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American Indians in Galway, Ireland? November 17, 2012

Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval , trackback

One of the most dramatic pieces of evidence for a pre-Columbian crossing of the Atlantic is to be found in a single Latin marginalia, that is some words scribbled into the margin of a book. The sentence in question appears in a copy of the Historia rerum ubique gestarum by Aeneas Sylvius Piccolomini which was published in Venice in 1477. In that work Piccolomini discusses the arrival of Indians in Europe blown from across the Atlantic at a date when America was unknown to Europeans (another post another day). Next to this passage a reader has written in Latin the following extraordinary words:

Homines de catayo versus oriens venierunt. Nos vidimus multa notabilia et specialiter in galuei ibernie virum et uxorem in duabus lignis areptis ex mirabili persona.

This passage presents several challenges. The first two sections are easily translated. The difficulty is in the third part.

1) Homines de catayo versus oriens venierunt = ‘Men from Cathay [China] came towards the west’

2) Nos vidimus multa notabilia et specialiter in galuei ibernie virum et uxorem = ‘We saw many remarkable things and particularly in Galway in Ireland a man and a woman…’

3) in duabus lignis areptis ex mirabili persona = ‘[a man and a woman] on two pieces of wood (tied together?? Drift wood??), of the most extraordinary appearance [the boat is of the most extraordinary appearance?].’

Readers will agree that the most important information is in the first two clauses. However, let us risk a translation of the whole with the understanding that there are some uncertainties in the final part:

Men from Cathay [China] come towards the west. We saw many remarkable things and particularly in Galway in Ireland a man and a woman on two pieces of drift wood of the most extraordinary appearance.

Now our author was in Ireland sometime in the 1470s or perhaps the very early 1480s. He then inserted this sentence in his copy of Piccolomini sometime after 1477 and probably in the early 1480s: he certainly wrote in the book in 1481. He had clearly, while in Ireland, seen a man and a woman who he believed had been blown across the Atlantic from China and who had arrived on a strange looking boat (at least if the last part of the sentence is translated well).

We know Atlantic geography better. If this man and woman came from anywhere then they came from America. The Gulf Stream washes up American plants, American animals and American driftwood on the shore of south-western Ireland. Why couldn’t the Gulf Stream wash up an Amerindian vessel? This is not the only instance when Amerindians seem to have ended up on the coasts of Europe: there may even be some Amerindian archaeological finds on the wrong side of the Atlantic. The possibility that these are European Arctic people: namely the Finns or Lapps seem far less likely. For a start the currents are all wrong…

If this man and woman were Amerindian we might ask ourselves about the design of that remarkable boat. Were these two canoes that had been tied together, perhaps after the pair were lost at sea? Or a raft that had fallen apart? Where had the boat come from? The Caribbean or the US or the Canadian coast? Then were the man and woman still alive when they arrived in Ireland? They would have been travelling for anything from twenty days plus: presumably they had accidentally strayed or been driven into the Gulf Stream.

A couple more thoughts.

This is the only first-hand account of the Galway landfall, all others stem from this passage. It is extraordinary that no writer in Ireland found this remarkable enough, even out in the Pale, to record in the 1470s. A warning about gaps in our historical record.

Second, the author of the marginalia is remembered by history as Christopher Columbus. He was most likely in Ireland in 1476-1477 on a sailing trip to the north. This accidental encounter with a Amerindians (or Chinese as he believed) was to prove an important moment in his life. And years later his son recalled the episode in his father’s autobiography. It very likely demonstrated to Christopher that under the right circumstances it was possible for a vessel to cross the Great Ocean between the Indies and Europe. Much was to follow from this…

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20 Nov 2012: KMH writes: ‘I believe it was common knowledge in Europe before Columbus that the Chinese were yellow-skinned. If so, why did Columbus believe that presumably red-skinned Amerindians were from Cathay? Would he have reasoned that they perhaps came from the SE Asian islands  or India where skin color might be more  variable?  Of course, Columbus was an extraordinary figure, and might have experienced some creative wishful thinking fated to propel him into his three voyages. The sense of destiny can color normal thinking processes.’ Thanks KMH!

