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The Travels of Ibn Battutah

Surely few people have led such a life rich with adventure as Ibn Battutah. A 14th century Most Interesting Man in the World. Ibn Battutah was a lover, a fighter, a holy man, and a scholar. Over 24 years, his travels reached from Morocco to China, the Maldives to the Steppes of Asia, and nearly everywhere in between. He was a Qadi by training, an Islamic religious judge. Well read and studied under some of the most prestigious learned men of the time. He took part in holy wars and defended himself from bandits, pirates, and raiders. Living by the rules of the age and his religion, he was what we would call a womanizer, taking and divorcing upwards of seven wives throughout his travels. He held high positions and gave council to kings. In a time where travel was perilous, he touched the corners of the massive and diverse Islamic lands, united by religion, and connected by trade.

               Ibn Battutah’s accounts show just how far reaching the Islamic network was in the 14th century. Referred to as the Ummah; the Community of Believers, Islamic society of the time transcended political borders and served to bring large areas to order. This organization provided a measure of safety and cooperation through shared beliefs. Throughout this larger society, although the people may not be of the same country, race, or language, they held the Islamic religion and laws above all others. Reaching from Morocco to Russia, Kenya to India, throughout the Mid East and Eastern Europe, and even to Indonesia and China; Ibn Battutah traveled along the trade and pilgrimage routes established and maintained by centuries of Islamic influence.

               Although he followed established routes, travel in the 1300s was far from easy. On foot and by sea, mounted on horseback, camel, and mule, across rivers and over oceans. He faced bandits, pirates, shipwreck, disease, endless deserts, open oceans, rocky coasts, snow filled mountains, violent raiders, and tyrannical kings. Ibn Battutah risked it all in search of learning, religion, and pure adventure. What was to gain and what was the cost? He gained enough stories to fill a book, a vast treasure, a worldly education, and world renown. But the cost was dear. Hardships of travel in the 14th century consumed the lives of some of his wives, children, and friends. Disease, exhaustion, and exposure took their toll on the body. Danger and disaster lurked everywhere. For better or worse, Ibn Battutah’s life and adventures would go down in history as one of the first and most extensive travel guides written.  

               Ibn Battutah, his full name: Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah Ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Ibn Battutah al-Lawati al-Tanji. Raised in Tangier, he was trained as a Qadi, an Islamic religious judge. This status rendered him among the educated and revered in Islamic society and greatly influenced his situation during his travels. At the age of 21 he left his home to perform the Hajj; his religious duty to make a pilgrimage to Mecca. His narrative smacks of religious faith and provision at every turn. His reasons for setting off begin with religious duty and self realization. Unsatisfied, these goals would continue to push him back and forth across his known world for the next 24 years.   

In a time and world where religion stood between the individual and the vast unknown, as a protection and provision, the man who proves mastery and experience of the subject must have truly been powerful. Ibn Battutah sought out the most learned and holy people and places wherever he may have been. He sought them for their knowledge and experience, and through their teachings he earned his place in the world.

“Of the wondrous doings of God Most High is this, that he has created the hearts of men with an instinctive desire to seek these sublime sanctuaries and yearning to present themselves at their illustrious sites, and has given the love of them such power over men’s hearts that none alights in them but they seize his whole heart, nor quits them but with grief at separation from them, sorrowing at his far journey away from them, filled with longing for them, and purposing to repeat his visitation to them. For their blessed soil is the focus of all eyes, and love of it the marrow of all hearts, in virtue of a wise disposition of god which achieves its sublime purpose, and in fulfilment of the prayer of His Friend.”

In a way, his words and motivations ring true for adventurers down the line of history. For who has not felt this same sentiment upon reaching the mountain peak, standing on the shore with a vast body of water stretching to the horizon, or in the private moments of time that make up our most valuable experiences.

Ibn Battutah’s accounts of his journeys are all structured in a similar way. He describes the places he goes, the people, the customs, plants and animals, and the civil engineering. He goes on to seek out notable people and gives detailed information about their habits, dress, knowledge, charity, and piety. He then goes on to list the notable occurrences that happened while he was visiting. His story, although sometimes dry and lacking the excitement that must have been reality, really is an accurate account of the people and places in the 14th century. For example, in 1326 on his way to Mecca, Ibn Battutah stopped in Alexandria. Here he visits the Pharos lighthouse, the famed ancient wonder of the world. He lists its dimensions, location, and state of repair in such a way as to give modern historians a chance to use his account as an accurate cross reference.

