BOOK REVIEW: “Legends and Lore of the Americas before 1492” by Ronald H. Fritze (1993)

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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 civilization there that was idyllically just like Portugal was *prior* to the invasion. It was even the same general size an shape of Portugal. It was called “Antillia,” which appears to mean “Opposite Island,” that is, the island at the opposite end of the ocean.

There’s something plaintive in that, you know? It touches my heart, despite being complete and utter horse crap.

By the time of Columbus, belief in Antillia was taken for granted by pretty much everyone. When Europeans started discovering islands in the Caribbean, they assumed they must be getting close to Antillia, and hence they named these “The Lesser Antilles,” a name they hold to this day, despite there never having been a *Greater* Antilles, nor, of course, an Antillia itself. Never ones to let ugly stupid reality get in the way of a good legend, Antillia’s influence continued to be felt in different ways: it was founded by seven bishops, which suggests seven cities. As with all legendary cities, they’re fabulously wealthy, of course. When explorers reached the western end of the gulf of Mexico and found no island, they kept on looking for the cities, which eventually morphed into “The Seven Cities of Cibola,” which inspired many an ignorant explorer to spend many a year wandering around in the desert. More recently, revisionists, con men, and the irretrievably gullible have been claiming Cuba was actually Antillia. They do this with a straight face.

I went into some detail there because it’s a good example of how the book works, showing not just the thing, but the interrelations with other things, and in the context of the times. The author also goes into great detail about alleged proofs such as the Piri Rees map, and various other hoo-hah. The Asian claims are particularly entertaining. He also goes into great detail about theories from the period as to where the Indians came from. Some of these - such as Father Acosta in 1539 - are astoundingly prescient (he suggested Indians descended from Asians who walked across a land bridge somewhere in the extreme pacific northwest). Others are typically illiterate, as with another priest who suggested Indians came from Atlantis.

“So,” you ask, “is there any truth to this, or did Mr. Fritze need 312 pages to say ‘no?’”

Actually, yeah. Surprisingly, there is a little truth. The Vikings, of course, discovered America. This isn’t really a subject of debate, and it’s the only one that has left hard proof. There is what appears to be a Roman artifact of unknown provenance that was found in Mexico, though no one knows how it got there. There’s also a very primitive group in Columbia that suddenly developed very advanced pottery identical to that in use in Japan at about the same time. As recently as the Lewis and Clarke expedition, Japanese Fishermen were found among American Indian tribes of the Pacific Northwest. Invariably these were killed outright or enslaved. The Aleuts regularly kayaked back and forth across the Bearing straight for thousands of years. There was probably some occasional contact between Polynesians and South American Indians.

And that’s it, kids. Everything else is crap.

It’s worth noting that none of these - including the Vikings - were what you’d call “Significant’ contacts. The Japanese contacts were accidental and they obviously never made it home again. Assuming the Roman artifact wasn’t just washed ashore in a wreck, that contact would obviously have been accidental and one-way as well. The Aleuts didn’t have any meaningful contact outside their own group. The Polynesians don’t appear to have had any lasting contact with South America, though at least some of this contact was not accidental. There’s something liberating in knowing the lies from the truth, you know? Particularly if both the lies and the truths are interesting.

Mr. Fritze handles all this clinically, but in a very readable for. He has a delicately dry sense of humor that crops up here and there in some of the more outrageous claims, but there’s nothing you can specifically point to and say ‘He’s just poking fun at people.’ I’ve never read anything else by the guy, but I want to. His humorous non-jibes make me wonder what he’d be like with a more free-flowing topic.

If I have any complaints about the book it is that he occasionally does not sharply delineate between claim and reality, making it a bit difficult to follow what he’s getting at. This happens rarely, and I think it’s just an editorial oversight that could have been averted with a few more (or less) pronouns. It doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of the book, but there’s six or eight entries that aren’t quite as clear as they could have been.

Similar to this, but for completely different reasons, Fritze also plays things very cautiously with regard to Mormonism. Their religion is entirely based around a belief in pre-Columbian colonization of the Americas by expatriate Jews in 600 BC. On the one hand, to be true to his mandate, the author has to point out that there’s no uncontested proof of any of this, and quite a bit of evidence against it. On the other hand, calling 14 million people chumps and saying their scripture is full of crap is a really good way to end up dead. He plays this as respectfully as possible, and is clearly uncomfortable with having to do it.

Those are quibbles, however: this book is amazing and fun and interesting and smart and, better still, it’s clearly a labor of love by the author. His excitement and knowledge of his topic fairly bleeds through every page, despite his scholarly (And occasionally ironic) tone. He loves what he’s doing so infectiously that it’s impossible for the reader not to love it, too.

Strongly, strongly, strongly recommended. Go out and buy a copy now!

WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS BOOK?

Depends on the kind of Conservative you are.

If you’re a standard Conservative, then cutting through the crap like this book does will come as a breath of fresh air, and it gives a very real, very solid, very honest view of history, free from revisionism or PC crap.

This is also one of the very few books reviewed on this site that Social Conservatives and Christian Fundamentalists will enjoy, though obviously the latter will take issue with the notion that Indians have been here for 15,000 years or so, thus putting them here about 9000 years before the world was created. I believe that issue is more than offset by all the debunking this book does in more contentious areas.

If you’re a Mormon Conservative, no, no, no, you will not like this book at all. Avoid.

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