Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page

ORCADIAN ARGONAUTS, OR VOYAGES OF THE ZENI 1374-1404

[Prepared in 1898 from Major's work by permission of the Hakluyt Society]

THE World's Fair, recently held in Chicago (1892) in commemoration of the discovery of America by Columbus in 1492 - four centuries ago - will doubtless cause considerable interest to attach to authenticated accounts of previous discoveries by navigators of equal enterprise and daring, in whose wake he sailed, and more especially will interest be concentrated on the expedition of discovery immediately preceding that of Columbus, of which he must have heard when he visited Iceland, and the knowledge of which, in all human probability, demonstrated to him the certain existence of land towards the western confines of the Atlantic.

Almost a century before Columbus commenced his baffling search for a patron among the sovereigns of Europe, Henry I, 42nd Earl of the ancient, autonomous maritime principality of the Orkneys (which comprehended the Lordship of Shetland), and Premier Magnate of the Norwegian realm, had commissioned his Admiral, Antonio Zeno, a Venetian navigator, scion of the renowned Ducal family of that name, to retrace the footsteps of the Scandinavian discoverers of the Western World. [Balfour's Memorial].

The narration of the voyages and discoveries was published at Venice in 1558 by Nicolo Zeno, member of the Council of Ten, a descendant of Antonio, and, recently, under the auspices of the Hakluyt Society, a British translation has been printed, edited by the late R.H. Major, a distinguished member of the Society and Secretary of the Royal Geographical Society. His able exposition of what had been previously considered irreconcilable inconsistencies, and his copious elucidations, have completely established the genuineness of the discovery,

NOTE - The "Carta Marina" of Olaus Magnus in 1539 has been discovered in Munich. The most important paper on the Zeno voyages was read by the Prof. Dr. Gustav Storm of Christiania, 17th December 1890, and published in the annual volume of Det Norske Geograficke Selskabs. Arbog II, 1890-91. Comparison of the Zeno map with the Carta Marina proves the Frislanda of the former to be the Faroe group, with the intemal waterways omitted. (An abstract of notes kindly supplied by C.H Coote of the Map Department, British Museum) See also "Atheneum", 6th February 1892, and 10th June 1893

[NOTE - It seems from information received since preparing this article that Major's case is weakened by the discovery of the Carta Marina of Olaus Magnus. There is, however, no doubt in my mind but that voyages took place as represented in unknown latitudes in the Northern seas. Frobisher and other almost contemporary navigators adopted the narration without question. See map of 1570 in "Saga Time" by Sigurd Stephans, Rector of Skalholt]

Major states: The first to do himself honour by vindicating the truth of the Zeno story was the distinguished companion of Captain Cook (the circumnavigator), Johann Reinhold Forster, in a work published in 1784 and 1786. Amongst others who uphold the narrative we have the following brilliant array of savants: - Eggers, Cardinal Zurla, Zach, Malle Brun, Walckenaar, de la Roquette, the Polish geographer Joachim Lelewel, and the Danish antiquary Bredsdorff, also the illustrious and far-seeing Humboldt, who, with his usual large-mindedness, although he perceived the difficulties attaching to the narrative of the Zeni, said, "On y trouve de la caudeur et des descriptions detaillees d'objets, dont rien en l'Europe ne pouvoit leur avoir donne l'idee". Briefly the story is as follows: -

Toward the end of 1389, Nicolo Zeno, a member of one of the noblest and most ancient families of Venice, went, at his own expense, on a voyage, rather of curiosity than discovery, to the Northern seas. After passing through the Straits of Gibraltar he steered north, and presently encountered a terrible storm, which bore the vessel helplessly on, wrecking him on the Faroe Islands. This was in the year 1390.

Most of the goods were saved, and he and his companions were rescued from the wreckers who beset them by Henry Saint-Clair, the Orcadian Earl, who happened to be near the place with an armed retinue. Accosting them in Latin, he assured the Venetians of his protection and took them into his service.

St.Clair was a great lord, and possessed certain islands lying not far from the Faroes to the south, being the richest and most populous of all those parts, and besides the said small islands he was Duke of So Rano [South Ronaldsay ?], lying over against Scotland. St.Clair then, such as is described, was a war-like, valiant man, and specially famous in naval exploits.