Although early in his travels, Alexandria becomes one of the most important stops for Ibn Battutah. He meets with the Qadi of the city. A world renowned judge, a holy man said to hold the gift of seeing into the future. This meeting would stand as one of the main motivations for Ibn Battutah’s travels beyond his initial intent of completing his pilgrimage to Mecca. During their conversation, the Qadi makes the observation that Ibn Battutah enjoys travelling and goes on to make the modestly request him to greet his brothers as he passes through. One lives in Pakistan, one in India, and the other in China. To Ibn Battutah this was a prophecy. He believed that it was written in the stars that he should go to the edges of the world to meet these men and fulfil the predictions of the Qadi of Alexandria.

He wrote; “I was amazed at his prediction, and the idea of going to these countries having been cast into my mind, my wanderings never ceased until I had met these three that he named…”

So, with adventure in his heart and all the motivation that a 21 year old man needs, Ibn Battutah set off again. He made his way to Mecca, Persia and Iraq, Arabia and Eastern Africa, into the Asian Steppes and to Constantinople, then back east to India. He went through Indonesia and finally into China before returning home. For the next 24 years Ibn Battutah wandered the Ummah and beyond, studying, observing, and immersing himself his religion and in the cultures surrounding him.

Now if you have a practical mind, you’re probably wondering; how does someone finance a trip like that? Ibn Battutah knew how to use the system to his advantage. Charity has a very high value in Islam. In this period of time, Islamic rulers and aristocrats were often judged and remembered by their charity just as much as by their power or policy. Ibn Battutah visited with these people. He told them of the courts in other kingdoms, offered his council, and entertained them with his stories and learning. Nearly everyone he met in this capacity, no matter how humble, offered him gifts in return. Perhaps they were intrigued by his stories, maybe assisted by his council, or they were eager to have their reputation as a generous and charitable person spread though the world on Ibn Battutah’s lips. Whatever the motive, this custom paved the way for Ibn Battutah to travel the world, often even quite luxuriously.

As a Qadi, Ibn Battutah had a certain affluence in Islamic society. His status basically guaranteed that he was educated and of a higher class; a gentleman and a person who could be trusted. However, a provincial Qadi from Morocco wouldn’t cut much of a figure in the important Islamic courts like Mecca, Bagdad, or Damascus. So a large portion of his mission was to seek out the famous, learned, and other influential people. This was no doubt fueled by curiosity, but also partly for his own personal gain. By meeting these people, studying and conversing with them, he made his name and his fortune. By visiting these far flung places and mingling with the influential, Ibn Battutah had become somewhat of a novelty himself. Kings, Viziers, Sultans, and the major players in the larger and more important cities began to take note of him and they held him in high regard. This exposure led to a good majority of his good fortune.

Over the course of his travels, Ibn Battutah would amass a veritable treasure of gifts from the notable people he visited. Slaves, horses, camels, elephants, gold, silver, weapons, fine clothing, high government appointments, and property holdings. Nearly anything he could ever wish was handed to him. More than once throughout his journeys he was stripped to nothing, not more than the shirt on his back. It never stopped him for long. Trusting to his own intelligence and the charity he would certainly find at the hands of fellow Muslims, he made his way in the world.

Ibn Battutah knew how to play the game too. At one point he describes how he took a massive loan to purchase a huge haul of gifts for the Sultan of Delhi. This sultan had a reputation of returning favors and gifts to a much higher magnitude than he received. Ibn Battutah brought his great gift of camels, elephants, slaves, and so on, knowing that he would receive an even greater gift in return. The sultan of course rewarded the gift with even greater charity. On top of that, Ibn Battutah later describes how, due to a custom in the country, he was able to have the sultan settle the debt that he incurred buying the gifts in the first place! If that wasn’t enough the Sultan went on to appoint him as Qadi of Delhi, an extremely important position, and to award him with land holdings that amounted to a huge yearly income. It was in ways like this that Ibn Battutah was able to travel the world and even do it in comparative luxury.

