Imagens das páginas
PDF
ePub

of fabrication and corrupted tradition which flow so copiously in early ages. The more narrowly we examine the histories of Erik the Red and of Thorfinn Karlsefne, the more confidence do we feel in the narrative of discoveries there presented to us. A few of the collateral considerations which tend to strengthen our belief in them we shall now endeavour to lay before our reader. But it occurs to us that we ought first to say a few words to obviate objections which might arise in the minds of many from the fact of Esquimaux being found on the shores of Vinland. That race is at the present day confined to a high latitude, but we see little difficulty in supposing that they extended much further south in the tenth and eleventh centuries; and this opinion, grounded on the characters of human skeletons found within the United States; on the traditions of the Red Indians, and other circumstances, is, we believe, the one now generally adopted by trausatlantic antiquarians.

It deserves in the first place to be remarked, that the Northmen scoured the western seas and made discoveries doubtless long anterior to the period reached by their historical traditions. We learn from Dicuil, an Irish monk who wrote in the ninth century a geographical work chiefly compiled from the Roman authors, that the Irish had visited Iceland already towards the close of the eighth century, and that half a century earlier they had been driven from the Feroe islands where they had settled, by the ravages of the Northmen. We must here venture to express an opinion that the seafaring Irish were the posterity of Northmen, and not Celts, who never seem to have had a turn for a maritime life. Indeed the true Irish boat, the corracle covered with-skin, was unfit to go to sea; and as to the construction of larger vessels, the birch and alder of the Irish woods (for the oak and ash were useless in the infancy of art) could hardly supply very eligible materials. The pine-forests of the Northmen gave them such incalculable advantages for the construction of good sea-boats, that wherever we hear of bold navigation in those days, we suspect them to have been present. In short we believe that the Tuath na Danân, who settled in Ireland as early as the Christian era at least, and who, according to O'Halloran, spoke a Teutonic language (Germanice is his expression) were no other than the Danes; and that the intercourse between Scandinavia and the west of Ireland, which gave exercise to so much maritime skill and courage, commenced at a very remote period.

The discovery of Vinland, however, was not made in an obscure age. It may have been preceded by many remarkable voyages in the west, and we do not venture to deny positively that the stories of the Limerick merchants respecting the Northmen carried to

VOL. XXI. NO, XLI.

I

Great Ireland and the Whiteman's Land, may have had their foundation in some very early transatlantic discoveries. But confining our attention to what is strictly matter of history, we may remark that the discovery of Vinland was made contemporaneously with the first colonization of Greenland, and the establishment of Christianity in that country and Iceland; and consequently belonged to one of the most interesting periods in the annals of the North. Some of those engaged in it, as Thorfinn Karlsefne for example, were the ancestors of some of the chief families in Iceland, including a great number of learned men. It is not surprising, therefore, that it should participate in the full light thrown on the events with which it is connected, and be described with fidelity and minuteness. The histories in which it is recorded, enlarge on the lineage and connections by blood or marriage of the heroes engaged in it; they thus offer themselves to a test of an exact and delicate kind by comparison with numerous other histories, from all which they receive confirmation.

Still further it must be observed that the discovery of Vinland was not a transient event, no sooner past than forgotten. As it was thought likely to prove advantageous, the family of Erik the Red, with whom it commenced, persevered in promoting it for some years. They had a share in all the

voyages

made to Vinland from the year 1000 to 1013, which must therefore be considered as one series. Such an order and connection of events is evidently not the character of fiction. Icelandic writers of the fourteenth century tell us that the voyages to Vinland were not found to be profitable ; but this information appears to be in a great measure conjectural. Sanguine hopes and the high prices which novelties will fetch, may be easily imagined to have influenced the calculations of the first adventurers. We cannot believe that Leif realized much profit from bis freight of grapes, but why should we therefore doubt that he brought home such a cargo? Were not freights of yellow mica, mistaken for golddust, imported into London in the sixteenth century? and have not ship-loads of kaleidoscopes been exported in our own days to colonial markets which would be overstocked with a score of such toys ? Karlsefne, when about to sail to Vinland, made all his companions partners in the enterprize. Freydisa also, we have seen, bargained for half the profits in her expedition. The former realized by his adventure a great fortune with which he purchased an estate in Iceland. As soon as he arrived in Vinland, we are informed, he had timber hewn for his freight and laid along the shore to season.

He also obtained from the natives a great quantity of fine furs at the cheapest possible rate. With respect to the value of the timber which he brought home, there is an anècdote related of too curious a kind to be passed over here in silence. When he was on the point of leaving Norway and embarking for Iceland, a merchant of Bremen came to him to buy a small piece of wood, or if we translate the original literally, a broom-stick: Karlsefne gave him to understand that he had done trading, but the merchant offering him half a mark or pound of gold, which appeared a very liberal price, he did not hesitate to sell the stick. This precious wood was probably the beautiful variegated or bird's-eye maple which grows in abundance in Rhode Island and Massachusets. The price paid for the stick was equivalent to sixteen pounds sterling of modern money.