Having the year before (1389) gained a victory over the representative of the King of Norway (this relates to the conflict in 1389 between Henry St.Clair and Sir Malise Spar, his cousin), who was lord of the island, he, being anxious to win renown by deed of arms, had come with his men to attempt the conquest of the Faroes, which are somewhat larger than the Shetlands, so the first exploit in which Nicolo participated was the reduction of that group.

(When Shetland was separated from Orkney in 1195 it was united to the Faroes. They had the same Foud and Lawman, who resided at Scalloway). This was accomplished with a fleet of thirteen vessels, whereof two only were rowed with oars, the rest were small barks and one ship. As Nicolo greatly contributed towards the skilful navigation of the fleet through the dangerous channels between the various islands, the Earl in recognition of his services conferred on him the honour of knighthood.

Sir Nicolo then wrote to his brother Antonio, relating his adventurous experiences, and asking him to join him and bring a vessel with him. Antonio did as desired, and, after a long voyage, in which he encountered many perils, at length joined Sir Nicolo, not only his brother by blood, but also in courage. Both brothers won much favour with Earl Henry, and to gratify Sir Nicolo, and also because he knew full well his value, he made him Commander of his Navy (Armada). In that capacity Sir Nicolo, with his brother, accompanied the Earl to Shetland and established order in that group.

The Earl, after effecting the pacification of Shetland, built a fort in Bressay, where he left Sir Nicolo with some small vessels and men and stores, and then, thinking he had done enough for the present, returned with the rest of the squadron to the capital of his Archipelagian dominions.

Being left behind in Bressay, Sir Nicolo determined the next season to make all excursion with the view of discovering land. According1y, in the month of July he fitted out three small barks, and, sailing towards the North, arrived in Greenland of the "glittering plains and snowy mountains". There he found a monastery of the order of the Friars Preachers, and a church dedicated to St.Olaus, hard by a hill which belched forth fire like Vesuvius and Etna. To this monastery resort friars from Norway, Sweden, and other countries, but the greater part come from Iceland. Sir Nicolo gives a detailed account of the manners and customs of the friars, and of the inhabitants, as also of the trade of that district with other places.

He discovered a river, which is shown on the map of Greenland, drawn by the Nicolo of later times from a mutilated chart belonging to Antonio. At length Sir Nicolo, not being accustomed to such severe cold, fell ill, and a little while after he returned to Grislanda (Hross-ey or Gross-ey becomes Gross-Islanda to the Venetians), where he died, a victim to the rigorous climate of those northern regions.

The text sets forth that Nicolo was wrecked on the Faroes in 1390, soon after which he was joined by Antonio, who, at the time of Nicolo's death, had been with him four years. Nicolo sailed for Greenland in July and died shortly after his return, which event would probably have occurred before the end of the year, and, as he had been a little more than four years in the service of the Earl, we are enabled to place his death as towards the end of 1394.

NOTE - Frobisher, the Elizabethan navigator, records sighting the coast of Friesland in 1576, 1577, and 1578, thus accepting the chart of the Zeni. His account of the condition of the Orcadians in 1577 does not indicate an advanced state of civilisation.

Antonio succeeded him in his wealth and honour, but, although he strove hard in various ways, and begged and prayed most earnestly, he could never obtain permission to return to his own country. For the Earl, being a man of great enterprise and daring, had determined to make himself master of the sea. Accordingly he proposed to avail himself of the services of Antonio by sending him out with a few small vessels to the westward, because in that direction one of his fishermen subjects had reported the existence of certain very rich and populous lands.

Six-and-twenty years before then (about 1374) four Orcadian fishing boats put out to sea, and, meeting a heavy storm, were driven over the ocean in utter helplessness for many days; when at length, the tempest abating, they discovered an island called Estotiland (probably Newfoundland, but unquestionably in North America), lying to the westward about 1,000 miles from (Grislanda = Hrossey) the Orcades. One of the boats was wrecked, and six men in it were taken by the inhabitants to the ruler of the place, but none understood the language of the Orcadians, except one that spoke Latin, and had also been cast by chance upon the island.

The original castaway, on behalf of the king [chief], asked them who they were and whence they came; and when he reported their answer, the king desired that they should remain in the country. Accordingly, as they could do no otherwise, they obeyed his commandment, and remained five years on the island and learned the language.