               So now that we have explored the why and how, lets get down to the adventure. Ibn Battutah’s travels brought him from city to city and point to point along established routes. Even though he may seem to take it pretty easy, consorting with slave girls, taking and divorcing wives, enjoying the finest society, great gifts, etc; despite all of that, he was in truth never very far from peril. He faced daunting deserts, snow choked mountain passes, the frozen Asian steppes, travel by foot, horse, camel, and ship. He risked life and limb defending from brigands, pirates, and infidel raiders. He often faced hunger and illness. Remember, this is the 1300’s. You can’t stop at the rest area off the highway, make your way to the nearest medi center to tend to your stab wounds, or call the coast guard to save you from a floundering ship. Everyday tasks would be grueling but necessary. Cooking, sanitation, livestock, the whole logistical affair would have been daunting itself. Then factor in the miles upon miles of hard terrain. Snow in the mountains, 40 day stretches of desert, unpredictable weather. We can be certain it wasn’t always a peach.

               This is a good place to note that this story is set in the world of the 1300s. Keep in mind that slavery is real and commonplace, human rights are minimal, and human life is cheap. So when there’s talk of slavery, polygamy, killing, death or other unsightly subjects, remember the context. This story doesn’t stand to justify or glorify the fact, but that’s how it was and any other telling would be wholly inaccurate.

               Ibn Battutah leaves Morocco and almost immediately falls ill. He is constantly fighting fevers and illness throughout his journey. No doubt his illnesses are related to poor conditions aboard ship and in the various cities he visits. Other illnesses such as malaria seem likely. At one point in the Maldives, he mentions a fever that everyone catches if they stay long enough. He falls so ill after a tour of Syria, Iraq, and Persia that upon his return to Mecca he had to be carried around on a litter to complete his religious obligations. The struggle to maintain a balanced constitution during travels is still a major issue to this day. Parasites, insects, and the whole gamut of diseases humans carry still pose a threat even with modern medicine. Imagine a time where defense from these maladies was almost nonexistent.

               The unseen illnesses are only a small portion of the perils Ibn Battutah faces. On a trip to the Arabian Peninsula his ship is nearly lost in a storm. A ship that was sailing nearby wrecked upon the rocks and only a single man survived. Upon reaching Oman, Ibn Battutah and a friend set out overland for the city of Qalhat. They hired a guide who turned out to be very interested in their possesions, and would rather strip them of their belongings than actually deliver them safely to their destination. This guide first tries to lead them into a river delta at low tide. As the tide came in, they would get stuck in the mud and drown. Not falling for that one, the guide then lead them into an endless and waterless desert, where they nearly succumbed to thirst. Ibn Battutah and his friend are rescued from ruin by a passing group of horsemen. Again, the guide tried to lead them into a tricky spot on the rocks near the coast in an attempt to kill them. Finally, after another sleepless night of keeping watch over the treacherous guide, they reached their destination. Ibn Battutah was fully exhausted from the journey, his feet bleeding, and his companion deathly ill.

               Ibn Battutah speaks of fording a great river on horseback while on his way into the Asian steppes. This is something that must have happened relatively often during his travels, but this time it turned deadly. A woman ahead of him went in and fell off her horse. Several attempts were made to save her, and finally a party from the opposite shore got her to safety. One of the rescuers was swept away and drowned.

               Not far from this river, Ibn Battutah set off through a mountain pass with his caravan. A heavy snow had fallen overnight, obscuring the trail and making travel difficult. Their guide went ahead to break trail and lead them toward their destination. At some point, the guide disappeared without a trace. It is unclear through his narrative what had become of the guide. Perhaps he got too far ahead and the blowing drifting snow obscured the track. Perhaps he succumbed to the elements and was covered over before the party could discover him. One thing is certain, it left the group of travelers stranded and lost. Afraid that a night in the mountains would spell death for everyone, Ibn Battutah rode on ahead of the group in search of aid. Eventually he came across a hospice, and the holy men within went out to help rescue the party. Everyone in the party survived the harrowing descent into the valley of the hospice.

