

Over a period of several centuries, some 100 manuscripts have been linked with Prester John. These include letters that were taken very seriously by Popes, emperors and kings. Even into the 16th century, some such letters were still taken as authentic in Europe.

Was this really the greatest hoax ever perpetrated, or was there real substance to these letters?

Some scholars claim the letters were forgeries made by Nestorian Christians and Cochin Jews from Malabar in India.

How easy would it have been to fool Popes and emperors at that time? One has to think that no simple ruse could have worked. Even in those times, leaders had sufficient resources at their disposal to verify claims of these types. Merchants, travelers and spies did manage to make their way to the East and certainly would have been consulted for independent confirmation.

After the Mongol invasions, three main theories regarding Prester John arose in Europe as travelers began bringing back tales from faraway places. These were the original one of Prester John of the Indies, an Ethiopian version and a Central Asian one.

Marco Polo and Friar Odoric were among those who claimed that Prester John was a Central Asian Kereit khan who had adopted the Nestorian religion. Jordanus was the first to claim that the kingdom lie in Ethiopia.

In the 15th century, an emissary of the Negus of Ethiopia proclaimed that the emperor was Prester John motivating the navigators of Portugal to explore Africa. In the following century though, we again hear of letters from Prester John of the Indies, some written in the Hebrew language.

The book Igeret Orhot Olam, written by Abraham Farissol in the early 16th century claimed that Prester John's kingdom lied somewhere "beyond Kalicut" a port in South India.

If you remember, Malabar was the beginning of India Major, one the three "Indias" according to medieval European geographers. It was to here that the Portuguese explorers came on their way to the East Indies, establishing the colony of Goa located in the present-day state of Kerala.

Europeans eventually found the islands of spices and the gold islands that they had heard about, but never quite resolved the mystery of Prester John. Maybe part of the problem is that the closer they came to the actual kingdom, the smaller and more isolated the latter became. By the time full-fledged expeditions had reached the actual location, the ancient empire for the most part had vanished, and only legends existed.

Even up to the time preceding Magellan's 16th century voyage, tales of a mysterious kingdom in the Indies persisted. Mendes Pinto, writing about a decade earlier, tells of the kingdom of the Lequios, the Liu-Kiu of the Chinese, located between the coast of China and Mindanao to the south. He gives a latitude of 9N20 for this kingdom and strongly suggests that the kings of Europe make an expedition there.

When Magellan neared the Philippines he had set his course a bit further north at 13N heading for "Gaticara" according to Pigafetta and Albo.

The Chinese Liu-Kiu was probably the same location described by the Japanese as Mishima "Three Islands." It included Taiwan, Luzon and another island of unsure location. The neighboring region was called Pi-she-yet by the Chinese, which may be a corruption of Bisaya, the central Philippines region.

Duarte Barbosa wrote of the Lequios/Liu-Kiu:

From Malaca they take the same goods as the Chins [Chinese] take. These islands are called Lequios. The Malaca people say they are better men, and richer and more eminent merchants than the Chins. Of these folk we as yet know but little, as they have not yet come to Malaca since it has been under the King our Lord.

Barbosa thought the Lequios were inhabited by "white men" who resembled Europeans, a belief possibly generated by the medieval romances.

I would suggest that the letters of Prester John were part of an overall campaign by the empire of Sanfotsi/Zabag to arrest intrusions on its trade routes. Not that Prester John penned these himself, as the letters suggest he had others in his service including westerners who could have composed them with his instruction.

Starting as early as the late 10th century, Sanfotsi began requesting assistance from the Sung emperors against their neighbors and competitors to the south. At the same time, they began strenghtening their relations with kingdoms in eastern India and Tibet. These kingdoms were on the edge of the Islamic expansion. They may have hoped here not only to gain allies but to strengthen the resolve of the nations to resist the Muslim juggernaut.

The Tibetans knew of the Shambhala king and his great palace where nearby was located a "park called Malaya where sandalwood trees grow...with the scent of camphor, which seems, so one feels, to remove all the sufferings of existence."

About a century after the Kalacakra Tantra, with its battle machine recommendations, reaches Tibet, we begin to hear of eastern contacts with the Christian world. These culminate in the famous letters of Prester John in the middle of the 12th century.

But as time rolls on the priest-king loses much of his hand, and he must resort to bluffing more and more as the empire decreases. Although the letters took a life of their own, it's difficult not to see historical reality behind them.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Bar-Ilan, Meir, Prester John: Fiction and History,

Bernbaum, Edwin, The Way to Shambhala, Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., 2001.