Visions of an Island: Real and unreal

By Richard Boyle

There are some glowing mediaeval descriptions of the island then known as Taprobane or Serendib that are familiar today due to their suitability for inclusion in tourist brochures – take Marco Polo’s claim “it is undoubtedly the finest island of its size in the world” and Friar Marignolla’s judgement that it was only “forty leagues from Paradise”. But there are other descriptions by intrepid mediaeval Western travellers in the Indian subcontinent that are as lyrical and also contain references of interest. However, certain descriptions did not arise from first-hand experience. They appeared in texts mostly gleaned from earlier travellers’ accounts, an example being Pliny the Elder’s 37-volume Historia Naturalis.

“Taprobane is full noble and full fructuous”

Of three remarkable mediaeval descriptions examined, the first, chronologically, goes beyond copyright theft to fantastical interpolation: it has been described by WD Cooley, founder of the Hakluyt Society of London, as “the most unblushing volume of lies ever offered to the world”. Also, there is the extraordinary mystery surrounding the identity of the author, who wrote under the pseudonym Jehan de Mandeville, translated as Sir John Mandeville.

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21) includes a chapter “The Travels of Sir John Mandeville”, which does not commence with the authorship but instead emphasizes the book’s widespread but unwarranted half-millennium influence. Even Christopher Columbus succumbed. “It had been a household word in eleven languages and for five centuries before it was ascertained that Sir John never lived, that his travels never took place, and that his personal experiences, long the test of others’ veracity, were compiled out of every possible authority, going back to Pliny, if not further.”

The Voiage and Travaile of Sir John Maundeville, knight, was written in Anglo-Norman French and published in 1357 at Liège, Belgium. In the preface Mandeville refers to himself as a knight, and states that he was born in St Albans, England. A Liège physician, Johains or Jehan a le Barbe, also known as Jehan de Bourgogyne, confessed to its authorship on his death-bed. But some scholars believe the book was compiled by Jean d’Outremeuse, a writer of romance also from Liège, or Brother Jean le Long, a Benedictine monk.

The book has two parts. The first is a guide for pilgrims to Jerusalem covering all the possible routes, based on an account by Albert of Aix of the first crusade, written 250 years before Mandeville. The second is a broad account of the eastern world beyond Jerusalem, primarily a plagiarism of the Franciscan missionary, friar Odoric of Pordenone, a notable early 14th-century traveller. Mandeville claims to have been at the court of Prester John, the legendary Christian patriarch and king said to rule a nation lost amidst the Muslims and pagans in the Orient, a tale that gripped the imagination of Europe from the 12th to the 17th centuries.

Reportedly a descendant of one of the Three Magi, Prester John was initially thought to be in India until the Portuguese were convinced he came from Ethiopia.

“Toward the east part of Prester John’s land is an isle good and great, which men call Taprobane, which is full noble and full fructuous. And the king thereof is full rich and under the obeisance of Prester John. In that isle be two summers and two winters and men harvest the corn twice a year [at least this is correct]. And in all the seasons of the year be the gardens flourished. There dwell good folk and reasonable and many Christian men amongst them, that be so rich that they wit not what to do with their goods.

In this isle of Taprobane be great hills of gold, that pismires [synonym for ants: piss+mire refers to the urinous smell of anthills] keep full diligently. And they fine the pure gold, and cast away the un-pure. These pismires be as great as hounds, so that no man may dare come to these hills for the pismires would assail them and devour them. No man may get of that gold, but by great sleight.”

This “great sleight” is achieved during the heat of the day when the ants retreat into the earth, leaving the gold unattended. Then “the folk of the country take camels, dromedaries, and horses”, proceed to the ant territory and quickly load the animals with as much gold as possible before the giant insects, the precursor of today’s cinematic rampaging giant ants, return to the surface.

During the cool season mares with young foals were fitted with low-slung sacks and sent forth among the ants, which store gold in the sacks as “they let nothing be empty among them”. When the inhabitants see the sacks are full they bring the foals into view so that the mares return to their offspring.

“The association of ants with gold almost certainly stems from the Sanskrit word pipilika, ‘ant gold, which occurs in the Hindu epic the Mahabharata,” states Paul Lunde online in The Leek-Green Sea (2005). “It caught the imagination of a number of classical authors, and the association of giant ants with gold became a standard topos of mediaeval literature. Whenever India and other Eastern lands are mentioned, giant ants are summoned forth.”

Apart from the belief in giant ants, there was a story of shipwrecked Portuguese sailors battling giant crabs in the Indian Ocean: “the fantastic, the strange and the astonishing have always been ascribed to whatever lands were little known and distant. For Europeans this was the East”.

As Bill Long remarks online in Weaving a Story of Ancient Ceylon (2004): “Taprobane was a land of imagination, where Christians for centuries imagined exotic things taking place, a place of wealth and allure.”

