By Ronald Swearinger
Now that the Columbus Day season is upon us, with our very welcome annual court holiday just behind us, and the Italian American Lawyers Association is belatedly holding has its annual ''fete de mustacciola'' honoring Marco Polo and celebrating the alleged discovery of this lovely continent by Christopher Columbus, I find within me a need to say a few words on that general subject. I do so at this time in my capacity as historian of the Norwegian on One's Mother's Side American Bar Association. I speak from quite a bit of research, on a subject that attracted my interest some years ago startling and in a rather mystical way, as you will hereinafter learn.
I am prepared to and do at this time emphatically declare that Columbus did not discover America and that a Norwegian Viking by the name of Leif Erickson did and did so in the late tenth century.
You Italian American lawyers are all wet. All wet in the sense that you have allowed yourselves to be lulled by the conventional and convenient wisdom, always a mistake.
To say in the presence of so many Italian-Americans that it was Leif Erickson and not Columbus who discovered America is, of course, tactless, impertinent and likely to invite a barrage of recklessly flung mustacciola, along with chicken bones, what's left of the salad and perhaps an empty wine bottle or two, but I will excuse our Italianate brethren and sistren should that occur, considering that the intense nationalism of Garibaldi still smolders in many Italianate breasts and properly so, for Italy is a lovely country and Italians are, generally, fine ladies and gallant gentlemen and their civilization is noted world-wide for stupefying cultural achievements. Who but an Italian could compose La Boheme, or write Summa Theologica or carve the statue of David. But, it was not an Italian who discovered America. I hate to have to tell you this.
Let me point out that some years ago, when this organization was just getting started, on invitation I wrote stunning paean to the Italians; a summary of their vivid history from the Etruscans to and including Sophia Loren; a dissertation on their cultural achievements from the Arch of Scipio Africanus to the Maserati 231L; a tribute to the Italian ladies and their exquisite grace and charm; a bold defense of the Italian gentlemen, explaining the cultural as well the anthropological basis of the roving eye, the need to cut the bella figura and the necessity to pinch supple bottoms from time to time. I wrote of the lovely climate of Italy, of its grand edifices and of the perfect symmetry of the Bay of Naples. I spoke well of the Romans, of Cola di Renzi, of Garibaldi and even of the Mafia. The things I said in that piece about Italian cuisine were worthy of the notice of, say, Julia Child. It was one of the best things I ever wrote; it was lively, it was droll and it was inspirational. I, alas, did not keep a copy. I sent the original off to an official of this organization for possible use as a preamble to the charter of this organization, expecting heaps of praise for my impressive versatility and scholarship in summing up the Italianate civilization and its grandeurs.
Instead, someone in the organization lost it. I have been a little tee'd off ever since.
But, I bear the organization no ill-will. Things do get lost, and I should have kept a copy.
So, before I embark upon my remarks tonight--remarks that may tee you off, remember that I am a grand friend of Italy and Italians. I have tarried long in that bountiful land and I once shook hands with Gina Lollabrigida, an experience that left me totally debilitated; using up as it did all the adrenalin that was then in me. I still feel a little faint, whenever I think about it.
I am here tonight on serious business. Historical truth crushed to earth is not, a good thing. For a particular reason as will appear hereafter, I feel that I must make Leif Erickson's case for him, suspecting that he would ask me to do so if there were a telephone line from Valhalla or if old Leif could get a telex or a FAX through to me at the courthouse. It is likely that Leif has been smoldering with resentment for almost five hundred years now up in Valhalla and that the Valkyries, those Bella Ragazza of Nordic myth, stay out of his way on and around October 12th of each year, and leave him to his brooding, entirely celibate. Leif Erickson has a lot to be sore about for conventional history has treated him badly. He did, after all, discover America. In fact, this organization should really be called the Italian-Ericksonian Lawyers' Association.
