In fourteen hundred and ninety-two, as the old jingle reminds us, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. But at the very moment that Columbus first set foot on that bright, sunlit isle in the Antilles there existed, barely three thousand miles to the north and only a few degrees of longitude to the east, a community of people who would have been very interested to know that Christopher Columbus was about to win eternal renown as the European who discovered America.
For they themselves had been aware of the existence of the continent for at least the last six hundred years, had been exploring the North Western seaboard for some five centuries and had been living on its fringes for about the same length of time. They had also, undeniably and irrefutably, made numerous landfalls and had in at least one instance established a permanent and durable settlement on the mainland.
However, even if they had been made aware of Columbus’ somewhat dubious claim, they would have had barely the time to register an expression of polite astonishment as they had a very great deal else on their plate, and far more pressing matters to attend to. For the last vestige of the Viking colonial enterprise in North America was about to go down into darkness.
For the sequence of events comprising the Viking discovery and settlement of the New World we are reliant on two documents – Groenlandinga Saga and Eiriks Saga Rauda (The Greenlanders’ Saga and Erik The Red’s Saga, in case your Old Norse is a little rusty) -which, although first written down two hundred years later, were based on oral compositions made far closer to the time.
The story begins, as all good Viking stories do, with a killing. Erik the Red had been banished from his native Norway for manslaughter and had settled in Iceland. Iceland had first been occupied by Irish monks and hermits in 700AD or thereabouts, but these holy men and anchorites had been displaced by the initial wave of Norse settlers a hundred years later. By the time Erik’s keel ground into the stony beach at Ingoldshofdi Strand, Iceland supported a healthy and growing population of Scandinavian farmers. But Erik and his party were made welcome.
For a while life was quiet, until a gang of Erik’s slaves started a landslide which obliterated a farmhouse and killed the farmer and his entire family asleep therein. We do not know if this happened by accident or design but Eyjolf the Foul, a friend of the farmer, was pretty sure it was intentional and therefore killed the slaves responsible. Erik adopted the traditionally emollient Viking response to this sort of thing, and slaughtered Eyjolf in his turn. For this Erik was banished from Iceland for three years.
This placed Erik the Red and his entourage in a quandary. The realm of Norway at this time included Scandinavia, Scotland and the Orkneys, and much of England and Ireland; and Erik was persona non grata wherever the Norwegian king’s writ ran. Having now been shown the door of what was still then the independent republic of Iceland, his options were looking a bit limited.
Fifty years earlier a Norwegian sailor named Gunnborn had been driven south and then west of Iceland by a storm, and had sighted skerries and land behind them. Erik decided to spend his time exploring this area. He sailed due west from under the snow-girt flank of the Snaefel Jokul peak in Iceland and across what we now call the Denmark Strait. The year was 982AD.
Erik and his band sighted the coast of Greenland somewhere in the region of Angmagssalik, and coasted south by way of Prins Christians Sund. Erik and his crew spent the next three years exploring the region between Herjolfsnes and Eiriksfjord and marking out the plots of future farms and homesteads to be. They marked well too that the land was rich in animals; bears and foxes for pelts, and caribou for meat, hide and horn. They saw the abundance of fish wherever there was water, and everywhere the flocks of birds that had never known a fowler’s snare. Believing that no place is the worse for an attractive name, Erik called it Greenland and as soon as his period of banishment was up he sailed back to Iceland to spread the news.
Erik mounted his second expedition in 986AD. He was accompanied by no less than twenty-five ships. Iceland was approaching saturation point in terms of its population, and second sons and the dispossessed who faced a bleak landless future responded to Greenland’s siren song. Fourteen ships arrived safely and their crews began to settle in the area around modern day Julianehab.
The Viking colonisation of Greenland began with perhaps 400 intrepid and hardy souls and eventually the population would number 3,000 who between them built and occupied some 270 farms, 16 parish churches, a cathedral at Gardar, and a monastery and a nunnery. Almost upon arrival, the Greenlanders adopted a constitution on the Icelandic model with a national assembly and a code of law. They exported furs, hides and woolens, whale oil, ropes and cables, and the highly prestigious white bear and falcon. In return they needed wood, iron, corn and sundry luxuries. Most of their trade was with Norway, and Greenland finally surrendered its independence in 1282 and became the most westerly and far-flung outpost of that increasingly troubled maritime empire.
The Greenlanders knew that more land lay to the west of them. Medieval geography favoured the notion of a land mass to the far west but also when the Greenlanders scaled the peaks behind their settlements to look for habitable land to their east, they could not help but see the land, or at least the cloud formations which they knew denoted land, in the direction of the setting sun. But they were too busy establishing their farms and churches to devote much time to voyages of exploration. The first occasion that a European set eyes on the North American continent belongs, therefore, to another storm-tossed sailor.