“This Ceylon is a Brave Island”

Ralph Fitch (?-1611) was a gentleman merchant of London and one of the first English travellers to visit India and Southeast Asia. In 1583, Fitch and several companions began their journey, which was interrupted when they were arrested as spies at Ormuz and sent to Goa. Having regained their freedom due to the sureties of two Jesuits, they travelled through central India to the court of the Great Mogul Akbar, probably located at Akbar. His companions having gone their separate ways, Fitch descended the Jumna and Ganges to visit Benares, Patna and Chittagong. He then sailed to Pegu and Burma, visited the Rangoon region and partly ascended the Irrawaddy. In 1588 he began his homeward journey from Bengal and rounded the Indian coast, stopping at Ceylon, and finally arrived in London in 1591.

Fitch’s complete account of his travels was not available to the public until 1899, when J. Horton Ryley’s Ralph Fitch: England’s Pioneer to India and Burma was published. The introductory paragraph on Ceylon shows how life was made as difficult as possible for the uninvited Portuguese, who had made Colombo their enclave.

”We arrived in Ceylon the sixth of March [1589], where we stayed for five days to water and to furnish ourselves with other necessary provisions. This Ceylon is a brave Island, very fruitful and fair; but by reason of continual wars with the king thereof, all things are very dear: for he will not suffer anything to be brought to the castle where the Portugals be: wherefore oftentimes they have great want of victuals.
The king is called Raja [Rajasimha I, 1581-1593], and is of great force; for he cometh to Columbo, which is the place where the Portugals have their fort, with an hundred thousand men, and many elephants. But they be naked people all of them; yet many of them be good with their pieces which be muskets. When the king talketh with any man, he standeth on one leg, and setteth the other foot upon his knee with his sword in his hand: it is not their order for the king to sit but to stand.

His apparel is a fine painted cotton cloth about his middle: his hair is long and bound up with a little fine cloth about his head: all the rest of his body is naked. His guard are a thousand men; and when he marcheth, many of them go before him, and therest come after him. They are of the race of the Chingalayes, which they say are the best kind of all the Malabars. Their ears are very large; for the greater they are, the more honourable they are accounted. Some of them are a span long.

There is a great store of rubies, sapphires and spinels in this Island: the best kind of all be here; but the king will not suffer the inhabitants to dig for them, lest his enemies should know of them. They have no horses in all the country. Their women have a cloth bound about them from their middle to their knee: and all the rest is bare. Their houses are very little, made of the branches of the coco-tree, and covered with the leaves of the same tree.”

“The Fuitfullest & most Delicious Island”

Peter Mundy (1608-1667), an English merchant and clerk of the East India Company, was employed in India during the late 1620s and early 1630s. In 1636, Mundy – then a factor (licensed trader) for Courteen’s Association, a fleeting rival to the East India Company - sailed from England, arrived in Macau fifteen months later. There he delivered a letter from King Charles II to the Captain-General and Senate of Macau, the initial contact between Britain and China. This was just one of many remarkable travels undertaken by Mundy; but it was the one in which he sailed past Dutch-held Zeilon.

As with Fitch, Mundy’s complete account of his travels was not available until much later, in this instance 1907, when The Hakluyt Society of London - founded in 1846 to advance awareness of early voyages of discovery - published the five-volume The Travels of Peter Mundy, in Europe and Asia, 1608-1667, edited by Sir Richard Carnac Temple. Vol. 3, Part I, Travels in England, Western India, Achin, Macao, and the Canton River, 1634-1637, contains this description:

“We passed by the fair Island of Zeilon where groweth the best Cinnamon in the world, and affirmed none good elsewhere. Lindscoten commends it for the Fruitfullest, the most pleasant, and most Delicious Island that is in all these parts of the world.” Mundy’s assertion regarding cinnamon was, of course, correct. His reference to ‘Lindscoten’ – actually Jan Huyghen van Linschoten – is of interest. Dutchman van Linschoten was a commercial spy. The Dutch purchased spices from Portugal, but when that country was occupied in 1580 by the Spanish, they needed to acquire these products directly from the East. The secret was to find the right route, so van Linschoten sailed on a Portuguese ship to the Indies. On his return he published two books, translated as “Travel document of the navigation of the Portuguese to the Orient” (1595), and “Itinerary of the voyage by ship from JH van Linschoten to the East or the Portuguese Indies” (1596). It must have been the English edition of the “Itinerary”, published in London in 1598, which Mundy read.

Mundy continues: “This Morning we saw a very high hill far within the land, resembling somewhat the Crown of our new fashion hats. Whether this be that called Adam’s Peak I know not.”

Every description of the maritime approach to the island from the west states Adam’s Peak (Sri Pada) as the defining landmark, so no doubt it was this sacred mountain that Mundy glimpsed. Furthermore, the mountain does bear resemblance to “the Crown of our new fashion hats” - early versions of the capotaine, a tall-crowned, narrow-brimmed slightly conical black hat, in common use among both sexes from the late-16th century to the mid-17th century in England.

These three visions of Taprobane/Ceylon are frustratingly short, and it was unfortunate for British readers in search of information regarding distant lands that the two ‘real’ ones, the first descriptions of the island in English, were published so long after they were written. Remarkably, the first comprehensive account of the island, Robert Knox’s An Historical Relation of Ceylon, did not appear until 1681.

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