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Full Online Book HomeNonfictionsThe Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus_volume 2 - Appendix - No. 25
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The Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus_volume 2 - Appendix - No. 25 Post by :aarolove Category :Nonfictions Author :Washington Irving Date :April 2012 Read :1880

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The Life And Voyages Of Christopher Columbus_volume 2 - Appendix - No. 25

Appendix. No. XXV.

The Imaginary Island of St. Brandan.


One of the most singular geographical illusions on record is that which for a long while haunted the imaginations of the inhabitants of the Canaries. They fancied they beheld a mountainous island about ninety leagues in length, lying far to the westward. It was only seen at intervals, but in perfectly clear and serene weather. To some it seemed one hundred leagues distant, to others forty, to others only fifteen or eighteen. (348)On attempting to reach it, however, it somehow or other eluded the search, and was nowhere to be found. Still there were so many eye-witnesses of credibility who concurred in testifying to their having seen it, and the testimony of the inhabitants of different islands agreed so well as to its form and position, that its existence was generally believed, and geographers inserted it in their maps. It is laid down on the globe of Martin Behem, projected in 1492, as delineated by M. De Murr, and it will be found in most of the maps of the time of Columbus, placed commonly about two hundred leagues west of the Canaries. During the time that Columbus was making his proposition to the court of Portugal, an inhabitant of the Canaries applied to king John II for a vessel to go in search of this island. In the archives of the Torre do Tombo (349) also, there is a record of a contract made by the crown of Portugal with Fernando de Ulmo, cavalier of the royal household, and captain of the island of Tercera, wherein he undertakes to go at his own expense, in quest of an island or islands, or Terra Firma, supposed to be the island of the Seven Cities, on condition of having jurisdiction over the same for himself and his heirs, allowing one tenth of the revenues to the king. This Ulmo, finding the expedition above his capacity, associated one Juan Alfonso del Estreito in the enterprise. They were bound to be ready to sail with two caravels in the month of March, 1487. (350) The fate of their enterprise is unknown.

The name of St. Brandan, or Borondon, given to this imaginary island from time immemorial, is said to be derived from a Scotch abbot, who flourished in the sixth century, and who is called sometimes by the foregoing appellations, sometimes St. Blandano, or St. Blandanus. In the Martyrology of the order of St. Augustine, he is said to have been the patriarch of three thousand monks. About the middle of the sixth century, he accompanied his disciple, St. Maclovio, or St. Malo, in search of certain islands possessing the delights of paradise, which they were told existed in the midst of the ocean, and were inhabited by infidels. These most adventurous saints-errant wandered for a long time upon the ocean, and at length landed upon an island called Ima. Here St. Malo found the body of a giant lying in a sepulchre. He resuscitated him, and had much interesting conversation with him, the giant informing him that the inhabitants of that island had some notions of the Trinity, and, moreover, giving him a gratifying account of the torments which Jews and Pagans suffered in the infernal regions. Finding the giant so docile and reasonable, St. Malo expounded to him the doctrines of the Christian religion, converted him, and baptized him by the name of Mildum. The giant, however, either through weariness of life, or eagerness to enjoy the benefits of his conversion, begged permission, at the end of fifteen days, to die again, which was granted him.

