IN the year 1298, the jails of the little seaport town of Genoa were bulging with some seven thousand prisoners. The belligerent Genoese had bagged most of the fighting fleet of Venice, burned the bulk of it, and sailed the rest triumphantly home overloaded with captives. Among them was a Venetian gentleman who had of late achieved some notoriety because he had recently returned from a long sojourn in China and because he told tales of that far-off country which were beyond the wildest imaginings of mediæval Europeans. Waiting in prison for the feud between the rival commercial cities to be settled, Marco Polo turned his tales into one of the most famous books of travel of all time. In its pages his fellows caught a glimpse of a civilization older and, in some respects, more advanced than their own. There were canals and rivers in Cathay full of boats, and great cities teeming with population. There was a powerful emperor, Kublai Khan, presiding over a rich and luxurious court. Men looked up from Polo's pages at the bare walls of feudal castles; at fortified trading towns; at kings struggling to found small nations, England, France. There were more silks and spices, more gold and silver and precious stones in China and India than in all of Europe. Polo. set men to coveting the luxuries of the Orient, and the trade that had already sprung up increased.
Between the East and the West lay that vast, sub-arid plateau of central Asia which Polo had crossed and whence fierce, fighting tribes had more than once-come into China, India and Europe. West and East were developing, each in its own way and in accordance with the needs of its own life. Europe's culture was the youngest but within it lurked a discontent and vigor that the others lacked. Its life, though somewhat crude, was running full and strong, while that of China and India was passing into quiet, perhaps stagnant, pools. China, rich in herself and close to India, had bred a race of landsmen, but Europeans, from the time of early Phoenicia, had been familiar with the sea. So it came about that Europe took the initiative in building closer trade relations between the East and West. She utilized the overland routes along which the slow caravans moved back and forth; her sailors felt out the long passage about the south of Africa; they sailed westward across the Atlantic and found America. How different might have been the story of the world had the great civilization of China developed a seafaring race, and had an adventurous Mongol, making his way eastward from island to island, been the first to sight the New World. But China had no Mediterranean in which to train sailors, and already the Chinese were content with living unto themselves and looking back to their ancestors for guidance. The return of Columbus from his first voyage marked for the Orient the passing of a supreme opportunity.
Yet Columbus was not the first European to bring home news of America. About the year 1000 Leif Ericsson of the Vikings made his way westward from Iceland to