Marco Polo’s New World Maps: Does Evidence of Magnetic Variation Support Claims of Early Chinese Expeditions?

by Gunnar Thompson

Swedish historian Leo Bagrow (1948) crossed the threshold of academic propriety by suggesting that Marco Polo had sailed to the West Coast of North America in the 13th century.[1] Bagrow’s theory concerning Marco Polo’s whereabouts during his sojourn in the Far East (1275-1292) was based on evidence contained in documents that a California merchant named Marcian Rossi had donated to the Library of Congress in the 1930s. It was Bagrow’s intention to begin the process of evaluating the authenticity of these documents in the hope that others would follow suit. However, Bagrow’s pioneering effort has been met only with silence from colleagues in cartography.

The author’s recent examination of the documents has led to the conclusion that “magnetic variation” or “declination from True North” may well prove to be an indicator of authenticity.[2] If the maps are indeed valid documents of Marco Polo’s secret voyages to the New World, then a reassessment of the entire chapter called “the Great Age of Discovery” will be in order.

Marco Polo’s New World Exploits

Leo Bagrow was not the first writer to suggest that Marco Polo had blazed an early pathway to the shores of the New World. Indeed, numerous 16th century English and Flemish cartographers including John Dee, Gerhard Mercator, and Abraham Ortelius used place names from Marco Polo to designate territories along the West Coast of North America. These names include “Anian” (for Alaska), “Bergi” for mountainous regions of the Pacific Northwest, “Quiviara” (for the coast from British Columbia to California), and “Toloman” (for north/central Mexico). A Venetian wall map from this time period illustrates the range of Marco’s Far Eastern expeditions: it includes Quivira and Baja California.[3]

The renowned English historian, Richard Hakluyt, praised Marco Polo for leading a vanguard of Venetians to the New World.[4] His vanguard of notables included the brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeno (circa 1380), Nicolaus Conti (1444), and the Father & Son team of John & Sebastian Cabot between 1480 and 1497.[5] Presumably, the Zenos and the Cabots hoped to reach Marco Polo’s Cathay and Japan via a route that eventually came to be known as Marco Polo’s “Strait of Anian” or the “Northwest Passage.” Over a span of nearly 500 years, many unfortunate European mariners believed that this illusive “strait” led to the inevitable reward for faithful Christians—gold and spices.[6]

Although “provincial pride” might seem like the obvious motivation for spurious “documents” promoting the glories of Venetian pioneers, the Rossi maps and accounts actually attribute Marco Polo’s initial awareness of the New World to a Syrian named Biaxo Sirdomap.[7] According to a long text that was supposedly written by Marco’s daughter, Bellela, the Syrian merchant had been engaged in the fur-trading business for thirty years in the Northern Seas east of China before he had contact with the illustrious Venetian. Briefly, Bellela tells the following story: sometime around 1277 (or 1287), the Mongol Queen dispatched Marco by ship in order to convey a gift to the Queen of Sakhalin Island. Marco’s vessel got caught up in a typhoon and was driven north to the Kamchatka Peninsula—known to Sirdomap as the “Peninsula of Stags.” It was there that the Venetian traveler met Sirdumap who informed him of a distant land to the east—the “Peninsula of Seals.” According to Sirdomap, it was the location of a great glacier that came down to the sea. Supposedly, this fortuitous meeting with a Syrian trader eventually led to Marco’s independent expeditions beyond Siberia to the West Coast of North America.

The Rossi Documents and Marco’s travelogue, Description of the World, indicate that Marco’s principal endeavor on behalf of Kublai Khan was to report on the sources and costs of such valuable Chinese imports as furs, precious stones, gold, perfumes, and dyes. These reports would have served the Mongol bureaucracy by establishing the costs of imports and therefore the appropriate tax for such items when they reached China. It was an integral part of the Mongol effort to regulate the monster Chinese economy.

Figure 1 presents one of the maps from the Rossi collection that supposedly resulted from Marco’s voyages to the coasts of North America. It is a sketch map that appears to have been derived partially from Asian coastlines previously charted by the Chinese as early as the 12th century. The remainder of the map clearly shows the Aleutian Islands as well as mainland towards the north and west including the Kamchatka Peninsula of Siberia, the adjacent coast of Alaska, and British Columbia. This is not a “scientific map;” there are no reference lines of longitude and latitude. Beyond the coast of China, the land areas are identifiable—but greatly distorted. Currently, this map is in the collection of the Library of Congress. Bagrow called it the “Map with Ship” because the sketch included along one side the illustration of a Venetian sailing vessel. This composite sketch has the appearance of a “concept drawing” that might have been intended as a guide for illustrating a book.

The existence of such a map presents a conundrum for historians. If it is real, then we have an explanation for what Marco Polo was doing during the two decades that he spent in Asia. If it arose from some ill-conceived effort to bolster the reputation of a Venetian hero, then it is worthless. Leo Bagrow chose to leave the matter unsettled: while indicating that the documents were “genuine,” he left open the possibility that New World lands might have been added to the maps by subsequent copyists.

