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Letters Written during the Late Voyage of Discovery


At Sea, 30th May, 1819.


{7} I NOW send to you, as I promised, some heads relative to the early state of these northern regions, among which you will find several things which will be new to you, and which may furnish subjects for conversation in the happy circle in ---- street. Chronology and geography are described as the two eyes of history: both shall therefore be kept open in what I have to state.

About A.D. 500, according to the Icelandic historians, some Irish monks, whether by accident or by design, arrived in Iceland; wafted over the northern ocean in fourteen days, in their coracles, or wicker boats, covered with hides. Books in the ancient Irish language, bells, &c. were found in the island, on the arrival of the earliest settlers from Norway.

A.D. 890. -- Harold Harfagur, the first king of Norway, having conquered all his rivals, or usurped the chief power, compelled many bodies of the people to quit their native land. Resorting to their ships, they formed settlements in the most remote parts of the North. Of those colonies, the most distinguished was established in Iceland, which had been accidentally visited in 861, and occupied in 878. This colony, if we except those of the ancient Greeks, is the only colony in the world, prior to the comparatively late settlements of Europeans in America, of which a regular account has been preserved from its commencement to the present time.

Towards the beginning of the tenth century, the Icelanders established a colony in Greenland, which increased and prospered for nearly four hundred years. Then the intercourse between that region and the rest of the world was interrupted, by the increasing severity of the climate, and the unfortunate colonists were no more heard of. Navigators of the present age, who depend on the assistance of the compass and quadrant; who are furnished with arithmetical and mathematical tables, calculated with the greatest nicety; must be astonished at the daring spirit of these adventurous sons of the Northern Seas, who were unquestionably destitute of those aids.

It is related by an Icelandic historian, that when Flok, a famous Norwegian navigator, was preparing to set out from the isles of Hialtland, now called Zetland or Shetland, on the north of Scotland, on a voyage to Iceland, then named Gardarsholm, he took on board as guides, some crows, because the mariner's com- {8} pass was not at that time in use. When he thought he had made a good part of his voyage, Flok threw up in the air one of his crows, which seeing land astern, or behind, flew back to it. Concluding the land he had left to be the nearest in sight (but perhaps he mistook the Feroe for the Shetland Isles on this occasion) he held on his course for some time, and then sent off another crow, which seeing land a-head, or before the ship, drove forward towards it. Following his sagacious guide, Flok arrived at the east end of Iceland. Such were the simple means employed in those days be the intrepid men of the North, to keep their reckoning, and steer their course over the ocean. A similar mode is said to have been practiced by the people of Ceylon in early times: but what a difference between the gentle waters of India, and the tempestuous billows of the North Atlantic!

In the close of the 9th century, our renowned king Alfred was perhaps the first Briton to enlarge the science of geography. From Ohther and Wulfstan he received ample information respecting the Baltic sea and the Northern extremities of Europe. But the knowledge collected by Alfred seems to have been lost; for even in the 16th century, Norway, Greenland, and Newfoundland, (or the land of cod-fish) are described as forming one continued country. And it was not till 1553, that Chancellor traced out the northern passage to Russia, of which he has always been described as the original discoverer. It is nevertheless certain that Ohther the Norwegian sailed round the North cape of Lapland and made his way into the White Sea of Archangel, then called Quen Sea, of which the modern name is only a translation. From Ohther, Alfred learned that the northern people caught whales and seals, and also what he calls horse-whales. Of the skins were made ropes, and the teeth of the latter animals were highly valued. From this account the horse-whale seems to have been the animal now called the walrus, or sea-horse, whose tusks are ivory. The whales are stated to be in length forty-eight or fifty Norwegian ells, or from seventy-two to seventy-five feet. So numerous were they on the coast of Norway, that Ohther, with the help of five men, was able, we are told, to kill sixty in two or three days.

In the last year of the tenth century, or in the first year of the eleventh, the adventurous spirit of the Icelanders carried them to a distant country, situated to the south-west of Greenland. There, in the shortest day, the sun was for eight hours above the horizon. Here, then, is a question for you to solve; for you are astronomer enough to do it. You will find that this happens about the parallel of 49 degrees of north latitude. The country being much wooded, was, therefore, named Merkland; but grapes having been discovered growing spontaneously in it, {9} the name was changed to Winland. The rivers abounded with fish, particularly with salmon. It was not until their third voyage to this country that the Icelanders met with any original inhabitants, who appeared a diminutive race. They had boats covered with hides, and used bows and arrows in battle. After a contest the natives were reconciled to the Icelanders and traded with them, exchanging furs for other articles of utility or fancy. Several vessels from Iceland for this new-found-land carried thither families to form a permanent settlement, which it would appear subsisted for above a century for a bishop went thither from the colony in Greenland, in the year 1121. Of this settlement no certain accounts, nor of its connexion with Iceland, are afterwards discovered in history. If it be true, as has been reported, that in the interior of Newfoundland a tribe exists, different from the Americans called Esquimaux, they may, perhaps, be the descendants of the Icelanders. That they should however retain any tradition of their original story, or any vestige of the Icelandic tongue, in their state of barbarism, cannot well be expected.

The discoverer of Winland is said to have been Biorn, the son of Heriolf, and the first ship purposely fitted out for the new country from Iceland was commanded by Lief, the son of Erick.

About 1360, Nicolas of Lynne, an English friar, and a good astronomer, is said to have made a voyage to the northern polar regions, and to have repeated the voyage for five times afterwards. Of his discoveries he presented an account to Edward III. but of the truth of the story we may be allowed to doubt. About the same period, according to the account of the voyage of the Venetian Zeno, as explained by Forster, some fishermen of Orkney were driven by stress of weather to an island in the west, called Estotiland. The inhabitants traded with those of Greenland, and to what we now call America. They were ignorant of the compass, but soon learned its use from Orkneymen. This island may perhaps have been the Winland of the Icelanders, or the Newfoundland of later times.

If these incidents be really true, it will be evident that the new world, the northern part of it at least, was visited by European navigators, long prior to the voyage of the illustrious Colon, or Columbus, in 1492. Nothing derogatory from his well- earned fame can however hence be inferred; for his discoveries were the fruit of long and profound scientific research.

Best wishes at home, &c. &c.

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