Archive for the ‘Explorers’ Category

Holland on the Hudson

October 14, 2009 Leave a comment
Some tough times at sea for ol' Henry

Some tough times at sea for ol' Henry

To complete this week’s totally unplanned explorers’ trifecta, let’s take a look at Henry Hudson. New York, Amsterdam, and history nerds everywhere have been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the English sea captain’s jaunt up the river that now bears his name. Hudson, of course, was not looking for a good knish or a papaya smoothie when he sailed into New York Harbor. He, along with many other European explorers of the era, thought he could find a northern route across North America to Asia, the much-longed for Northwest Passage.

Hudson’s river didn’t stretch quite that far, and his ship the Half Moon could only sail to present-day Albany before it had to turn back. But Hudson’s journey convinced the Dutch to start trading with the Indians of New York, leading to the settlement of Manhattan and the river valley up to Albany. And don’t forget that the settlers from Holland also brought with them ice-skating, pancakes, and going dutch on dates.

Hudson didn’t spend any time in Manhattan, not even to christen the parkway named for him. He soon returned to England and put together another expedition to search for the Northwest Passage. Earlier, he had tried to sail due north over the Arctic Circle to reach Asia. That trip ended in failure. This time, he reached what is now Hudson Bay, where his crew mutinied, forcing him, his young son, and a few others into a small boat. The captain and his small band died a frozen death as the mutineers returned to England. (Thanks to Russell Shorto and his wonderful The Island at the Center of the World for these details.)

So peaceful - before the Dutch. And taxis.

So peaceful - before the Dutch. And taxis.

A few years later, the Dutch began their commercialization efforts in earnest, hoping to stoke a profitable fur trade with the Iroquois and other tribes of the region. Robert Juet, who had served under Hudson on the Half Moon, told Dutch officials that the Indians “were seeming very glad of our coming.” Sure, Bob – because you left, too! When the Dutch finally put down roots, and the English followed, the tribes might have had a different take on this alien invasion.

Adriaen Block came after Hudson, scouting the region and claiming a good chunk of neighboring Connecticut for the Dutch. (The upcoming 400th anniversary – mark your calendar, it’s just five years away! – of Block’s reaching modern-day Hartford will stir even more worldwide attention than this year’s doings for Hank.


Still, we have Block Island. And a typically woeful attempt at urban revitalization in Hartford named Adriaen’s Landing.) Block’s boat for his Connecticut excursion was actually built on Manhattan or neighboring lands, after his first vessel burned. Friendly Indians helped the Dutch through the winter, providing them with food.

Still not too bad after the Dutch - it was those damn English who screwed it up!

Still not too bad after the Dutch - it was those damn English who screwed it up!

The first Dutch settlers came in 1624 (or at least the Dutch sent them—most were Protestant Walloons), landing on Governor’s Island. Some split for Delaware and Connecticut, some went north along Hudson’s river, a few stayed put. From those humble beginnings sprung the city that never sleeps, and where probably the most lasting Dutch presence is in place names—Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island, the Bowery, the Catskills. A Dutch-themed tour of Manhattan, however, tries to put the lie to that notion.

This post might have stirred some Hudson-mania; you might have thought of proudly wearing a Henry Hudson 400th anniversary t-shirt, to mark the start of the Anglo-Dutch influences that shaped the growth of the Grote Appel. Bad news — the Henry Hudson 400 Foundation sold out in September. But you can still raise a jenever to the old guy, maybe while planning your next trip to the wonderful city he never could have imagined rising out of the Indian villages he saw in 1609.

Just Leif’s Luck

October 14, 2009 2 comments
Who can say no to cod soaked in lye?

Who can say no to cod soaked in lye?

Break out the lutefisk and lefse, give a solemn nod to Martin Luther, and pour another round of Linie Aquavit, because it’s Leif Eriksson Day!

Well, it was. But I guess I missed it. What with all the hoopla over Columbus Day. But there it is in the NYT, President Obama declared October 9 Leif Eriksson Day, just as presidents before him have since 1964.

The first European explorer in North America - leaving aside the claims for St. Brendan.

The first European explorer in North America - leaving aside the claims for St. Brendan.

Continuing our explorer’s theme, let’s take a look at the often-ignored Leif. The presidential proclamation calls him “son of Iceland, grandson of Norway.” Actually he was son of Erik the Red, and though Leif spent his early years on Iceland, it was Greenland that became his home, and the base for the expedition that makes him famous…uh, semi-famous, today.

No one talked much about Leif when I was in grade school. We heard plenty about Columbus, but not much about Leif and his journey to Newfoundland, where he became the first European to found a settlement in North America. (More on that later.) Of course, archaeologists didn’t find evidence of Leif’s presence there until the early 1960s. And let’s face it, as hard-working and ubiquitous as the Norwegians are (in the upper Midwest, anyway), they don’t carry the same demographic clout as the Italians, and they had a 400-year head start in ginning up the PR machine for Columbus. Kids might learn a little about Leif, but to the general population, he is still something of a mystery.

That’s too bad, because the Icelandic sagas depict Leif and his family as the stuff of a ratings-grabbing mini-series. And if there had been cameras in the 10th century AD to get them on a reality show — boffo! Dad Erik and his dad Thorvald were banished from Norway after a little bout of murder with some neighbors. Mayhem followed them in Iceland, which led to another banishment and Erik’s staking a claim in Greenland. Later, Leif’s sister Freydis seems to have masterminded a mini-massacre on Newfoundland (Vinland to the Norse), killing five women herself. According to one saga, she tried to hush up the affair with this threat: “If we are fortunate enough to make it back to Greenland, I will have anyone who tells of these events killed.” More blood-hungry berserkers than subdued Minnesotans, those Erikssons, eh?