Part of the solution to this puzzle can be found in Marco’s travelogue. He describes forays onto the “Plain of Bargu” and expeditions into the “Land of Darkness” situated northeast of Mongolia in a region we commonly think of as “Siberia.”[8] In chapter 20 (Book IV), he describes how the Tartars (or Mongols) captured white bears, foxes, sables, and marten in this region. He observed that the Tartars also obtained peregrine falcons and gerfalcons on an island in the “Northern Ocean” that was situated “40 days” of travel by ship beyond the Plain of Bargu in the Northern Ocean. Regarding the “Land of Darkness,” he mentions that it “extends to the utmost bounds of the north.” We are led to question: Was this “dark land” so far beyond Bargu a reference to Alaska?

Several early cartographers gave support to the idea that Marco Polo had traveled to Arctic Regions beyond Siberia. In a pivotal globe of 1492, the Portuguese agent and German expatriate Martin Behaim placed several isles around a polar sea beyond Siberia. He included additional elements suggesting that these isles were known to Marco Polo. One of these polar isles contains a German language caption that reads: “This land is beautiful in Summer.” Another isle has the caption: “Many white falcons are found here.” And a third isle has the icon of a hunter with a bow chasing after a polar bear. The possibility that Behaim used Marco’s travelogue as a source for the Polar Regions is suggested by the fact that the German cartographer attributed the entire Asian section of his globe to the Venetian traveler.[9] One deceptive feature of Behaim’s globe was the very real possibility that credulous explorers might confuse the northern isles of Asia with Greenland and Labrador where Nordic hunters obtained falcons and polar bears for the amusement of European kings. Did Behaim’s globe—supposedly based on Marco’s expeditions to the Far Northeast—encourage the Cabots and Columbus to seek Cathay via Greenland?

Magnetic Isles & Magnetic Declination

Gerhard Mercator and his son continued the theme of Marco Polo’s Arctic expeditions. On the 1595 edition of Mercator’s map from 1569 (Figure 2), we see further reference to Marco Polo in the Arctic. On the polar isle north of Bargu in Asia, there is a caption referring to Marco’s travelogue—apparently suggesting where to look for additional information about the nature of the Far North.[10] However, the most intriguing feature of this map is not the reference to Marco Polo but the first indication that we have on an extant map that geographers were struggling with the geophysical phenomenon known as “magnetic declination” from True North.

Across the polar region on Mercator’s map are three magnetic poles! The most prominent of these is the icon for a huge magnetic rock situated at the Geographic North Pole beneath the Pole Star. This was the Classical Roman explanation for why magnetic compass needles pointed north.[11] We have no certain explanation for the other two hypothetical magnetic poles—one at 73ºN-157ºE and the other at 76º30’N-152ºE.[12] These coordinates place the two secondary magnetic poles in the region of the North Pacific roughly midway between Siberia and Alaska. Apparently, Mercator was experimenting with ways to compensate for field reports of magnetic variation. In a letter to Richard Hakluyt in 1580, Mercator noted that:

A more hard and difficult passage I think it to be this way which is now attempted by the west, for it is nearer to the pole of the lodestone, to the which I think it not safe to approach. And because the lodestone hath another pole than that of the world, the nearer you come unto it, the more the needle of the compass doth vary from the north, sometimes to the west, and sometimes to the east, according as a man is to the eastward or the westward of that meridian.[13]

We now take for granted that the magnetic poles move across great arcs of the earth’s surface spanning several thousand miles. Lines of magnetic directional variation from True North can exceed 90º in the Polar Regions—creating the impression that one is traveling north by compass bearings when in fact the direction of travel is actually east or west. Mariners sailing near the Arctic Circle were particularly prone to geographical confusion, because it is in this region of the earth’s surface where converging meridians can create enormous distortions on flat maps. When we add the confusion caused by summertime travel in northern regions where the “midnight sun” conceals the location of the Pole Star, it becomes easier to understand some of the perplexing anomalies that we find in ancient maps and reports of ancient voyagers.

The profound magnetic distortion that can occur in the Polar Regions is documented by Figure 3. This modern map of magnetic declination from the U.S. Hydrographic Service was accurate only for the year of its publication in 1954. Nevertheless, it gives a general impression of how the lines of magnetic variation converge on the magnetic poles. As the North Magnetic Pole moves towards the south or north in the region of Hudson’s Bay, these lines of variation are pulled along the coastlines of the continents. The greatest distortion occurs along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia in the west and along Greenland, Baffin Island, and Labrador in the east. Along the coasts of Asia and Europe, the variation fluctuates very little—between +/-15º. This slight amount of variation creates the impression that the compass is fairly accurate and reliable in these Old World regions of great maritime commerce. It is only when voyagers travel towards New World shores where the variation is extreme, or astrologers observe the compass for long periods of time, that they become aware of the significant discrepancy (or declination) between the magnetic pole and True North.

