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  • Boy Genius Washed Up from Shipwreck In Wales? June 25, 2014

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

    Anglesey, The Skerries, Lighthouse from Fydlyn Bay


    ***thanks to Wade and Andy who sent this amazing story in**

    Consider the following tale. Two young children are found in mysterious circumstances without their parents: they look different from the locals and speak another language. They are adopted by a family in the neighbourhood. One child dies but the other prospers and shows extraordinary talents that transform knowledge in the area. The evidence is poor and this all happened a long time ago. Now what should you make of this kind of a cock and bull story? The answer, of course, is very little. If the story was medieval it would be tempting to relate it to fairy belief: compare with the green children of Woolpit. If it came from a traditional rural backwater you might be dealing with the origin story for a well-established clan. If it happened in the 1950s you have probably brushed into an early UFO legend (in the same way that you brush into a just painted door).

    Consider now, instead, the following details. In the 1740s (the modern consensus is 1743) two children survived a shipwreck off dangerous Anglesey in Wales. Both had swarthy skin and neither could speak English, yabbering away insistently in an unknown language. One child died almost immediately but the other was adopted into a local family. He became a talented bone-setter and at his death in 1814 he was widely mourned as the greatest bone-setter in the land. His descendants went on to save lives and almost single-handedly founded modern orthopaedics. A neutral historian might just hold their breath long enough to look at the quality of the sources, but when he or she learnt that the best source was a death poem in 1814 that mentioned none of the above details then their patience would ebb away to nothing. Life is simply too short.

    The written evidence, in fact, is execrable: the story seems to be based on oral transmission over four or five generations. In the 1814 Welsh poem dedicated to the just dead Evan Thomas (‘He was near infallible/at the sickbed by his skill’) it is stated in the fourth stanza that ET had once previously escaped death. That is the extent of our early written proof for the foreign/fairy or extraterrestrial origins of a great Welsh doctor. Almost everything else crumbles to dust as soon as it is touched. So the reference to swarthy skin comes in a 1935 book by H. Hughes Roberts: only it doesn’t, it is mistaken reading of the fact that ET was said to have blue eyes and a mop of black hair (like about a third of all Britons). There is a reference in Richard and Bridget Karn’s Shipwreck Index of the British Isles, vol 5 (cool book, 2006) to a sail boat off Anglesey in 1743 that spat out two seven year old boys: but the only evidence for this seems to be the Welsh legend of ET. etc etc etc

    When you add to this the fact that men and women with medical ability were often given supernatural or incredible origins in traditional societies then things get still stickier. ‘Bone-setters consider their craft to be a natural gift or ‘knack’… Individuals born ‘feet first’ by breech delivery or who have been struck by lightning are thought to have such a gift’. (Peltier, Fractures, 4) Given the long line of bone-setters that emenated from ETs loins, including the great Victorian doctor Hugh Owen Thomas then the legend-making is practically confirmed. Only it isn’t… 2009-2012 the Welsh government, with a remarkable lack of perspicuity, decided to do expensive DNA tests on some of ET’s descendants to see if there was anything alien in his genetics. If they could have asked this blogger first he would have saved the good folk of Gwynedd several thousand pounds. But luckily they didn’t ask because the scientists responsible found something extraordinary.

    Two DNA tests of descendants showed that there was, indeed, non-Welsh DNA kicking around where it might not be expected. The DNA was not thought to be Spanish, previously the favourite ‘origin’ for ET and his deceased brother. Instead, a very tentative conclusion suggested links with the Caucasus with the promise that more testing across Europe in the next years will help sharpen the exact region. We don’t have to believe the shipwreck story. We don’t have to believe there was a brother. We don’t have to believe that Evan was ‘swarthy’. But it seems that somehow or other a Caucasian ended up in proud Mon, in northern Wales in the mid eighteenth century and that he was adopted into a Welsh family. (Thomas is not a typical Georgian surname). It pains me to say this but if you were going to just invent an explanation a shipwreck would not be the stupidest solution. As to his bone-setting ability he either learnt it in Wales or elsewhere. A lot here would depend how old he was at the time of arrival and, even if we follow the shipwreck thesis, there seems no real evidence for age only the persistent voice that he was a ‘boy’ when brought ashore.

    Finally, it would be ridiculous to close this post without asking (whether we favour a shipwreck solution or would go for some other wildcard) what the hell were Caucasian types doing in or off the coast of Wales in c. 1740. The favourite online answer is that his presence was connected with the Jacobite uprising of 1745, that sounds good until you ask yourself ‘why would Caucasians turn up for Bonny Prince Charlie?’. Any suggestions gratefully received: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com

    26 June 2014: Mike Dash kindly writes in with a far out theory, but I can’t think of anything even a third as convincing. ‘I wonder if this story might not somehow be connected to the flourishing slave trade that centred on the Crimea? This often-overlooked trade was the economic mainstay of the Crimean Khanate, which survived until 1783, and the port of Kaffa (Feodosia) was the main hub of what was the largest market in white slaves in the world. Prisoners who were captured by the Tatars of the Crimea were sold into slavery in India, in Egypt and also in the western Mediterranean. An interesting aspect of this trade was that it was not, by and large, a trade in muscular men bound for slavery in the fields. Many of the most valued captives were women and boys and girls destined for lives as household slaves or service in some harem. It is certainly the case that among the most valuable of the captives on sale in Kaffa were prisoners taken in the Caucasus, predominantly from Georgia and Circassia. Circassians in particular were renowned for their delicate looks, and fetched high prices – the “Circassian beauty” was a commonplace staple of circus sideshows as late as the early twentieth century. From this perspective, it’s especially interesting to note two further aspects of the Crimean slave trade. The first is that this was often not slavery of the sort we are all too painfully familiar with in the Americas; slaves destined for personal or household service could live quite comfortably, and be respected, and on the whole the status of slave was not something they passed down to their children; in many respects this sort of slavery put one not all that far from the status of an indentured servant. As a result, there were numerous cases of children being sold into slavery by their peasant parents as a bizarre sort of kindness, and a few of slaves freed from their captors on the way to the Crimea begging to be allowed to continue their journey. A second factor is that the slave market of Kaffa was demarcated along religious lines. Muslims bought Christian slaves, and Christians, Muslims. This is worthy of note insofar as much of the Caucasus (Circassia included) was and remains Islamic territory – so the presence, on a western ship come to grief on the Welsh coast, of a Muslim slave-cum-servant originating from the Caucasus is not absolutely beyond the bounds of possibility.’ Thanks Mike!!!

    30 June 2014: WG  writes you ask “why would Caucasians turn up for Bonny Prince Charlie? The answer to that question is fairly simple – Bonnie Prince Charlie’s mother was Maria Klementyna Sobieska, a Polish noblewoman, the granddaughter of King Jan III Sobieski who saved Europe from being overrun by Muslims at the Siege of Vienna in 1683. In the eighteenth Century the Polish Commonwealth was a multi-national entity which covered a vast area, from present-day Poland right to the Black Sea. There was considerable immigration from the Caucasus into Poland, particularly of Armenians into the town of Lviv (which is now in the Ukraine). It is therefore very possible that persons in the Prince’s retinue would carry Caucasian genes.’ Thanks WG!