Bjarni Herjolfsson had been born in Iceland, but had spent the winter of 985-6AD at the court of the Norwegian king. He set sail for home that spring, but landed to hear the unexpected news that his father had sold all his estates and embarked for Greenland with Erik the Red’s expedition. Bjarni decided to follow his father and sailed westwards. Four days out Bjarni and his crew were blown off course by a strong north wind, and were then enveloped in thick fog. Without chart or compass they had no idea where they were going, but after a few days the sun burned through and they were able to take fresh bearings.
A day’s further sailing westwards brought them in sight of land which was not mountainous, but which was well wooded and with low rolling hills. If Bjarni did not have a clue where he was, he at least knew where he was not: this was not Greenland. He held course north along the coast for five days, watching the forests thin out and mountains and glaciers take their place. Then he turned his prow from the land and sailed four days before a strong wind, and finally beached at Herjolfsnes in Greenland.
Soon enough Erik the Red’s son, Leif, heard of Bjarni’s voyage. He sought out Bjarni in Herjolfsnes where he had settled, gathered as much information from him as he could, and bought his ship and hired some of his crew. As soon as practicable he mounted his own expedition to the west, but sailed Bjarni’s course in reverse bestowing suitable place names along the way. The rocky, glacial land he called Helluland, meaning Flatstone land, and is generally accepted today as being the southern part of Baffin Island. The rolling and forested land he called Markland, which means Woods Land and which is thought to be Labrador south of the Medieval tree line.
Finally he reached a place which he called Vinland and here he wintered, building him and his crew shelters at a place which became known as Leifsbudir (Budir shares the same root as our word ‘booths’ but a less misleading translation in this context would simply be ‘Leif’s Houses’), where the night and day were of more equal length than in Greenland or Iceland and the climate far milder too. From a cursory study of the map, Vinland would seem to be modern day Newfoundland. On his return to Greenland he waxed fulsomely about the softness of the weather, the richness of the grass and the abundance of self-sown wheat and wild grapes. PR skills ran deep in Erik the Red’s family.
From the historical sources that remain to us, it seems that further exploration of Vinland was a strictly Eriksson family affair. First Thorvald, one of Leif’s brothers, mounts a further expedition, and was the first to attempt a permanent settlement:-
Thorvald then said: “Here it is beautiful, and here would I like to raise my dwelling.” Then went they to the ship, and saw upon the sands within the promontory three elevations, and went thither, and saw there three skin boats (canoes), and three men under each. Then divided they their people, and caught them all, except one, who got away with his boat. They killed the other eight, and then went back to the cape, and looked round them, and saw some heights inside of the firth, and supposed that these were dwellings.– The Groenlandinga Saga
The Vikings’ first encounter with the indigenous people was not auspicious, and there was worse to come. The Vikings called the natives Skraelingr, a word which can mean Screechers or Uglies. In point of ethnographic fact the natives could have been either members of the Algonquin tribe or Inuits moving south with the worsening climate. Such a fine detail of anthropology would have been lost on Thorvald, however, as the Skraelings returned and killed him. He thus became the first European whose death and burial in the New World we have a reasonably certain record of.
Thorstein, brother of Leif and Thorvald, set out to recover Thorvald’s body but failed to make landfall and died on the way home, leaving his wife Gudrid a widow. Gudrid married a Norwegian of considerable substance, Thorvinn Karlsefni by name, and together they sailed to Vinland with 60 men and five women including Gudrid. They found Leif’s old house there still habitable, and stayed for two years. Gudrid fell pregnant and gave birth to a son, Snorri; the first European birth recorded in America. Mounting pressure from the Skraelings, with whom Thorvinn’s men traded and skirmished as occasion served, made a third year’s sojourn seem unwise and they returned to Greenland.
The final voyage of which we have record was led by Freydis, Lief’s sister, and her husband Thorvard. They entered into a partnership with two brothers, Helgi and Finbogi; each pair to supply one ship and thirty men plus a few women, and to travel to Vinland together and split any profits equally. Freydis also wished to take ownership of Leif’s houses, if they were still standing. Leif allowed that she might use his houses while she was in Vinland, but that he would retain ownership. This is the first time that the Western concept of property rights was asserted in North America.
But the joint enterprise soon soured, largely due to bad faith on Freydis’ part, and the upshot was that Freydis’ men massacred the brothers’ crew in a night attack. Freydis’ men were perfectly happy to kill Helgi, Finbogi and their comrades while they were asleep, but drew the line at killing their women.
There was an awkward pause at the crimson spattered scene of carnage as Freydis’ men shuffled their feet and avoided making eye contact, then Freydis herself stepped into the breach: she picked up an axe and dispatched the half a dozen or so women in short order. Quite some dame, was Freydis.
Freydis and her party return to Greenland, and explain that Helgi, Finbogi and all the rest are having such a marvelous time in Vinland that they have decided to stay on for a bit. But truth will out, and the full story of Freydis’ skulduggery becomes common knowledge. Leif gets to hear about it and is mildly cross. He says some things about Freydis which are not particularly nice, but seems content to let the matter drop. And there, so far as we know it, our story ends.