One of them in particular visited different parts of the island, and reports that it is a very rich country, abounding in all good things. It is a little smaller than Iceland, but more fertile; in the middle of it is a very high mountain, in which rise four rivers, that water the whole country.

The inhabitants are very intelligent people, and possess all the arts like ourselves; and it is believed that in time past they have had intercourse with our people, for he said that he saw Latin books in the library of the ruler which they at this present time do not understand. They have their own language and letters. They have all kinds of metals, hut especially they abound with gold. Their foreign intercourse is with Greenland, whence they import furs, brimstone, and pitch.

Here it will be well to make allusion to earlier Scandinavian discoveries in North America.

In 1001 one of the first achievements of Greenland colonists was the discovery by Leif, son of Eric the Red. The tracts of land then discovered were Helluland (i.e. Slate land), supposed to be Newfoundland; Markland (i.e. Woodland), supposed to be Nova Scotia; and Vinland or Vineland. While there is much uncertainty about the situation of the former, the site of Vineland is less problematical. An old writer says: "On the shortest day in Vinland the sun was above the horizon from (Dagmaal) 7.30 a.m. to (Eikt) 4 p.m.", from which it follows that the length of the day was nine hours, which gives the latitude of forty-one degrees.

This deduction is confirmed by a curious coincidence. Adam of Bremen, writing in the eleventh century, states on the authority of Svein Estridsen, King of Denmark, a nephew of Knut the Great, that Vinland got its name from the vine growing wild there, and for the same reason the English re-discoverers gave the name of Marthaís Vineyard to the large island close off the coast, in latitude 41 degrees 23 mill.

The old documents also mention a country called Huitramannaland, or Whiteman's Land, otherwise Irland it Mikla, or Great Ireland, supposed to include North and South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Hrafu, a Limerick trader, reported this land to Thorfinn the Great, Earl of Orkney. [Sturleson's Heimskringla]

There is a tradition among the Shawnee Indians, who emigrated some years ago from Florida and settled in Ohio, that Florida was inhabited by white people who used iron instruments.

It is further recorded in the ancient Manuscript that the Greenland Bishop, Eric, went over to Vinland in the year 1211, and that in 1266 a voyage of discovery to the Arctic regions of America was made under the auspices of some of the clergymen of the Greenland Bishopric.

The next recorded discovery was made by Adelbrand and Thorvald Helgeson, two Icelandic clergymen, in the year 1285, the country found being supposed to be Newfoundland.

The last record preserved in the old Icelandic manuscripts relates a voyage from Greenland to Markland, performed by a crew of seventeen men in 1347. The account written by a contemporary nine years after the event, speaks of Markland as a country still known and visited in those days, and it was, until now, the latest document that spoke of the intercourse between Greenland and America.

In the Zeno document we have, however, the very latest evidence known in literature of the continued existence of that intercourse down to the close of the fourteenth century, - a hundred years anterior to the time of Columbus. The foregoing digression bas been made to account for the comparatively civilised condition of Estotiland.

Resuming the narrative of the Orcadian fisher: - Towards the south [of Estotiland] there is a great and populous country, very rich in gold. They sow corn and make beer, which is a kind of drink that northern people take as we do wine. They have woods of immense extent. They make their buildings with walls, and there are many towns and villages.

They make small boats and sail them, but have not the loadstone, nor do they know the north by the compass. For this reason these Orcadian fishermen were held in great estimation, insomuch that the king sent them with twelve boats to the southwards to a country which they call Drogio (evidently a native name for an extensive tract on the North American coast); but in their voyages they had such contrary weather that they were in fear for their lives.

Although, however, they escaped the one cruel death, they fell into another of the cruellest, for they were taken into the country, and the greater number of them were eaten by the savages, who are cannibals, and consider human flesh very savoury meat.

But, as that fisherman and his remaining companions were able to show them the way of taking fish with nets, their lives were saved. Every day he would go fishing in the sea and in the fresh waters, anti take a great abundance of fish, which he gave to the chiefs, and thereby grew into such favour that he was very much liked, and held in great consideration by everybody.

