Monday, May 19, 2008

Early Gaelic discovery of America

Hi.  Me again. 
If you’ve read stuff I’ve put here before, you know that I have some affinity toward geography.  And as such, the study of explorers is particularly interesting, although I admit I haven’t sailed that westerly much in my academic or private life.

Sometime in the past I told of a possible alternate theory regarding the naming of America.  It was the British trader Richard Amerike, Dutch by birth, but English nevertheless.  It is now thought that he possibly traded across the North Atlantic and even had a trading post or two along the harsh northern coasts of what’s now Canada.

So I went out and bought a book on Amerike, so I’ll let you all know how that turns out.
But, you say, does that mean that we should look to the Brits as the discoverers of America?  Well, depends on what you mean.  There are many stories and legends of peoples finding lands that are now thought to be parts of the Americas, including this story of St. Brendan of Ireland in the 6th century returning from many sea voyages beyond the known world at the time.

      The Voyage is often ignored by historians of exploration because it is considered a folk-tale. However, the Voyage has far fewer fantastic details than a standard Irish legend and many of these are best read as confused accounts of real events: a crystal tower (an iceberg); the gates of hell (an Icelandic volcano); the ocean where you could see into the depths (a coral sea); the sluggish ocean (the Sargasso Sea).

      Giving the Voyage the benefit of the doubt, and using the information about the islands Brendan visits, it is possible to draw a series of itineraries that take the saint around the northern two thirds of the Atlantic: the first, St Kilda, the Faeroes, Madeira, the Azores, the Faeroes; the second, the Faeroes, Greenland; the third, the Caribbean, Madeira; the fourth, an iceberg, Iceland, Jan Mayen Island, Iceland, Rockall, the Faeroes; the fifth, the Faeroes and America. The distances given in the text - the Voyage’s author describes the journey in terms of days - approximately fit these itineraries.

Apparently, once Christianity was brought to Ireland, monks got inspired by tales of solitary worship of monks in other parts of the world, such as in deserts and mountains.  Well, since in Ireland it’s pretty hard to get away from people, the monks turned to the one wilderness that the emerald island has in abundance:  the Atlantic ocean.

Seems the monks were not very good navigators, but instead put themselves out to sea, raised a sail and let God take over.  There are stories of Irish monks landing on shores all over the Atlantic that was known at the time, but it stands to reason that some would end up visiting Iceland, Greenland and the like.

Truly there are many stories and histories of peoples who might have visited this continent well before Columbus.  The Vikings, Carthaginians, Egyptians, Arabs, Jewish Diaspora and even Pics are thought to have had the ability of getting boats over to the Western Hemisphere.   There’s even some archeological evidence in South America that some of these cultures might have made it prior to the Roman Empire (although they didn’t get back).

As for Columbus and the title of discoverer of the Americas, you can make the charge that Columbus' voyage opened the doors to general knowledge of the new world, and therefore is the "official" discoverer, even if he wasn't the first one from Europe or Asia to land on our shores.

Truly, there’s so much we don’t know about history.  With an ever changing knowledge of our past do we ever get to say with definitive authority that we truly know what happened at any time in the distant past?

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