Thursday, July 27, 2006

Nicolo de Conti (Glossary)

Nicolo de Conti (ca.1395-1469), a Venetian merchant, traveled either 36 or 25 years, depending on which account you believe, throughout much of the Indian Ocean and the adjoining regions of Asia and Africa.

De Conti's great impact on history is seen through his account to papal secretary Poggio Bracciolini declaring that the Indian Ocean was a wide open sea and not enclosed by land as Europeans had thought since Ptolemy's time.

With good reason it is believed that de Conti's views influenced such persons and cartographers as Fra Mauro and Paolo Toscanelli. The latter in turn either directly or indirectly influenced both Columbus and Magellan in believing that one could venture to the East Indies from the East (traveling West from Europe).

African journey?

Gavin Menzies, in his controversial work on the voyages of Zheng He's fleet, has suggested that Conti had sailed with Zheng toward Africa, and beyond.

Menzies rightfully notes that Conti had great influence on cartographer Fra Mauro, a fellow Venetian. Mauro's map of the world uses place-names, and sources for spices, that appear directly copied from Conti's interviews with Bracciolini. Mauro also is the first to chart the difference between Taprobana (Sri Lanka) and Sumatra, something again first revealed in Conti's testimony.

Mauro also displays the Indian Ocean as an open sea with passage possible both in the East and the West.

The African connection comes from notes made by Fra Mauro concerning the voyage of a junk or ship from the Indies around the southern tip of Africa:

About the year 1420 a ship or junk of the Indies passed directly across the Indian Ocean in the direction of the Men-and-Women Islands beyond Cape Diab, and past the Green Islands and the Dark (Sea), sailing (thereafter) west and south-west for 40 days and finding nothing but air and water. According to the estimate of her (company) she travelled 32,000 km. Then, conditions worsening, she returned in 70 days to the aforesaid Cape Diab.

Fra Mauro continues in another passage again suggesting the continuity of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, the former believed to be completely surrounded by land up until that time:

Moreover I have had speech with a person worthy of belief who affirmed that he had passed in a ship of the Indies through a raging storm 40 days out of the Indian Ocean beyond the Cape of Sofala and the Green Islands more or less south-west and west. And according to the calculations of her astronomers, his guides, this person had sailed 32,000 km.

Now, according to Menzies, the 'person worthy of belief' mentioned by Fra Mauro can be none other than Nicolo de Conti himself.

Conti had told Poggio, the papal secretary, that he left Italy in 1419 and using his chronology of events in that account it appears he made his way to India and left from there either in 1421 or 1422 i.e. very near the 'about the year 1420' mentioned for the African journey by Fra Mauro.

Menzies believes that Conti departed India with Zheng He's fleet. The next thing we hear from Poggio's account, though, is that Conti is in Sumatra and there is no mention of an African journey.

Scholars have suggested that Poggio censored Conti's account (see Rubiés, p. 121), and that may have some confirmation when we see the difference between Poggio and Tafur's versions of Conti's journeys.

Three Indias

Conti divided India into three parts as was common in his time. The first India was found from Persia to the Indus River, the second from the Indus to the Ganges, and the third included all the lands beyond the Ganges i.e., India extra-Gangem.

He described India beyond the Ganges as "far surpassing others in wealth, kindness and magnificence, and equaling us in customs and civilization" ("...est opibus, humanitate, lautitia longe praestantior, vita et civili consuetudien nobis aequalis.").

It also should be noted that Fra Mauro describes the African voyage ship that Conti supposedly traveled on as a 'ship or junk of the Indies.'

That's an interesting description because at this time, Southeast Asian ships often were of a hybrid type showing both junk-like characteristics such as transverse bulkheads, and Southeast Asian typology including wooden joints and tropical hardwood materials rather than the fir commonly used to construct Chinese junks.

Even the word "junk" or "zoncho" (Portuguese junco) appears derived from Old Javanese jong and Javanese djong, a name for an ocean-going ship.

Conti himself in his testimony to Pero Tafur had stated that he spent most of his time in the Indian Ocean in the service of "Prester John" of "Greater India."

One interesting discovery has been highlighted by Menzies as proof that ships at that time were circumnavigating the world. The Pandanan wreck off the coast of Palawan in the Philippines is dated to the 15th century and is loaded with andesite metates that Menzies claims must have come from Mesoamerica or South America. The cylindrical stone manos of the metates are rather unusual and do resemble those of the contemporary period "New World."

