Popular Science Monthly/Volume 27/May 1885/Lost Colonies of Northmen and Portuguese

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NO one can find a "message from the sea," telling of the fate of some long-missing vessel, without a feeling of emotion; but the stray waifs that throw light on the history of lost colonies are of a deeper interest, for they supply missing chapters in the annals of colonization and early maritime enterprise.

The probable dates of those that are the subject of this paper are: 1. Vinland the Good, discovered a. d. 994; 2. Fagundes's settlement in Cape Breton, a. d. 1521; 3. A second Portuguese settlement in Cape Breton, a. d. 1567; 4. A Spanish settlement in Cape Breton, between 1580 and 1597.

I. Vinland the Good.—It is unfortunate that the early settlers ever thought of calling a place near Rhode Island Martha's Vine-yard, for its resemblance to Vinland has led Danish and American archæologists to identify them as the same locality. They seem not to have remembered, that wild grapes are found on the south shore of the gulf and river St. Lawrence, from Cape North to Quebec, the Island of Orleans having for this reason been called the Island of Bacchus. Wild grapes, too, are found on the west coast of Newfoundland, according to Anspach; and in 1521 the Portuguese colonists in Cape Breton sent word home that among the products of that country were grapes. The writer of this paper has tasted some excellent wine made by a relative living at Fredericton, New Brunswick, from the wild grapes that are to be seen hanging in clusters from the elm-trees on the intervale lands along the St. John River.

But as Vinland and Martha's Vineyard were assumed to be the same, a voyage by the Northmen from Greenland, not exceeding seven or eight days, has been extended to Rhode Island, and the circumnavigation of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia has been assumed, although the Saga of Eric the Red is silent as to it, and though such a voyage, still a perilous one, was at that time a most difficult and dangerous undertaking.

The Saga of Eric the Red was written in Greenland by, or in honor of, Eric and his family, who were the discoverers, explorers, and chroniclers of Vinland the Good.

The later Saga of his son-in-law, Karlsefne, which, like the geographical notices quoted by Rafn, was written in Iceland, was evidently based, not on information derived from people who had been in Vinland, but on an imperfect version of the Greenland Saga, for almost all the courses described by them differ 90º from those given in the Saga of Eric the Red, a uniformity of error which must have arisen from the use of a sketch-map of the voyage to Vinland, in which the points of the compass were omitted or incorrectly placed. What is north in the one is generally east in the other.

We have therefore to depend on the Greenland Saga, and what are its claims to be considered a credible authority? It was written in glorification of Eric and his family, and describes the discoveries made by his sons or sons-in-law, and testified to by no one outside of his family circle.

Two persons, father and son, the latter of whom was named Eric the Red, having been guilty of murder in Norway, took refuge in Iceland, where Eric committed one if not two more murders, and in consequence of them, and of his constant broils and feuds with his neighbors, was banished and outlawed. As the world was too small for him, he was tempted to try to discover and explore the new land in the West, of the existence of which there were rumors. He therefore sailed west, and discovered an ice-bound country, which he called "Greenland," because, quoth he, "people will be attracted to it if the land has a good name."

This intended fraud upon emigrants was an example that was followed in his own day, as well as in later times, for an imaginative chronicler subsequently asserted that "there is the best of wheat in Greenland."

In a. d. 994 Eric and his son Leif, having heard of new lands farther west having been sighted by Bjarne, made up their minds to explore them, and for that purpose bought and fitted out Bjarne's vessel. But Eric while on his way to the port was thrown by his horse, and took his fall as an omen that he was not destined to give any more Greenlands to the world, and he therefore allowed Leif to sail without him., But, from what we know of his proclivities, we may be quite sure that he had a wonderful name already coined for that new land—Vinland the Good. Could words picture a more attractive bait for emigrants?

How much of the story of the subsequent exploration of Vinland by his son Leif is purely imaginary it is difficult to say. All that relates to ship-loads of grapes, self-sown fields of wheat, and the genial semi-tropical winter climate of that favored land, we may dismiss as myths or exaggerations. Where, then, was Vinland situated?