At Erik’s little Greenland settlement, the Norse raised cattle and sheep. They also traded the ivory from walrus tusks, along with a few live polar bears, to the folks back in Europe. Leif, eager for adventure, set off to explore lands west of Greenland first spotted by Bjarni Herjolfsson, who, if he had had Leif’s spunk, would have led to our breaking out the lutefisk and lefse to celebrate Bjarni Herjolfsson Day.

Leif first sailed by Baffin Island, stopped briefly on Labrador, then came ashore for the winter on Newfoundland. There and nearby, the  Norse found abundant salmon, grassy fields, and wild grapes or berries, which may have led to the Norse calling the region Vinland (vin can mean either “grapes” or  “grassland”).

Actual on-the-scene footage of the Norse-Skraeling battle!

Actual on-the-scene footage of the Norse-Skraeling battle!

Leif returned to Greenland in the spring with tales of this verdant paradise. On a second journey, Leif’s brother Thorvald explored farther south, around Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. He also made contact with the Indians of the region, ancestors of the Innu and Beothuk. In the spirit of bonhomie that would mark future European contact with the natives, Thorvald called the Indians skraelings — “ugly people” or “weaklings,” take your pick. But the skraelings were strong enough to kill Thorvald, after he and his men attacked them first. And so a pattern was set in motion for the New World…

Another Eriksson brother, Thorstein, led the next Norse expedition to Vinland, hoping to bring his brother’s body back to Greenland. No luck. He soon died, and Thorstein’s widow Gudrid remarried and sailed with the next expedition, hoping to start a more permanent colony. After a year or two, fearful of more skraeling attacks, the Norse left this grassy land, much more suitable for farming and hunting than Greenland, but too far from the Norse there to make it safe.

No one knows when Leif died. He seems to have spent his last years as a leader of the Greenland colony. The Norse stuck it out there until around 1450, when Inuit attacks and colder temperatures either killed off the remaining Norse or drove them off the island.

Tje reconstructed site at L'anse aux Meadows

The reconstructed site at L'anse aux Meadows

The story of Red, Leif, and the family almost seems too fantastic, with the heroic sailing off for unknown lands, the  building of a settlement out of nothing (hey, the Pilgrims got help from the Indians they met…), rivalries and retrievals of bodies. But the sagas and archaeological finds document it (leaving aside some of the holes and conflicting accounts in the written record). Leif has his day, though I doubt many parades. And of course, with the short shrift history gets in our schools today, in this era of mastery tests über alles, don’t expect too many kids to learn much of this story. But if you’re ever in Newfoundland, make a stop at the  living history museum at the first European settlement in North America. And do raise an aquavit for ol’ Leif.

Christopher Who?

October 12, 2009 4 comments
What, no balloons?

What, no balloons?

As thousands of New Yorkers line the streets for today’s holiday festivities, we’re reminded that green beer and corned beef and cabbage must be more significant than exploration, since so many more people turn out for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Why don’t Christopher Columbus and his accomplishments get more respect on the day named for him? Maybe because some of the people slaughtered and displaced by the floodgate of slavery and settlement he opened are still none to happy about being “discovered.” Maybe because Italians who aren’t part of dysfunctional but somehow admirable crime families don’t register too much in the collective American psyche. I can’t explain the lower turnout for the Columbus Day Parade. But I will try to explain a little about who Chris was — and wasn’t.

This is Columbus - only he didn't look like this

This is Columbus - only he didn't look like this. No paintings of him exist from his lifetime.

First, a look at some of the myths and maybe-truths. Someone told me yesterday that Columbus was actually English. What? Maybe she meant Scottish, if the recent theory of a Spanish historian named Villalonga is to be believed. I knew there was some uncertainty about his birthplace, though he always gave Genoa the honor. In recent years, a small Piedmontese village called Cuccaro tried to lay claim as the birth site, hoping to draw tourists. The claim was largely discredited and the tourists stayed away. Some scholars have argued for Spain or Portugal as his true homeland. Plenty of documents from Genoa seem to back the captain’s own claim, though we have his son saying his father chose to obscure details of his roots.

Why? Perhaps because he was a pirate, as Villalonga argues. Perhaps because the explorer was part Jewish in a Catholic Europe that did not much like Jews. We know, thanks to Monty Python, that Columbus’s Spanish employers were not too keen on the unconverted Jews (though the Brits seemed unable to find much humor in the real Inquisition and so subjected a nice, old Englishwoman to the horrors of the comfy chair). Some scholars have argued for Columbus’s Judaic heritage. I would buy that, since conversions weren’t limited to Spanish lands.

The four voyages

The four voyages

So the details are cloudy. And some historians aren’t willing to give CC much credit for his voyages (there were four) of discovery. He didn’t “discover” anything, since plenty of people had lived for thousands of years on the lands he reached. His legacy, as noted above, is one of pain for the native peoples decimated by European colonization. And the Norse beat him to North America by almost 500 years. So maybe he doesn’t even deserve a parade, let alone one to match the kind St. Paddy gets.

But consider: open-ocean crossings in 1492 were not exactly the norm. No one, to his knowledge, had ever taken the route Columbus did. The captain, in a word he might have known, had cojones. He had three tiny ships and a crew that got a little uppity as the sailing dragged on with no land in sight. The honor of making the longest Atlantic voyage by a European ship maybe gave the sailor some bragging rights — but only if they made it back home to actually do some bragging. And for good or ill, the colonization of the Americas that Columbus unleashed, and the exchange that bears his name, did change the world. Peppers to Thailand and potatoes to the homeland of Scotland, horses to Mexico and beer to me — all possible because Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

Yes, Europe would have “discovered” the New World if Chris had never lived. But he did – whoever he really was, and wherever he came from – and he got there first. Maybe worth a halfway decent parade.