Trevelyan, dean of modern historians, says that if we are to proclaim history, we must present proofs. Let us proceed to our proofs. We go back in time to the year 1492. Columbus, persuaded by some erratic trigonometry and some terrible calculus that China was to be found somewhere relatively near to the west of Spain and close enough to be visited by the frail craft of the time, talked Queen Isabella into hocking her jewels, as the legend goes, to outfit three small ships for an expedition to Cathay, a land of untold riches, according to Marco Polo. After 40 sailing days and 40 nights, Columbus bumped into the island of Hispaniola, half of which is now the Dominican Republic, the other half being Haiti. And, based upon what Marco Polo had written, Columbus was puzzled. Not a chop suey joint in sight. No Won Ton soup. No Dim Sum joints. No firecrackers. No lovely Mandarin ladies in finely embroidered silk garments. No delegation eager to get a mah jong game going. No laundries.
Columbus might have been puzzled, but he was sure as hell not dissuaded. He was in China and he went back to Spain and so advised the few who had paid any attention to his claims and to his voyage. Eventually, as we know, he was clapped in jail. We do not know why. Isabella was not pleased, apparently.
Now, let us go further back into the past towards the end of the Tenth Century. No one disputes that Norwegian Vikings were living on the west coast of Greenland then; that there were many settlements; that the land was ruled by a red-headed Viking gentleman who was named, appropriately, Eric the Red. Eric had a son; a rash, belligerent young fellow named Leif who did not get along with his dad and was sick and tired of the terrible climate in Greenland. Leif had a buddy named Lars Almvig. Lars was a great teller of tales. These were called ''sagas'' in the Norse tradition. Everyone recited sagas from memory because few could read and write. One tantalizing tale, cast in the form of a saga, spoke of a land far to the west that had been seen through a mist by a Viking band that had been badly blown off-course. Egged on by Lars Almvig and anxious to get out of the shadow of the old man, Leif organized a voyage, borrowed a ''Long Ship'' and headed west on a fine summer day in about 990 A.D. We know this because it is proclaimed in many of the Norse sagas of the time. These sagas survive. They have been compiled by a thoughtful anthropologist by the name of Snorri Sturleson in a book called ''Prose Edda.'' They are also found scattered throughout the literature of the Vikings.
Now, let us look to the geography in question. Get out your Mercator Projection, find the scale, cut a measured length of string, and lay out some lines. Find Narsalik, Greenland at just about 60 degrees North Latitude and about 50 degrees West Longitude. Narsalik was then the capital of Greenland and had the best harbor. Note that the small circle distance from Narsalik to any point on the coast of Labrador is about 500 miles. Labrador is part of North America. Note the direction of the Labrador current which is southerly in those latitudes. Note that Viking long-boats under sail were good for 6 knots an hour in an average breeze. Add the velocity of the Labrador current which is about 3 knots an hour and is southerly in direction. Confidence factor by, say, two and you will derive probable sailing time from Narsalik to the coast of Labrador of about 110 hours or four and a half days. Would that have been hard sailing for Leif Erickson? That's about the time that it takes inept brothers-in-law in their leaky boat to make it to Catalina, when, hopefully, you are not aboard. Leif, incidentally, went ashore on Labrador and named it ''Markland',' Land of the Flat Stones.
We are doing the map work to determine whether or not Leif's voyage was feasible. Feasibility is an important issue in casting the likelihood of occurrences, as all lawyers know, or should know. Now, let's go down the coast of Labrador, hugging the shoreline, for about 400 more miles and perhaps four days. We arrive at the Gulf of the St. Lawrence River, with the huge and bountiful island of Newfoundland just to the south. Let's go another 300 miles or so and we come to Nova Scotia and the Grand Banks. About 300 miles to the south is Boston, which, of course wasn't there in the Tenth Century.
Recall that the Vikings sailed the North Atlantic just as easily as the Phoenicians sailed the Mediterranean and that the area from the coast of Norway, up across Iceland and on over to Greenland, a vast distance, was easily traversed by those hard Norseman in their superbly designed and constructed ships.
So, we know now that the voyages of Leif Erickson were entirely feasible and that the distances involved were not extreme and that reaching any point on the North American continent north of Boston was an easy sail and probably a lot of fun if attempted in the summer time when the North Atlantic is as still as a mill-pond. (Cf. Voyage of Ron Swearinger aboard the troopship U.S.S. General Mann, August, 1953; Memoirs of Ron Swearinger, unpublished as yet).