According to another account, the giant told them he knew of an island in the ocean, defended by walls of burnished gold, so resplendent that they shone like crystal, but to which there was no entrance. At their request, he undertook to guide them to it, and taking the cable of their ship, threw himself into the sea. He had not proceeded far, however, when a tempest rose, and obliged them all to return, and shortly after the giant died. (351) A third legend makes the saint pray to heaven on Easter day, that they may be permitted to find land where they may celebrate the offices of religion with becoming state. An island immediately appears, on which they land, perform a solemn mass, and the sacrament of the Eucharist; after which re-embarking and making sail, they behold to their astonishment the supposed island suddenly plunge to the bottom of the sea, being nothing else than a monstrous whale. (352) When the rumor circulated of an island seen from the Canaries, which always eluded the search, the legends of St. Brandan were revived, and applied to this unapproachable land. We are told, also, that there was an ancient Latin manuscript in the archives of the cathedral church of the Grand Canary, in which the adventures of these saints were recorded. Through carelessness, however, this manuscript has disappeared. (353) Some have maintained that this island was known to the ancients, and was the same mentioned by Ptolemy among the Fortunate or Canary islands, by the names of Aprositus, (354) or the Inaccessible; and which, according to friar Diego Philipo, in his book on the Incarnation of Christ, shows that it possessed the same quality in ancient times of deluding the eye and being unattainable to the feet of mortals. (355) But whatever belief the ancients may have had on this subject, it is certain that it took a strong hold on the faith of the moderns during the prevalent rage for discovery; nor did it lack abundant testimonials. Don Joseph de Viera y Clavijo says, there never was a more difficult paradox nor problem in the science of geography; since, to affirm the existence of this island, is to trample upon sound criticism, judgment, and reason; and to deny it, one must abandon tradition and experience, and suppose that many persons of credit had not the proper use of their senses. (356)

The belief in this island has continued long since the time of Columbus. It was repeatedly seen, and by various persons at a time, always in the same place and of the same form. In 1526 an expedition set off for the Canaries in quest of it, commanded by Fernando de Troya and Fernando Alvarez. They cruised in the wonted direction, but in vain, and their failure ought to have undeceived the public. "The phantasm of the island, however," says Viera, "had such a secret enchantment for all who beheld it, that the public preferred doubting the good conduct of the explorers, than their own senses." In 1570 the appearances were so repeated and clear, that there was a universal fever of curiosity awakened among the people of the Canaries, and it was determined to send forth another expedition.

That they might not appear to act upon light grounds, an exact investigation was previously made of all the persons of talent and credibility who had seen these apparitions of land, or who had other proofs of its existence.

Alonzo de Espinosa, governor of the island of Ferro, accordingly made a report, in which more than one hundred witnesses, several of them persons of the highest respectability, deposed that they had beheld the unknown island about forty leagues to the northwest of Ferro; that they had contemplated it with calmness and certainty, and had seen the sun set behind one of its points.

Testimonials of still greater force came from the islands of Palma and Teneriffe. There were certain Portuguese who affirmed, that, being driven about by a tempest, they had come upon the island of St. Borondon. Pedro Vello, who was the pilot of the vessel, affirmed, that having anchored in a bay, he landed with several of the crew. They drank fresh water in a brook, and beheld in the sand the print of footsteps, double the size of those of an ordinary man, and the distance between them was in proportion. They found a cross nailed to a neighboring tree; near to which were three stones placed in form of a triangle, with signs of fire having been made among them, probably to cook shell-fish. Having seen much cattle and sheep grazing in the neighborhood, two of their party armed with lances went into the woods in pursuit of them. The night was approaching, the heavens began to lower, and a harsh wind arose. The people on board the ship cried out that she was dragging her anchor, whereupon Vello entered the boat and hurried on board. In an instant they lost sight of land; being as it were swept away in the hurricane. When the storm had passed away, and the sea and sky were again serene, they searched in vain for the island; not a trace of it was to be seen, and they had to pursue their voyage, lamenting the loss of their two companions who had been abandoned in the wood. (357)

A learned licentiate, Pedro Ortiz de Funez, inquisitor of the Grand Canary, while on a visit at Teneriffe, summoned several persons before him, who testified having seen the island. Among them was one Marcos Verde, a man well known in those parts. He stated that in returning from Barbary and arriving in the neighborhood of the Canaries, he beheld land, which, according to his maps and calculations, could not be any of the known islands. He concluded it to be the far-famed St. Borondon. Overjoyed at having discovered this land of mystery, he coasted along its spell-bound shores, until he anchored in a beautiful harbor formed by the mouth of a mountain ravine. Here he landed with several of his crew. It was now, he said, the hour of the Ave Maria, or of vespers. The sun being set, the shadows began to spread over the land. The voyagers having separated, wandered about in different directions, until out of hearing of each other's shouts. Those on board, seeing the night approaching, made signal to summon back the wanderers to the ship. They re-embarked, intending to resume their investigations on the following day. Scarcely were they on board, however, when a whirlwind came rushing down the ravine, with such violence as to drag the vessel from her anchor, and hurry her out to sea; and they never saw any thing more of this hidden and inhospitable island.

