Read Nova Scotia Online

Authors: Lesley Choyce

Tags: #history, #sea, #sea adventure sailboat, #nova scotia, #lesley choyce

Nova Scotia (6 page)

BOOK: Nova Scotia
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One of the more outlandish reports is that of the voyage (or
voyages) of Prince Madoc, a twelfth-century Welsh prince who
travelled to the Americas and sailed all along the coast from Nova
Scotia to Mexico. The place impressed him so positively that he
returned again with folks from Wales to establish a colony. He has
been identified with Quetzalcoatl as a legendary white man who
taught Native Americans to speak Welsh. Other reports surfaced
among later American colonists that there were Indians who spoke
Welsh but these curious people were never found.

Another voyage involves a chief’s
son named Mael Duin, who sails in a curragh big enough for sixty
men in search of a bandit who murdered his father. They come across
many fantastic islands and creatures including giant ants, exotic
birds, monsters and mystifying creatures. At the furthest reach of
the journey, there are no beautiful enslaving women this time, but
simply a hermit who has the satchel of the great St. Brendan, who
had been there before.

   
And this leads us to the story most reported by the Irish,
that of St. Brendan the Navigator, born around 489. Medieval maps
show something called “St. Brendan’s Isle” in various locations far
across the Atlantic from Europe. All we can say with reasonable
certainty is that Irish sailors, and probably monks as well, had
already been living in Iceland when the Norse arrived. It would be
a hopeful guess to say that Brendan actually made it to Nova Scotia
on his voyages, but the possibility is not to be ruled out.
Brendan’s tale was written up three or four hundred years after the
events were supposed to have occurred. The earliest story has him
setting out on a quest for a quiet and peaceful place, failing once
and trying it again, this time with success. A message from God
later tells him to give up the peace and quiet of the New World and
return to a less cloistered life in Ireland.

   
The twelfth-century version of Brendan’s story sends him off
with thirty men to an earthly paradise retreat. An angel has told
him which direction to sail. Brendan encounters monsters, whales,
mermaids and even devils as he sails from island to island only to
return home after five years, never having found the promised land.
What he really wanted to find was a place of no violence or death.
Fearing that he might have failed because he was travelling in a
boat made from the slaughtered skins of animals, he built a wooden
one and set off with sixty men. This time he confronted more
monsters, sea cats and pygmy demons, but he eventually arrived at
yet another island, this one inhabited by a lone Irishman, a
survivor of some shipwreck, who told him the way to the dream
island. The narrative ends where Brendan arrives at the much
sought-after coast to find a man wearing brilliant white
feathers.

   
In the long narrative that is the story of Nova Scotia, this
tale is probably of little concrete merit, except to show a healthy
contrast to the motivation of so many of the explorers who were to
follow. Here is an ancient Irishman plowing the seas in search of a
little peace and harmony. Had such a tradition prevailed, Nova
Scotia might have been populated by a wave of ancient European
peaceniks craving a contemplative life. Instead, what followed was
a long parade of aggressive men of commerce, lusting for riches and
hoping to harvest and harass more than to
homestead.

The Fierce Adventurers

While Newfoundland can probably lay
a sincere claim to the arrival of the early Norse explorers, it is
reasonably safe to say that these fierce, proud but violent people
also came ashore on Nova Scotia, where they established temporary
settlements. The Icelandic sagas provide accounts of voyages to a
place known as “Vinland the Good” and it has been widely debated as
to exactly where Vinland was – perhaps as far south as
Massachusetts or as far north as the coast of Labrador. The name
“Vinland” may not have suggested grapes at all, but in translation,
simply grass – a land of grass. The grassy expanse of L’Anse aux
Meadows in northern Newfoundland fits that description and it is
here that archaeologists have found the remains of homesteads
created by Norse men and women.