Now, did the voyages occur? I say voyages because according to the sagas there were two, two years apart. On his first return to Greenland, Leif described his ultimate destination as a land mass he called ''Vinland'' because he found wild grapes growing there. He wintered there and brought back a cargo of wine. This news was quickly incorporated into the Norse sagas and was loudly proclaimed in the very northern latitudes. Lars Almvig, of course, wrote many of these sagas, the most literate of which was ''Val Sturma Vinland,'' which gave sailing directions, distances and landmarks.
And, a literate fellow named Adam of Bremen (that's in Germany, you know) wrote the voyages up in considerable detail. Adam was essentially a journalist and his writings about Leif's voyages can be found in the Bremen Public Library today. So, it wasn't just the Norsemen who heard about the voyages. The news in the form of the sagas apparently spread far and wide in the northern latitudes.
A word now about the ''sagas.'' Nordic people of early times communicated information in the form of long, rambling epic poems that usually did not rhyme, or even scan very well. The Greeks, incidentally, did the same. Were the Norse or Greek ''sagas'' truthful and reliable? People of earlier times, we know, were rather long on hyperbole and overstatement, just as many of us are today, and history was written by imaginative folks ranging from the gullible Herodotus of the 5th Century B.C. to Saint Bede who wrote, for a long time, the Anglo Saxon Chronicles. On analysis, modern historians agree that the Norse sagas were factually correct, once one distilled out the embellishment and the serious overstatement.
There is a central theme to the Norse sagas which describe the voyages of Leif Erickson to the lands far to the west. That theme is that land was reached that was rather pretty, and that wild grapes grew in profusion. Vinland! Probably Newfoundland. Allegedly, some grand adventures were had, according to Lars Almvig. The broads were comely and the booze plentiful, and there were a lot of good brawls with the natives; that kind of stuff. One must put the embellishments aside and look only to the central reality, however. A new world had been discovered! Again, Vinland! Most probably New Foundland!
So far, we have been speculating, sort of. But, there is a clincher. You have to go to the Yale University Library to see it in the original. It is a map of the world that has been studied for years along with accompanying documents and it has been authenticated as having been made in the mid 13th century. I hold a copy aloft. It is called ''The Vinland Map'' although it shows the geography of the world as it was known in the 13th Century. It appears in a hand written history of the Western world on fine and sturdy vellum that an English cleric, one Vincent of Beauvois, wrote under the tide of ''Spectrum Historial'' in the 13th Century. The Vinland Map was the manuscript's principal illustration.
Now, may I seemingly digress for a moment. Around 1250 A. D., Pope Innocent the Fourth sent a lively Italian fellow named Carpini on a mission to the Tartars. The Tartars were a wild, nomadic people who were just then invading Eastern Europe. Carpini was a hell of a guy; an adventurer in the tradition of the later Marco Polo. Carpini, incidentally, was 63 years of age when he set out on his expedition to the east. Not bad, eh?
Carpini got there in one piece and had a damned good time hanging around with the head Tartar, who told him all about the history and traditions of the Tartars. En route home, Carpini wrote a history and description of the Tartars. Why is this footnote to history important to our discussion? We shall see.
Somebody in a monastery thereupon took a copy of Carpini's history of the Tartars, copied it on fine vellum and then bound it into the manuscript of Vincent of Beauvois ''Spectrum Historial,'' which manuscript contained, as noted, the Vinland Map. The binding job is magnificent. The entire manuscript survives. It is at the Yale University Library, having passed through various hands over the centuries.
Yale thinks enough of the manuscript to have published a large book in 1965 called ''The Vinland Map and the Tartar relation'' which verifies the whole business and gives the Vinland Map credibility among scholars as being a 13th Century document. And, what do we see on the I3th Century Vinland Map? Aha, we see all of Western Europe in pretty good scale and description. We do see England and Ireland, as well as Iceland in considerable detail. We see Greenland rather grandly depicted and on a scale better than Mercator's and to the west of Greenland we see Newfoundland! North America! It appears exactly where it actually is at the present time and the scale is pretty good as is the configuration of the coastline. Remember that we are talking about a 13th Century map. That means twelve something or other. And, what do we find in the upper left corner of the map, just above Newfoundland? We find a legend in Latin that says ''Vinland, discovered by Bjarne and Leif in company.'' Bjarne? Who the hell was Bjarne? I did some research. Bjarne was Bjarne Herjolfson. He was the guy who owned the boat Leif borrowed. He did not go on the voyage but got first dibs on the wine Leif brought back! And, apparently wiggled himself into the act somehow.