We have one test, viz., the length of the shortest day there. Professor Thorfaeus, who wrote at the beginning of the last century, found that it indicated 49º north, i. e., the latitude of Newfoundland, which was probably very near the mark, for, though Rafn contends for the latitude of Rhode Island, 41º 24' 10" north, the latest authority, the Icelandic-English Dictionary by Gudbrand Vigfasson (Oxford, 1874), makes the hours of sunrise and sunset 8.30 a. m. and 3.30 p. m. (instead of 7.30 a. m. and 4.30 p. m., as Rafn contends), and therefore carries back Vinland to Greenland.

There is no part of the coast from Greenland to Rhode Island which has not been pounced upon by some writer as the site of Vinland.

We can not depend on the sailing directions of the Sagas, and Captain Graah has shown that, preserved for a long time only by oral traditions, they have been changed to suit the fancy of the different persons to whom we are indebted for their preservation. We have, however, besides the length of the shortest day, another guide, viz., that the natives met at Vinland were Eskimos, or a race resembling them in their boats, etc.—such as the Naskapi, or "Mountaineers," who are found occasionally in Newfoundland. The advocates of the Rhode Island theory, in order to explain the presence of Eskimos so far south, have started the hypothesis that the Skraellings at the beginning of the eleventh century inhabited the eastern coast of North America as far south as Rhode Island, but were driven into the Arctic regions by the races now found on the sea-coast. Not a particle of evidence can be adduced

PSM V27 D055 Map of ancient viking and portuguese colonies in canada.jpg

to support this idea, and the authorities cited by Rafn disprove it, for an Icelandic geographer describes the more northern country, Furderstrands, as too cold for human habitations, and as bounded on the south by Skraellingsland. Their home, therefore, was then, as it still is, Labrador.

From the various accounts given by Rafn, I prepared a map, showing Helluland, Markland, and Vinland, which proved to agree almost with the maps of the Northern Atlantic by the Icelander Sigurd Stephanius (1570), and by Gudbrandius Torlacius (1606), except that I made Genunga Gap run between Markland and Vinland, in accordance with one of the authorities quoted by him.

It is clear that what is now called Greenland was assumed to be an extension of the north of Europe, and that "Greenland" embraced all the country north of the Strait of Belleisle. Davis Strait was looked upon as an inlet running into Greenland, but not as a strait separating Greenland from the land to the westward. The land north of Hudson Strait was called Furderstrands, and was so cold as not to be habitable. All the country south of Hudson Strait was called Helluland, as well as Skraellingsland (our Labrador), and it was divided into Great Helluland to the north, and Little Helluland or Markland to the south. In one account, however, Little Helluland is omitted and Labrador divided into Helluland and Markland, the latter being to the south. The Westbygda of Greenland, so often referred to, was on the east side of Davis Strait, and was the site of the cathedral. Assuming such to be the case, the accounts quoted by Rafn will at once become intelligible and consistent, though totally at variance with his theory, which identifies Great Helluland with Labrador, Little Helluland with Newfoundland, and Markland with Nova Scotia.

Rafn quotes the following notice of Vinland from a fragment of the "Vellum Codex," No. 192, supposed to have been written about the end of the fourteenth century: "From Bjarmeland [in Europe] extends uninhabited land toward the north, until Greenland begins; south of Greenland is Helluland; next lies Markland; thence it is not far to Vinland the Good, which some think goes out of Africa; and if so, the sea must run between Vinland and Markland."

This, I contend, points to Newfoundland, which extends toward Africa, and is separated from Markland (Labrador) by the Strait of Belleisle. He adds, "All these countries are in that part of the world called Europe," an idea that prevailed even after the discovery of America by Columbus.

With this account agrees one of a very early date:[2]" Now is to be told what lies opposite Greenland, out from the bay which has been before named. The land is called Furderstrands. There are so strong frosts there that it is not habitable, so far as one knows. South from that is Helluland, which is called Skraellingsland; from thence it is not far to Vinland the Good, which some think goes out from Africa."

