Historical Lecturers and Essays

Historical Lecturers and Essays

HISTORICAL LECTURERS AND ESSAYS CHARLES KINGSLEY Contents: The First Discovery of America Cyrus Servant of the Lord Ancient Civilisation Rondelet Vesalius Paracelsus Buchanan THE FIRST DISCOVERY OF AMERICA Let me begin this lecture {1} with a scene in the North Atlantic 863 years since. "Bjarne Grimolfson was blown with his ship into the Irish Ocean; and there came worms and the ship began to sink under them. They had a boat which they had payed with seals' blubber for that the sea- worms will not hurt. But when they got into the boat they saw that it would not hold them all. Then said Bjarne 'As the boat will only hold the half of us my advice is that we should draw lots who shall go in her; for that will not be unworthy of our manhood.' This advice seemed so good that none gainsaid it; and they drew lots. And the lot fell to Bjarne that he should go in the boat with half his crew. But as he got into the boat there spake an Icelander who was in the ship and had followed Bjarne from Iceland 'Art thou going to leave me here Bjarne?' Quoth Bjarne 'So it must be.' Then said the man 'Another thing didst thou promise my father when I sailed with thee from Iceland than to desert me thus. For thou saidst that we both should share the same lot.' Bjarne said 'And that we will not do. Get thou down into the boat and I will get up into the ship now I see that thou art so greedy after life.' So Bjarne went up into the ship and the man went down into the boat; and the boat went on its voyage till they came to Dublin in Ireland. Most men say that Bjarne and his comrades perished among the worms; for they were never heard of after." This story may serve as a text for my whole lecture. Not only does it smack of the sea-breeze and the salt water like all the finest old Norse sagas but it gives a glimpse at least of the nobleness which underlay the grim and often cruel nature of the Norseman. It belongs too to the culminating epoch to the beginning of that era when the Scandinavian peoples had their great times; when the old fierceness of the worshippers of Thor and Odin was tempered without being effeminated by the Faith of the "White Christ" till the very men who had been the destroyers of Western Europe became its civilisers. It should have moreover a special interest to Americans. For--as American antiquaries are well aware--Bjarne was on his voyage home from the coast of New England; possibly from that very Mount Hope Bay which seems to have borne the same name in the time of those old Norsemen as afterwards in the days of King Philip the last sachem of the Wampanong Indians. He was going back to Greenland perhaps for reinforcements finding he and his fellow-captain Thorfinn the Esquimaux who then dwelt in that land too strong for them. For the Norsemen were then on the very edge of discovery which might have changed the history not only of this continent but of Europe likewise. They had found and colonised Iceland and Greenland. They had found Labrador and called it Helluland from its ice-polished rocks. They had found Nova Scotia seemingly and called it Markland from its woods. They had found New England and called it Vinland the Good. A fair land they found it well wooded with good pasturage; so that they had already imported cows and a bull whose lowings terrified the Esquimaux. They had found self-sown corn too probably maize. The streams were full of salmon. But they had called the land Vinland by reason of its grapes. Quaint enough and bearing in its very quaintness the stamp of truth is the story of the first finding of the wild fox-grapes. How Leif the Fortunate almost as soon as he first landed missed a little wizened old German servant of his father's Tyrker by name and was much vexed thereat for he had been brought up on the old man's knee and hurrying off to find him met Tyrker coming back twisting his eyes about--a trick of his--smacking his lips and talking German to himself in high excitement. And when they get him to talk Norse again he says: "I have not been far but I have news for you. I have found vines and grapes!" "Is that true foster-father?" says Leif. "True it is" says the old German "for I was brought up where there was never any lack of them." The saga--as given by Rafn--had a detailed description of this quaint personage's appearance; and it would not he amiss if American wine-growers should employ an American sculptor--and there are great American sculptors--to render that description into marble and set up little Tyrker in some public place as the Silenus of the New World. Thus the first cargoes homeward from Vinland to Greenland had been of timber and of raisins and of vine-stocks which were not like to thrive. And more. Beyond Vinland the Good there was said to be another land Whiteman's Land--or Ireland the Mickle as some called it. For these Norse traders from Limerick had found Ari Marson and Ketla of Ruykjanes supposed to have been long since drowned at sea and said that the people had made him and Ketla chiefs and baptized Ari. What is all this? and what is this too which the Esquimaux children taken in Markland told the Northmen of a land beyond them where the folk wore white clothes and carried flags on poles? Are these all dreams? or was some part of that great civilisation the relics whereof your antiquarians find in so many parts of the United States still in existence some 900 years ago; and were these old Norse cousins of ours upon the very edge of it? Be that as it may how nearly did these fierce Vikings some of whom seemed to have sailed far south along the shore become aware that just beyond them lay a land of fruits and spices gold and gems? The adverse current of the Gulf Stream it may be would have long prevented their getting past the Bahamas into the Gulf of Mexico; but sooner or later some storm must have carried a Greenland viking to San Domingo or to Cuba; and then as has been well said some Scandinavian dynasty might have sat upon the throne of Mexico. These stories are well known to antiquarians. They may be found almost