Wednesday, 4 February 2015

COLUMBUS, SAINT BRENDAN, VIKINGS, ET AL

    Pressures mounted in the late 1400s to find the back door when Middle East middlemen imposed taxes at the front door to free trade between India and Europe.  Knowledge that lands (India ?) existed beyond the western horizon dwelt among sailors long before Chris sailed on his four voyages.  How so?
     Of course it was the Irish!  Yes, there was that sophisticated Archaic Maritime Tradition that flourished along the coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland from 7,200 years ago, but it faded out 4,000 years ago.
     European fishermen who used the bountiful Newfoundland Grand Banks kept secret its existence.  
     The Vikings?  Maybe a little, but long before them, sea-loving Irish monks built monasteries on  rocks off Ireland’s west coast and made long voyages in frail craft.  In the 550s they reached Iceland, and perhaps the Azores and N. America. In 554, when 70, Saint Brendan set out with 18 monks in a large curragh (a boat made of wicker-frame covered with greased hides and having a mast and sail) for a 7-year voyage.   All returned safely.  St. Brendan died at 93, leaving his log, Navigatio, which became a well-known legend, embellished with Irish tales.  In 870, Vikings, raiding Iceland, found 1,000 Irish settlers.  Vikings made Iceland a stronghold, keeping their prettiest captured women, after killing or booting out the rest, some of whom headed for other lands.  Norse sagas (Landnamabok and Eyrbyggia) do tell of Norse meeting Irish near Vinland, Newfoundland, in 1025-1030.  The Navigatio led later-century men  to sail westwards in search of Saint Brendan's islands, and Columbus did hear of recent sightings of them.  In 1580 the voyages of St. Brendan, plus  John Cabot's, were used to justify British claims in America. No proven Irish relics have been found, but, in 1976-7, Tim Severin and 4 other Europeans sailed a replica of Saint Brendan's boat from Ireland to Newfoundland, proving it was possible for Saint Brendan to have made the voyage.      Norse sagas (telling of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland) have prompted searches for Norse settlements in America.   Yet, there is only one authenticated find: L'Anse au Meadows, near St. Anthony, Newfoundland (Vinland). In  1960 George Deckers, led Helge Ingstad, to 3 rock cairns and vague overgrown outlines.  Nothing spectacular, but the area matched the Norse descriptions of Vinland.  In 1961 Helge returned with wife, daughter, and 3 other Norwegians to start 3 years of excavations.  This is now an UNESCO World Heritage site, and Parks Canada has reconstructed a part of the old settlement near the actual site.  There is an excellent visitor centre and the site is manned by people in Norse dress.
Eric the Red fled Norway to escape a murder charge, then got into a feud in Iceland and was evicted. In 984 he sailed westwards, finding a great peninsula which, except for its western fiords, was ice covered.  Out to make a fortune in real estate, he bragged about his find which he called "Greenland" to entice settlers, just as Iceland was so named to deter others from encroaching.  In 985 a dozen boatloads of Norsemen followed him to establish settlements near the present sites of Godthaab and Junianehaab.
In 986 Biarni Heriulfson, en route from Iceland to Greenland, erred southward.  He saw Baffin Island and Labrador.  Back in Greenland he told Leif Ericsson, son of Eric the Red, who, in 1001 landed on Baffin Island. Finding no gold, he went on to broad white beaches leading to level forests (Cape Porcupine, Labrador).  He called this "Markland" (Land of Forests).  He then landed at Belle Isle before going on to L'Anse au Meadows where the salmon were big and the meadows lush.  Two large houses (one 70m x 17m) and several smaller ones were built here. Each had a central hearth, a steam bath, and a cooking pit. A primitive iron works with forge was built to make nails and spikes from bog iron.  Here, in 1009, Gudrid gave birth to Snorri, the first white child born in America.  There was trade with the natives (Beothuk and Inuit) whom the Norsemen called Skraelings.  Trouble started when Norsemen killed some sleeping Beothuk. One escaped to arouse others who began a constant harassment which forced the Norse to leave in 1011.  A new settlement was started in 1014, but It was plagued by internal conflict.  Survivors returned home, and the recorded story of Vinland ends.  Columbus relied more on the Navigatio than Norse sagas.
Greenland had flourishing agricultural communities totalling 3,000 people who exported white falcons and walrus-tusk ivory chessmen.  Homeland supplies ended after the 1349 Black Death that killed 33% of Norwegians and even more in Iceland. About 1408 a Norwegian ship found wild cattle, but no people.  In 1493 Pope Innocent VIII wrote to Icelandic bishops in a vain attempt to get ships to sail to Greenland to look for survivors for whom he promised to waive the accumulated Peter's-pence tax.
     A brave and accomplished navigator, Chris did use torture to convert natives to Christianity and did publicly flog a maiden who scratched his face while refusing his sexual desires.  He was removed  from his governor role.  He did complete much good mapping but he led hordes of Europeans to colonize, steal, murder, devastate, build modern countries, and change the known world.  He remains both loved and hated.
     So, would it be politic to change controversial Columbus Day to loved-by-all Saint Brendan’s Day?

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