Monday, May 4, 2015

Guest Post: Marco Polo introduces Opium to the West

Originally on Today in Alternate History

April 24, 1296 - Marco Polo captured by Genoans

Even if he had armed his Venetian galley equipped with a trebuchet, it was of course simply no good having an opium junkie for skipper, and so the Genoans had very little trouble capturing Marco Polo and his fellow sailors off the Anatolian coast between Adana and the Gulf of Alexandretta. They would spend over three long years in imprisonment until their eventual release in August 1296.
Oddly enough the whole sorry business had actually started with a ship. The Polos had meant to sail to China, but when they saw their shoddy ships were held together by coconut twine instead of nails, they set off on foot via the Silk Road. Young Marco contracted tuberculosis, and they were forced to rest up in the clean, pure air of Afghanistan, right next to the ruins of the Screaming City of Balkh that had been destroyed by the warriors of Genghis Khan.

Unfortunately the clean, pure air wasn't quite enough, and the medical usage of opium started a full blown addiction. The Polos finally returned to Venice filthy and ragged, but beneath their robes they carried a concealed fortune in Opium. Even children taunted the fabulous stories of "Marco Millions." They were dismissed as dangerous fantasies at least until the elite of the city-state also saw past the millions of lies and also became dangerously addicted. When they started to run out of stock, they ordered the Polos to open an Opium Road to Afghanistan. By the time the war came with Genoa, the drug addicted city state was in a terrible state of disarray.

Going cold turkey on the inside of a Genoan prison, the famous transcendental reflection Travels of Marco Polo was drafted, although he confessed to his cellmate Rustichello da Pisa that "I have only told the half of what I saw" alluding to the opiate-fueled nightmares of marauding Mongol troops. Centuries later, another opium addict, Samuel Taylor Coleridge would revisit these explorations of the mind, however he was also interrupted in the telling, in his case by the famous "Visitor from Porlock", although he was probably just his drug pusher.
In the great metropolis of Balkh did Genghis Khan a terrible slaughter decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran through caverns measureless to man down to a sunless sea...
Author's Note: extracts detailed from Lives of the Explorers by Kathleen Krull and Kathryn Hewitt. Coleridge wrote about Kubla Khan, not Genghis Khan.

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In reality, opium was not introduced to the West until 1527 as laudanum by Paracelsus.

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