Fridjof Nansen observed an ancient reference to this conundrum in the Nancy Manuscript of 1427.[14] Produced by the monk Claudius Clavus, it contains a statement that an anonymous explorer had located the North (Magnetic) Pole at 66º. This kind of observation could have been made in Iceland which straddles the Arctic Circle at about 66º. Conceivably, a monk who had a compass could have observed the discrepancy between the location of Polaris (True North) and the direction of the compass needle pointing due west during the winter months of darkness. This may have occurred between 1330 and 1360 when English Franciscans with astrolabes were traveling to the Northern Regions.[15] By the mid-1400s, Portuguese cartographers were adjusting some of their maps to account for magnetic declination, and Flemish artisans were marking magnetic compasses with an extra arrow to indicate about 12º of declination.[16] In 1504, Pedro Finel included two scales of latitude on his North Atlantic maps to account for magnetic declination. John Ruysch included a notation on his 1508 map west of Greenland that the compass was “unreliable” in this region where magnetic declination can exceed 90º. Charts by Burrus and Athanasius (1632), Kircher (1643), and Edmund Halley (1683) also indicate magnetic variation in the North Atlantic.[17] Sebastian Cabot (circa 1525) and Edmund Halley were among a group of enterprising cartographers who conceived the notion that magnetic variation could be used for making navigational charts. However, the idea was abandoned in the 17th century with the realization that lines of variation change and move in an irregular fashion.

The location of the two secondary magnetic poles on Mercator’s map suggests a further correlation to an obscure, often misunderstood passage from Marco Polo’s 1299 travelogue. In Chapter 51 (Book I), he makes the following observation:

This island (in the Northern Ocean) is situated so far to the north that the polar constellation appears to be behind you, and to have a southerly bearing.[18]

It is apparent from this passage in the travelogue that Marco made an observation in the field where he noted a discrepancy between the direction he was heading (north) by compass bearing and the location of Polaris—which was behind him. Of course, Polaris is situated directly above the Geographic North Pole; so it is apparent that Marco wasn’t really heading “north.” He only thought he was heading north—because that was the direction indicated by his compass. However, being an astute observer, he felt compelled to report an anomaly of nature that he did not understand. It seems evident that he was observing the geophysical phenomenon of magnetic declination from True North. This report, which has passed largely unnoticed and misunderstood by most readers of the travelogue should establish beyond any doubt that Marco Polo actually traveled to Asia and beyond.[19] It makes no sense that Marco would mention in his travelogue a phenomenon that he did not understand—unless he was actually present and he felt compelled by the requirements of scientific practice to report what he saw.

The degree of discrepancy (declination) between Marco’s direction of travel and the location of the Pole Star would have to exceed 90 º for Polaris to be at his back—seemingly having a “southerly bearing.” This observation establishes beyond any doubt that Marco had traveled beyond Siberia to New World shores. It is only along the coast of British Columbia that the amount of declination would be sufficient to account for this kind of observation. Apparently, during the 13th century, the location of the Magnetic North Pole was much farther south than it is today—perhaps as far south or even farther south than it was when the Nancy Manuscript was written (i.e., at 66ºN latitude). James Ross determined that the pole was situated at 70º5’N-96º47’W in 1837. Since that time, it has moved more than 7º farther north and 5º towards the west.

Having established the likelihood of Marco’s travels across Arctic Seas to New World shores in Alaska, it is not surprising that his map of the region (the “Map with Ship”) contains evidence of magnetic anomalies. Sakhalin Island, which should be situated on a north-south axis, appears to be tilted to the west by an error of about 40º. The passage between Siberia and Alaska, Marco’s “Strait of Anian” (a.k.a., Bering Strait) is skewed to the east by an error of 50º. All modern maps—ever since the scientific expeditions of James Cook and George Vancouver—depict the Bering Strait accurately as a true north-south passage between Siberia and Alaska. Thus, Marco’s observation of the compass anomaly and his map of the North Pacific with magnetic/geographic errors are mutually supportive: that is, they represent the kinds of phenomena and cartography that we would associate with 13th century scientific knowledge and technology.

Critical Review of the Marcian Rossi Documents

Leo Bagrow’s objective in publishing an article on the controversial Rossi Documents was to begin the process of scientific analysis. He incorporated into his article the critical reviews of a host of consultants in cartography, art, history, photography, and linguistics. He solicited comments from Arabic scholars and Sinologists. The result for a first go-around was predictable: Bagrow concluded that the documents were “genuine”—but certain “problems” remained. Inclusion of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska—presumably unknown until the 18th century—seemed to indicate that several maps in the collection were “more-or-less late modernized copies.” Bagrow adds:

As regards the Map with Ship, it certainly is a modernized copy. It has been brought up to date at least twice—at the end of the 16th century when the description and map of the mystifying discovery by Maldonade of a strait between Asia and America appeared and in the 18th century when the Kuril and Aleutian Islands became known.[20]

W.J. Wilson, a map librarian with experience at the Library of Congress served as a consultant on the “Map with Ship.” This map is particularly intriguing because it refers to the “walled provinces” of Cathay—something Marco Polo failed to mention in his travelogue. It was Wilson’s opinion that the script on the parchment map was “hardly earlier than the 17th century.” Two words used in the accompanying text by Bellela Polo, esploratore and archibugi were identified as being of probable 17th century derivation. Chinese scholars in Washington DC suggested the opposite: the map was ancient—so ancient that they could decipher only a handful of the ideographs used on the map. K.B.J. Karlgren of Stockholm was succinct: ideographs used on the map came from “olden times.”[21] L.B. Holland, Chief of the Division of Fine Arts at the Library of Congress examined the decorative frame surrounding the map. It was his opinion that the frame was “characteristic of the 13th or 14th century.” A radiocarbon date for this map might help to resolve the issue of whether or not it was produced in the 17th century or later.

