Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Java and Mongols in the Medieval European Sources

       In 1292, towards the end of his reign, Khubilai Khan sent a fleet of ships from Quanzhou in southern China to invade East Java, then governed by a king named Kertanegara, ruler of a state now known as Singasari (Singosari/Singhasari). Kertanegara had imperial ambitions, seeking to control not only the entirety of Java but also the Melaka Strait and the spice trade from eastern Indonesia.

       In 1289, Khubilai had sent ambassadors to request tribute from him, and Kertanegara felt insulted by the request. To demonstrate his displeasure, he had the ambassadors' faces disfigured before sending them back to the Khan. It is then claimed that Kertanegara attacked Malayu, a powerful successor state of Srivijaya based on the east coast of Sumatra. Malayu had had good relations with the Chinese/Mongols, so this attack and the disfigurements led eventually to the attempted Mongol conquest of Singasari in 1292/3.
Candi Singosari, a Majapahit-era temple dedicated to the kings of Singasari, Malang, East Java. h/t Edi W.
       En route the Mongols attacked cities in Champa that refused to obey the Khan, and arrived in Java late in the year to find the east of the island in disarray. To simplify what seems to have been a complex situation: King Kertanegara had been killed by Jayakatwang (or Jayakatong), a man from the royal family of Kediri, an East Javanese state that had previously been defeated and made a vassal by Ken Angrok, founder of Singasari. Also entering the fray was a man most commonly known as Raden Wijaya, a Singasari prince who later became installed as king of Majapahit, the last non-Islamic state to unify East Java and other parts of what is now Indonesia. Raden Wijaya used the Mongols to kill his enemies before turning on them anyway and forcing them to leave Java in advance of the changing monsoon winds. Partly as a result of the Mongol invasion, Raden Wijaya ruled for about thirteen years, and Majapahit remained a serious political entity for about two hundred years, until the beginning of the sixteenth century.
Mount Kawi, East Java - one of the mountains (actually a volcano) that divided Singasari from the traditional domain of Kediri. (Smithsonian)
       The main sources for this are Javanese and Chinese, for obvious reasons. We learn most of our Majapahit history from the Desawarnana (1365) and Pararaton (finished c.1600), composed in Old Javanese; both of these sources can be found in English translation. The Pararaton is the one with the detailed information about Raden Wijaya and the founding of Majapahit during the Mongol invasion, although some scholars - notably C. C. Berg - have dismissed both of these Javanese sources as myths and fantasy (on not very good grounds). The official history of the Yuan dynasty also describes the invasion, and the general narrative of each corroborates the other, so the basics are uncontested. That doesn't mean that there aren't interesting historiographical problems in grappling with these accounts, though.

      Anyway, the question for today is: does the Mongol invasion of Java leave any traces in the European sources I've been discussing? Naturally for such an important event, there are mentions of some sort of conflict between the Granz Kaan and the big island of Java in several European medieval accounts, including those of Odoric (travelling in the early fourteenth century) and Marco Polo (who left China in the 1290s, around the time of the invasion). They are short mentions, but they were also influential: even John Mandeville's hoax account of travel in Asia mentions Java and its supposed resistance to the Kaan.

       First, let's look at why Java became famous and powerful in the thirteenth century: spices. Rustichello/Polo says:
Ceste ille est de mlt grant richece. Il ont pouire et nois muscates espices garingal et cubebes et girofles et de toutes autres chieres espiceries que on set. En cel ille uient mlt grant quantite de nauie q marcheant qui y achatent grandime quantite de merchandises y amoinent don il reportent grant gaaing et grant profit.
      'This island [Java] is of very great wealth. They have pepper, nutmeg, spikenard [according to Yule - not in the manuscript I've been using], galangal, cubeb [or Java pepper], cloves, and all the other expensive spices that there are. To this island go a great number of ships and merchants who buy and sell there a great quantity of merchandise and so they report big gains and great profit.'
Nutmeg (Myristica fragrans) - an eastern Indonesian spice which, in the thirteenth century, only grew on two tiny islands in Banda.
      Odoric gives a similar, albeit not identical, list:
Now this island is populous exceedingly, and is the second best of all islands that exist. For in it grow camphor, cubebs, cardamoms, nutmegs, and many other precious spices. It hath a very great store of all victuals save wine. [Yule's translation]
      This accords with what we know from other sources about Java in the late-thirteenth century. In fact, most of these spices came from elsewhere; the cubeb is certainly native, as you can tell by its alias, and the camphor, galangal, and pepper could all easily have been grown in Java itself. Nutmeg, however, came from Banda, and cloves from a few scattered parts of Maluku in far eastern Indonesia. So the Java we're looking at in the European sources isn't one dependent on its own resources: it's pitching itself as a middleman in the spice trade. It's hardly surprising that it aroused the interest of the Mongols and, later, of Europeans like da Gama, Columbus, and Albuquerque. Note also the territorial ambition necessitated by any attempt to control the spice trade: Java needed to have a hand even in Maluku.