   
The sagas include reports of encounters with Native North
Americans called “Skraelings,” who may have been Inuit, Beothuck,
Mi’kmaq or some other Native group. While these people were
considered by the Norse to be hostile and dangerous, a quick scan
of many of these sagas and legends reveals that the Norsemen
themselves were anything but easy to get along with. They were
quick to anger, aggressive and likely to make enemies of whoever
crossed their path, and it’s safe to assume that the Skraelings
recognized the imminent danger of these newcomers and tried to
defend their homes.

   
The Icelandic sagas were written in the fourteenth and
fifteenth centuries and were based on oral tradition. Thus they are
full of half-truths, exaggeration and even contradiction.
Nonetheless, we know that Vikings certainly came this way, they
settled, they fought, and they died or retreated. Unlike those
other Europeans who were to follow, however, they understood the
harshness of the cold North Atlantic winters and probably had made
better psychological and physical preparation. They were a northern
people, turbulent but resilient.

   
Although evidence of visits by Leif Eriksson and Thorfinn
Karlsefni to Newfoundland is quite compelling, the case for Viking
visits to Nova Scotia remains tentative at best. However, not far
from Yarmouth a stone was discovered which is believed to have an
inscription written in ancient Icelandic. Known as the Yarmouth
Stone, this piece of rock has been deciphered by the researcher
Henry Phillips to say “Harkussen Men Varn” or “Harko’s son
addressed the men.” Harko was one of the men reported to have
travelled with Thorfinn Karlsefni. In 1939 Olaf Strandwold, another
researcher hot on the trail of the meaning of this rock, deciphered
the message as “Leivur Eriku Resr” or “Leif to Erik raises,”
implying that the rock was a monument recording praise from Leif
Eriksson to his father. One of Strandwold’s critics, however,
suggests that he was a man who was “able to find runes in any
crevice or groove and decipher them,” while others who have seen
the stone suggest that the markings are more likely Mi’kmaq in
origin.

The Wealth of Whales

Basque fishermen from the Bay of
Biscay prided themselves on being great whalers and there is a
record of whaling going on there as early as 1199, although it most
likely goes even further back. In the thirteenth and fourteenth
centuries, whaling was a Basque monopoly and their catch was
plentiful along their own shores until the sixteenth century, when
they had depleted their own stock and were forced to travel further
for the kill. They went to Spain, Scotland, Iceland and
Newfoundland. The European harvest of the sea has rarely been a
cautious or concerned endeavour. The message was clear, even as
early as this, that the sea did not provide a limitless resource,
though this myth has persisted to our own time and may continue to
do so until all species of commercial value are
eradicated.

   
Whatever their environmental shortcomings, Basque fishermen
were brave, industrious and willing to put up with the great
discomforts of a cold North Atlantic crossing for a catch of
seafood from the riches of the Grand Banks and beyond. Basque
fishermen may have found their way to Newfoundland as early as the
1300s, but the first real documentation shows them here in the
1520s. Port-aux-Basques in the southwest corner of the island bears
their name. Basque whaling ships in the fourteenth century would
have rivalled the size of even Columbus’s largest
vessels.

   
Basque fishermen fished for whales and cod, both off the
shores of Nova Scotia and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Life aboard
a whaling ship would not have been a pretty picture. There were no
sleeping quarters, the provisions would often be rotting, a smell
of decaying whale fat would permeate the hold, and beyond that were
the dangers of icebergs, storms and pervasive
cold.

   
Life ashore in the temporary colonies on Île de Bacaillau
(Island of Cod), as they referred to Newfoundland, must have
provided some respite to restore their health as the Basques dried
and salted their catch for return to their
homeland.

   
The Basques seemed fairly unconcerned with holding down any
piece of geography. They wanted the fish and Newfoundland provided
a convenient place to go ashore and preserve the catch. The
surrender of Newfoundland to the English in 1713 by the Treaty of
Utrecht drove the Basques not only from Newfoundland but also from
the high seas as well. The more militant English, with their
weapons and their naval vessels, had by then discovered the great
profit to be made in whaling and wanted to have full reign to
plunder without competition.