The author’s examination of the Rossi Documents has thus far revealed no conclusive basis for suspecting that they were altered or “modernized” after the 14th century—by which time Rossi contends that they were regarded as heirlooms in the hands of his ancestors. There seems to be no sound linguistic, cartographic, or artistic basis for speculation that the documents were altered at all—much less after the 17th century when the influence of Renaissance culture and technology should be fairly evident.

If the texts had been significantly altered, one would expect to find more than two suspect words (supposedly esploratore and archibugi). Although one of Bagrow’s consultants claimed these words were “recent,” their exact points of entry into the Venetian vernacular are virtually impossible to verify. On the other hand, the presence of numerous Arabic words and Chinese ideographs seems to reflect the kind of multicultural environment (French, Italian, Mongolian, Chinese, and Arabian) that surrounded the Venetian Marco Polo who traveled with Arabs in Mongol occupied China. Numerous terms used on the maps seem archaic as opposed to being the kinds of place names that were in common usage in the 17th century. For example, one of the Marco Polo maps uses the Old Latin term Terra Incognita (“Unknown Mainland”) for the West Coast of the New World. By the 17th century, this region was commonly known as “New Albion” or America Septentrional (North America)—i.e., it was no longer “unknown” mainland. A map attributed to the Syrian Biaxo Sirdomap uses penisola phoca marina (“marine seal peninsula”) for Alaska, penisola de la zeuri (“peninsula of stags”) for Kamchatka, and isole de la femene (Isle of Women) for Sakhalin Island. These terms, also found in Bellela’s text of her father’s voyage to Kamchatka, seem consistent with the way Marco might describe his encounter with a Syrian fur trader in a wilderness that had no official names in the Franco-Latin dialect of Venice. He was literally on a “peninsula of stags” as far as the uneducated Syrian mariner was concerned. By the 18th century, Russian maps identified the land areas as “Kamchatka” and “Alaschka.”[22] The “Pantect Map” in Rossi’s collection calls the Pacific Ocean by the Latin term Sinus Magnus or “Great Gulf.” This term dates back to Claudius Ptolemy and 2nd century Rome. It was in common usage until the 16th century. By the 18th century, most cartographers called Ptolemy’s Great Gulf either “the Pacific Ocean” or Mer du Sur—the “South Sea.” So, we are led to wonder: If the maps were “modernized” in the 18th century as Bagrow suggests, why didn’t the copyists use contemporary terminology?

The Rossi Documents have one added feature that doesn’t detract from the argument for authenticity: they look very old. They were all copied in manuscript form on vellum or parchment (animal hide)—a material that went out of common use by the 17th century. The edges are somewhat ragged, the printing in some places entirely worn away. Bagrow was able to improve upon the readability of the documents by enhancing the images with ultraviolet photography.

Let’s take a closer look at the “Map with Ship.” Any generalized complaint that the Asian section of the map is “too accurate,” that it shows Asia as it may have appeared on European maps during the 18th century, has to be discarded. Figure 4 shows a comparison of the Asian coastlines from a series of sequential maps: a) Rossi’s “Map with Ship;” b) a Chinese survey map from the 12th century; and c) a modern map of China.[23] Seven geographical points of reference along the coast have significant correspondence among all three maps. The degree of correspondence between the 12th century survey map (completed over a century before Marco Polo) and the modern map is particularly striking. Apparently, Chinese cartographers had developed a sophisticated method of mapping using equal squares for longitudes and latitudes. Europeans would not begin to achieve this level of accuracy until the late 18th century—about the time that several of Bagrow’s reviewers thought the Marco Polo maps might have been “modernized” to meet the standards of Renaissance Europeans!

One measure of the impact of ancient maps has always been the degree to which subsequent cartographers depended upon them as a source of geographical information. We see this traditional aspect of cartography in effect on a 1544 map by Sebastian Munster (Figure 5). Munster’s map is similar to the “Map with Ship” in several respects: a) it shows a strait separating Asia from the New World; b) it shows the Kamchatka Peninsula at an oblique angle with respect to Alaska; and c) it has mainland east of China and Japan. The angle of magnetic error on the Munster map is about 55º as opposed to the 50º error on the “Map with Ship.” It is apparent from the notation of “7448 Isles” found on Munster’s map that he used Marco Polo’s travelogue as a source. This peculiar number, 7448, occurs with slight variations in all the manuscript copies of Polo’s travelogue. That Munster also used a copy of a secret Marco Polo map of the Far East that included parts of North America is suggested by the similarities indicated between the maps mentioned above.

Munster’s map is significant in that it predates maps by Bolognino Zaltieri (1566) and Giacomo Gastaldi (1562). These Venetians are generally credited with inventing the concept of a “Strait of Anian” separating Asia from the New World.[24] However, it would seem that Marco was the source for the idea—although we have no record that he ever made a public report of the discovery. As we have previously noted, this mistaken rationale about the 16th century invention of the “Strait of Anian” has been invoked as a basis for assuming that the Rossi Documents were “modernized” in the 16th century. The rationale is simply wrong. Instead, it seems more likely that Venetian maps by Gastaldi and Zaltieri were derived from copies of Marco’s Asian maps—or from some unknown intermediary such as Munster.