As the Orcadian's fame spread through the surrounding tribes, there was a neighbouring chief who was very anxious to have him, and to see how he practised his wonderful art of catching fish. With this object in view he made war on the other chief with whom the Orcadian then was, and being more powerful, and a better warrior, he at length overcame him, and so the fisherman was sent over to him with his compatriots.

During the space of thirteen years that he dwelt in those parts, he says that he was sent in this manner to more than five and twenty chiefs, for they were continually fighting amongst themselves, this chief with that, and solely with the purpose of having the fishermen to dwell with them; so that wandering up and down the country without any fixed abode in one place, he became acquainted with almost all those parts.

He says that it is a very great country, and, as it were, a new world; the people are very rude and uncultivated, for they all go naked and suffer cruelly from the cold, nor have they the sense to clothe themselves with the skins of the animals which they take in hunting. They have no kind of metal. They live by hunting, and carry lances of wood sharpened at the points. They have bows, the strings of which are made of beasts' skins. They are very fierce and have deadly fights amongst each other, and eat one another's flesh. They have chieftains and certain laws amongst themselves, but differing in the different tribes.

The farther you go south-westwards, however, the more refinement you meet with, because the climate is more temperate, and accordingly there they have cities and temples dedicated to their idols, in which they sacrifice men and afterwards eat them. In those parts they have some knowledge and use of gold and silver. (This appears to have been, for the close of the fourteenth century, a pretty good description of the state of things in America as far down as Mexico).

Now this Orcadian, after having dwelt so many years in these parts, made up his mind, if possible, to return home to his Fatherland - the land of the Runic Rhyme - but his fellow-islesmen despairing of ever seeing it again, gave him "God's speed", and remained themselves where they were.

Accordingly he bade them farewell, and made his escape through the woods in the direction of Drogio, where he was welcomed and very kindly received by the chief of the place, who knew him, and was a great enemy of the neighbouring chieftain; and so, passing from one chief to another, being the same with whom he had been before, after a long time and with much trouble, he at length reached Drogio, where he spent three years.

Here, by good luck, he heard from the natives that some boats had arrived off the coast, and full of hope of being able to carry out his intention, he went down to the seaside, and to his great delight found that they had come from Estotiland. He forthwith requested that they would take him with them, which they did very willingly, and as he knew the language of the country, which none of them could speak, they employed him as their interpreter.

He afterwards traded in their company to such good purpose that he became very rich, and fitting out a vessel of his own, returned to the 0rkneys [Grislanda], and gave an account of the wealth of those distant countries to his lord and earl, Henry St.Clair.

The sailors, from having had much experience in strange novelties, give full credence to his statements. Antonio Zeno wrote his brother - the famous Carlo Zeno, who in 1382 saved the Venetian Republic - saying that St.Clair was resolved to equip a fleet and send him forth towards those parts on a voyage of discovery and conquest: and he continues, "there are so many that desire to join in the expedition that I think we shall be very strongly appointed without any public expense at all". Antonio set sail with a considerable number of vessels and men, but had not the chief command, as he hoped, for the Earl went in person.

In a subsequent letter to Sir Carlo describing the enterprise, he relates: "Our great preparations for the voyage to Estotiland were begun in all unlucky hour, for exactly three days before our departure the fisherman who was to have been our guide died: nevertheless, St.Clair would not give up the enterprise, but in lieu of the deceased fisherman, took some sailors who had come out with him to the island. Steering westwards, we sighted some of the Faroes, and passing certain shoals, came to Lille Dimon, where we stayed seven days to refresh ourselves and to furnish the fleet with necessaries.

Departing thence, we arrived on the first of July at the island of Skuoe, and, as the wind was full in our favour, we pushed on; but not long after, when we were on the open sea, there arose so great a storm that for eight days we were continuously kept in toil, and driven we knew not where, and a considerable number of the boats were lost. At length, when the storm abated, we gathered together the scattered boats, and sailing with a prosperous wind, we discovered land on its western side.

Steering straight for it, we reached a quiet and safe harbour, in which we saw an infinite number of armed people, who came running down furiously to the water side, prepared to defend the island. St.Clair now caused his men to make signs of peace to them, and they sent ten men to us, who could speak ten languages, but we could speak to none of them, except one that was from Shetland.

