Work Title: Achievements in Asia, Atrocities in Australia, Entertainments in Europe: Reports from Far Places
Work Author(s): Peter Skinner
Byline: Peter Skinner
Since Marco Polo's book came out in 1298, numerous European accounts of Asia have followed. Refreshingly, When Asia Was the World (Da Capo, 978-0-306-81556-0) reframes the genre. Stewart Gordon, a specialist on Asia, introduces the memoirs of pilgrims, traders, physicians, diplomats, and an empire-builder with zest, graceful scholarship, and great skill in providing illuminating contexts.
Xuanzang's epic journeys in the early 600s (Luoyang-Bukhara-Samarkand-Southern India) will amaze, as will his optimism as he risks his life to collect Buddhist scriptures. The puritanical Ibn Fadlan, in the 920s, travels some 5,500 miles from Baghdad via Bukhara to the mid-Volga to bring Islamic instruction to a Bulgar king, and cast an anthropologist's eye on curious local customs. Very different is the polymathic philosopher-physician Ibn Sina, (Avicenna) an eleventh-century luminary, long a shaping force in European medicine, jesting when fate consigns him to jail.
Lesser known are Ma Huan who in 1413--31 was the interpreter-recorder on board the great Ming fleet whose immense trade junks reached the Red Sea---via Java, Sumatra, India, and Arabia; and Tome Pires, the physician-ambassador who a century later had dreams of glory in China. Their lives are strangely complementary: both saw great endeavors suddenly killed. Babur, who in 1526 captured Delhi and founded the brilliant Mughal dynasty, is a welcome inclusion; his huge, shrewd, humane Babur-Nama celebrates all the joys of the good life. Other subjects are equally engrossing. Gordon's notes and bibliography add much to this beautifully produced book.
In Terra Nullius: A Journey Through No One's Land (The New Press, 978-1-59558-051-1, translated by Sarah Death) Sven Lindqvist, who also wrote A History of Bombing, takes seven trips through Australia, moving from exploration, landscape, and settlement to describe why ninety percent of the Aborigines were annihilated. British law obligingly found that terra nullius---"the land of no one" was available for a British "some one." Unfortunately, Aboriginal society used but did not "own" land. Little wonder that in 1837 a British parliamentary committee reported that the Empire's "indigenous peoples were en route to extinction"; Lindqvist wrenchingly describes the journey.