Looking for Cathay

Queen Isabella bids farewell to Christopher Columbus as he sets sail for the New World (artist unknown, courtesy Sons of the South Fine Art Gallery).

Marco Polo's description of his adventures in Asia had an enormous influence on the imagination of Europe. Images of gold and rare spices danced in the heads of the explorers. It was the idea that he could reach the Indies by sailing west across the Atlantic that brought Christopher Columbus to America. John Cabot's reading of Marco Polo led him to discredit Columbus' belief that he had reached Cathay. And so Cabot arrived in England with his own plan for reaching the lands of the Great Khan by taking a voyage in higher latitudes. It was with this idea in mind that in 1497 he discovered the "New Found Land," the East Coast of Canada.

Searching for the Northwest Passage

After Cabot was lost at sea on his second voyage, his son Sebastian set out in 1507 "to go by the north to Cathay, and to bring thence spices in a shorter time than the Portuguese did by the south." By then even the most optimistic adventurers realized that what Columbus and Cabot found was not Cathay or the Indies themselves but some new, less promising land. For the next 200 years, explorers tried to find ways either around or through this new continent to their goal of Cathay. The idea that there was a northerly route around Canada, a "Northwest Passage," drove explorers to brave the Arctic ice for 300 years.

The hope that the route to Cathay lay through America led the Italian explorer Giovanni da Verrazzano to sail in vain into every inlet and bay along the Atlantic coast, in the process making France's first claim to America. As late as 1534, when Jacques Cartier set out "to discover certain islands and lands where it is said that a great quantity of gold, and other precious things, are to be found," there was still hope that some strait or passage would reveal the route to Asia.

Who knows if explorers such as Samuel de Champlain really still believed that Cathay lay on just the other side of some rapid or bay or if they just used the possibility of finding the easy road to riches to justify their expeditions? Champlain's duty as governor of New France was partly to "find the easiest way to go through the said country to the Kingdom of China and the East Indies."

Still others such as Cavelier de La Salle were sent out southward in search of the "passage" to the China Sea. The explorer Jean Nicollet was so sure that he would meet the Chinese near Green Bay, on Lake Superior, that he wore a robe of Chinese damask, strewn with flowers and multi-coloured birds.

Of course, none of these explorers found the China Sea. Nevertheless, the dream of finding the treasures of Marco Polo's Cathay continued to inspire explorers into the 19th century.

Learn more: John Cabot