Hence it is clear that the Northmen placed the land of the Eskimos between a northerly uninhabitable region and the more southern Vinland.

The same description says, "Between Vinland and Greenland is Genunga Gap, which flows from the sea called Mare Oceanum, and surrounds the whole earth." This is the "River Ocean" of Homer, and is used in the Eddas as the name of the watery wastes of Chaos.

Bjarne's voyage to Vinland seems to have really taken place, and to have been accurately described. The accounts of subsequent voyages appear to have been based on Bjarne's, and to be as nearly as possible mere transcripts of it reversed. In 906 Bjarne sailed from Iceland to Greenland, but "after three days' sailing,. . . the land was out of sight under the water," he was driven southward by north winds, with foggy weather for many days. At length he once more saw the sun, and having sailed one day more he sighted land. As the wind had changed from north to southwest, in which quarter it remained steady, it is evident that the northerly gale went round with the sun, i. e., to the east, then to the south, and then to southwest. Had the wind "backed" to the west and southwest, the weather would have been continued unsettled. Hence we conclude that Bjarne's vessel was driven to the banks of Newfoundland, where fogs constantly prevail, whence, the wind veering to the east, south, and southwest, he was driven into the Gulf of St. Lawrence and around Newfoundland. The land he first saw was "without mountains, and covered with wood, and had small heights." It was on his larboard side, and was probably one of the Magdalen Islands, or possibly the eastern end of Prince Edward Island. Afterward they sailed two days, when they saw "a flat land covered with wood." This may have been the northwest coast of Newfoundland near the west end of the Strait of Belleisle, which for a long distance is marked on Bayfield's chart as a "low limestone coast." I am informed that there are woods on it, though they may be small compared with the vast forests that are found up the rivers, whence extensive lumbering operations are now being carried on. Bjarne then put to sea for three days, with a southwesterly wind, and saw a third land, which was "high and covered with mountains and ice-hills." They coasted along it, and "saw it was an island." They probably sighted Labrador, and, rounding its southeast point, supposed it to be an island. Thence they sailed with the same favorable southwesterly wind (which grew into a gale) for four days, when they sighted a "fourth land, which was Greenland."

Leif's voyage to Vinland seems, as nearly as possible, a version of Bjarne's reversed. Neither time nor bearings are given, and we are merely told that Leif "found the land first which Bjarne had found last."[3] They saw no grass there. "Great icebergs were over all up the country, but like a plain of flat stones was all from the sea to the mountains." This they called Helluland. They then sailed thence and found another land which was "flat and covered with wood, and white sands were far around where they went, and the shore was low." This was therefore called "Markland," i. e., woodland. They sailed thence for two days with a northeasterly wind (the opposite to that which Bjarne met with), when they sighted an island to the northward of the land, and sailed into a sound between it and a cape which ran out northwardly from the land. Thence they sailed westwardly round the cape into a place where at ebb-tide the vessel was left high and dry some distance from the shore; and when the tide rose they towed the vessel into a river, which led into a lake (or inlet?), where they landed and built booths.

If this narrative is something more than a Norse "Odyssey" or a fiction, we must infer that Leif touched at Labrador (called by him Helluland), sailed thence to some more southern part of Labrador (called by him Markland), and thence past the Island of Belleisle into one of the many shallow inlets on the south side of the Strait of Belleisle. The "low land covered with wood" and its "white sands" may possibly be the part of Newfoundland sighted by Bjarne, or it may be Blanc Sablon, near Bradore Bay, on the south coast of Labrador. It is, however, evident that Leif can not have reached the south coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, judging by the number of days expended on the voyage. The Saga of Karlsefne says that the voyage from Greenland to Helluland only took two days, and that from Helluland to Markland three days. Now, Leif's voyage from Markland to Vinland took two days, or the number of days spent by Bjarne in going from the land first sighted by him to the "flat land covered with wood." Bjarne's voyage from the first land sighted by him to Greenland occupied in all 2 + 3 + 4 = 9 days.

