Brendan the Voyager Discovers the New World 900 Years Before Christopher Columbus?


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Saint_brendan_german_manuscriptToday, at least in the US, it’s Columbus Day. While I won’t pretend that the claims by the famous Italian are somewhat up for debate, and certainly with their share of controversy, I’d rather offer someone else for your consideration for the discovery of this hemisphere: the 6th century Irish monk known as St. Brendan.

What, you expected Leif Erikson?

You see, nearly a millennium before Christopher Columbus’s famed trip on the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa-Maria, St. Brendan got the moniker “Brendan the Voyager” for completing a rather impressive journey that took seven years. According to the extant sources, St. Brendan went looking for the Garden of Eden, but may well have stumbled across the New World in little more than a leather-clad boat sometime between 513-530 CE. In fact, some even claim that Christopher Columbus himself was inspired by the monk’s journey, and is reported to have written in his travel log before leaving on his historic trip, “I am convinced that the terrestrial paradise is in the Island of Saint Brendan, which none can reach save by the Will of God.”

I first came across St. Brendan during a seminar in medieval history in my senior year of college. At the time I was rather intrigued with hagiography, the study of saint’s lives, and admittedly St. Brendan’s voyage was much eclipsed by my interest in St. Columba (not to be confused with Columbus) who recounted, it is said, one of the first sightings of the Loch Ness Monster. But what always stuck with me regarding St. Brendan was how unusual his story was (though, in all fairness, Brendan encountered his own sea monster, as well). While much hagiography is ascribed to the rather colorful imagination of medieval minds, in the 20th century many began to speculate about St. Brendan’s, and a rather intriguing amount of evidence pertaining to his trip emerged.

In the late 1970s, a man named Tim Severin decided to put the story to the test, seeing if he could navigate his way from Scotland to Nova Scotia using what he believed were St. Brendan’s “stepping stones”–Scotland, the Hebrides, the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia–in a boat modeled after vessels St. Brendan could have used. It was successful, if not hard-won. From Severin’s account:

Brendan [Severin’s boat] touched the New World at 8:00 p.m. on June 26, 1977, on the shore of Peckford Island in the Outer Wadham Group some 150 miles northwest of St. John’s, Newfoundland. She had been at sea for fifty days. The exact spot of her landfall has no particular significance to the story of the early Irish voyages into the Atlantic. It was merely the place where the wind and current had brought a twentieth-century replica of the original Irish skin vessels….

And while other theories have surfaced, including speculation on supposed ogham (Old Irish alphabet) in West Virginia, the jury is not yet out on the Columbus vs. Brendan debate. What do you think? Plausible? Poppycock? At very least, I love that this particular theory inspired such a geeky–and heroic–endeavor. That, if anything, should be celebrated.







21 Responses to Brendan the Voyager Discovers the New World 900 Years Before Christopher Columbus?

  1. I expect that a number of wayward voyagers reached America long before anybody knew that's what it was. Thanks for the informative article.

    BTW, you missed a 't' in the title.

    • DNA analysis indicates that some native american tribes are of European ancestry. The Objiway tribe in particular has a large fraction of European markers.

      I figure people have been crossing the pond in one direction in large numbers than have crossed in two dirctions. Columbus, Brendan, and Leif Eriksen wrote about it.

      The first person known to sail all around the world was a Fillipino. He had traveled west with Muslims, and Portugese, and eventually took ship with Magellen, and made it back home.

  2. I expect that a number of wayward voyagers reached America long before anybody knew that’s what it was. Thanks for the informative article.

    BTW, you missed a ‘t’ in the title.

  3. The Chinese sent an entire fleet to the US in 1421 bent on colonisation – there was in a dispute over expansion between the Eunuchs and courtiers over the wisdom of this and it was decided to expand internally – the fleet was recalled. Instead all the forests were cut down and the tops of the mountains in the entire south of china pushed into the valleys for a massive increase in rice production in order to massively increase quality of life – all that happened was the greatest population explosion coupled with the greatest environmental catastrophie ever seen – except the current one.
    America could very well have been chinese except the Eunuchs didn’t like the idea…….will be Chinese in a couple of decades anyway.

