Marco Polo And Korčula

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I visited Korčula, in Croatia, when I was researching my novel Shadow of the Dome. I was particularly keen to explore the Marco Polo House – you might be surprised to know that this claims to be the birthplace of the great explorer!

Most historians are of the opinion that that Marco Polo (1254-1324) was born in Venice, but the old walled town of Korčula, on an island of the same name close to Dubrovnik, has a strong rival claim. The evidence for either birthplace is not conclusive, so I set out to find the connection between Marco Polo and Korčula.

Polo Family Links With Korčula

On the one hand, Marco Polo was certainly a Venetian citizen, and it is known that he spent at least some of his early life in Venice and that he eventually settled there. On the other hand, Korčula was a part of the Venetian republic in the 13th century and it is also true that the Polo family had long trading links with the Croatian town.

Looking from the sea to a medieval town with a large tower, defensive walls and old houses. There is a ship and cars in the foreground
The island town of Korčula

The Croatian tradition is that Marco Polo was born to a local family of merchants and shipbuilders who moved to Venice soon afterwards. The records show that some members of the Polo family were active in the shipbuilding industry in Korčula at the time and, indeed, the name Depolo has been prominent in the town to the present day. It is also likely that Marco’s father and uncle had business interests in both Korčula and Venice.

However, the known facts of Marco Polo’s early life are that he was born after his father and uncle had set out for their first trip to China and that he met his father for the first time 15 years later. During that time Marco’s mother had died and he had gone to live with an aunt and uncle in Venice. Would an orphaned Croatian boy have travelled across the sea to live with relatives in a distant city? Or is it more likely that he was already in Venice at the time of his mother’s death?

Later Connection With Korčula

Whatever the truth of the matter, Marco Polo does have a later (if tenuous) connection with the island. Though he spent many years of his life in China (accompanying his father and uncle on their second trip to the court of Kublai Khan), he did eventually return to Venice. He was unwilling to settle immediately into the relatively sedentary life of a prosperous merchant and became involved in the war between Venice and Genoa.

He was commanding a ship in the naval battle of Korčula when he was captured and taken to prison in Genoa. It was here that he related his experiences to his fellow prisoner Rusticello who wrote them down and created the book that we now know as Marco Polo’s Travels.

Pinnable image of Marco Polo and Korcula showing an old street and archway
Pinnable image of Marco Polo and Korcula

Marco Polo And Modern Day Korčula

Today the town abounds with allusions to the explorer, with a Marco Polo hotel, Marco Polo restaurant and countless reminders in the shops. Every year in July there is a Marco Polo Festival of Song and Wine although, apart from the name, it is difficult to tell what connection the festival has with Marco Polo!

Tourists can visit the Marco Polo House, the house in which he is reputed to have been born. This has now been opened as a small museum with items related to the explorer’s travels, but the chief item of interest is the tower which gives panoramic views across the old town.

Outside of the Marco Polo House, with narrow passageway and outside stairs
The Marco Polo House in Korčula, now a museum

And in 1997 the International Marco Polo Centre was set up in Korčula with the aim of studying Marco Polo’s life and work, encouraging tourism in Korcula and establishing cultural ties between Europe and Asia. As the town’s tourist website acknowledges, the truth about Marco Polo’s birthplace will never be known, but his legacy in spreading understanding between different cultures will always remain.

Visiting Korčula

Quite apart from the Marco Polo connection, the town of Korčula is a great place for a day out. It is a bit like a miniature Dubrovnik, with a maze of narrow streets, an old city wall and restaurants on every corner. Elsewhere on the island you can enjoy hiking, cycling, watersports or vineyard visits.

Ferries run to Korčula from Dubrovnik and from the neighbouring island of Hvar.

(You can read more about the research I did to write Shadow of the Dome, from the South China Sea to a shopping mall in Dubai…)

Pirates Of The Malacca Strait

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When I was writing my novel Shadow of the Dome I discovered that piracy was a big problem for seafarers in the 13th century. And when I went on a cruise of southeast Asia as part of my research I realised that it can still be a problem today!

The Malacca Strait, which runs between Malaysia and Singapore and the Indonesian island of Sumatra, has been a favourite haunt of pirates for over a thousand years. In recent years 40% of the world’s pirate attacks have taken place in this region. 

