In the 13th century, the 3 richest places in the world were China, the Middle east (Iran, Irak) and Africa (The golden Empire of Mali with Mansa Musa).
When the Mongols arrived in Europe in the 13th century, after conquering China and the Middle East, they found a continent which was very poor, plunged into the Dark Age, ravaged by famine, with most its nations fighting and killing one another for religious and ethnic reasons.
The Mongols found nothing worthy looting, so when they heard about the death their Great Khan Ogodai, they seized the opportunity to return home, and never came back.
Soon after the Mongols invasion, the Europeans sent ambassadors and merchants to the Mongols Capital Karakurum seeking to understand and make peace. That single decision was the best thing that ever happened to Europe.
The Mongols permitted European merchants, craftsmen, and envoys to journey as far as China for the first time.
Soon, items and inventions such as mechanical printing, gunpowder, and the blast furnace made their way from China to the West. Artistic ideas, knowledge of history, geography, and sciences such as astronomy, agricultural knowledge and medicinal ideas also traveled from the East to the west.
The influx of knowledge from the East, and specially the arrival of mechanical printing from China helped the reproduction and spread of original ancient Greek texts (Euclid, Plato, Cicero, etc.) which helped a lot the European Renaissance, which in turn led to the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution and ultimately the industrial revolution.
The Mongols sponsored the trips of Niccolo Polo (father of Marco Polo) and his uncle Maffeo Polo who’d brought spaghetti back to Italy from China.
When the elder Polos returned to Venice in 1269, they found that Niccolo’s wife had died, and left behind a 15-year-old son named Marco. Two years later, the teenager, his father and his uncle would embark eastward on another great journey.
In 1298, three years after he returned from his journey, Polo was captured after leading a venetian galley into battle against the rival Italian city-state of Genoa. While in prison, he told tales of his travels through Asia to his fellow prisoners and the guards alike, and his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa wrote them down with the idea to make money out of publishing them.
Once the two were released from prison, copies of the manuscript titled “The Travels of Marco Polo” – also known as “Book of the Marvels of the World”- captivated Europe. Polo told tales of fabulous Asian courts, the beauty and wealth of the east, the black stones that would catch on fire (coal), and Chinese money made out of paper.
The publication of his travels fired the imagination of many Europeans. Western desire for luxury goods and spices of the east grew, encouraging an Age of Exploration. Europe certainly loved to hear about the fabulous Kublai Khan and his wondrous courts at Xanadu and Dadu (Beijing).
Christopher Columbus, the Italian explorer and colonizer, had a copy of Marco Polo’s “Travels” with him when he left the shore of Spain on August 3, 1492 for the East Indies. The book was a bedtime reading for the explorer, who notated heavily in the margins, planning a visit to the Great Khan court.
Europe’s “Age of Exploration” in the 15th century led to European supremacy in the world today. Italy was the center of the world during the 15th and 16th century, where over 50% of scientists in the world were living, and 70% of artists were in the city of Florence alone.
As a matter of numbers, before the “discovery” of America by Columbus, Europe was like any other place in the world in term of wealth, maybe even poorer. However 3 centuries after the beginning of the age of exploration Western Europe became 3 times richer than any other region in the world, and during the last 2 centuries Western Europe became 30 times wealthier than any other region of the world at the beginning of the 20th century.
The compounding result is that nowadays western Europeans and their descendants owns about 80% of the world wealth, while they make less than 15% of world population.
As you can see stories are the engine of the mind and the pulses of our hearts. We need to tell new stories to be able to create a new world. Even in prison, even hopeless, we need to look inside for stories which would inspire.
The world is changing, we need a new generation of Marco Polo, people passionate about adventure, travel and building bridges to other civilizations.
And we are here for that. For Africa Renaissance, we have a life time opportunity to leave paths to be followed during the next centuries.
PS: Marco Polo’s Book of the Marvels of the World, with its vivid description of the wealth available in Asia, became a manual of greed, colonization, and destruction. Columbus cleverly played on the greed of the Spanish monarchs who were left out of the profitable spice trade with Asia which was making the fortune of italian cities like Venice, and Florence. Columbus was a citizen of Genoa.
It’s safe to compare the book of Marco Polo to Mali Empire’s Mansa Musa pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324, with 60,000 men, displaying lavish wealth, carrying tons of Gold which he distributed lavishly on his way. The Pilgrimage drew the world attention to Africa wealth and Prosperity, but also invited attacks and invasions from the poorer populations from the North, and the centuries of slavery and colonization which followed plunged the continent into the dark age.