By the late 18th century, European mariners were acquainted with more sophisticated mapping techniques, and they had more sophisticated equipment such as quadrants and chronometers. In other words, they were about at par with the 12th century Chinese who depended upon water-driven clocks for measuring longitude. Figure 6 is an example of a British field map produced along Vancouver Island in 1778 during the third expedition of James Cook. The magnetic compass was the principal instrument used for establishing direction—aided by a theodolite (surveyor’s telescope), measuring line, and trigonometry. The field map includes a baseline for Magnetic North as well as a calculation for the line of True Geographic North, the angle of magnetic declination, latitude calculated from celestial observations, and longitude derived from Captain Cook’s chronometer. The surveyor indicated that magnetic variation was 19ºSE. When it came time for the cartographer back in London to incorporate this field map into the composite navigational chart of the region, the magnetic baseline was dropped in favor of a geographic north-south alignment required for the standard “Mercator Projection.”

The resulting geopolitical map of the Northwest Coast region is presented in Figure 7. Supposedly, this 18th century map was the kind of reference source that served as the basis for “modernizing” the Rossi Documents in the 18th century. However, there are notable features not seen in the Marco Polo maps that undermine this theory. The most prominent feature is the accurate north-south alignment of the so-called “Bering Strait.” This is a name that Captain Cook branded onto maps of the region in honor of the explorer Vitis Bering. In this manner, he inadvertently erased from the geographical heritage the actual location of Marco Polo’s “Strait of Anian.” Cook and a host of European mariners had mistakenly sought after the illusive strait (a.k.a., the Northwest Passage) in the vicinity of Vancouver Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Having not found Marco Polo’s strait where he thought it was supposed to be located, Captain Cook branded the “Strait of Anian” a “fake strait.” But he simply looked for it in the wrong place.

Other features of Cook’s 1778 map are lacking on the “Map with Ship.” For example, Cook’s map has two large gulfs along the south coast of Alaska; they are not to be found on the Polo map. Cook’s mainland south of Alaska falls off to the southeast; on the Polo map, the mainland rises to the northeast before bulging out in the region of British Columbia. The Aleutians on Cook’s map extend almost straight west; on Polo’s map they curve in an arc towards the northwest. In short, the correspondence of the two maps is remote. This lack of congruence is not at all what we would expect to see if the Rossi Documents were “modernized” copies of 18th century maps as Bagrow has suggested.

Figure 8 presents a comparison of maps ranging from the 13th century “Map with Ship,” Munster’s 1544 map, Cook’s 1778 map, and a modern map of the region set to Mercator’s Projection. The similarity of Marco’s map with the 16th century Munster map is evident from the oblique angle of the strait separating Siberia and Alaska as well as the “hook-shape” of the Kamchatka Peninsula. Cook’s map, on the other hand, has more in common with the modern, Mercator Projection—where the passage between Siberia and Alaska allows for a perpendicular, north-south alignment.

Conclusion: Tip of The Iceberg

Marco Polo was not a cartographer. He was apparently trained in Venetian schools in the arts of commercial management and banking. A bright lad who had a zest for adventure, he promptly took advantage of his father’s invitation to travel on a journey to the realm of Kublai Khan—arguably the most powerful emperor who has ever lived. He learned the Mongol language and several trade languages that enabled him to speak directly with the emperor without depending upon translators. If the Rossi Documents are valid, and there is no factual basis for believing they are not, then Marco Polo embarked upon a diplomatic mission for the queen circa 1277. His junk was swept up in a typhoon, and it was carried to the shore of the Kamchatka Peninsula. There, he met a Syrian fur trader who inspired him with tales about a new land farther east (that is, Alaska).

It would appear from the Marco Polo maps, and a host of other clues, that Marco took advantage of his special relationship with Kublai Khan to mount a series of expeditions to the New World. His rationale for these expeditions was to trace the sources of valuable imports to their points of origin across the seas. These commodities included jade, furs, drugs, gold, copper, turquoise, red pearls, emeralds, Brazilian dyewood, and vermilion—a red dye that was used for the emperor’s paper currency.

Numerous clues regarding the importance of transoceanic trade are to be found in Marco’s travelogue as well as in anomalous historical documents, and archeological relics.[25] Marco’s travelogue mentions that Japanese voyagers traveled to “countries in the east” on round-trip journeys that lasted a year. The ancient Japanese name for the eastern continent was Rasetsukoku—or “Land of Women.” He also mentions an isle of falcons 40 days to the northeast of “Bargu” or Siberia. Forty days is sufficient sailing time for Korean junks riding the Kuro Shio (Black Stream Current) to reach British Columbia.

Amateur antiquarians, pioneers, and professional archeologists have uncovered a substantial number of Asian relics along the West Coast. Chinese plates and coins have been found on Vancouver Island. A hoard of Chinese bronze coins was found in the Yukon; jade coins with Asian ideographs have been unearthed in controlled excavations at Teotihuacan, Mexico. Pioneers excavating a well found a bronze trader’s stamp with ancient Chinese ideographs near Tacoma, Washington. All along the West Coast, antiquarians have reported rock inscriptions featuring the traditional Chinese Yin-Yang motif. There are also legends in China of voyages to an eastern mainland called Tien-Mu or Fu-Sang—the “Isle of Immortals.” Native tribes along the coast have legends of mariners such as the “Son of the Heavenly Chief” who paid a visit to the Tsimshian Tribe of British Columbia.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, European cartographers acknowledged this Asian heritage along the West Coast. In addition to maps by Mercator and Ortelius that used Marco’s place names of “Anian,” “Bergi,” “Quivira,” and “Toloman,” a host of cartographers identified British Columbia as the “Fu Sang” of the ancient Chinese.[26] A map by Joducus Hondius in 1606 has a Japanese junk prominently positioned along the coast of California to illustrate the presence of East Asians in the region.[27] Eventually, new pioneers affixed their own place names to the maps; and the legacy of ancient explorers was all but forgotten in the wave of historical revision that followed.

