Marco Polo, the Venetian, is often held up as the most wholesome descriptor for a curious explorer and traveler because the man who bore the name continues to be revered as one whose travelogue and insights are unrivaled by any since the Middle Ages.
We have previously submitted that Polo’s allure seems to remain a result of the uncritical appreciation of the 14th-century Berber explorer Ibn Battuta who traveled more miles and to more places than Polo did. Unfortunately, even for those who are aware of Battuta’s feat, there is a temptation to describe him as “the Marco Polo of North Africa or the Middle East”.
If there is anything to be said for Polo’s greatness, it has to be that it partially goes down to the fact that we are all inflicted with a Eurocentric conception of history and time. Peoples and places are defined according to scales and lenses manufactured for European understanding. But this piece is not a postmodernist critique of Eurocentric history but rather a story to be seen in addition to the other problems that have been found with looking at the world as an extension of Europe, and these days, of America.
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The iconic African island of Madagascar is a strange place because it continues to fascinate the lay and the learned. Its geographical and anthropological history is peculiar but so is Madagascar’s biodiversity. There is also the subject of the intriguing names of its people and places.
It is about the name of Madagascar itself that Polo is often credited with forming although he never set foot on the island. While many historians agree that the etymology of the term Madagascar is not definite, it is still actually popular among many history texts to attribute the name to Polo.
The toponymist Adrian Room notes in Placenames of the World that Polo was the first to attempt to educate Europeans on the name and likely, the existence of the torn-away landmass. However, Polo’s sources, or perhaps, his recollection of this island mistook the nomenclature Mogadishu for Madagascar, now the capital of Somalia. In the 13th century, Mogadishu was a vibrant and successful sultanate on the Horn of Africa with trading networks that spread as far as the Middle East.
It is easy to see how Polo could mistake Madagascar for famous Mogadishu but the problem is that he was also never in Mogadishu. The theory of how he came to call Mogadishu Madageiscar is that he simply misspelled Mogadishu because of problems with pronunciation.
Still, the idea that Polo manufactured in mistake, a name that was hitherto unheard of, cannot go without question. For one thing, having seen neither Mogadishu and Madagascar, Polo was learning of these places from secondary or even tertiary sources. It would therefore be highly unlikely that Polo’s spelling mistake was uninspired. It almost seems as if he was mistaking one distinct name for another.
And that is a gap French naturalist Alfred Grandidier sought to fill. Grandidier in 1885 theorized that Madageiscar was indeed not Polo’s creation but rather an end reached from Richard de Haldingham’s famous medieval map of the known world now known as the Hereford Mappa Mundi.
The Mappa Mundi is thought to have been drawn in the 13th century, the same century Polo jotted down the place called Madageiscar. But we have no evidence, if at all, about an interaction between Haldingham and Polo or one man with the other’s work.
Grandidier believes that a place called Malichu on the Mappa Mundi is what Haldingham meant for Madagascar.
Through a series of linguistic deductions, Grandidier opines that Madageiscar is a corruption of Malichu. He found allusions between the Mappa Mundi island and another map drawn a century earlier by the 12th-century Moor cartographer of Sicily, Muhammad al-Idrisi, in which an island, ‘Gesira al malai’, was cited.
Grandidier goes on to imply that the Greeks called this island Malai Gesira. With time, the ‘l’ in Malai (L is lambda in Greek) would change to ‘d’ (D is delta in Greek). Gesira was also later written as Gasira, rendering the name Madai Gasira.
Whether you believe the story of Polo’s mistake or Grandidier’s theory, one conclusion is that both theories take out of Madagascar, the invention of the name. Even without recourse to either theory, many historians do hold that Madagascar was borne outside the island.
What did the people of the island of Madagascar call their home? According to Room, Madagasikara was the name and it is not clear what this name means (as it continues to be used by some citizens). We also do not know the point in their history that the people of the island began to call their home Madagasikara. They have occupied it for thousands of years.
What we do know is that Malagasy, which researcher Andriamiranto Raveloson argues should be the adjectival term for anything from the country, is an Austronesia-inspired language that was distinctly formed by the end of the first millennium in the common era (1000 CE). Five hundred years later, the language was found by Europeans to be written.
One theory some have drawn from this fact above is that before Polo ‘discovered’ this island, its people were very aware of what they called their home. Their nominal designation was thus not inflicted upon them as in the case of the Americas which was called so because of another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci (the Latinized version was Americus Vespucius). Madagasikara is well and truly Malagasy.
But this theory too carries only hypothetical worth.