From the Sagas of Eric the Red and of Karlsefne, we learn that the voyages from Greenland to Vinland took six days in all. Hence, Vinland, if beyond Labrador, must be sought for in Newfoundland, either in one of the shallow inlets near the Island of Belleisle, or in some place along the northwest coast of that island. The fact that grapes are found there, according to Anspach, lends some weight to this view. It is possible, too, that the Naskapi, sometimes found in Newfoundland and resembling the Eskimos in many respects, may have been included under the name Skraellings by the Northmen.

It is clear that, like Greenland, Vinland the Good was a fraud on emigrants; that the stories as to ship-loads of grapes, self-sown fields of wheat, genial winter weather, etc., were the productions of Eric's prolific brain; and that we must first succeed in finding Greenland's verdant mountains before we can hope to discover the vine-clad hills of Vinland the Good.

II. The Colony of Terra Nova, or the "Land of the Corte Reals."—The history of European colonization north of Florida has been hitherto supposed to have begun at the commencement of the seventeenth century, except perhaps a small English settlement at St. John's, Newfoundland. It has not hitherto been known to historians that the eastern portion of British North America was the first part of the New World that was constituted a colony, that from 1500 to 1579 commissions were regularly issued to the Corte Reals as governors of Terra Nova, and that by virtue of this claim on the part of the Portuguese at least three settlements were made by the Portuguese themselves, and later by the Spaniards (after they had annexed Portugal), one of these colonies being the earliest European settlement in North America after the discovery of the New World by Cabot.

A flood of light has been shed upon this early colonization by Senhor Ernesto do Canto, of San Miguel, Azores, whose most recent publication on early Portuguese exploration consists mainly of a selection of documents connected with the family of the Corte Reals, the explorers and first governors of Northeastern America.

The information contained in Senhor do Canto's work enables me to claim for the northeastern parts of America almost a century of historical existence prior to the seventeenth century. This colony, embracing Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia, and, under the grant to Fagundes, probably a large portion on the east coast of the present United States, was far the earliest European colony (excepting perhaps Vinland) not only in North America, but also in the New World, for the commissions of the Corte Reals date in regular succession from 1500 (i. e., two years after America had been discovered by Columbus, and six years after its discovery by Cabot) until 1579, soon after which Portugal and its possessions were annexed to Spain.

This colony of the Corte Reals was not merely a nominal one, for in the course of the sixteenth century the Portuguese made a settlement in Cape Breton in 1521, and another in 1567, while the Spaniards —their successors—sent a third to the same country. Of these three colonies little or nothing is known; even the colony of Terra Nova has lost its place in history, which begins the annals of British North America a century later with the arrival of French settlers in La Nouvelle France.

In 1500 Gaspar Corte Real explored the coast of Labrador, probably nearly as far north as Hudson Strait, and also Newfoundland and Nova Scotia. He brought back several of the natives, who resembled the present Micmac Indians. He went there again, in 1501, with three vessels, but that in which he sailed never returned. In 1502 his brother, Miguel, sailed in search of Gaspar, and met with the same fate. Again, in 1503, an expedition was sent out to try to get some tidings of the two gallant brothers, but without success, and the king, discouraged by these disasters, refused to allow Vasco Annes, the elder brother, and one of the ornaments of his court, to continue the search.

In early charts of this continent the Portuguese flag is frequently represented as waving over Labrador, Newfoundland (Baccalaos), and Nova Scotia, which were sometimes described as the "Land of the Corte Reals," and as the "country discovered by João Alvares."

We now know that the person to whom these Christian names belonged was João Alvares Fagundes, who early in the sixteenth century carried on explorations in Northeastern America, and who, in 1521, had a grant of the country between the land of the Corte Reals and the northern boundary of the Spanish colonies, including the "terra firma and islands" discovered by him, a grant which for the first time included a portion of the United States.