It might seem reasonable to ask why Marco Polo didn’t reveal such momentous discoveries—if in fact they actually took place in the 13th century. However, the circumstances of his existence were such that knowledge about valuable overseas resources was often treated as a state secret. His travelogue, which modern scholars tend to assume must have been a truthful summary of his exploits—is actually a composite of fantasy and fact. Marco had to leave out anything that might be construed as a state secret or an embarrassment to the Church.

Marco’s dying words that he “hadn’t told half of what he had seen”—serves as a cautionary warning that a considerable amount of his knowledge had to be censored. Consider the possibility that the Council of Ten might have instructed him that his knowledge of the Far East and New Worlds was too valuable to divulge to the public. Yet after his capture by the Genoese during a naval battle in 1298, it might have suited the Venetian Council to allow Marco to dictate a partially-fabricated “travelogue” which the Pisan Rustichello recorded for the aggrandizement of Genoese patrons. The so-called “travelogue” might well have been Marco Polo’s ransom from Genoese prison.[28] It contained sufficiently true accounts of actual observations in foreign lands to seem credible. It also contained the kind of marvelous embellishments that would increase its appeal to Genoese rulers. However, it was sufficiently misleading with respect to directions and distances to be of little value as an actual travel guide. That essentially is what we have in Marco’s enigmatic travelogue: it is a document that is part real, part fabrication, and in the whole quite misleading.

At any rate, Marco Polo seems to have used Chinese naval resources and cartographers to produce some very valuable maps of the New World. These maps had a profound impact upon the course of history—albeit mostly as a result of overseas expeditions that were cloaked in secrecy. One common anecdote is that Prince Pedro of Portugal obtained a Polo map and copy of the travelogue from Venetian authorities in 1428. The travelogue wouldn’t have been of much help, but a map would have given Prince Henry’s mariners a tremendous advantage. Portuguese success in beating European rivals to the Spice Islands could well stem from early knowledge of the New World that they obtained from secret Marco Polo documents.

Much of the Portuguese, Spanish, and English explorations and overseas commerce occurred under a mantle of secrecy.[29] The result of this secrecy policy was that nations often issued bogus maps and spurious reports of nonexistent straits that were intended to mislead rivals causing them to expend resources or even lose crews and cargoes to shipwreck or piracy. A series of Spanish and English maps showing California as an island fits into this category of “commercial espionage.”

Another example of the lineage of secrecy that might extend back to Marco Polo is John Dee’s New World Map of 1580/1582 (Figure 9). This map portrays great detail for a section of the Northwest Coast of North America that was supposedly virtually unknown until the 18th century. This map most likely derives from a Chinese survey under the direction of Marco Polo in the 13th century. A vague sketch of this region can be seen in Marco’s “Map with Ship” below Alaska. A later version is seen on the West Coast of Sebastian Munster’s 1448 map. Keep in mind that Marco didn’t seem to understand the influence of magnetic variation in this region—so, it is not surprising that the Northwest Coast on this map is disoriented towards the east. If the area is realigned and compared to an 1811 map of the Northwest Coast by Irving Washington (Figure 10) some striking similarities emerge. The most prominent features include the following: a) the distinctive right-angle bend of the Washington Coast at the entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca at about 48°N Latitude; b) the Puget Sound basin; c) the Columbia River basin; and d) the Willamette River basin. Such a degree of similar geographical features and scale are actually quite remarkable considering the antiquated technology that was used to produce both maps. We are led to conclude that the Northwest Coast section of John Dee’s map was a legacy from Marco Polo because only Chinese surveyors and cartographers had the resources and technology to produce such an accurate map of this region prior to the 18th century.

According to tradition, the Northwest Coast region was unknown until after the voyage of Francis Drake in 1577-80. Dee’s map probably reflects British knowledge of the region prior to Drake’s departure. Although historians have maintained that Drake’s objective in sailing as far north as 58°N Latitude was to find the fictitious “Northwest Passage” across Canada, it would appear that he had a more realistic goal. He was actually looking for a strategic location for an English colony near the Indian trade center of Nootka Island (later Vancouver Island) that was situated at 48°N Latitude. Subsequently, a whole flock of explorers were drawn precisely to that same magical latitude, 48°N, that figures in Marco’s Travelogue as part of a code number, “74-48,” which Renaissance mariners took to be the locations of two important straits along the West Coast of North America. Juan de Fuca (1592), James Cook (1778), and George Vancouver (1792) all sought a strait at 48°N Latitude; they all wound up trading with the natives for valuable furs.

Even Drake’s voyage was shrouded in secrecy to prevent the Spanish from gaining a benefit from his important mapping of the West Coast. It was not until George Vancouver’s arrival at Nootka Island (Vancouver Island) in 1792 that the British obtained fresh geographical intelligence about Puget Sound, the Columbia River basin, and the valuable native fur industry that had been on the 13th century agenda for Marco Polo’s overseas expedition.