Protection From Pirates

I sailed through the Malacca Strait as part of the cruise and I idly wondered whether we would have any “close encounters”. But the ship’s lecturer on piracy assured us that pirates would have no interest in a shipload of British holidaymakers who kept demanding cups of tea every half hour! However I did notice that the ship had razor wire around the edges as well as water cannons. And some of my fellow passengers informed me that they had been on a cruise around East Africa when pirates had tried to mount their ship at night. Fortunately on that occasion the intruders were scared off…

In the middle ages ships would travel in big convoys for protection but even that didn’t always stop the pirates from attacking. It is easy to imagine big battles at sea, with fierce looking pirates mounting the side of a ship under cover of darkness, brandishing machetes, while the ship (if it detects them in time) fires cannons and tries to push the pirates into the water. Clearly the pirates were often successful, as they acquired a sort of mythology among Chinese seafarers, being compared with sea dragons, and were reputed to have magical qualities including invisibility and an inability to sink.

Hiding Places For Pirates

Modern pirates are more likely to be of Indonesian origin. Pirates flourish when a number of conditions are present. Firstly, they need somewhere to hide. Then there has to be something worth stealing. And finally, piracy thrives on weak local governance or political unrest. Historically all of these conditions have existed in the Malacca Strait.  

Malacca Strait
There are lots of hiding places for pirates in the Malacca Strait (photo copyright tian yake, creative commons licence from Flickr)

The Strait is 900 km long but only 1.7 km wide at its narrowest point, making it a choke point for the merchant vessels that pass through. It is studded with thousands of little islands and the shoreline is a mass of tangled mangrove swamps, inlets and reefs. In mediaeval times pirates would hide out among the mangroves and launch raids upon nearby villages as well as on passing ships, and today the area continues to offer a wealth of hiding places.

Valuable Cargoes

The Malacca Strait is part of the most direct sea route from India to China and it has been a busy trade route since the earliest times. In the middle ages cargoes would include Chinese porcelain and silks as well as peppercorns and other spices. Spices were particularly valuable as they often had limited habitats and were much in demand for culinary and medicinal purposes. Passengers or crew members might also be taken as slaves.

Today around a third of the world’s trade passes through the Strait, including half of all oil shipments from the Middle East. The route continues to be used despite the threat of piracy as alternative routes are long and costly. Pirates target cargoes, onboard cash and valuables, and prisoners for ransom; or they may simply take over the ship itself.

Political And Economic Conditions

In early times piracy was a way of life, with rich pickings from passing ships. Pirates effectively controlled the Strait, often demanding tribute from ships and port authorities. Local rulers later took advantage of this, working with the pirates to take charge of the area and to fight off potential invaders.

There was an increase in piracy in the 18th century as European traders sought to dominate the spice trade. This was partly a protest against colonisation but also a response to the loss of livelihood as lucrative trade was drawn away from the region.

More recently piracy has been fuelled by political unrest in Indonesia and the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami. Modern pirates fall into three categories: organised crime, terrorists and small opportunists.

Combatting Piracy On The Malacca Strait

The geography of the Malacca Strait region makes piracy hard to suppress. Historically, conflict between neighbouring states ruled out any collaborative approach and mediaeval traders would sail in convoy, often with naval ships, to minimise their exposure to pirates.

In the 19th century the British and Dutch colonial powers agreed a demarcation line, with the Dutch controlling the waters by Sumatra, and the British monitoring the Malaysia/Singapore side of the Strait. This, together, with increased political and economic stability in the region, led to a decrease in pirate activity.

Piracy In The 21st Century

In recent times there has been a renewed imperative to eliminate piracy in the Malacca Strait. Commercial companies have to face possible loss of life and goods, as well as increased insurance premiums. There are also concerns about terrorist activity and the potential for a major oil spillage.

Multinational controls over the Strait have now been established. Despite initial resistance from local governments, who saw it as a threat to their sovereignty, these measures do seem to be working, with only two attacks in 2010.

Native Americans And Yellowstone National Park: Hot Springs, Legends And Sacred Places

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One of the main features of Yellowstone Park is its abundant thermal activity. Sitting on top of an active volcano, the constantly changing landscape features more than 500 geysers and numerous hot springs. From what I had seen of similar places elsewhere in the world (such as the Maori village of Rotorua in New Zealand), I guessed that the area must have been of significance for the Native American tribes, a place teeming with history and legends. But, as I travelled around the park, I looked in vain for any connection between the Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park. So I decided to dig a little deeper and find out why not.

History Of The Native Americans And Yellowstone National Park

Despite the lack of historic names in the park, and the fact that I only saw one reference to Native Americans on the numerous information boards, it is clear that the region has been inhabited for a very long time. Archaeological evidence suggests that people have been using the area for at least 11,000 years. Prehistoric tools and other artefacts have been uncovered, and many areas show signs of long-standing human activity. In more recent times several tribes are known to have used, and lived in, the area now occupied by Yellowstone National Park.

Steam issuing from the Dragon's Mouth Spring
Many of the thermal features were given diabolical names – like the Dragon’s Mouth Spring

But when the park was created in 1872 there seems to have been a concerted effort to remove the local people from the land, and to suppress all evidence of their local history and legends. It is likely that this was partly because, at the time, Native Americans were being encouraged to move into reservations. But, additionally, the park authorities wanted to attract visitors, and to reassure them that the park was “safe”.