       Now, here's Polo/Rustichello on the Mongols:
Et si ie di que li grant .k. ne pot onques auoir cest ille por la longue uoie quil y a et pour le coust qui couenroit au nagier.
      'And I tell you that the Great Kaan could never have this island because of the long journey and because of the cost of sailing there.' This really tells us very little: no Mongol invasion even appears in Polo's account, although it could be an attempt to excuse the Mongol inability to defeat the Javanese.
A (probable) keris/kris shown on Borobudur - the classic Javanese weapon, albeit from several centuries before Singasari came into existence and slightly to the west of its centre. h/t Gunawan Kartapranata.
      Odoric, however, appears to mention not just a single Mongol invasion, but repeated assaults:
Now the Great Khan of Cathay many a time engaged in war with this king; but this king always vanquished and got the better of him.
       There's no mention in other sources of other attacks on Java by the Mongols, but this is the version that got passed on in European lore. Compare these sections of Hakluyt's translation of John Mandeville's Travels:
There grow all manner of spicery [in Java], more plenteously than in any other country, as of ginger, cloves-gilofre, canell, seedwall, nutmegs and maces. [...] Many other spices and many other goods grow in that isle. For of all things is there plenty, save only of wine. But there is gold and silver, great plenty.
       Mandeville (or rather, the person pretending to be him) spends some time imagining the splendour of the palace of the king of Java, based to some degree on Odoric's account (which I'll deal with another time). And then he says:
And wit well, that the king of that isle is so mighty, that he hath many times overcome the great Chan of Cathay in battle, that is the most great emperor that is under the firmament either beyond the sea or on this half. For they have had often-time war between them, because that the great Chan would constrain him to hold his land of him; but that other at all times defendeth well against him.
John Mandeville, who by his own account invented the skateboard. [citation needed]
        This is clearly based on the vision of Java presented in Odoric's Relatio, and you might wonder why I'm bothering to include something so clearly second-hand here. Well, Marco Polo almost certainly never visited Java, and I doubt Odoric did. They were repeating what they had heard second-hand, from Arabs and Chinese people and locals in other parts of the Malay world. Mandeville's story isn't different from Polo's and Odoric's in principle: it's all second- and third-hand information. And all the medieval travellers repeated one another.

       The point is rather that Java was an essentially legendary place, and Java stories seem to have been quite widely shared. Even Niccolo de' Conti, who probably actually visited Java, repeats some of Polo's points, including the claim (found in Polo, Odoric, and Mandeville) that Java is 3,000 miles in circuit. Java was proverbially wealthy, a land whose kings were sufficiently powerful as to take on the greatest known military power and win.

       De' Conti, writing over a century after both Odoric and Polo (c.1440s), mentions another Moluccan item in the Javanese inventory: the bird-of-paradise. This can only have added to the mystique, although of course the skins were imported from the east and the birds are not native to Java:
In maiori Iaua auis praecipua reperitur sine pedibus, instar palumbi, pluma leui, cauda oblonga, semper in arboribus quiescens; caro non editur, pellis et cauda habentur preciosores, quibus pro ornamento capitis utuntur.
        'In Big Java there's a special bird without feet, about the size of a pigeon with light feathers and a long tail. They always remain in the trees. Their meat isn't eaten, but the skin and tail are greatly treasured as head ornaments.'
(Probably) the bird de' Conti is describing, although we can't be sure - the greater bird-of-paradise (Paradisea apoda). Note that the scientific name, apoda, means 'no feet', because that is how specimens appeared when they arrived in Europe. The feet were actually removed before transit from New Guinea, Aru, and other islands on which birds-of-paradise are found. h/t Andrea Lawardi.
       These accounts are pretty useless for giving us details about the Mongol invasion of Java, but they might tell us a teensy bit about how the invasion was seen in the world beyond the immediately-affected parties. Java was first and foremost a realm of mythic treasures - gold, silver, non-Muslim kings, birds that didn't need feet, all the precious spices in the world, a large population, an army fit to defeat the Emperor of China. Given that these stories - including, by the way, Mandeville's - inspired Columbus and Albuquerque and others like them to go and look for the islands of spice and gold in the east, it would be wrong to ignore them for not providing substantive details about Mongol military movements in 1292. They're interesting anyway.

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