all of them in Professor Rafn's "Antiquitates Americanae." The action in them stands out often so clear and dramatic that the internal evidence of historic truth is irresistible. Thorvald who when he saw what seems to be they say the bluff head of Alderton at the south-east end of Boston Bay said "Here should I like to dwell" and shot by an Esquimaux arrow bade bury him on that place with a cross at his head and a cross at his feet and call the place Cross Ness for evermore; Gudrida the magnificent widow who wins hearts and sees strange deeds from Iceland to Greenland and Greenland to Vinland and back and at last worn out and sad goes off on a pilgrimage to Rome; Helgi and Finnbogi the Norwegians who like our Arctic voyagers in after times devise all sorts of sports and games to keep the men in humour during the long winter at Hope; and last but not least the terrible Freydisa who when the Norse are seized with a sudden panic at the Esquimaux and flee from them as they had three weeks before fled from Thorfinn's bellowing bull turns when so weak that she cannot escape single- handed on the savages and catching up a slain man's sword puts them all to flight with her fierce visage and fierce cries--Freydisa the Terrible who in another voyage persuades her husband to fall on Helgi and Finnbogi when asleep and murder them and all their men; and then when he will not murder the five women too takes up an axe and slays them all herself and getting back to Greenland when the dark and unexplained tale comes out lives unpunished but abhorred henceforth. All these folks I say are no phantoms but realities; at least if I can judge of internal evidence. But beyond them and hovering on the verge of Mythus and Fairyland there is a ballad called "Finn the Fair" and how An upland Earl had twa braw sons My story to begin; The tane was Light Haldane the strong The tither was winsome Finn. and so forth; which was still sung with other "rimur" or ballads in the Faroes at the end of the last century. Professor Rafn has inserted it because it talks of Vinland as a well-known place and because the brothers are sent by the princess to slay American kings; but that Rime has another value. It is of a beauty so perfect and yet so like the old Scotch ballads in its heroic conception of love and in all its forms and its qualities that it is one proof more to any student of early European poetry that we and these old Norsemen are men of the same blood. If anything more important than is told by Professor Rafn and Mr. Black {2} be now known to the antiquarians of Massachusetts let me entreat them to pardon my ignorance. But let me record my opinion that though somewhat too much may have been made in past years of certain rock-inscriptions and so forth on this side of the Atlantic there can be no reasonable doubt that our own race landed and tried to settle on the shore of New England six hundred years before their kinsmen and in many cases their actual descendants the august Pilgrim Fathers of the seventeenth century. And so as I said a Scandinavian dynasty might have been seated now upon the throne of Mexico. And how was that strange chance lost? First of course by the length and danger of the coasting voyage. It was one thing to have like Columbus and Vespucci Cortes and Pizarro the Azores as a halfway port; another to have Greenland or even Iceland. It was one thing to run south-west upon Columbus's track across the Mar de Damas the Ladies' Sea which hardly knows a storm with the blazing blue above the blazing blue below in an ever-warming climate where every breath is life and joy; another to struggle against the fogs and icebergs the rocks and currents of the dreary North Atlantic. No wonder then that the knowledge of Markland and Vinland and Whiteman's Land died away in a few generations and became but fireside sagas for the winter nights. But there were other causes more honourable to the dogged energy of the Norse. They were in those very years conquering and settling nearer home as no other people--unless perhaps the old Ionian Greeks--conquered and settled. Greenland we have seen they held--the western side at least--and held it long and well enough to afford it is said 2600 pounds of walrus' teeth as yearly tithe to the Pope besides Peter's pence and to build many a convent and church and cathedral with farms and homesteads round; for one saga speaks of Greenland as producing wheat of the finest quality. All is ruined now perhaps by gradual change of climate. But they had richer fields of enterprise than Greenland Iceland and the Faroes. Their boldest outlaws at that very time--whether from Norway Sweden Denmark or Britain--were forming the imperial life-guard of the Byzantine Emperor as the once famous Varangers of Constantinople; and that splendid epoch of their race was just dawning of which my lamented friend the late Sir Edmund Head says so well in his preface to Viga Glum's Icelandic Saga "The Sagas of which this tale is one were composed for the men who have left their mark in every corner of Europe; and whose language and laws are at this moment important elements in the speech and institutions of England America and Australia. There is no page of modern history in which the influence of the Norsemen and their conquests must not be taken into account--Russia Constantinople Greece Palestine Sicily the coasts of Africa Southern Italy France the Spanish Peninsula England Scotland Ireland and every rock and island round them have been visited and most of them at one time or the other ruled by the men of Scandinavia. The motto on the sword of Roger Guiscard was a proud one: Appulus et Calaber Siculus mihi servit et Afer. Every island says Sir Edmund Head and truly--for the name of almost every island on the coast of England Scotland and Eastern Ireland ends in either EY or AY or OE a Norse appellative as is the word "island" itself--is a mark of its having been at some time or other visited by the Vikings of Scandinavia. Norway meanwhile was convulsed by war; and what perhaps was of more immediate consequence Svend Fork-beard whom we Englishmen ...