THE POLAR EXPEDITIONS AND THE SEARCH FOR THE NORTH-WEST PASSAGE, I

The Northmen—Eric the Red—The Zenos—John Cabot—Cortereal—Sebastian Cabot—Willoughby—Chancellor.

Pytheas had opened up the road to the north to the Scandinavians by discovering Iceland (the famous Thule) and the Cronian Ocean, of which the mud, the shallow-water, and the ice render the navigation dangerous, and where the nights are as light as twilight. The traditions of the voyages undertaken by the ancients to the Orkneys, the Faröe Islands, and even to Iceland, were treasured up among the Irish monks, who were learned men, and themselves bold mariners, as their successive establishments in these archipelagos clearly prove. They were also the pilots of the Northmen, a name given generally to the Scandinavian pirates, both Danish and Norwegian, who rendered themselves so formidable to the whole of Europe during the Middle Ages. But if all the information that we owe to the ancients, both Greeks and Romans, with regard to these hyperborean countries be extremely vague and so to speak fabulous, it is not so with that which concerns the adventurous enterprises of the "Men of the North." The Sagas, as the Icelandic and Danish songs are called, are extremely precise, and the numerous data which we owe to them are daily confirmed by the archæological discoveries made in America, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, and Denmark. This is a source of valuable information which was long unknown and unexplored, and of which we owe the revelation to the learned Dane, C. C. Rafn, who has furnished us with authentic facts of the greatest interest bearing on the pre-Columbian discovery of America.

Norway was poor and encumbered with population. Hence arose the necessity for a permanent emigration, which should allow a considerable portion of the inhabitants to seek in more favoured regions the nourishment which a frozen soil denied them. When they had found some country rich enough to yield them an abundant spoil, they then returned to their own land, and set out the following spring accompanied by all those who could be enticed either by the love of lucre, the desire for an easy life, or by the thirst for strife. Intrepid hunters and fishermen, accustomed to a dangerous navigation between the continent and the mass of islands which border it and appear to defend it against the assaults of the ocean, and across the narrow, deep fiords, which seem as though they were cut into the soil itself by some gigantic sword, they set out in those oak vessels, the sight of which made the people tremble who lived on the shores of the North Sea and British Channel. Sometimes decked, these vessels, long or short, large or small, were usually terminated in front by a spur of enormous size, above which the prow sometimes rose to a great height, taking the form of an S. The hällristningar, for so they call the graphic representations so often met with on the rocks of Sweden and Norway, enable us to picture to ourselves these swift vessels, which could carry a considerable crew. Such was the Long-serpent of Olaf Tryggvason, which had thirty-two benches of rowers and held ninety men, Canute's vessel, which carried sixty, and the two vessels of Olaf the Saint, which carried sometimes 200 men. The Sea-kings, as they often called these adventurers, lived on the ocean, never settling on shore, passing from the pillage of a castle to the burning of an abbey, devastating the coasts of France, ascending rivers, especially the Seine, as far as Paris, sailing over the Mediterranean as far as Constantinople, establishing themselves later in Sicily, and leaving traces of their incursions or their sojourn in all the regions of the known world.

Norman Ships
Norman Ships.

Piracy, far from being, as at the present day, an act falling under the ban of the law, was not only encouraged in that barbarous or half-civilized society, but was celebrated in the songs of the Skalds, who reserved their most enthusiastic eulogies for celebrating chivalrous struggles, adventurous privateering, and all exhibitions of strength. From the eighth century, these formidable sea-rovers frequented the groups of the Orkney, the Hebrides, the Shetland, and Faröe Islands, where they met with the Irish monks, who had settled themselves there nearly a century earlier, to instruct the idolatrous population.

In 861 a Norwegian pirate, named Naddod, was carried by a storm towards an island covered with snow, which he named Snoland (land of snow), a name changed later to that of Iceland (land of ice). There again the Northmen found the Irish monks under the name of Papis, in the cantons of Papeya and Papili.

Ingolf installed himself some years afterwards in the country, and founded Reijkiavik. In 885 the triumph of Harold Haarfager, who had just subjugated the whole of Norway by force of arms, brought a considerable number of malcontents to Iceland. They established there the republican form of government, which had just been overthrown in their own country, and which subsisted till 1261, the epoch when Iceland passed under the dominion of the kings of Norway.