In 1271 when Marco Polo left Venice at the start of his journey to the land of the Kublai Khan, there was another Marco that traveled with the expedition.
Who can remember Silkworms?
As junior school kids, our year was demarcated by non-curriculum playground activities that included ‘spinning top’ season, marble season, yo-yo season and silkworm season. Tops, marbles and yo-yos could be played anytime of the year but silkworms arrived at a fixed time in spring [September in the Southern Hemisphere] when the mulberries trees could provide them with new leaves to eat.
Someone would arrive at school with a shoebox full of tiny black silkworms that had hatched from the eggs laid a year before. [It appears that a year interval for eggs to hatch is a South African phenomenon. I see that hatching in other places can be as quick as 2 weeks to 6 months] Anyone who could find a suitable receptacle would transfer a dozen or two little worms onto a bed of mulberry leaves and head home with his or her own silk production unit! At first new leaves were placed daily over the feeding worms, as it was very difficult to separate the little worms from the previous layer of shredded leaves and clean the box. When the worms fattened up, they could be handled and moved onto fresh leaves in a second feeding box, making it easier to clean box no.1!
Watching a worm eating was a fascinating pastime. It would start on the edge of a leaf and nibble downwards, scooping out a neat curve. Then it would repeat the action from the top of the curve and chomp off another sliver to enlarge the scoop shape. I often wished that I could magnify that sound to hear the munching and crunching of a silkworm decimating a mulberry leaf. I am sure it would sound like a bulldozer ploughing through a forest.
Keeping the feeding box clean was important as one had to watch to see when a worm was ready to spin. If left alone, the worm would move into a corner and fix anchoring points around itself with a series of silk threads that it draws from it’s mouth onto the box sides. Once it has totally wrapped itself up inside a silk cocoon, the miracle of metamorphosis takes place and the worm changes into a pupa, and eventually into a moth.
Of course, we did not leave the worm to enclose itself in its silken hideaway, but put it to work to spin flat silk shapes for us. We cut out hearts, diamonds, triangles, circles or squares from thin stiff cardboard and glued these onto the top of a bottle. The spinning worm was placed onto this platform and it set about trying to escape over the edge and when that was not possible, it released its silk in straight lines from edge to edge of the shape.
As the worm used up its silk supply, it began to shrink in length and turn brown. It was changing into a pupa and needed to be protected as it did not have a cocoon surrounding it. We normally ‘buried’ this strange little blob in a layer of cake flour where it continued to change into a furry white moth. The moths were then put into a clean shoebox where they mated and the females laid tiny sticky yellow eggs. Having done this, their cycle of life was completed and they all died leaving behind hundreds of eggs stuck all over the sides of the box, ready to hatch in a year’s time for the next ‘silkworm season’.
This is a silk disc spun on a circular cardboard cutout. It is being held in front of mulberry leaves.
The silk industry started in China and as its products became known for their value and marketability in the west, a trade route developed.
The Silk Road was the name given by 19th century scholars to the network of trade routes that stretched from Europe, across the Asian continent to China.
Trading along these routes go back to the 2nd century BCE. Although Chinese silk was undoubtedly the primary item traded, it was not the only goods being transported. Besides tangible commodities like spices, precious stones and metals moving along the routes, technology, religion and diseases also formed part of the traffic. It has been suggested that the Black Plague arrived in Europe from China in the 14th century, having travelled along this route.
Traders utilizing the Silk Road included the Chinese, Romans, Arabs, Greeks, Indians, Turks and Persians to name a few.
Primitive tribal societies living along the Silk Road were attracted by the wealth and abundance passing their front doors. Small wonder that many of them resorted to becoming bandits and robbers, relieving the caravans of their merchandise. The Mongolians and the Romans deployed mounted soldiers along the route to protect their commercial interests.
A maritime Silk Route opened up between Roman controlled Egyptian ports on the Red Sea, via ports on the coasts of India and Sri Lanka to Vietnam and eventually China itself by the 1st century. Pirates constantly targeted the 120 ships setting sail every year from these Roman Egyptian ports to India.
After the fall of the Mongolian Empire, the great political powers along the Silk Route became economically and culturally separated. The Roman Empire, and its demand for Asian products, crumbled in the West around the 5th century. It is interesting to note that by this time, two monks by the orders of Emperor Justinian, had travelled to China and stolen silkworm eggs. They set up a silk production in the Mediterranean, but never achieved the quality of Chinese silk.
The Silk Road stopped serving as a route for silk in about 1453 as the Ottoman Empire at Constantinople embargoed all trade with the west, effectively slamming shut the door through which the last of the silk products trickled.
It is no accident that 35 years later the ocean route from Europe to the East was discovered by the expeditions of Bartholomew Dias  and Vasco da Gama [1497 – 1499], around Africa, via the Atlantic and Indian oceans, effectively eliminating the need for an overland silk trade route.
A Portuguese Caravel sailing around Africa, heading for India may have looked like this.
And now Monsters 4 Monsters #3!
This is a combination Tyrannosaurus Rex and a smelly skunk with a very venomous viper for a tail.
Any young men [or young ladies] out there with vivid monstrous imaginations are invited to create a monster by describing it in a mail to me and I will make a picture of it for this Monsters 4 Monsters corner.
Remember: Monsters 4 Monsters appear in every even numbered post.
This is TOM #6 so the next one will be found in TOM #8. It will be numbered M4M #4.
That’s it till next time. Leave a comment if you feel like it – I’d love to hear what you think!