Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo: Travelers of Different Times

Updated November 22, 2021

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Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo: Travelers of Different Times essay

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Ever notice how when you sit still for a few hours without moving, you suddenly get up and find your legs are cramped, or feel asleep? That’s because they’re not meant to be still, or at least not for long. This is because we’re meant to move. Our limbs have to be in motion almost constantly. Humans have always been on the move. Our skeletons and muscle structures have evolved to facilitate gathering our food, escaping from predators, and to satisfy our animal curiosity. As our brains grew larger, so did our inquisitiveness, and driven by different reasons, humans began to travel.

When you think of traveling nowadays many probably think of a vacation or passport, but early on sometime ago the world travel had a bit of a different meaning. Traveling in the 13th to 15th centuries could lead to discoveries of a number of different things such as good, religion, trade routes, and even new land. The importance of discoveries made by historically famous world travelers such as Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo are extremely prominent, in this essay we will talk about the discoveries and accomplishments of both men, as well as the influence Polo had on Columbus. Although Columbus and Polo were both travelers at different times and both had slightly different motives, their inquisitive attitudes towards the East and discoveries is what made them two of the most well known historical travelers across the globe.

In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. Born in 1451, in Genoa Italy, Columbus was an Italian explorer or navigator who completed four voyages across the Atlantic ocean underneath the auspices of the catholic monarchs of Spain. Being the eldest son of a Genoese wool worker, Domenico Colombo, and Susanna Fontanarossa, Columbus was brought up in quite the modest lifestyle. The family had close ties to Savona and may have lived there for a period. Columbus received a limited but adequate education and was sent to school in Pavia, where he demonstrated a passion for navigation at an early age. Not only by historians, but even in his own memoirs Columbus claims to have been engaged as a sailor at the age of 14 years old and his seaman career officially began within the Portuguese merchant marine.

By the end of the Middle Ages, people in Europe were trading with groups in remote corners of the world. Many Europeans had grown accustomed to riches from the Far East, such as silk, pearls, and other gems, but perhaps the greatest interest was in spices. The spices from the Far East flavored and helped to preserve food, and they were also used as medicines for a wide range of ailments. “After the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1452, the land route to Asia called the Silk Road became much more difficult. European powers rushed to find another route to Asia in order to secure the trade for themselves. (“The Voyage of Christopher Columbus”)”

As new ships, advances in technology, and more understanding of navigation and astronomy made traveling by sea safer, most of Europe began to take advantage of this. “Seeking new trading routes, land, gold, and other riches, the monarchs of Europe’s most powerful nations—Spain, Portugal, and England—began sending ships into uncharted territories, beginning what has become known as the Age of Exploration. (“The Voyage of Christopher Columbus”)”

In 1477 he sailed to Iceland and Ireland with the merchant marine, and in 1478 he was buying sugar in Madeira as an agent for the Genoese firm of Centurioni. It was here in 1479 he met and married Felipa Perestrello e Moniz, a member of an impoverished noble Portuguese family. Between 1482 and 1485 Columbus traded along the Guinea and Gold coasts of tropical West Africa and made at least one voyage to the Portuguese fortress of Sao Jorge da Mina there, gaining knowledge of Portuguese navigation and the Atlantic wind systems along the way. In august of 1492 funded by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, Columbus led three ships, the Pinta, the Nina, and the Santa Maria off of the coast of Spain headed west in search of new trading routes, spices, silk, and other Asian good that were in such high demand.

After a stop in the Canary islands to restock supplies, the fleet headed out into supposed uncharted waters on September 6, sailing for over five weeks until they found land on October 12 as they approached the island of San Salvador in the Caribbean. It was here Columbus discovered a small abundance of gold and other treasures, which when brought back to Spain merited him more funding for his future voyages. Columbus’s travels had a profound effects on the world. In the short term, it opened a vast new territory to European conquest. But overall, it opened up Europe to a great exchange of food and culture, a period in time many historians have dubbed the Columbian exchange.

Marco Polo, the traveler not the child’s pool game of tag, was born in 1254, in Venice Italy. Polo’s way was paved by the pioneering efforts of his ancestors, especially his father, Niccolò, and his uncle, Maffeo. The family had traded with the Middle east for a long time, acquiring[image: ] considerable wealth and prestige. Although it is uncertain if the Polo’s were of the nobility, the matter was of little importance in Venice, a city of republican and mercantile traditions. The family appears to have been shrewd, alert, and courageous; about 1260 they foresaw a political change in Constintople, liquidated their property there, invested their capital in jewels, and set off for the Volga River, where Berke Khan, sovereign of the western territories in the Mongol Empire, held court at Sarai or Bulgur.

“The Polo’s apparently managed their affairs well at Berke’s court, where they doubled their assets. (Fosco Maraini and Peters)” Due to having a merchant family, Polo was a frequent mover. At the age of 17, Marco accompanied his father, Nicolo, and his uncle, Maffeo, on a three-year journey to China that took the travelers through Persia, Afghanistan, and other countries. In 1275 the three Polo’s were warmly received at the imperial court of the Mongol warlord Kublai Khan in China. Marco, in particular, became a favorite with the Great Khan, who employed the young man on public missions that sent him to various parts of the empire. “Traveling through much of the middle east among a number of people with different religions and cultures such as Muslim people, Nestorian Christians, Buddhists, Manicheans, and Zoroastrians, the three spent the next 16 to 17 years of their lives in Cathay and Mangi China. (Fosco Maraini and Peters)”

Apart from the missions he undertook for the emperor, Polo may have held other administrative responsibilities, including inspection of the customs duties and revenues collected from the trade in salt and other commodities. Around the year 1292 a Mongol princess was sent to Persia to become the consort of Arghun Khan, and the Polo’s offered her their assistance. Marco wrote that Kublai had been unwilling to let them go but finally granted permission, which they were eager about. This was due to the old age of the emperor Kublai, his death could have been dangerous for a small group of foreigners, as well as the fact that they each just naturally missed their true home Venice, and each longed to see their families again.