Henry Sinclair and the Holy
Grail

St. Brendan, if he came this way at
all, was not alone in his quest for new land for religious reasons.
In recent years considerable ink has been spilled over the evidence
concerning the travels and religious quest of Prince Henry Sinclair
of the Orkney Islands. While reports of other adventures rest more
in legend than fact, there is a credible story here with shreds of
concrete evidence that cannot be dismissed.

   
Prince Henry Sinclair was the son of King John I
and Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt. In his 1974 book,
Prince Henry Sinclair: His
Expedition to the New World in 1398
, Frederick J. Pohl writes with conviction of the
authenticity of Sinclair’s travels to Nova Scotia. The story goes
as follows.

   
In 1398 Henry hears a tale about a fisherman who had
disappeared into the western sea for about twenty-five years and
then returned to tell of a strange but magnificent land where there
was plenty of fish but cannibals as well. Not fearing the
cannibals, but lured by the adventure, Henry and a sizeable crew
set sail and arrive at Newfoundland (called Esotilanda), where an
Icelander tells him of another island called Icaria that is ruled
by an Irish king. Henry travels there and goes ashore but is
attacked by Aboriginals and forced to leave. Sailing further along,
they spot smoke coming from a hillside, causing Sinclair to send a
hundred of his sailor/soldiers to see what was going on. The men
return after eight days to report that the smoke came from a
burning pitch-like substance that flowed up from a spring. They
also report having found many inhabitants who were small in
stature, timid and living in caves.

   
Sinclair and some of his men decide to stay on here and send
the others back. He may have intended to eventually build another
sailing ship from the local trees for his own return voyage,
although this plan seems a curious, brazen move that may have left
him cut off from his home for good.

   
There’s another facet of this story more
intriguing than the journey itself. Michael Bradley, in
Holy Grail Across the
Atlantic
, argues that
Sinclair’s journey was not purely for discovery. Henry Sinclair was
a supporter of the Templar movement in Europe and provided refuge
for those persecuted on the continent. Some believe that the
Templars had inherited the Holy Grail – the actual cup used by
Christ and passed around at the Last Supper. Bradley and other
writers have put forward the notion that Sinclair came to Nova
Scotia with his Templar refugees to hide the Holy Grail from
enemies and also to establish some sort of new colony as a refuge
for his persecuted friends. Bradley points out that early maps of
Nova Scotia show some sort of castle near the centre of Nova Scotia
that was similar to castles in Sinclair’s
homeland.

   
Adding to this amazing but far-fetched story is new research
by a surveyor named William Mann, which includes exact details
about where the Holy Grail is buried in Nova Scotia and other clues
to Sinclair’s visits here that involve surveying techniques, stone
carvings, Masonic codes and the mystery of buried treasure on Oak
Island. Establishing the truth about what actually happened may be
impossible after these many years, but the controversy surrounding
this mystery will undoubtedly have a long life. If Pohl, Bradley
and Mann are correct, then Sinclair hoped Nova Scotia to be a kind
of New Jerusalem, a land of religious refuge and spiritual growth.
 

 

Chapter 6

Chapter 6

 

John Cabot: “Immense Quantities of
Fish”

None of John Cabot’s own writing
has survived, so it is hard to tell his tale with supreme accuracy.
In Cabot’s day and in the years after, events were recorded in
“chronicles,” massive journals that bridged big chunks of history.
Often one chronicler borrowed from another and stories had a habit
of altering according to the mindset of the scribbler. Fact and
fiction were meshed together but, of course, this can be said of
reporting in our own time as well. So what we have is a story made
up of fragments, opinions and guesswork about who John Cabot was
and what he did.

    
My attempt here is to pull together some
consensus of the man. The government of Nova Scotia has erected a
monument along the Cabot Trail, where John supposedly set foot, but
my guess is that this was a hopeful notion, geared toward tourism,
not history.

BOOK: Nova Scotia
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