A Medieval Latin Description of Banda, Eastern Indonesia
In this post I’m going to take a look at a garbled description of Banda in eastern Indonesia — source of all the nutmeg and mace in the medieval world — written by the Florentine humanist Poggio Bracciolini in the middle of the fifteenth century. The description appears in the fourth book of Bracciolini’s De Uarietate Fortunæ ‘On the Vicissitudes of Fortune’, which was completed in around 1448 and which recorded the travels of Niccolò de’ Conti, a Venetian merchant who lived outside Italy between 1419 and 1444. Conti spent much of that time voyaging and trading his way around the Indian Ocean, accompanied the entire time by his Egyptian wife and children. He returned to Venice after the death of his wife and two of his four children from plague. He may have converted to Islam, perhaps under duress, and he was compelled by Pope Eugene IV to recount the story of his travels to Bracciolini as penance.
Conti spent nine months or so in Java with his family and, although he probably didn’t learn any of the local languages, which we can perhaps attribute to his disdain for the local people (‘the cruellest and most inhumane in the world’), he recorded many fascinating details of life in the Indo-Malaysian archipelago at the time.
Conti did not visit Banda — as far as we can tell he only travelled as far east as Borneo and Java — but someone seems to have described the islands to him, and he certainly told Bracciolini about them: A brief description of Banda and another unidentified place known to Conti as Sondai or Sandai appears shortly after the section on Java. This is not the oldest account of Banda to have come down to us; a fourteenth-century Chinese text on Banda has also survived. (I translated it here on the blog a couple of months ago.) Bracciolini’s is nonetheless the oldest description of Banda in any European language.
As I mentioned above, Banda produced all the nutmeg and mace (the seed and aril of Myristica fragrans) in the medieval world. In the nineteenth century nutmeg trees began to be grown off the Islands and, indeed, outside the Indo-Malaysian archipelago, but before then the inhabitants of the tiny islands of Banda, just south of Seram in eastern Indonesia, grew and harvested all of the nutmeg on the planet. Given that nutmeg and mace appear in Chaucer, in anonymous fifteenth-century Hungarian glossaries, and in fourteenth-century Spanish bird medicines, it might seem remarkable that so little was known about the place that produced the stuff. That is often the way, though, with commodities like this.
In any case: The text below is taken from Rome, Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Urb.lat.224, an early manuscript of De Uarietate Fortunæ copied by Niccolò di Antonio de’ Ricci in Florence in around 1460. Unlike Bracciolini’s autograph in the Biblioteca Riccardiana, from which it differs only in small details, it has been digitised. A critical edition of book IV of De Uarietate Fortunæ has been put together by the French medievalist Michèle Guéret-Laferté (2004), and the section below corresponds to lines 299–313 in her text.
Most of the text is about Banda specifically, but I have also included a short section on birds-of-paradise that appears immediately beforehand.
[……………] In maiori
Iaua auis precipua reperitur sine pedibus instar palumbi, pluma leui,
cauda oblonga, semper in arboribus quiescens caro non editur, pellis &
cauda habentur preciosiores, quibus pro ornamento capitis utuntur.
<H>as ultra .xv dierum cursu due reperiuntur insule orientem uersus,
altera sandai appellata in qua nuces muscate et maces, altera badan no-
mine, in qua sola gariofoli producuntur, deferunturꝙ ad iauas insulas.
<B>adan triplices fert psitacos, rubeis pennis croceoꝙ rostro & uersicolo-
res, quos noros hoc est lucidos ambos magnitudine palumborum, &
item albos gallinis pares. hi cachi hoc est eminentiores uocati ceteros antecellunt loquela hominum, quam mirum in modum ut etiam re-
spondeant petentibus, imitantur. Ambas insulas nigri ex calore homines tenent ultraꝙ eas mare haud peruium est arcenturꝙ ab aere nauigantes.
‘A special bird without feet is found on Big Iaua. (1) It resembles a wood pigeon with light feathers and a long tail, and it always remains among the trees. Its meat isn’t eaten, but its skin and tail are held to be very valuable as these are used as head ornaments. (2)
‘Two islands can be found after a fifteen-day voyage east beyond the Iauas. (3) One, known as Sandai, is where nutmegs and mace come from, and the other is called Badan, where alone cloves are produced. (4) And these things are brought to market in the Iaua islands.