This article can be little more than an introduction to the author’s current research project into Marco Polo’s secret New World expeditions. There are several geographical anomalies that evidence of such expeditions can help explain—such as why the Gulf of California was once called “the Vermilion Sea,” and why there are early maps showing Puget Sound, Baja California, and Peru prior to the arrival of Spanish explorers. Marcian Rossi’s collection of maps and travel accounts represent only “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to uncovering the impressive secret legacy of the “World’s Most Famous Traveler”—Marco Polo.


Map with ShipFigure 1

Map facsimile of a portion of Marcian Rossi’s document called “Map with Ship.” This map is presumed by some to be a Marco Polo original made circa 1297 or a copy by his daughter, Bellela, a few years later. It is a “sketch map” produced not for scientific accuracy but as part of an illustration that included a Venetian ship and Marco’s personal anagram. Territories on this map include: A) China; B) Siberia/Kamchatka; C) Alaska; and D) the Northwest Coast as far south as Oregon. Geographical features include: 1) Java; 2) Borneo (a.k.a., Java Major); 3) Japan; 4) Korea; 5) Sakhalin Island; 6) Aleutian Islands; 7) Strait of Anian (a.k.a., Bering Strait); and 8) Puget Sound and Columbia River basin at approximate latitude of Hokkaido, Japan. The map includes Roman numerals and notations in Arabic and Chinese. A Venetian-Italian caption beside the map refers to the “Walled Provinces of Cathay.”

Source: from an ultraviolet enhanced photograph in Imago Mundi 5 (1948), Fig. 5; presently located in the Library of Congress Map Archives.

Asian Coastline MapsFigure 2

Comparison of Asian coastlines from: I. Maco Polo’s “Map with Ship” (c.1295); II. Ancient Chinese map (1137); and III. Modern map of China (2003). The “Map with Ship” is a sketch map probably derived from a Chinese map similar to II. Geographic points along the coast include: a) Bohai Sea; b) Shandong Peninsula; c) Jiangsu and the Yellow Sea; d) Shanghai, Hangzhou Wan (gulf) and the Yangtze Estuary; e) the Zhejiang coast; f) the Fujian bulge; g) Hainan Island and the Beibu Gulf. We can deduce from the high degree of similarity in shape and scale between maps II and III that the Chinese had developed a highly-sophisticated mapping technology by the 12th century. Thus, a high degree of accuracy in the Polo maps can not be regarded as evidence that they were “modernized” in the 18th century.

Source: The Chinese 12th century map is in the British Library, London. Facsimiles of this map can be found in P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps (London: British Library, 1991), p. 17; Imago Mundi 24 (1970), Fig. 5; also Gunnar Thompson, American Discovery—Our Multicultural Heritage (Seattle: Argonauts, 1994), p. 120.

See captionFigure 3

Composite illustration of the northern sections from “Map with Ship,” Sebastian Münster’s 1544 map, Cook’s map of 1783, and a modern map set to Mercator’s Projection. Land areas are as follows: A) China; B) Kamchatka/Siberia; C) Alaska; and D) Northwest Coast or Quivira. This comparison demonstrates the similarities between Marco’s map and Munster’s map with the oblique, 50º angle for the passage between Siberia and Alaska. On the other hand, Cook’s map has more in common with a modern map of the region with its direct, north-south passage for the Bering Strait. This comparison should help establish that the configuration of the Map with Ship is basically “ancient” and not the kind of document we would expect to result from “modernization” in the 18th century.

See caption
Figure 4
Comparison of section from John Dee’s c1582 map and Irving Washington’s 1836 map of the same area. Geographical features include: 1) Vancouver Island; 2) Strait of Georgia; 3) Puget Sound; 4) Olympic Peninsula with the characteristic “right-angle” coastline at Cape Flattery (arrow); 5) Columbia estuary and river basin; 6) Willamette River Basin; and 7) Palouse Region.

Source: Dee’s map is in the Philadelphia Public Library Archives. A photograph of the map was published in John Hale, Age of Exploration (Alexandria: Time-Life Books, 1974), p. 119. Irving Washington’s map is from Dereck Hayes, Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 1999), Map 169.


[1] Leo Bagrow, “The Maps from the Home Archives of the Descendants of a friend of Marco Polo,” Imago Mundi, 5 (1948), p. 1-13.

[2] The author has contacted the Library of Congress in hopes of obtaining a radiocarbon test on one of the documents called “Map with Ship.”

[3] A facsimile of the wall map from the Dodge’s Palace is presented in E.G. Ravenstein, Martin Behaim—His Life And His Globe (London: George Philip & Son, 1908), Appendix Map 4.

[4] Richard Hakluyt, Divers Voyages Touching the Discoverie of America (London: 1582); Gunnar Thompson, The Friar’s Map (Seattle: Argonauts, 1996), p. 163.

[5] Generally speaking, the so-called “Zeno Voyages”—although regarded by Ramusio and Richard Hakluyt as authentic—are currently regarded as “apocryphal.” The same can be said for “early voyages” attributed to John Cabot and Bristol merchants circa 1480. Historians are not sure where Nicholas Conti might have traveled beyond India in the 1400s.