So they set about creating some myths of their own. The first was that the park was untamed wilderness, waiting to be discovered for the first time. And the second was that Native Americans were afraid of the geyser regions, and avoided them. As part of this myth making they gave fearsome sounding names to the springs and geysers, such as Blood Geyser or Abyss Pool.

Hot Springs And Sacred Places

In fact the Indian tribes in Yellowstone National Park were not afraid of the springs. Quite the opposite: there is evidence that they made use of the springs for cooking food, and bathed in the water for medicinal purposes. On occasion they also buried their dead in the bubbling water.

Bubbling hot mud in Yellowstone Park
Bubbling mud of the Jet Geyser

And, as I originally suspected, the place was regarded as having spiritual significance. Certainly it is true that they believed it was full of spirits. But these spirits were not malevolent – as maintained by the modern myth-makers – but friendly and helpful. Native American names for Yellowstone invariably referred to its thermal properties, such as “many smoke” or “place of hot water”. More explicitly, the Crow nation called the geysers bide-mahpe (“sacred or powerful water”).

Native American Legends Associated With Yellowstone Park

The suppression of Native American legends associated with the park and its springs was part of the attempt to remove traces of earlier residents. There is also a suggestion that Native Americans themselves were reluctant to share their tribal stories. This may have been for religious reasons, but could also have been a symptom of the mistrust that existed between the native people and the settlers.

Pinnable image of Native Americans and Yellowstone National Park, showing geysers and brightly coloured rocks
Pinnable image of the hot springs and geysers of Yellowstone Park

Given the astonishing nature of the landscape, with tall geysers and hot water steaming out of the ground, it would be surprising if there hadn’t been any attempts by early people to explain them. In fact, legends do exist, although in some cases their authenticity has been questioned. For instance, Ella Clark collected a number of tales for her book Indian Legends of the Northern Rockies, published in 1966. However, her methods were later questioned, and it is known that the stories were substantially edited.

The legends described here are ones that are considered to be genuine.

How The Yellowstone River Was Formed

One of Ella Clark’s stories that is thought to be authentic relates to the creation of the Yellowstone and Snake rivers. A hungry traveller begged for food from an old woman he met in the mountains. She offered to cook him some fish, but warned him not to touch her basket. But the traveller was curious, and went to investigate the basket. He knocked it over, spilling water and fish down the hillside.

Cascade on the Yellowstone River
One of many cascades on the Yellowstone River

The traveller piled up rocks in an attempt to stop the water, thus creating the Upper Falls. He tried to dam the stream further down: this became the Lower Falls. The water flowed on, to form the Yellowstone River, with several subsequent dams, including the Shoshone Falls on the Snake River. The fish basket became the Yellowstone Lake (and the old woman herself turned out to be Mother Earth).

Old Woman’s Grandchild

This legend tells how a Crow hunter named Old Woman’s Grandchild created some of Yellowstone’s geysers. Old Woman’s Grandchild was a powerful hunter who killed many animals, and turned them into mountains. But when he slew a large buffalo it was transformed into a geyser, and it wouldn’t stop puffing out hot air. So the hunter killed a mountain lion and placed it nearby. This became a new geyser, breathing steam onto the buffalo and so stopping it from coming back to life.

The eruption of Old Faithful
Old Faithful, one of the biggest geysers in Yellowstone Park

The Water Beast Of Overlook Mountain

Another Crow legend concerns the creation of steam vents around Yellowstone Lake. A thunderbird snatched up an Indian and took him to a nest on Overlook Mountain (on the side of the lake), wanting help to fight a giant beast that lived in the water and came out to eat the bird’s young.

Rising steam on Yellowstone Lake
Steam vents by Yellowstone Lake

The Indian heated up rocks and boiled water, then waited for the beast to climb up to the nest. As the monster approached, he poured the rocks and water into its mouth, and it fell back into the lake, steam pouring from its mouth. That was the end of the water beast, and the beginning of the steam vents around the lakeside.

A short video clip of the magnificent hot springs and geysers in Yellowstone Park. You can see why people might regard the place as having spiritual significance

Native Americans And Yellowstone Park Today

The relationship between Native Americans and Yellowstone Park is now beginning to be re-evaluated. Much of my information (including the three legends above) came from an informative paper by Lee H Whittlesey, published in 2002. And the National Parks Service has lots of historical information on its website.

I also discovered (too late for my visit) that you can get day tours looking at the park from a Native American perspective, exploring in particular the significance of the animals that live there. Clearly the history is there: it is just a matter of finding it!