15th-century Pandanan wreck metate and mano. Source:

The lusung/lusong mortars and pestles in the Philippines are generally made of wood. In Guam, the Chamorro lusong is stone, but the pestles are wood. Nothing quite similar to the Pandanan metates is known to have been manufactured in this region during the historical period.

Like other ships of that time and in the same region, the Pandanan wreck shared characteristics of both Southeast Asian and Ming-era Chinese ships.

Fra Mauro's map shows junk-like vessels with high stern and square bow plying the Indian Ocean, along with details of what apparently is the island of Madagascar and the Cape of Good Hope.

Mauro describes the ships that crossed the Indian Ocean in these terms:

The ships or junks that navigate these seas carry four or more masts, some of which can be raised or lowered, and have 40 to 60 cabins for the merchants and only one tiller. They navigate without a compass, but have an astrologer who stands on the side and with an astrolabe in hand, and gives orders to the navigator.

This does not appear to describe Zheng He's fleet or other Chinese merchant ships at the time, which did use the compass for navigation. Arab ships also began to use the compass by the 12th century at least. As noted earlier most ships of Southeast Asia did not use the compass when the Europeans arrived on the scene, but the "astrolabe" mentioned above was not commonly used either. The single tiller brings to mind the axial rudder as found on junks or hybrid ships.

Junk-like ship with four masts from Fra Mauro's map positioned west of Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. Tracing from: De Santarem, M. Visconde. Atlas Compse de Mappemondes et de Cartes Hydrographiques et Historiques, Maulde and Renou, Paris, 1895.

Prester John

Conti tells Tafur that he had personally witnessed Prester John send two missions to 'Christian princes' but had not heard whether these had met with success. The king was also said to have been making preparations for a visit or conquest of Jerusalem. These reports indicate that Conti's Prester John was involved in long-range maritime missions.

Unfortunately Conti's account gives us little information useful in locating this Prester John of the Indies. In his interviews with Poggio, he is aware of the then-existing claims of both an "Indian" and an Ethiopian Prester John. Tafur makes it clear that the Prester John of Greater India is distinct from that of Ethiopia, when he talks of the varying complexions of people in both regions.

Conti mentions a Nestorian king who lived somewhere near Cathay along with the Ethiopian king, and Poggio is said to have interviewed emissaries from the East after his discussions with Conti.

Poggio describes the eastern ambassador as coming from "Upper India" as an envoy of a Nestorian kingdom located 20 days journey from Cathay.

'Upper India' during Poggio's time meant the same as 'Greater India.' With Lower, Middle and Upper India corresponding to the West to East order and Upper India referring to the region beyond the Ganges.

We have seen during this period that the kingdom of Lusung was practicing a policy of attraction with the Ming dynasty, and at the arrival of the Portuguese they were well-dispersed throughout Southeast Asia and eager to provide navigational assistance to the newcomers.

Toscanelli, a friend of Poggio, also met with the Eastern ambassador but he confuses his kingdom with that of Marco Polo's "Great Khan," which by this time had faded into history.

Columbus in his annotated copy of Historia rerum with his own notes copies Toscanelli's letter to Martins referring to Nicolo de Conti's testimony.

Magellan, when faced with a doubtful crew near the tip of South America, told them of a chart he had seen made by Martin Behaim displaying a passage to the Pacific Ocean. Behaim also appeared to have been strongly influenced by Toscanelli as his famed Behaim Globe is nearly a copy of Toscanelli's reconstructed chart.

As Toscanelli himself was indebted to Conti (and also possibly to the Eastern ambassador), it can be said that few persons so influenced the European age of discovery as Nicolo de Conti.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World, Yale University Press, 2001, p. 9.

Rubiés, Joan-Pau. Travel and Ethnology in the Renaissance: South India Through European Eyes, 1250-1625, Cambridge University Press, 2002, p. 93.

Menzies, Gavin. 1421: The Year China Discovered America, HarperCollins, 2003.

Vignaud, Henry. Toscanelli and Columbus: The Letter and Chart of Toscanelli on the Route to the Indies by Way of..., Sands & Co., 1902.

2 comments: said...

Cool~ I enjoy reading your blog. Thanks for sharing :D

Paul Kekai Manansala said...

Thanks for stopping by, Jo-Ann.