This is just a fantastic book, and I can’t say enough good things about it. It is most emphatically *not* Science Fiction, but it is - somewhat accidentally - an excellent reference for fans of the Alternate History genre. Presumably it’d be good for writers as well. It’s hard to pour through this thing and not toy with constructing some “Mighta’been” worlds. Be ye Fen or Dane, however, this is just a fascinating, smart, and endlessly neat little reference.
“Ah, but what’s it all about?”
Glad you asked: We’ve *all* heard the stories about various groups claiming to have discovered America before Columbus - the Vikings, the Irish, the Chinese are trendy at the moment, and plenty of others. This book goes through *each* pre-Columbian claim and gives the detail for and against. Generally the “Against’ outweighs the “For,” but there’s exceptions. As if this wasn’t effortlessly interesting in and of itself, the book *also* goes into the political reasons many of these claims came about in the first place. It also goes into some details about how each legend/claim/outright lie influences the others.
In form it is basically an encyclopedia of legends, voyages, maps, and noteworthy people, all arranged alphabetically. Thus you don’t have to weed through a hundred pages of Prince Maddoc of Wales to get to the good stuff about the Vikings. Likewise, if you’re just done to death with the Vikings, you can skip all that and get to Prince Henry Sinclair, the nonexistent Scotsman from Italy who was said to have discovered our fair shores.
Much of this is *extremely* arcane. For every popular story you’ve probably heard of pre-Columbian discoveries, there’s easily a half dozen more you’ve never heard of. The Welsh make a claim, the Frisians, the Italians, the Arabs, the Mongols - really - the Egyptians, you name an ethnic group, and they’re in here somewhere. The author also goes into detail about legitimate events that *didn’t* discover the new world, but which are frequently conflated with mythical events, thus muddying the water. For instance, for several years, the British were funding expeditions to find “Huy Brasil,” an island thought to exist somewhere to the west of Ireland. It didn’t exist, of course, but once a year for about a decade, ships would leave Bristol heading due west, each going a bit further than the last, attempting to find it. Being a pricey undertaking, and finding nothing, the whole enterprise was eventually abandoned. In popular mythology, however, these “Bristol Voyages” are said to have actually discovered something, which was hush-hushed for….uhm….why would you keep that secret, again?
A recurring theme in these claims is that the discoveries were kept secret. This never really made any sense, but it’s given rise to increasingly specious tautological reasoning to account for it. The most noteworthy is the now-widespread belief in “The Portuguese Policy of Secrecy.” In fact, just bring that phrase up anywhere in a conversation about Columbus, and several people will nod their heads knowingly. It’s simply taken for granted down. The author utterly takes this to task and effortlessly destroys the notion that the Portuguese government was covering discoveries up by pointing out simple facts like “They were bragging about all their discoveries along the coast of Africa.” He also points out that this is actually a political hot-button issue in Portugal itself.
Upon examination, many of these claims are pretty “Me too.” They stem from a sense of national exclusion (Such as the Afrocentrist claims about Abubakari II of Mali, which have not a shred of proof) or as an attempt to establish a prior claim in tenuous hope of gaining lands for themselves (Such as Prince Maddoc, and Henry Sinclair, both of which have likewise not a shred of proof). Others are simply people screwing around for no good reason: a dude in Tennessee who kept “Finding” Roman coins on his farm, another dude in Minnesota who “Discovered” a stone covered in Norse runes telling a cock-and-bull story about an expedition to the middle of the continent. Yet others are simple yearning, such as the Portuguese fable of Antillia.
This is a particularly fascinating one I hadn’t heard of before: When the Moors invaded Spain and Portugal in 711 AD, obviously life changed for the worse for the Christian population. Eventually a myth developed around the idea that seven bishops had escaped to the sea on the eve of invasion with their respective followers. Eventually they found an island, and set up a