From the sources available to us the Viking acquaintance with North America seems to have been a small affair, six or seven voyages of which only three made any pretense at being more than reconnaissance missions. Yet we may reasonably say, on the evidence presented to us, that the Vikings were the first Europeans to set foot in the Americas, surely?
But even as recently as when I myself was a young scholar, the notion that any credibility should be accorded to this claim was considered racy at best, and as heretical at worst, by the academic mainstream. Beyond the pale, dear boy! Quite beyond the pale!
The Sagas were considered to be fatally compromised by the occasional incoherence of the first and the insertion of pagan mystical elements in the second, as well as by mutual contradictions in their versions of the story and the indisputable fact that both were originally oral compositions first written down two hundred or more years after the events that they purported to describe. What was lacking was hard archaeological evidence, and until that could be produced the Viking colonisation of America was relegated to the status of conjecture and fantasy. But in the 1960’s data began to filter out from a small archaeological site in Newfoundland which would prove to be paradigm-breaking.
The small village of L’Anse Aux Meadows lies at the very tip of the Great Northern Peninsula in Newfoundland. Those of you with an eye for the toponym will notice that the name is an interesting Anglo-French amalgam; Anse being the French word for cove or inlet and the French having their own perfectly acceptable assortment of words which could be fairly translated into English as meadow. One suggestion is that the French word for jellyfish, meduse, morphed into the English word as deforestation thinned Newfoundland’s previously dense tree-cover. But this is all very much by the by.
Close by the village lay a site refereed to by locals as an old Indian camp, but excavations have revealed it was indisputably a Norse settlement of eight buildings including a smithy and a carpenter’s shop, an area used for boat repair as evidenced by finds of worn out rivets, and living accommodation. Material finds are scarce: wood debris and iron slag, a soapstone spindle whorl and a bronze cloak pin, a stone oil lamp of a distinctively Norse type and one or two other trinkets. No burials have yet been found, perhaps suggesting seasonal occupation, nor any coinage. It has been estimated that the site could have accommodated a maximum of perhaps 130 people, and that it was still in regular use by Scandinavians as late as the beginning of the 1200’s. Proof of pre-Columbian Viking settlement in America and incontrovertibly so.
But what of the Viking settlement of Greenland, that most enduring legacy of Erik the Red? For the first two hundred and fifty years after the first settlers arrived, the colony may be fairly said to have prospered. Their exports were highly valued, and even as late as the 1350’s men made regular trips from Norway and Iceland to trade. The Church was keen to maintain contact with their flock there, too. Bishop Eirik made voyages to Greenland in 1113, 1117 and 1120, presumably to supervise the building of the impressive stone cathedral at Gardar, still visible to this day. Greenland was a viable and thriving enterprise.
But circumstances began to work against the colonists. From 1200AD the climate began to deteriorate slowly, moving the treeline south and the pack ice down Greenland’s east coast from the Arctic. A Norwegian chronicle of 1350 notes that the old northerly sailing route has been abandoned and that sailors must learn the new southerly route “else they will surely perish among the ice floes, they and all with them”.
With the ice came the Skraelings too. They competed with the Greenlanders for the northerly fishing and hunting grounds, which limited the amount of exportables the Norse could obtain. In any case the Russian fur and ivory trade was getting into gear, and the Greenlanders had shipping costs which the Russians did not.
The Skraelings pressed south and by 1360 Ivar Bardarson, who had been sent from Norway to assess the situation in Greenland, could report that they had overrun the entire west of the colony. King Magnus Smek proposed an expedition to succour the colonists in 1363, but nothing seems to have come of it. An annual courier to Greenland, the Groenlande Knorr, sailed until 1396 when the ship sank and was apparently not replaced.
in 1406 Bjorn Einarrson ‘Jerusalem-farer’ was storm driven to Greenland and did not get away for four years. He found the population wholly Norse and resolutely Christian. During the Anglo-Danish Naval War of 1484-90, the buccaneering Admiral Pining is visited Greenland and was able to refit his ship, and it is known that Bristol skippers regularly put in there on their way to the Newfoundland cod banks.
The last mention of Greenland is from 1492, the same year that Columbus landed far to the south of Greenland. Written by Alexander VI in the first year of his Pontificate the letter expresses concern for the congregation of the cathedral of Gardar and notes the poverty of the land, and the beleaguering ice. He confirms his predecessor’s decision to appoint as Bishop of Gardar, after a period of fifty years in which the see has been vacant, one Brother Matthias of the Benedictine Order. Matthias is to make the perilous journey to Gardar forthwith, and all Catholic Clerics and Notaries are to render him any service or assistance that he asks for free of charge.
We do not know if Brother Matthias reached his destination and we hear no more about the colony of Greenland. The heart-chilling Arctic night descended and the bells at Gardar cathedral fell silent. The only sound was the crash of the waves on the lonely beaches and the mewing of the gulls. The first tentative flame of European expansion into the New World had flickered out forever.
© Bobo 2019
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