It has been frequently urged as a suspicious circumstance in the history of Vinland, that no communication was maintained with it by the Greenland colonists, and that it was almost immediately lost sight of. But this is a mistake arising from the ignorance in which the greater part of Europe remains in respect to Northern literature. It is well known that all intercourse ceased with the Greenland colonies in the beginning of the fifteenth century, and that they were so completely forgotten that a full century rolled over before the world awakened to the recollection that they had once existed. Pestilence, famine, and piratical ravages were then called in to explain their apparently sudden extinction. But it is now well understood that the gradual disappearance and final dissolution of the old colonies in Greenland were in reality caused by the royal monopoly of the trade, which reduced the colony to dependence on insufficient and precarious supplies, and varrowed its means of intercourse with Europe. Under these circumstances it is not at all surprising that little was heard of Vinland. But the Icelandic annals prove to us that voyages continued to be made to the American continent as long as commercial enterprize remained in Greenland, and nearly to the last period of the expiring communication between that colony and the mother country. The following brief extracts from those annals are all that we can find room for : "1121. Erik Bishop of Greenland paid a visit to Vinland. (It de

serves to be remarked that there is nothing in this statement which should lead us to believe that there was a colony of

Northmen in Vinland.) 1285. Adelbrand and Thorwald, sons of Helge, discovered new land

west of Iceland (probably some part of the coast of Labrador). 1288. King Erik despatched Rolf to examine the new land. 1290. Rolf sailed from Iceland whither he had gone in search of per

sons qualified to accompany him to the new land. (The death of Landa-Rolf, or Rolf the Discoverer, touk place in 1295.)

1347. Thirteen large ships arrived at Iceland. The ship called the

Endridian was driven by the gale on Langanes Point in the eastern Borgarfiord, but the crew and part of the cargo were saved. The Bessalang went to pieces on the shore at Sida; nineteen of her crew, including Haldor and Guthorm, were drowned. A large sum of money was lost at the same time. There were six other vessels in port there which had been detained by the winds. There came also from Greenland a bark of less size than the common Iceland vessels. She ran into Straumfiord, having lost her anchors. There were on board seventeen men who had sailed to Markland and had after

wards been tossed about the ocean." It appears to us not unlikely that in an age when there were no maps to perpetuate local names in the western hemisphere, the appellation Vinland would soon become obsolete ; and that the Greenland adventurers would naturally give the name Markland (woodland) to all the south-western countries to which they resorted for the purpose of cutting timber.

The general verisinilitude of the Icelandic histories which relate to Vinland is extremely remarkable. We find intimated in them, among other things, the great mortality which in those early days attended voyages even of moderate length, arising evidently from discomfort or bad provisions. The very important art of preserving health on board ship is of comparatively recent origin, and, we may add with pride, is an invention wholly British. of the half dozen voyages recorded directly or incidentally in the Histories of Erik the Red and Karlsefne, three were productive of fatal diseases, and in each of those three cases the probable cause of disease is obvious. Thorbiorn when emigrating from Iceland to Greenland had an over-crowded ship: Thorer and his people were shipwrecked and had probably endured much cold and hunger before they were taken off the rock by Leif. Thorstein, tossed about at sea the whole summer, likewise experienced, it may be presumed, much physical suffering. It is also curious to observe that even the chiefs of the Greenland colonists were not secure from the evil of insufficiency of food. The wealth of those northern adventurers seems to have consisted much less in the extent of their possessions than in the number of those attached to their persons and who followed their fortunes.

Another proof of the fidelity to nature of those early writers is the simple gravity with which they relate their superstitions. The history of Gudrida the wife of Karlsefne gives occasion to a very curious and even somewhat poetical display of the popular belief in præternatural agency. In the history of Erik the Red, it is related that her former husband Thorstein, after his death,

sat up, and, having called her by name, predicted her marriage with Karlsefne and the future greatness of her family. In the Karlsefne's Saga the important prediction is put into the mouth of a gifted woman invited to a feast to foretel the success of the crops, or rather of the fisheries. These two passages are well deserving of a close study; and the latter of them probably paints the scene of a Scandinavian divination with more force and exactness than

any
other

passage in the whole compass of northern literature. The author takes care to introduce an apology for the share which bis heroine bore in a pagan ceremony; her father refused to be present at it. Gudrida again saw a witch in Vinland, at the time when Karlsefne's followers were nearly defeated by the natives ; and the Northmen, on that occasion, having recovered from their panic, perceived that the great multitudes who seemed to have surrounded them, were but fetches or phantoms.

The discovery of Vinland, we have seen, was immediately made known in Norway; and in the latter half of the eleventh century Adam of Bremen heard of it from Swein king of Denmark. “ This discovery,” he emphatically observes, " is not a fable, but we know of it from the certain information of the Danes.” In a heroic poem composed in the Feroe islands, and which M. Rafn has inserted in his collection, frequent allusion is made to Vinland. The hero Finn sails to Vinland, at the command of the Irish princess Ingeborga, and kills the kings of that country with sundry dragons. We doubt however whether a poet's testimony can be admitted as proof of any thing beyond the popular persuasion, or whether it even proves so much.

The fragments of ancient Icelandic geographers inserted in the collection are of much greater value. They agree in informing us that Markland and Vinland were to the south of Greenland; and, what is very remarkable, that Vinland, the most remote country known to them in that quarter, was supposed to join Africa. To perceive the full force and significance of this strange hypothesis it will be necessary to call to mind some iustances of like systematic opinions arising from a similar mixture of ignorance and knowledge. Ptolemy, following Hecatæus, supposed that Africa extended round from the south-west till it joined Asia ; and this doctrine subsisted, among the Arabs at least, till the fourteenth century. Again, Lapland was thought to stretch westwards through the northern sea, till it became united with Greenland : and this mode of delineating the northern regions was persisted in by mapmakers till near the end of the sixteenth century. It needs no great power of analysis to perceive that the idea which shoots out into this kind of extravagant

« AnteriorContinuar »