Friday, December 26, 2014

The Borneo Route

Gavin Menzies has a new book out co-written with Ian Hudson entitled Who Discovered America: The Untold History of the Peopling of America.  While I haven't read it yet, the summary and samples indicate that it follows the same theme as his Menzies' previous works.

Now may be a good time to review a specific point in his earlier books that I have discussed in this blog. Specifically, the evidence surrounding the traveler Nicolo de Conti.  Here's a posting I did on the subject on Facebook:

The Borneo Route

Above is a portion of Fra Mauro's mappa mundi of 1459 showing the islands of Java Major and Cipango along with the coastal city of Zaiton (Zayton) that is known today as Quanzhou.

One of the legends from the Fra Mauro map reads (emphasis added):

Giava minor, a very fertile island, in which there are eight kingdoms, is surrounded by eight islands in which grow the ‘sotil specie’.  And in the said Giava grow ginger and other fine spices in great quantities, and all the crop from this and the other [islands] is carried to Giava Major, where it is divided into three parts, one for Zaiton [Changchow [Quanzhou]] and Cathay, the other by the sea of India for Ormuz [Hormuz], Jidda [Jedda], and MECCA, and the third northwards by the Sea of Cathay.


From the excerpt above, we can surmise that Giava Major (Java Major) is the island of Borneo and this would agree with the mention of trade agrees closely with the concept of the "Borneo Route" as conceived by Roderik Ptak.  Another scholarly work mentions trade in this region during this period(emphasis added) :

Pires [ca. 1500] twice mentions that the junks of the Malays and Javanese were not allowed to proceed to the city of Guangzhou because of the fear in which they were held, but when describing details of the fear in which they were held, but when describing details of the city he adds, "so the Lucoes [Luzons] say who have been there". These Lucoes demand some attention..."They [Luzons] have two or three junks, at most. They take the merchandise to Burney [Brunei] and from there they come to Melaka, . . . The Bruneians go to the lands of the Luzons to buy gold."....The Luzons were in fact the principal Melaka traders to China, which is difficult to understand unless they had brought with them to Melaka some knowledge of Chinese commerce and customs.  It seems probable that the Luzon-Brunei connection arose when both centres were rising into commercial significance in consequence of their close connection with China in the early fifteenth century.

-- Alilunas-Rodgers, Kristine, and Anthony Reid. Sojourners and Settlers: Histories of Southeast Asia and the Chinese. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawai'i Press, 2001, 34-5.

Brunei, of course, was the main trading city on the island of Borneo.  From the accounts of the time, we know that the Luzons and other traders brought spices and other merchandise to Brunei from which it proceeded either north up what the Chinese called the "Eastern Ship Route" or west to Melaka (Malacca) where it then proceeded toward other ports in Asia and Africa.  The Eastern Ship Route would account for two of the "parts" mentioned by Fra Mauro, the routes to Zaiton and Cathay.   The route west toward Malacca was the one that went toward "Ormuz, Jidda, and Mecca."  Pires account is only 50 years later than the information provided by Fra Mauro.

Above: The Borneo Route after Ptak (

Many scholars believe that one of Fra Mauro's main informants on the Asian region was the Italian traveler Nicolo de Conti.  In this regard, there is an interesting notice from Pero Tafur (1435-1439) who claimed to have met de Conti while traveling through the Middle East (emphasis added):

Prester John and his people are said to be as good Catholics and Christians as could be found anywhere, but they know nothing of our Romish Church, nor are governed by it....I learnt also that the people in those parts are very skilled in the Black Arts, and that when navigating in the Red Sea, de' Conti saw them consult with demons, and he told me that he could descry a vague black shape moving up and down the mainmast. The sailors then conjured it to keep still and demanded: "What of our voyage?" and the shape made answer: "You will have six days of dead calm when the sea will be like oil, but be prepared, for you will have as many days of very heavy storms." He described their ships as like great houses, and not fashioned at all like ours. They have ten or twelve sails, and great cisterns of water within, for there the winds are not very strong, and when at sea they have no dread of islands or rocks. These ships carry all the cargoes which the caravans receive from them at MECCA [Jedda], which is the port where they unload. De' Conti told me that Mecca is a great place, larger than Seville....

"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."

-- Pero Tafur, The Travels of Pero Tafur (1435-1439),

Note that De Conti, according to Pero Tafur, also mentions large ships taking Eastern cargo to Mecca and Jeddah as described as well by Fra Mauro.  The name "junk" is a Malay/Javanese term (jong or ajong) for ships related to the Chinese chuan.  However, the term properly belonged to hybrid ships that combined characteristics of the chuan with those of the indigenous ships of Southeast Asia. 

For example, the hybrid junk might have one or more of these Southeast Asian "traits" that differed from the classic chuan:  a V-shaped hull, keel, multiple hull sheathing, transverse bulkheads, wooden drowels rather than iron nails, tropical hardwood materials, stem and stern posts, and multiple rigging of masts and sails ( 

Eventually, even Chinese ocean-going ships took on these hybrid characteristics. 

Here are some examples of hybrid junks:

An anonymous Italian source from 1504 mentions junks bringing cloves, silk and silver from the East to Socotra, a small archipelago near Yemen. From there, the ships took the cargo to Hormuz and Aden (see Kauz, Ralph. Aspects of the Maritime Silk Road: From the Persian Gulf to the East China Sea. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2010, 16.). 

The Portuguese interrupted the previous order and after they set up bases in India and Malacca, trading ships from East and Southeast Asia generally went no further west than Malacca.