               Ibn Battutah’s observations give us insight into a people and world where we may not have much otherwise. He made his way onto the Asian plains to the city of Bulghar. Modern day Kazan, at nearly the same latitude as Moscow. He notes the extreme length of the summer days, and the length of the winter nights. He discusses a trip to the “dark north” as he calls it. A place only to be reached by teams of dogs pulling wagons over deserts of ice and snow. He never goes on this trek, citing that a single dog could cost more than the best of horses, and he never had much mind for the cold. Travel was hard enough as it was in the winter. He had to dress in so many robes and furs to keep himself warm that he needed help to mount his horse. Dressed this way Ibn Battutah travelled down the frozen Volga River on horseback. Finally to reach not safety, but a massive stretch of desert where the caravan reportedly traveled 20 hours per day for 40 days. Stopping only long enough to prepare meals and change teams, the people slept in wagons and on horseback. No mention of how the livestock handled the business.

               Travel by land was hard, but travel by sea wasn’t a great prospect either. One might think that with the trade going on between the Islamic lands, China, and along the Mediterranean and Black Seas that a route by sea might be easier. However, we know otherwise. The ships chartered to carry pilgrims and freight back and forth between ports and holy sites in these areas to this day have a shady record for safety and sanitation. In the 14th century, without weather predictions and little to no sense of sanitation, mix that with rocky shores and pirates and you have a recipe for disaster. Not less than three times does Ibn Battutah cite that the ship he is taking passage on narrowly escapes shipwreck.

               After one particularly bad storm where their ship was drifting nearer and nearer to the rocks, and at all times being in danger of being torn to shreds by the wind and waves, Ibn Battutah speaks of an old man. This old man, a pilgrim and a holy man, remained calm throughout the entire storm, even as disaster seemed imminent, and even as a nearby ship crashed to pieces on the rocks. Ibn Battutah asks the man how he remained so calm in such a calamity. In reply, the old man tells him that he simply kept his eyes toward the skies. If they were meant to die, he would see the angels of death coming to claim their souls. Since he did not see the angels, he had nothing to worry about. This encounter had a deep impact on Ibn Battutah. Religion had an overwhelming influence on his daily life; being the rules he lived by, the laws he followed, his protection and his salvation.  By land or by sea, travel in the 14th century, even along established routes, was no easy thing.

               Ibn Battutah may have been a holy scholar and a gentleman, but he was certainly not timid and wasn’t afraid to do his own fighting. He had to defend himself from violence on all fronts; bandits, pirates, and infidel raiders were a constant threat outside the city walls. Once outside of the areas easily controlled by government, even the Ummah was no place for the faint of heart.

               On his way to Delhi, Ibn Battutah’s caravan was attacked by bandits. Although it was 80 bandits against 20 mounted horsemen, the caravan fought. In this age, there would be no quarter given to people that surrender. They would either be killed or sold into slavery. So with their backs to the wall, the men of the caravan fought hard and were victorious. Ibn Battutah was even wounded by an arrow in the battle. In retribution, and to deter future attacks, the men of the caravan decapitated the heads of the bandit leaders and displayed them on the walls of the nearest fortress.

               Sometime later, after Ibn Battutah had established himself in Delhi, he went into the countryside to tour and relax with some friends. They were taking their afternoon siesta when they heard a great commotion not far off. Riding out together, they overtook a marauding band of Hindi raiders on horseback. The raiders split up to evade pursuit and Ibn Battutah’s party of riders did the same to give chase. Except, moments later the small group that Ibn Battutah attached himself to was cut off and surrounded. Forced to flee for his life, he galloped his horse into a draw to evade his pursuers. Alone, and surrounded by enemies, he decided to stick close to the thick brush in the draw. When he later emerged at the other end, he found himself surrounded by 40 or more archers. Without hope of escape, he was forced to surrender or die where he stood. He was then taken before the Hindi leader who condemned him to death. Surrounded by his jailers and stripped of everything but his shirt, Ibn Battutah spent the night preparing to die. The next day however, seeing a spark of compassion in one of his jailers, he was able to negotiate his release. He tore the sleeves from his shirt, handed them to the guard as proof of a struggle, and headed back into the brush and into hiding. He would spend the next 8 days hiding in abandoned buildings, hay barns, and in the wild. He foraged for water and wild edibles, narrowly escaping recapture. Finally, at the depths of exhaustion and ready to succumb to whatever fate befell him, he was found and taken in by another Muslim man. Eventually he recovered his strength and returned to Delhi.