The Vinland Map plus the boiled down Norse sagas make the case for the discovery of America by Leif Erickson late in the 10th Century on any fair view of the matter. Parenthetically, there are numerous other circumstantial proofs, such as the foundations of a pre-Columbian Norse town at L'anse Aux Meadow in Newfoundland, and Runic stones are found all over that area. A Runic stone is a stone inscribed with Norse Runic writing, commemorating an event. I hold aloft a sample Runic stone. But, since you do not have all night, nor do I, I desist from other profuse and miscellaneous proofs and will not digress. I rest my case. ''Hogwash'' you say. Go ahead and say it. Hogwash, Hogwash, Hogwash! Hogwash, like evil is, of course, in the eye of the beholder, and a willing suspension of disbelief in the presence of puzzling facts contrary to the conventional wisdom is a necessary ingredient to any search for truth. Did Columbus know of the voyages of Leif Erickson?
Some say yes, but that may be of a coarse, libel. Remember that about five hundred years elapsed between the respective voyages. What do any of you highly literate and well read folks gathered here tonight know of minor events of five hundred years ago in remote parts of the world. Nothing!
Now, let us return to the relative present. It is a hot, muggy day in the rather decrepit city of Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic on an island which is known as Hispaniola. The date is October 12th, Columbus Day; a certain obscure jurist has, against a travel agent's advice, taken a cheap cruise of the Caribbean on a rather shaggy vessel that has broken down in Santo Domingo harbor. What is there to see in Santo Domingo, he asks a taxi driver. "Ah, señor, there is a revolution in process and one can go to watch the sniping and the executions." Naw! "Ah señor, there is the tomb of Christopher Columbus," says the taxi driver, offering an alternative. What a fine way to observe Columbus Day proceed forthwith, the obscure jurist directs. It is there, right in the middle of town. A grand edifice in concept, but rather shabby in execution. And in the center is the sarcophagus containing the remains of Christopher Columbus, the great Admiral of the Ocean Sea, the guy who proved that the world was round. ''The discoverer of America,'' says a huge inscription over the central arch.
''Hmmmmm,'' speculates the obscure jurist. He has heard of the controversy and of the claims regarding Leif Erickson. ''I wonder,'' he says aloud. As he continues to speculate and muse and stare at the inscription on the great arch, there is a strange crackle in the air. It suddenly turns cold. Ominous clouds quickly gather over the mausoleum; dark, ugly clouds, loaded with moisture. And then comes a clap of thunder and a dazzling lightning bolt streaks down through a jagged opening in what is now a boiling, swirling mass of sky. And then there is a sudden shaft of brilliant sunlight and the obscure jurist peers aloft into a grand chasm in the sky, brilliantly lit. The entrance to Valhalla, domain of the souls of the Vikings? The final destination of Leif Erickson? And then a violent gust of wind careens down from on high, carrying with it a great stentorian utterance. Hogwash is the utterance. The accent is ancient and emphatically Nordic.
I take my license here tonight from that mystical occurrence for I was the obscure jurist. So Leif, what do you say? Did I straighten these folks out? Listen! [Hand to ear looking aloft.] Listen! Did you hear him? He said, ''Mange takk.'' That means ''many thanks'' in Norwegian.
I do not mean by this harangue to dishonor the memory of Christopher Columbus, and since October 9th, Columbus Day, is a very welcome court holiday, I am reluctant to tread further on treacherous ground. Governor Deukmejian may hear this and he is not much in favor of court holidays, feeling that we should all work harder and reduce the backlog.
So, let us be pragmatic and may Columbus Day always be
a court holiday and may there be many grand Columbus
Day celebrations as the years go by on the part of the Italian American
Lawyers Association, and may they always invite
me to eat the mustacciola and chicken and drink the fine wines
and enjoy the speechifying. For it is a grand and lively organization.
Thank you for your kind attention. ''Mange takk.''
In further answer to "Who the hell was Bjarne?": It was Bjarni Herjulfsson who sited North America in 986 when his ship was blown far off course while attempting to return to Greenland from Iceland. He did not land, however. His accounts inspired Leif's expedition, presently believed to have taken place no earlier than 1000.