Traditions as to an early settlement still linger among the Micmacs, who aver that certain earth-mounds at St. Peter's, Cape Breton, were built by white men before the arrival of the French. This belief received many years ago a confirmation by the discovery in one of these mounds of an archaic cannon formed of bars of iron fastened with iron bands or hoops, those toward the breech being the strongest. This gun attracted little attention at the time, and was broken up. My knowledge of this circumstance is derived from the historian of that province,[4] who for more than twenty years was on circuit in Cape Breton once, if not twice, a year. He frequently spoke of the enigma, and regretted the stupidity and utter want of interest which prevailed at that time with respect to the early history of the country. An inquiry into the date of the manufacture of such guns showed clearly that it must have been brought out before the arrival of the French in Cape Breton,[5] Were these remains at St. Peter's vestiges of this early Portuguese colony?

From a rare pamphlet, "Tractado das Ilhas Novas," by Francisco de Sousa, written in 1570, and published at San Miguel in 1877, Senhor do Canto, in his "Os Corte-Reaes" (pp. 89-93) copies an account of the colony in question, and has also given us a description of the discoveries, and a copy of the commission of João Alvares Fagundes.

It appears from this that the colony was planned by some noblemen at Viana, consequent upon the discoveries made by João Alvares Fagundes. They sent out a ship and a caravel, but Newfoundland (Baccalaos) having been found too cold, the settlers sailed to the west and southwest, and, having lost their ships, were obliged to remain. News was subsequently received from them through Biscayans, who were then in the habit of frequenting that coast. They asked for priests; said that the natives were well disposed; and that the country produced "nuts, chestnuts, grapes, and other fruits, showing the goodness of the soil."

Allusions in early writers point to the existence of this early Portuguese colony. Anthony Parkhurst, in a letter published in 1578, when speaking of the excellent timber in Cape Breton, says: "I could not find it in my heart to make proof whether it be true or no, that I have read, and heard, of Frenchmen and Portugals to be in that river" (the St. Lawrence) "and about Cape Breton. If I had not been deceived by the vile Portuguese descending of the Jews and the Judas kind, I had not failed to have searched that river and the coast of Cape Breton which might have been found out to have benefitted our country." The colony of Fagundes of 1521 has been unknown to historians, though the circumstances that led to the attempt to colonize Terra Nova have not escaped attention. Fagundes had already been an explorer, and his name is connected with the northeast coast of America by early charts, while his discoveries, as we have seen, are referred to in his commission.

We also meet with a probable reference to this colony in connection with the cattle and swine which Champlain (1618) says "were left there" (Sable Island) "more than sixty years ago" (i. e., before 1558) by the Portuguese. In Haies's report of the voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, given by Hakluyt, and probably written about 1583, he says, "Sablon lyeth about twenty-five leagues to the seaward of Cape Breton, whither we were determined to go upon intelligence we had of a Portugal during our abode at St John's, who was himself present when the Portuguese (about thirty years past) did put on the said island both neat and swine to breed, which were since exceedingly multiplying."

It appears that the Baron de Lery, in 1518, landed some cattle at Canso, and the remainder on Sable Island, on his abandoning his intention of forming a settlement in Nova Scotia. It seems also probable that the Portuguese must for the same reasons have landed their cattle at Sable Island, and that the date is the probable time when the settlement of Fagundes was broken up.

III. A Portuguese Settlement at Inganish, Cape Breton, 1567.—De Laet (book ii, chapter v) tells us that the Portuguese placed Port Ningani from eighteen to twenty leagues to the northwest of the cape which afterward gave its name to the Island Cape Breton, "where they formerly had a settlement, which they have since abandoned." Champlain says that the Portuguese were forced to do this by the cold and rigorous climate.