               Picking up Ibn Battutah’s travels on his way to India, he had already been throughout the Mid East, Eastern Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Asian Steppe. He completed his pilgrimages, studied under different masters, and gained notoriety as an educated and holy man. Now he was headed east into India, with eyes toward China. As luck would have it, India proved to be at just the perfect political storm when Ibn Battutah arrived to propel him to his highest point in Islamic politics.

               Upon passing the border, Ibn Battutah and his crew were held up and questioned. No foreigners were being allowed into the country unless they intended to serve the Sultan of Delhi. Some of the group reluctantly agreed, intending to later leave the country anyhow. This includes Ibn Battutah. He wanted to see and study in India, but intended on China as his final goal. The Sultan of Delhi was having some power struggles. He had removed all of the Indian officials from their offices and sought to fill all of the appointments with foreigners. When Ibn Battutah showed up, the Sultan immediately grabbed hold of him, showering him with gifts and appointing him Qadi of Delhi.

               Although Ibn Battutah had expected gifts, remember he had taken out a loan to purchase his own lavish gifts for the Sultan, he had no idea how far the Sultan would go. Camels, elephants, slaves, a mansion, gold and silver, and land holdings. Ibn Battutah was astonished. When the Sultan appointed him Qadi of the city, Ibn Battutah was actually floored. He protested the appointment, saying that perhaps he wasn’t quite cut out for it, stating that he couldn’t even speak the local language. The Sultan assuaged his misgivings by appointing two local assistants to carry out the business at Ibn Battutah’s direction.

               In this capacity, Ibn Battutah spent the next several years in Delhi, mingling in high society and sharing a close relationship with the Sultan. Only one thing bothered him; the Sultan was showing some pretty serious psychopathic tendencies. Far from rare, they were directed toward just about anyone he deemed fit. He would punish, torture, and even execute anyone for even the most menial offense. Noblemen, slaves, peasants, merchants, and holy men; no one was safe from his wrath. It became quite clear that the political unrest in Delhi was stemming directly from this tyrannical ruler. Ibn Battutah tried to distance himself from the growing insanity of the Sultan, he even went to live for a time as a hermit, but it quickly became clear that even this could be dangerous. The Sultan had begun to execute men that refused to appear before him when summoned. So, when Ibn Battutah received word that the sultan wished to see him, he left his hermitage and went to the court at Delhi. Going forward thinking the worst, Ibn Battutah entered the Sultan’s audience. However, instead of receiving his death sentence, the Sultan sent him on a diplomatic mission to China. Seeing his chance to escape, Ibn Battutah readily accepted the task and began preparations.

               Ibn Battutah was tasked to bring a massive treasure as a gift to the Chinese ruler. He made his way to the port of Calicut with the Sultan’s treasure. He brought his own great fortune and household that he had amassed in Delhi, and the rest of the diplomats, slaves, and porters for the trip. All of the people, treasure, livestock, and supplies for the trip were loaded into three ships in the harbor at Calicut. Ibn Battutah stayed ashore to perform his prayers, intending to embark with the ships the next day. A great storm blew up and the ships were forced out to sea. The Sultan’s treasure ship was sunk before Ibn Battutah’s eyes not far from shore, losing all but one person.  The other two ships sailed out of sight, bound for China along with all of his personal belongings, his family, friends, slaves. Quite literally everything he owned and cared for left on these ships. He was left there on the shore of Calicut nothing but his robe, prayer rug, and 10 silver dinars in his pocket. His mission for the psychotic Sultan of Delhi failed and the massive treasure lost to sea. He faced certain death at the hands of the Sultan if he returned to Delhi, so he traveled down the coast, hoping to come up with the ships at the next large port city. Unable to find word of his ships, he headed back to Calicut for a time until news finally came.

               Two slaves of his that were on the ship containing his family, friends, and all of his property made their way back to Calicut. They broke the news to Ibn Battutah that the ruler of Sumatra had taken his ship, his belongings, kept some of his family as slaves, and sold the rest throughout the world. Ibn Battutah is left with nothing in the world besides his person.