  4. The Chinese sent an entire fleet to the US in 1421 bent on colonisation – there was in a dispute over expansion between the Eunuchs and courtiers over the wisdom of this and it was decided to expand internally – the fleet was recalled. Instead all the forests were cut down and the tops of the mountains in the entire south of china pushed into the valleys for a massive increase in rice production in order to massively increase quality of life – all that happened was the greatest population explosion coupled with the greatest environmental catastrophie ever seen – except the current one.

    America could very well have been chinese except the Eunuchs didn't like the idea…….will be Chinese in a couple of decades anyway.

  5. I’ve read about Leif Ericsson’s Vinland colony but hadn’t heard about this one. Thanks for the post, enjoyed it.

  6. I've read about Leif Ericsson's Vinland colony but hadn't heard about this one. Thanks for the post, enjoyed it.

  7. This type of thing comes up every time someone wants to get rid of Columbus. It is a foregone conclusion that there were other humans who “discovered” america before Columbus, evidenced by the native peoples already living here upon his arrival.

    But as my history teacher used to say, Columbus was the first to discover AND document the discovery, and his trip opened up the americas to western civilization. That cannot be disputed. None of the other “discoverers” came anywhere close to that.

    • Wrong. On all sorts of levels:

      "evidenced by the native peoples already living here upon his arrival"

      Every heard of "indigenous". They don't discover anything. They are just there from the start.

      "But as my history teacher used to say, Columbus was the first to discover AND document the discovery"

      Your teacher was wrong. They did document it, they just weren't every successful at projecting it to make sense to other future societies. Just because modern historians can't work out the ramblings doesn't mean the actual people at the time didn't document it.

      Truth is, Columbus was the most modern person to first document it in his own society and the population of the area didn't stop like the Norse people stopped. That's all.

      It doesn't mean other people didn't discover and document it first. So yes, your views are very disputable. To the point of being wrong.

      • It really doesn’t matter so much about the label ‘discoverer’. What matters is that Columbus ushered in a massive wave of colonization, for good or ill.

        • No doubt.

          But my point was, you cannot call him the first to discover and document it. He was just the first to document it in the society which breeded our own.

          If this society dies out, the next person to ‘discover it’ will be held up as the example, not him. Which means that he really is no different to Erikson, if you think about it.

          That’s all I was saying.

  8. This type of thing comes up every time someone wants to get rid of Columbus. It is a foregone conclusion that there were other humans who "discovered" america before Columbus, evidenced by the native peoples already living here upon his arrival.

    But as my history teacher used to say, Columbus was the first to discover AND document the discovery, and his trip opened up the americas to western civilization. That cannot be disputed. None of the other "discoverers" came anywhere close to that.

    • Wrong. On all sorts of levels:

      "evidenced by the native peoples already living here upon his arrival"

      Every heard of "indigenous". They don't discover anything. They are just there from the start.

      "But as my history teacher used to say, Columbus was the first to discover AND document the discovery"

      Your teacher was wrong. They did document it, they just weren't every successful at projecting it to make sense to other future societies. Just because modern historians can't work out the ramblings doesn't mean the actual people at the time didn't document it.

      Truth is, Columbus was the most modern person to first document it in his own society and the population of the area didn't stop like the Norse people stopped. That's all.

      It doesn't mean other people didn't discover and document it first. So yes, your views are very disputable. To the point of being wrong.

      • It really doesn't matter so much about the label 'discoverer'. What matters is that Columbus ushered in a massive wave of colonization, for good or ill.

        • No doubt.

          But my point was, you cannot call him the first to discover and document it. He was just the first to document it in the society which breeded our own.

          If this society dies out, the next person to 'discover it' will be held up as the example, not him. Which means that he really is no different to Erikson, if you think about it.

          That's all I was saying.