The entire roof is covered with a plating of gold, in the same manner as we cover houses, or more properly churches, with lead. The ceilings of the halls are of the same precious metal; many of the apartments have small tables of pure gold, of considerable thickness; and the windows also have golden ornaments. So vast, indeed, are the riches of the palace, that it is impossible to convey an idea of them. In this island there are pearls also, in large quantities, of a red (pink) colour, round in shape, and of great size, equal in value to, or even exceeding that of the white pearls. It is customary with one part of the inhabitants to bury their dead, and with another part to burn them. The former have a practice of putting one of these pearls into the mouth of the corpse. There are also found there a number of precious stones.
Of so great celebrity was the wealth of this island, that a desire was excited in the breast of the grand khan Kubla_nowreigning, to make the conquest of it, and to annex it to his dominions... The Travels of Marco Polo (New York: The Orion Press) pp. 262_6
This information on Japan had a decisive influence on Christopher Columbus, the leading figure at the dawn of the age of the great voyages of discovery. Columbus was born in Genoa, from where Marco Polo_s accounts of the East were initially conveyed. In all, he made four voyages, leaving a detailed record of the first. On August 3, 1492, Columbus set sail with three ships from the port of Palos. While subduing the smoldering discontent of his crew during the long voyage without sight of land, Columbus aimed for Japan. When he finally arrived at what is now Guanahani Island in the Bahamas on October 12, he wrote, _On this island, they have gold, which the natives wear in their noses, but I do not intend to tarry here. Above all I want to find Zipangu._ (Voyage of Columbus)
Why did Christopher Columbus want to discover Japan? His aim, of course, was to obtain gold. Why did he need gold? Gold was the means of acquiring all things. What did the Europeans purchase with gold in those times? They bought goods from the East. The commodities that were in greatest demand were pepper and spices. What did the Europeans use pepper and spices for? They used them for medicinal purposes. Why were these medicines needed in Europe? It was believed that they were effective in treating a great plague that took the lives of one in every three Europeans in just a few years in the middle of the fourteenth century.
These medicines were produced in maritime Asia. Since gold was the means of purchasing them, its discovery was a life-and-death matter. And since the plague spread from Mongolia, the shadow of the Mongols lies in the background of the age of great voyages.
The Black Death Crisis in Fourteenth Century Europe
The worst plague that struck Europe was the Black Death (bubonic plague) in the middle of the fourteenth century. The first Europeans to catch the Black Death are thought to have been Italian merchants who became infected with it when they were besieged by the Mongol army in the Crimean Peninsula in 1346. The disease was carried by ship over the Mediterranean Sea and spread inland from Venice, Genoa and other ports. The tragedy is vividly described in Boecaccio_s Decameron (1353): _In 1348 a deadly plague swept through the city of Florence. All attempts to prevent its spread proved useless. The pious entreaties of God-fearing people were of no avail. Both men and women developed hard tumors in their groins and armpits and were dead within three days after this first sign. There was no discrimination between the religious and secular worlds, and the authority of the law was completely powerless in its wake. The stench of the dead was everywhere. Countless corpses were carried out but there were never enough graves to bury them. Between March and July more than 100,000 people lost their lives inside the walls of Florence._
In 1348, the Black Death spread from Italy to France, sweeping through the Iberian Peninsula, Germany, and Poland, and finally making its way to Britain via the port of Dover.