               With nothing left to turn to, Ibn Battutah sailed down to the Maldives. On the main island, which he calls Mahal, he met with the Vizier. The Vizier and the court were greatly intrigued, and happy to have Ibn Battutah. They plied him with gifts and slaves in an attempt to entice him to fill the empty position of Qadi for the island. Ibn Battutah, Realizing that if he was to refuse, he would be forced by the Vizier to stay, he takes the position. He takes it upon himself to reform the island and whip it into shape according to Islamic law. His hard handed reforms cause a falling out with the vizier and the population, and Ibn Battutah vows to leave the island.

               Here we see the first signs that Ibn Battutah may have been getting tired of his roaming. His hardships start to add up; loss of his family, friends, and treasures, the miles, battles, illness, and his political situations. He seems to be losing heart and hope. Sailing out of the Maldives, Ibn Battutah sums up his frustrations. He passes a small island inhabited by a single man and his family with his hut and his fishing boat. Everything they needed for a simple life was on the island or nearby.  Ibn Battutah reflected as his ship passed;

               “And I swear I envied that man, and wished that the island had been mine, that I might have made my retreat until the inevitable hour should befall me.”

               Ibn Battutah goes on still, toward China where he describes the people, cultures, and the places. He seems to lose the curiosity that drove him on before. Some scholars tend to believe that Ibn Battutah may have never made it far into China, and that his stories of the country are embellished by his scribe at the time of recording his travels. This may be the case, but I think it’s also easy to imagine a man who is far from home and beginning to get tired of his travels. Nearly 20 years of travels, his youth gone, his family and worldly possessions gone, it’s not hard to imagine a jaded man.

               Ibn Battutah’s journey so far had taken him through primarily Muslim lands controlled by Sharia law. Even the places that were not under Muslim control had been under control of another, familiar monotheistic religion such as Christianity or Judaism. In China, amongst new and very strange cultures, Ibn Battutah felt out of place on top of his recent losses.

               “China was beautiful, but it did not please me. On the contrary, I was greatly troubled thinking about the way paganism dominated this country. Whenever I went out of my lodging, I saw many blameworthy things that disturbed me so much that I stayed indoors most of the time and only went out when necessary.”

               He left China ahead of a looming civil war, deciding for the first time that he had gone far enough. He had met all three brothers of the Qadi of Alexandria during his travels and fulfilled the prophecy. Without regret or ceremony Ibn Battutah began the arduous journey home.

               What waited for Ibn Battutah on the way home was not much better than his last run of luck. The Black Plague had broken out. Following the same trade and pilgrimage routes that connected the Ummah, it spread like wildfire throughout the major cities. Thousands dead per day, major cities completely abandoned, bodies lying in the streets.

               In Damascus, where he had left a pregnant wife 20 years earlier, he learns that a son was born to him and had died before the age of 10. His wife had also perished. He then receives news from his own home in Morocco; his father had died some 15 years before. With bleak horizons, plague raging all around, Ibn Battutah made his way home to Tangiers. Upon arrival home, he found that the plague had taken his mother 6 months before.

               With nothing tying him to home, Ibn Battutah decided to continue his travels. He spent time touring Western Africa. Here he found a very poor population in both wealth and religious achievement. Dissatisfied, he returned to Morocco and took part in a holy war against the Christians holding Gibraltar.

               Finally deciding to settle permanently in 1354 after more than 20 years of travelling. The Sultan of Morocco asked him to write down an account of his travels. He spent the next year dictating and compiling the stories of his adventures. Like many adventurers throughout history, Ibn Battutah’s stories came under scrutiny from the community around him. People doubted he visited the places he claimed and doubted his learning. It’s uncertain exactly how his adventures influenced the paradigm that was held in his time. He died in relative obscurity and largely forgotten by history, we’re not even sure where he’s entombed today.                In the years after his death, Ibn Battutah became somewhat of a legend. His stories were and are still debated for accuracy. Collected and compiled at the Sultan of Morocco’s order and published under the title “The Rihlah”, Ibn Battutah’s account is one of the worlds first and most extensive travel guides.  His stories still stand as a time tested account of the Islamic world in the 14th century. Scholars will always debate details, but his stories offer a deep insight into the world around him. He was the perfect person in the right place at the right time. It is impossible to estimate the value of Ibn Battutah’s stories for the adventurous souls they must have provoked through history. As for historical value, Ibn Battutah’s accounts are priceless. In his stories we are allowed access to the places and people of the 14th century through the mind of one of the worlds most enterprising adventurers.