Until recently this was all we knew about this colony, but Senhor E. do Canto has now discovered a MS. charter in the Torre do Tombo, at Lisbon, from which it appears that the king, on May 4, 1567, appointed Manuel Corte Real notary public of a colony about to be founded in Terra Nova, and for which two ships and a caravel were then about to start from Terceira. In 1579 the captaincy of that colony was conferred upon Vasco Annes, the fourth in succession of the Corte Reals. The author of the "Tractado das Ilhas Novas" appears to have sailed with the expedition of 1567, and it is quite clear that up till then no tidings from the colony founded by Fagundes had been received. It is also clear that a Portuguese colony existed for some time at Inganish, which was abandoned on account of the cold. Was Inganish the site also of Fagundes's colony, as well as of the settlement made in 1567? It seems improbable that the colony of 1521, cut off from all communication from the mother-country for half a century, should have survived until 1567, and we are forced to conclude that the cattle and swine left on Sable Island in 1553 were the property of the Fagundes colonists, who had abandoned their settlements. It seems clear, at the same time, that the colonists who sailed in 1567 were aware that Fagundes had found Newfoundland too cold for a settlement, and had given the preference to Cape Breton. We must assume, therefore, that the colonists of 1567 settled some place in Cape Breton or Nova Scotia. Champlain says the Portuguese abandoned their settlement at Ningani (Inganish) on account of the cold. A Portuguese gentleman informed me last winter that there existed a tradition at Viana that the colony of Terra Nova was sold to the English on account of the cold climate. Senhor do Canto refers to a similar tradition, but applies it to the colony of 1521, instead of to that of 1567. This sale must have taken place after 1567, for otherwise the Portuguese, having sold out their rights to the English, would hardly have attempted, after the transfer, to make a settlement in that country.

IV. A Spanish Settlement at Sydney, Cape Breton (Spanish Harbor), between 1580-'97.—We are told that in the seventeenth century Louisburg (called English Harbor) was frequented by the English fishermen; St Ann's by the French; and Spanish Harbor by the Spaniards. Why was Sydney—at one time known as Spanish Harbor —the favorite resort of Spanish fishermen? About the time Fagundes sailed to Cape Breton, the Spaniards seemed to question his right to that country, as appears from the Spanish map of 1527, where the Spanish line of demarkation includes Cape Breton and Nova Scotia, leaving Newfoundland to the Portuguese. It is probable, however, that the Spaniards did not practically question the claims of the Portuguese, which were specially guarded in commissions to Spanish explorers. In 1580, however, the question was settled by the annexation of Portugal and its dominions by Spain. We know that toward the close of the sixteenth century a Spanish colony was sent to Cape Breton, and we can assume that it sailed some time after 1580. Our only account of it is a melancholy one, for Charlevoix says that the forty poor wretches whom the Marquis de la Roche left on Sable Island (1598) "found on the sea-shore some wrecks of vessels, out of which they built barracks to protect themselves. They were the remains of Spanish vessels which had sailed to settle Cape Breton." Any one who has seen the wreck-strewed coast of Sable Island must remember it as suggesting a graveyard of vessels. Those that have been there a few years are soon covered by the drifting sands, and the half-buried skeletons of later wrecks are to be counted by the dozen, in different stages of sepulture and decay. It is probable, therefore, that these wrecks, which were used by the French convicts, can not have been there many years previously. The date, therefore, of this Spanish expedition to Cape Breton must have been between 1580 and 1598.

An inlet in Sydney Harbor is still known as the "Northwest Arm of Spanish River."

We have no account of the fate of this colony, but we may infer that it only existed for a short time. The French took possession of and colonized that country early in the seventeenth century, and their writers are silent as to the existence of any Spanish settlement there at that time.

So thoroughly forgotten is this lost colony of Terra Nova that, though there are many Portuguese names that survive on the map of Northeastern America, they no longer suggest their origin or meaning. Few persons imagine that the Bay of Fundy is the "Deep Bay," or Baya Fonda; or that Cape Race means the "Bare Cape" or Cabo raso. The "Land of the Corte Reals" knows them no more.

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  1. Abridged from a paper read before the Geographical Section of the British Association at Montreal.
  2. "Gripla. Antiq. Am.," p. 280.
  3. In the account of the Saga of Eric the Red, of Karlsefne's voyage, it is simply stated that he sailed to Vinland. The Icelandic Saga of a later date was less cautious, and gives many impossible courses.
  4. Judge Haliburton, the author's father.
  5. The article "Artillery," in the "Encyclopædia Britannica," says that such guns were made from 1500 to 1545, when cast-iron guns were first introduced.