He was brought before our prince, who, asking the name of the island, received answer Kerry, and was told that the people refused intercourse altogether and would oppose his landing. To this our prince made no reply beyond enquiring where there was a good harbour, and making signs that he intended to depart. Accordingly, sailing round about the island, he put in with his fleet in full sail into a harbour which he found on the eastern side.

The mariners went on shore to take in wood and water, which they did as quickly as they could, lest they might be attacked by the islanders: and not without reason, for the inhabitants made signals to their neigh hours with fire and smoke, and taking to their arms, the others coming to their aid, they all came running down to the seaside upon our men with bows and arrows, so that many were slain and several wounded. Although we made signs of peace to them, it was of no use, for their rage increased more and more, as though they were fighting for their own very existence.

Being thus compelled to depart, we sailed along in a great circuit about the island, being always followed on the hill tops and along the sea coasts by an infinite number of armed men. At length doubling the northern cape of the island, we came upon many shoals, amongst which we were for ten days in continual danger of losing our whole fleet, but fortunately all that while the weather was very fine.

All the way till we came to the east cape we saw the inhabitants still on the hill tops and by the sea coast, keeping with us, howling and shouting at us from a distance to show their animosity towards us. We therefore resolved to put into some safe harbour, and see if we might once again speak with the Shetlander, but we failed in our object, for the people, more like wild beasts than men, stood constantly prepared to resist us should we attempt to land.

Wherefore St.Clair, seeing that he could do nothing and that if he were to persevere in his attempt the fleet would fall short of provisions, took his departure with a fair wind and sailed six days to the westwards; but the wind afterwards shifting to the south-west and the sea becoming rough, we sailed four days with the wind aft, and at length discovering land, as the sea ran high and we did not know what country it was, we were afraid to approach it; but by God's blessing the wind lulled, and then there came on a great calm.

Some of the crew then pulled ashore, and soon returned to our great joy with news that they had found an excellent country and a still better harbour. Upon this we brought our barks and our boats to land, and on entering an excellent harbour we saw in the distance a great mountain that poured forth smoke, which gave us good hope that we should find some inhabitants in the island; neither would St.Clair rest, although it was a great way off, without sending a hundred soldiers to explore the country and bring an account of what sort of people the inhabitants were.

Meanwhile they took in a store of wood and water, and caught a considerable quantity of fish and sea-fowl. They also found such all abundance of birds' eggs that our men, who were half famished, ate of them to repletion.

"Whilst we were at anchor here the month of June (August) came in, and the air in the island was mild and pleasant beyond description; but as we saw nobody we began to suspect that this pleasant place was uninhabited. To the harbour we gave the name of Trin, and the headland [Cape Farewell] which stretched out into the sea, we called Capo de Trin.

After eight days the hundred soldiers returned and brought word that they had been through the island and up to the mountain, and that the smoke was a natural thing proceeding from a great fire in the bottom of a hill, and that there was a spring from which issued a certain matter like pitch, which ran in to the sea; and that thereabouts dwelt great multitudes of people half wild and living in caves. They were of small stature and very timid, for as soon as they saw our people they fled into their holes. They reported also that there was a large river and a very good and safe harbour.

When the Earl heard this, and noticed that the place had a wholesome and pure atmosphere, a fertile soil, good rivers, and so many other conveniences, he conceived the idea of fixing his abode there and founding a city. But his people having passed through a voyage so full of fatigues, began to murmur, and to say that they wished to return to their own homes, for that the winter was not far off, and if they allowed it once to set in, they would not be able to get away before the following summer.

He therefore retained only the rowboats and such of the people as were willing to stay with him, and sent all the rest away in ships, appointing me against my will to be their captain.

Having no choice, therefore I departed, and sailed twenty days to the eastwards without sight of any land, then turning my course towards the south-east, in five days I lighted on land, and found myself on the island of Neome (sic), and, knowing the country, I perceived I was past Iceland, and as the inhabitants were subject to the Earl, I took in fresh stores, and sailed in a fair wind in three days to Orkney [Grislanda], where the people, who thought they had lost their prince in consequence of his long absence on the voyage we had made, received us with a hearty welcome".

