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Bento de Goes’ Search for Cathay

Nora C. Buckley describes how a soldier from the Azores became a Jesuit priest in India and how his extensive travels proved that ‘Cathay’ was in fact China.

In 1602, at the direction of his Jesuit superiors, Brother Bento de Goes set out from India to cross central Asia in search of the Great Cadiay, the fabulously rich kingdom that Marco Polo had described three centuries earlier when he returned to Venice after some twenty years in the Far East. European explorers and missionaries, particularly the Jesuits, had become extremely eager to find Cathay, which on their maps was a country located north of China.

Five years later Goes solved the mystery of its actual location; and his findings both altered the West’s maps of the world and enhanced the Jesuits’ wide reputation for excellence in the fields of geography and cartography. But perhaps his greater achievement was the search itself, the journey that ended only with his death at the border of China.

Part of the record of his travels has been lost to history; but it is clear from what has survived that Goes’ search for Cathay is to be ranked as one of the most difficult and hazardous undertakings in the annals of exploration. Three centuries were to elapse before the pioneer English archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein, would traverse this almost legendary route across central Asia.

Bento de Goes was born in 1562 at Vila Franca do Campo on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. These fertile islands, discovered and settled by the Portuguese, had become an important link in the ambitious explorations of Prince Henry ‘the navigator’. Portugal at this time was at the height of its prosperity, being the first European nation to establish a sea route to the Far East and thus to exploit the resources of the Orient.

Young Bento grew up in the islands; but his tranquil youth was interrupted when the Azores became involved in the struggle over the accession of Philip II of Spain to the Portuguese throne. At the age of eighteen, Goes left his family to join the army on the mainland. He was never to return to Vila Franca do Campo.

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