‘There are three kinds of parrots in Badan (5): The first have red feathers and a yellow beak. (6) The second are multi-coloured and pigeon-sized, and are called noros — that is to say, ‘bright ones’. (7) The third kind are white and the same size as a chicken. Known as cachi, meaning ‘excellent ones’, these birds are the best at producing human speech. They do so in surprising fashion, to the point of being able to respond to questions asked of them. (8)
‘The people of both islands are black from the heat [of the sun]. The islands can barely be reached by sea, and sailors are kept away from the them by the atmospheric conditions.’ (9)
(1) ‘Big Java’ is unidentified. Conti’s account presents us with an interesting variation on the Two Javas problem common in medieval western Afro-Eurasian texts on island Southeast Asia: ‘Big Java’ usually refers to the island we know as Java and ‘Little Java’ tends to mean Sumatra (as in the accounts of Marco Polo’s travels). In Bracciolini’s text, though, Sumatra is known as Sciamutera (vel sim) and Tapobrana (the classical name for Sri Lanka), and ‘Little Java’ seems to refer to Java. ‘Big Java’ is therefore unidentified, although it has been suggested that it refers to Borneo.
(2) Although they do not live in Java or Borneo (or any other plausible candidate for ‘Big Java’), these birds are presumed to be birds-of-paradise. Birds-of-paradise (passerine birds in the family Paradisaeidae) live in New Guinea and Aru. There aren’t all that many references to the trade in their bodies and plumes until early modernity, and Bracciolini/Conti’s is the first European text to mention them. The birds were sold with their feet removed (for some reason), and it was therefore widely believed outside the region — until the birds were seen by Europeans in the wild — that they never roosted and spent their entire lives in flight. A bird-of-paradise procured at Melaka was apparently sent as a gift to the Pope in 1514 by Giovanni da Empoli, an Italian navigator employed by the Portuguese; this was probably the first bird-of-paradise to arrive in Europe, presumably deceased and footless.
A longer description of birds-of-paradise can be found in Antonio Pigafetta’s c.1521 account of the first circumnavigation of the world (Figure 3). He says that they are called <Bolon|diuata> or oyseaulx de dieu ‘birds of God’, from the Malay burung dewata.
(3) The idea that it took fifteen days to reach Banda (or ‘the islands of spice’, etc.) from Java is found in other sources — including in Pigafetta’s account, where it is said to take two weeks to sail between Banda and Melaka on the Malay Peninsula, as well as, obliquely, in the work of the ninth-century Persian geographer Ibn Khurradādhbih, who wrote a work in Arabic known as the Book of Roads and Kingdoms (كتاب المسالك والممالك). The latter says:
‘ثم مسيرة خمسة عشر يومًا إلى بلاد منبت العطر’
‘After that [from Java] a journey of fifteen days to the lands of origin of the aromatics’.
(4) <sandai> is a mystery; we have no real idea where it is. It could be one of the Banda Islands, but it resembles none of the current names for them nor the names of villages known from early Portuguese and Dutch ethnohistoric texts. Nutmeg and mace came from Banda and cloves came from Maluku; Conti is mistaken here, perhaps understandably given that he did not travel any further east than Borneo.
(5) The form of the name varies somewhat between manuscripts; it is also seen as Bandan, Badam, Banda, and so on. I have discussed the problem of the name of Banda elsewhere (see my translation of Wang Dayuan’s fourteenth-century Chinese description of Banda, n.2). Conti presumably did not tell Bracciolini to write <Badan>. We know from the Fra Mauro mappamundi (Venice, c.1450), a world map on which Conti was an informant, that he knew the islands as Bandan, which was also the name for them in Classical Malay and Old Sundanese.
(6) These seem to be lories, several species of which live in eastern Indonesia. Conti/Bracciolini’s bird could be a red lory (they certainly live in Banda). Interestingly, a Moluccan lory appears in a 1496 painting by the Italian ‘Renaissance’ painter Andrea Mantegna, now in the Louvre — Madonna della Vittoria, painted at Mantua (Figure 4— see Dalton 2013). This tells us, of course, that these birds could be found in Europe before the Portuguese arrived in island Southeast Asia and changed the nature of luxury commerce in the region at a fundamental level.