21 Nov 2012: The Count is on the warpath: ‘Since it seems to be entirely authentic, and there’s no reason why a man jotting marginal notes in a book he owns as a reminder to himself would make things up, presumably whatever he’s saying can be taken to be true. But what is he actually saying? The first sentence has an unambiguous meaning – “People from China have reached the West by crossing the Atlantic.” But he doesn’t say when this happened, merely that it has done at some time – possibly hundreds of years ago. The rest of his statement basically says: “when I was in Ireland, myself and my companions saw with our own eyes a man and a woman in Galway Bay afloat on two pieces of wood of very odd design.” Most commentators assume that the people, not the pieces of wood, were what struck Columbus as being weird, and because he was just scribbling a quick note, his grammar is poor. But if we assume that he did in fact write a coherent sentence expressing exactly what he meant, it reads as though the bits of wood, not the people, were unusual. It’s also customary to assume that the two pieces of wood must have been connected in some way, because two people crossing the Atlantic on two separate pieces of driftwood could hardly both end up at the other side in exactly the same place, could they? Yet the most natural reading of a text that says: “a man and a woman on two pieces of wood” is that they had one each. Also consider this. Two Apaches lashed to tree-trunks which are also lashed to each other (obviously, when planning their transatlantic jaunt, they had the foresight to bring plenty of rope, but carelessly forgot the boat) arrive, whether alive or dead, in Galway Bay – a presumably unique, and certainly very uncommon event. The usual interpretation is that they were dead (well, they’d tend to be, wouldn’t they?). However, Columbus actually saw them “on two pieces of wood”, meaning that he, the one person in the whole world most able to appreciate the true significance of this event, arrived at the exact same time as the Injuns – and he doesn’t even live in Ireland! Well, if they were alive, he must have, and if they were dead, since he saw them “on” those bits of wood, How long would the locals be likely to leave dead bodies lying on the beach before burying them? Yet apparently they hadn’t even detached them from those mysterious pieces of wood “two totem poles?) when Columbus arrived. As good timing goes, that’s so good it’s downright ludicrous! I think what he’s saying is this. He was already predisposed toward his own pet theory that it was possible to reach China from Europe via the Atlantic, and of course vice versa, and people who are stubbornly predisposed to see evidence for their pet theory are very likely to see it in places where others might disagree. And Columbus was so stubborn that, in one of history’s greatest ironies, he flatly refused ever to accept that he hadn’t been to China at all, reasoning that the idea of an undiscovered country in the middle of the Atlantic was just plain silly, and his mysteriously short travel-time could be explained quite logically by assuming that the Earth was pear-shaped. So this is a guy determined to see exactly what he wants to see. Also, anyone who can mistake America for China probably doesn’t really know a whole lot about China. I think that what Columbus was saying was this. When he was in Galway, he saw two perfectly ordinary Irish folk afloat in Galway Bay on small craft so peculiar that an experienced mariner like him couldn’t even describe them as boats. Since Chinese and Irish culture were obviously very different, anything that seemed very out-of-place indeed compared to everything else the Irish had come up with suggested to him that they must have copied the idea from Chinese visitors. You don’t need me to give you examples of precisely this kind of logic being employed by people obsessed with a controversial and eccentric theory. This of course explains why there are no Irish tales of this incident whatsoever, although you’d think it’s the kind of thing they’d all be talking about for many years hence. Two ordinary Irishmen were fishing in Galway Bay from little boats which none of the locals saw anything unusual about. Columbus, however, being a very experienced sailor (and very biased indeed when it came to spotting possible signs of Chinese influence), noticed how odd these little boats were, and drew his own conclusions. If you read that margin note again, you’ll see that, in the absence of any other account, this is the most natural reading of the text. So what did he actually see? My guess would be the traditional Irish currach. It came in all sizes, but the smallest and most basic models were very basic indeed. They were also mostly very flimsy, so it isn’t surprising that it’s hard to say exactly what a currach from that time looked like, since very few survive from any historical period. However, judging by some of the few examples that do survive from a bit later, the Model T end of the currach market was probably a tiny rowing-boat which, because it wasn’t meant to go very far or very fast, might not have been terribly streamlined – some later examples look oddly angular. Since all you needed from it was to go out a little way into calm and sometimes very shallow coastal waters to catch a fish for your dinner, it would tend to have no keel and be a rather shallow boat that sat low in the water – the later models at least partly give that impression, and those that survive are probably the most robust and expensive types. So if the angle was deceptive, Columbus may have thought he was seeing two people in totally flat craft he could only describe as “pieces of wood” whose overall shape suggested a dingy rather than a raft, but were still kind of raft-like. I’m assuming that poor Irish folk who wanted the absolute minimum of boat because they couldn’t afford more might end up with something so unseaworthy that Columbus would automatically see multiple flaws with it and perceive it as being deeply odd rather than just crappy. Other possibilities do of course exist. I’ve discounted a dugout canoe with an outrigger because, although that’s the only two-person craft that an experience mariner might describe as “two pieces of wood”, it doesn’t really make sense if the only countries involved are Ireland, North America, and possibly China. Another possibility is a couple of Welsh ex-pats in coracles. Wales isn’t very far from Ireland, and a sailor a fair distance away trying to interpret the sight of a circular boat – not a very popular concept in boating worldwide – might have trouble interpreting what he’s seeing.’ Thanks Count!