[6] Columbus based the outcome of his “Enterprise of the Indies” partially on his faith in the veracity of Portuguese maps and partially on Marco Polo’s supposed 58-60º extension for the breadth of Asia and Japan towards the east. This was beyond the prior estimate of 225º given by Marinus of Tyre. See for example, Helen Wallis, Cartographic Knowledge of the World in 1492, in Mariners Mirror, 78/11 (1992), p. 407-418. After Columbus claimed that his 1492 discovery of isles and mainland in the Caribbean was scientific proof that he was right, based on “experience” (that is, actual observation in the field), credulous explorers seemed to think that belief in a Northwest Passage would make it materialize. See Thompson, op.cit., 1996.

[7] Bagrow, op. cit., p. 6.

[8] Marco’s accounts of travels to the northern regions are contained in Manuel Komroff, Ed., The Travels of Marco Polo (New York: Garden City Publishing Co., 1926), p. 346-347.

[9] Fridjoff Nansen, In Northern Mists 2 (1911) (New York: AMS Reprints, 1961), p. 289, attributes the Polar Isles to both Marco Polo and Nicholas of Lynn. 

[10] Examples of Mercator’s 1569 map and 1595 edition are widely available. See Nordenskiold, Facsimile Atlas (1889), fig. 60; Thompson, op. cit. (1996), p. 20. An original printing of the 1569 map is in the University Library in Basle.

[11] Mercator discussed his classical source for the portrayal of Polar Regions in a letter sent to John Dee. See Thompson, op. cit., 1996; E.R.G. Taylor, “A Letter Dated 1577 from Mercator to John Dee,” Imago Mundi, 13 (1956), p. 56-68.

[12] A caption beside the southernmost pole says Polus magnetis respectu insularum capitis Viridis; besides the intermediate pole is the caption Polus magnetis respectu Corui insule. See Nordenskiold, op. cit. (1889), Fig. 60.

[13] Richard Hakluyt in Jack Beeching, Ed., Richard Hakluyt—Voyages and Discoveries (London: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 209.

[14] Nansen, op. cit.; Thompson, op. cit. (1996) , p. 286.

[15] Thompson, op. cit. (1996); Gunnar Thompson, Lions in The New Land (Seattle: Radio Bookstore, 1998).

[16] David Waters, Columbus’s Portuguese Inheritance, Mariner’s Mirror 78/4 (1992), p. 399, reports that the Portuguese were correcting for magnetic declination by 1375. Anne Collinder, Marine Navigation (1954), p. 46, includes a photograph of a 1451 Flemish compass that has a second arrow for magnetic declination. A Chinese compass from the 10th century was calibrated for declination—although the general assumption seems to be that it was simply used for divination.

[17] Thompson, op. cit. (1996), p. 285.

[18] Marco Polo, Travels of Marco Polo (New York: Orion Press, ND), p. 93. Similar passages can be found in most examples of the travelogue in the chapter on “The Plain of Bargu.”

[19] The veracity of Marco’s testimony about the Far East was questioned during his lifetime. Doubts were raised in the 17th century when Europeans became aware that he had failed to mention the “Great Wall of China” in his travelogue. Recently, Frances Wood, Did Marco Polo Travel to China? (London: British Library, 1996), has raised some reasonable concerns about the accuracy of the travelogue.

[20] Bagrow, op. cit., p. 13.

[21] Bagrow, op. cit., p. 5, note 8.

[22] For early 18th century use of Kamchatka and Alaschka (Alaska), see Thomas Jefferys’ 1775 chart in Derek Hayes, Historical Atlas of the Pacific Northwest (Seattle: Sasquatch Press, 1999), Map 57. He indicates that “Alaschka” is an island marked in Kempfer’s Japanese Map of the World. See also Maps 34, and 35.

[23] The 12th century Chinese map was inscribed on a stone block that was used for printing paper copies. The map is presently in the British Museum, London. Facsimiles of this 1137 map can be found in P.D.A. Harvey, Medieval Maps (London: British Library, 1991), p. 17; Imago Mundi. 24 (1970), Fig. 5; also Gunnar Thompson, American Discovery—Our Multicultural Heritage (Seattle: Argonauts, 1996), p. 120.

[24] According to Seymour Schwartz and Ralph Ehrenberg, The Mapping of America, (Edison, NJ: Wellfleet Press, 2001), Pl. 30, the concept of a strait separating America from Asia was first proposed by Giacomo Gastaldi in 1562.

[25] For a complete listing of Asian artifacts found in the ancient Americas see Thompson, op. cit., 1996, and Gunnar Thompson, Marco Polo in The New World (Seattle: New World Discovery Institute, in press).

[26] For British Columbia as Fu Sang, see Hayes, op. cit., 1999, Map 35 by Bauche (1752), Map 43 by Lodge (1778), Map 56 by Jeffreys (1775), Map 61 by Bodega y Quadra (1781), and Map 86 Faden (1785).

[27] See Hayes, op. cit., Map 9.

[28] Johnathan D. Spence, The Chan’s Great Continent (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), p. 8-14, notes that it was common for the Genoese to ransom prisoners. He speculates that Marco might have been ransomed.

[29] For an example of the role of secrecy in exploration see Hayes, op. cit., p. 17.