(7) The idea here seems to be that the word <noros>, meaning ‘parrots’ (psitacos), comes from the Arabic word nūr (نُور) ‘light, brightness’. But this is a false etymology: The word here surely represents the Malay word nuri, which means simply ‘parrot’. The interpolation could be Conti’s — he certainly spoke Arabic but probably didn’t know Malay. Nuri refers to parrots in general and is almost as broad in meaning as the Latin word psittacus or the English ‘parrot’, so really Conti/Bracciolini could be talking about any of the many parrot-ish birds found in eastern Indonesia. Incidentally, the word lory (see n.6) comes from the Malay nuri.
(8) These are cockatoos (birds in the genus Cacatua): Cachi seems to be a corrupted form of the Malay (burung) kakatua ‘cockatoo’. Cockatoos appear fairly frequently in medieval literature and art, including in European texts. In De Arte venandi cum Avibus ‘On the Art of Hunting with Birds’ written in the 1240s by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, we are told that:
<I, 131> De eodem.
Alie habent plumas ellavatas in medio capitis ad
modum criste, ut upupe, cozardi et modus quidam psitacorum, qui
apportantur de India. De hoc enim modo misit Nobis soldanus Ba-
bilonie unam albam pennis et plumis superioribus, subterioribus
vero tendentem ad croceum collorem.
‘Certain birds have elevated feathers in the middle of their heads in the manner of a crest, including hoopoes, crested larks [probably! an unusual word], and a kind of parrot imported from India. One of the latter was sent to us by the Sultan of Babylon [i.e. the Mamluk ruler of Egypt]; it had white feathers and quills on top, tending to yellow under the sides.’ — from the critical edition (1999:146)
This is almost certainly a depiction and description of a cockatoo from eastern Indonesia or New Guinea; given the volume of trade between eastern Indonesia and the rest of the world in the Middle Ages, amply documented on this blog and elsewhere, it is hardly surprising that fascinating long-lived birds from the area would end up being sold to people in Africa, Europe, and China (Figure 5). It also shouldn’t surprise us that Frederick was sent the bird by the Mamluk Sultan: Alexandria on the Egyptian coast was the place for Europeans to go to buy Asian commodities. Such things tended to be shipped across the Indian Ocean to Cairo, from where they were taken overland to Alexandria on the Mediterranean.
A description of cockatoos, or 白鸚鵡 (pinyin: bái yīngwǔ), also appears in Treatises of the Supervisor and Guardian of the Cinnamon Sea (桂海虞衡志) by Fàn Chéngdà (范成大), a Chinese text written in the late twelfth century (Hargett 2010:61–62, 241). Fàn’s description suggests that these birds were available for purchase in Guangxi in southern China at the time, which, again, isn’t too surprising: Other eastern Indonesian commodities are also found in Fàn’s work, including cloves and nutmeg, and in many other medieval Chinese texts to boot. In any case, like Conti, Fàn notes that cockatoos ‘are also able to speak’ (亦能言).
(9) In fact the sea between Java and Maluku is fairly placid. It was sometimes claimed in medieval European texts, however, that navigation beyond Java or the islands of Indonesia was difficult or dangerous. Ludovico di Varthema, who travelled to Banda and Maluku in 1505, before the arrival of the Portuguese, said that it was dangerous to travel south of Java because of the cold.
Bracciolini’s text has many other interesting things in it, including descriptions of the durian (Durio zibethinus) and of Southeast Asian merchant ships and their routes. If you’re interested in such things, I recommend having a look at Guéret-Laferté’s edition or, if you’re okay with the Latin, the digitised manuscript mentioned above. Works like these demonstrate just how big the medieval world actually was; I don’t see how someone could look at a book like De Uarietate Fortunæ and conclude that an overarching Afro-Eurasian periodisation is unnecessary or undesirable, or that Europe was a backwater off in its own world before early modernity.
Dalton, Heather. 2013. A sulphur‐crested cockatoo in fifteenth‐century Mantua. Renaissance studies. 28(5):676–694.
Federico II di Svevia. 1999. De arte venandi cum avibus. Anna Laura Trombetti Budriesi (ed). Bari: Editori Laterza.
Guéret-Laferté, Michèle. 2004. De l’Inde. Les voyages en Asie de Niccolò de’ Conti. Turnhout: Brepols.
Hargett, James M (ed). 2010. Treatise of the supervisor and guardian of the cinnamon sea. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
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A. J. West, December 2019