Nicolo Zeno, the younger, writes: "What happened subsequently to the foregoing I know not, beyond what I gather by conjecture from a piece of another letter, which is to the effect that St.Clair settled down in the harbour of his newly-discovered island, and explored the whole of the country with great diligence, as well as the coasts on both sides of Greenland, because I find this particularly described in the sea-chart, but the description is lost".

The beginning of the letter runs thus: -

Concerning those things that you desire to know of me as to the people and their habits, the animals, and the countries adjoining, I have written about it all in a separate book, which, please God, I shall bring with me. In it I have described the country, the monstrous fishes, the customs and laws of Grislanda, of Iceland and Shetland, the Kingdoms of Norway, Estotiland, and Drogio: and lastly, I have written the life of my brother, the Chevalier Messire Nicolo, with the discovery which he made and all about Greenland.

I have also written the life and exploits of St.Clair, a prince as worthy of immortal memory as any that ever lived for his great bravery and remarkable goodness. In it I have described the discovery of Greenland on both sides, and the city that he founded. (The combination of these two expressions in one sentence leads to the inference that the discovery of Greenland on both sides was due to the Earl).

But of this I will say no wore in this letter, and hope to be with you very shortly, and to satisfy your curiosity by word of mouth".

It is known that Antonio died in Venice before 1406, and as he remained ten years in the service of the Earl after the death of Sir Nicolo in 1394, it is probable he returned in 1404, thus coinciding with the death of Earl Henry, an event which would operate to release him. The last-mentioned letter seems to have been written almost immediately prior to Antonio's return, and as in it he states he has written the life and exploits of St.Clair, the expression would almost justify the deduction that the Earl was then dead. History informs us that the Earl was slain in the Orcades while defending his dominions against an invasion of the Southrons.

Nicolo Zeno, the younger, ends by saying: "All these letters were written by Messire Antonio to Sir Carlo the Chevalier, his brother, the Venetian admiral (Saviour of Venice in 1382), and I am grieved that the book and many other writings on these subjects have, I don't know how, come to ruin; for being but a child when they fell into my hands, I, not knowing what they were, tore them in pieces, as children will do, and sent them all to ruin, a circumstance which I cannot now recall without the greatest sorrow.

Nevertheless, in order that such an important memorial should not be lost, I have put the whole in order as well as I could in the above narrative, so that the present age may, more than its predecessors have done, in some measure derive pleasure from the great discoveries made in those parts where they were least expected; for it is an age that takes a great interest in new narratives and in the discoveries which have been made in countries hither to unknown, by the high courage and energy of our ancestors".

Mr. Major concludes: "Now the question may be asked: Cui bono all this toil of analysis and research" The facts may answer for themselves: -

  1. If the realities which have been here laid bare had been detected any time during the last three centuries and a quarter, so that the site of the lost east colony of Greenland had been proved to demonstration instead of being a matter of opinion, the kings of Denmark would have been spared the necessity of sending out a great number of unsuccessful expeditious, and
  2. A number of learned disquisitions by some of the most illustrious literati in Europe would have been rendered superfluous.
  3. The Zeno document is now shown to he the latest in existence, as far as we know, giving details respecting the important lost east colony of Greenland, which has been so anxiously sought for.
  4. It is the latest document in existence, as far as we know, giving details respecting the Scandinavian settlers in North America - although a century before Columbus' great voyage across the Atlantic - and showing that at that period they still survived.
  5. The honour of a distinguished man, whose only faults as regards this ancient story, fruitful in confusion as they have been, were, that he did not possess the geographical knowledge of today, and that he indulged in the glowing fancies and diction of his sunny country, has been vindicated.

The foregoing incorporates R.H. Majorís notes, with the text of the narrative as edited by him in "The Voyages of the Zeni", printed in London in 1873 for the Hakluyt Society. In one or two places Grislanda has been substituted for Frislanda, and Iceland for Shetland, the sense seeming to so require it.

No gentes have been more distinguished in the annals of their respective countries than the Zeno gens and the gens de Sancto Claro. The heroic achievements of the Zeno family, given in detail in Mr. Major's work, suitably illustrate the eminence of the voyagers who so adored the Orcadian Earl for those valiant exploits in which they shared.

"And gray stones voiced their praise in the bays of far isles".

Back to Fiona's Finding Service
Back to Index | Previous page | Next page


e-mail to:fnsnclr@btinternet.com