Marco Polo’s travels formulated in Europe of the fourteenth and fifteenth century a new perception of the Eastern world, a world just as advanced and sophisticated as that of the west. Yet, another two centuries were needed for a significant change to take place; this was Columbus’s voyage. For Columbus, Polo’s travelogue was a valuable and solid resource that contained the necessary details of the East. “ The geographical descriptions in his writing generated a basis for Columbus’ scientific calculations for his expedition and the explicit depictions of the luxury of Cipangu and Cathway, flawed though they were, created a strong motivation for Columbus. (Loy, Pamela S.)”

Marco Polo’s travelogue was the only written form of details of the eastern world Europeans had to grasp onto. Ever since the years of Alexander the Great, Europe had scarce information about it’s neighboring civilization. Although basic trade routes were present along the silk road nobody in the west seemed to have any notion of the country from which it had come or those through which it passed. “Islamic countries that surrounded Europe, along with the Atlantic ocean created a natural barrier, isolating the Europeans from the rest of the world.(Loy, Pamela S.)” Until Polo returned with his stories of service under the Great Khan, Europeans remained highly unaware of the rapid expansion of the Mongol empire.

When war between Venice and Genoa began, Marco was captured and imprisoned for a year in the Genoese prison. It is there that he meets Rustichello, the writer whom pieces all of Marco’s stories of travel. Although most of the work was done by Rustichello, Marco finishes and publishes his travelogue: Marco Polo Travels. In the years followed by Polo’s death prominent changes occurred within the perception of world geography, for Europeans, directly having an affect on Columbus’s preparations and voyages. Thanks to Polo’s TO map the world map began to rapidly evolve in the time between Polo’s travelogue being published and Columbus setting sail.

Marco Polo’s Travels acted as a how-to guide for Columbus’s achievements in the age of discovery.” Columbus may have formulated a flawed theory of the world, but it was convincing enough for the princes who bought it. This surely couldn’t have been done without the evidence found in Polo’s book. (Fosco Maraini and Peters)” Without Marco Polo there would not have been a Columbus, and furthermore, no America, or new trade routes. Marco’s information he left behind has made some of the most notable changes in history. Without Polo’s discoveries not only Columbus but many travelers after would’ve been affected by not having the information from his discoveries, even them not happening entirely.

In conclusion, Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo are two of the most important hsitorical world travels throughout history. Both of their upbringings while having similar contexts, each have their differences as well. While we can value the fact that they each had different morals and world views of the globe, and traveling as a whole due to the perceptions of the time periods each of them lived in, they shared most of the same motives and goals on their voyages and travels. While both were searching for treasures in an economic sense, Columbus was doing it more for the people and the monarchy of Spain as they even funded his travels, while Polo traveled to gain wealth but because he was a part of a merchant family and it’s just what they did.

The difference in the two’s morals can also be seen in the reasoning that Columbus had extreme materialistic motives behind his travels as literally stated in his contract with the monarchy, he’d receive 10% of anything he discovered including land, gold, spices, etc. While Polo, also in search pf wealth, was traveling for the discovery of religion, culture, and for his conquests under the Great Khan. This doesn’t dispute the fact that both of them made many similar types of discoveries involving gold, spices, trade routes, and land. Although Columbus and Polo were both travelers at different times and both had slightly different motives, their inquisitive attitudes towards the East and discoveries is what made them two of the most well known historical travelers across the globe. Which can be seen in ways such as even now some of the same trade routes discovered by the two explorers are still used and are some of the world’s most major trading pathways.


  1. Edward Peters, and Fosco Maraini.“Marco Polo | Biography, Travels, & Influence.” Encyclopedia Britannica, 4 Jan. 2019, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marco-Polo Accessed 21 Jan. 2019
  2. Loy, Pamela S. ‘The Travels of Marco Polo.’ World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, by Joyce Moss, vol. 7: Italian Literature and Its Times, Gale, 2005, pp. 463-472. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.db24.linccweb.org/apps/doc/CX2875900059/GVRL?u=lincclin_spjc&sid=GVRL&xid=50c94ac1. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
  3. ‘Marco Polo’s Influence on Christopher Columbus.’ Topics, Sample Papers & Articles Online for Free, 20 Jun 2016, https://studymoose.com/marco-polos-influence-on-christopher-columbus-essay Accessed 21 Jan. 2019
  4. ‘The Voyage of Christopher Columbus.’ Global Events: Milestone Events Throughout History, edited by Jennifer Stock, vol. 4: Europe, Gale, 2014, pp. 159- 161. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.db24.linccweb.org/apps/doc/CX3728000559/GVRL?u=lincclin_spjc&sid=GVRL&xid=27d9c127. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
  5. Venable, Shannon L. ‘Columbus, Christopher.’ Gold: A Cultural Encyclopedia, ABC- CLIO, 2011, pp. 68-73. Gale Virtual Reference Library, http://link.galegroup.com.db24.linccweb.org/apps/doc/CX3303300046/GVRL?u=lincclin_spjc&sid=GVRL&xid=68b6ae8b. Accessed 21 Jan. 2019.
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