National Geographic : 1942 Jun
Madagascar: Mystery Island Japan's Push into the Indian Ocean Swings the Searchlight of World Attention to This Huge French Sentinel off the African Coast BY PAUL ALMASY With Photographsby the Author from Three Lions M ASSIVE Madagascar, strategically posted off the African coast, stands like a monster traffic policeman at the busy corner of the southern Indian Ocean. Past this huge French island go the ships plying the vital sea lanes around the Cape of Good Hope between the Atlantic Ocean and populous India, the rich Indies, and all the Orient (map, page 803). Occupied recently by the British to pre vent seizure by the Axis, Madagascar is more the subject of world attention today than it was in the time of Marco Polo and Vasco da Gama. In 1942 world warfare it holds the key to even bigger strategic and commercial prizes than those sought by the immortal overland and overseas explorers.* Since the beginning of its long history, Madagascar has been a mystery island. It still is comparatively little known-and not the least of its mysteries now is the question of the part it will play in the struggle for the Indian Ocean. Marco Polo Learns of a New Land It is not mere historical geography to start the story of my observations on Madagascar with Marco Polo's account of what he heard about the island when he was voyaging home from China. His reports were of more signifi cance for his own contemporaries than they would believe; subsequent explorations on the "sixth continent" have confirmed many state ments which in his time were disregarded as tall tales.t Near the end of the 13th century a big four-master cruised in the territory of the Indonesian isles. It flew the flag of Venice, and on the bridge stood the first globe-trotter in history, the Venetian Marco Polo. Adventurous Marco had a favorable wind and a quick voyage in the Bay of Bengal. He was in a hurry to reach the mouth of the Indus River during the winter. As he neared Ceylon, the wind suddenly changed and the northeast monsoon caught the ship. More and more she was driven south, and the Indians on board knew they would have to wait five more full moons be fore the wind changed again. Just before sunset one evening, they sighted another ship, an Arabian two-masted dhow like those they had seen by the thousands near the Hadhramaut coast. The small vessel drifted on the ocean with torn sails and broken rudder. On her deck were thirsty, half-starved, half-crazy men Arabian merchants. Marco Polo took them aboard his ship and fed them. They told him about their fate. They said they had sailed to southern islands, to Pemba and Zanzibar, to buy ele phant tusks and amber, but that a heavy storm had driven them southwest. For many days they had not known where they were. Once they had seen islands afar, but could not reach them. The stars in the skies had changed strangely. One day after the new moon they had seen a coast at last. They had looked for human beings, but found none. During the day the sun had blazed on their bodies without pity, and at night the woods had been hideous with the howling and roaring of wild animals. They had seen awe-inspiring apes, as big as men, roaring at them. They had tried to get into the interior of the island, but high mountains and dense for ests proved insuperable. Then they had gone to their ship again and sailed along the coast. At the next full moon they had still sailed along the coast. They had thought that this was not an island, but a new continent of which nobody had ever heard. The mountains had become still higher, and the constellations still stranger. It must have been a country full of horror and mysteries. One day they had seen hovering above the mountains a bird as big as their ship, its wings obscuring the sun. It carried a great animal, probably an elephant! (Page 819.) * See "World's Greatest Overland Explorer (Marco Polo)," NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, November, 1928, and "Pathfinder of the East (Vasco da Gama)," November, 1927; also "Across Madagascar by Boat, Auto, Railroad, and Filanzana," by Charles F. Swingle, August, 1929. t This nickname was given Madagascar by Euro peans when they counted Europe and Asia as one continent and did not know that Antarctica was a continent.