Another testimony remains on record in manuscript of one Abreu Galindo; but whether taken at this time does not appear. It was that of a French adventurer, who, many years before, making a voyage among the Canaries, was overtaken by a violent storm which carried away his masts. At length the furious winds drove him to the shores of an unknown island covered with stately trees. Here he landed with part of his crew, and choosing a tree proper for a mast, cut it down, and began to shape it for his purpose. The guardian power of the island, however, resented as usual this invasion of his forbidden shores. The heavens assumed a dark and threatening aspect; the night was approaching, and the mariners, fearing some impending evil, abandoned their labor and returned on board. They were borne away as usual from the coast, and the next day arrived at the island of Palma. (358)

The mass of testimony collected by official authority in 1750 seemed so satisfactory, that another expedition was fitted out in the same year in the island of Palma. It was commanded by Fernando de Villabolos, regidor of the island; but was equally fruitless with the preceding. St. Borondon seemed disposed only to tantalize the world with distant and serene glimpses of his ideal paradise; or to reveal it amidst storms to tempest-tossed mariners, but to hide it completely from the view of all who diligently sought it. Still the people of Palma adhered to their favorite chimera. Thirty-four years afterwards, in 1605, they sent another ship on the quest, commanded by Gaspar Perez de Acosta, an accomplished pilot, accompanied by the padre Lorenzo Pinedo, a holy Franciscan friar, skilled in natural science. St. Borondon, however, refused to reveal his island to either monk or mariner. After cruising about in every direction, sounding, observing the skies, the clouds, the winds, every thing that could furnish indications, they returned without having seen any thing to authorize a hope.

Upwards of a century now elapsed without any new attempt to seek this fairy island. Every now and then, it is true, the public mind was agitated by fresh reports of its having been seen. Lemons and other fruits, and the green branches of trees which floated to the shores of Gomera and Ferro, were pronounced to be from the enchanted groves of St. Borondon. At length, in 1721, the public infatuation again rose to such a height that a fourth expedition was sent, commanded by Don Caspar Dominguez, a man of probity and talent. As this was an expedition of solemn and mysterious import, he had two holy friars as apostolical chaplains. They made sail from the island of Teneriffe towards the end of October, leaving the populace in an indescribable state of anxious curiosity mingled with superstition. The ship, however, returned from its cruise as unsuccessful as all its predecessors.

We have no account of any expedition being since undertaken, though the island still continued to be a subject of speculation, and occasionally to reveal its shadowy mountains to the eyes of favored individuals. In a letter written from the island of Gomera, 1759, by a Franciscan monk, to one of his friends, he relates having seen it from the village of Alaxero at six in the morning of the third of May. It appeared to consist of two lofty mountains, with a deep valley between; and on contemplating it with a telescope, the valley or ravine appeared to be filled with trees. He summoned the curate Antonio Joseph Manrique, and upwards of forty other persons, all of whom beheld it plainly. (359)

Nor is this island delineated merely in ancient maps of the time of Columbus. It is laid down as one of the Canary islands in a French map published in 1704; and Mons. Gautier, in a geographical chart, annexed to his Observations on Natural History, published in 1755, places it five degrees to the west of the island of Ferro, in the 29th deg. of N. latitude. (360)

Such are the principal facts existing relative to the island of St. Brandan: Its reality was for a long time a matter of firm belief. It was in vain that repeated voyages and investigations proved its nonexistence; the public, after trying all kinds of sophistry, took refuge in the supernatural, to defend their favorite chimera. They maintained that it was rendered inaccessible to mortals by Divine Providence, or by diabolical magic. Most inclined to the former. All kinds of extravagant fancies were indulged concerning it; (361) some confounded it with the fabled island of the Seven Cities situated somewhere in the bosom of the ocean, where in old times seven bishops and their followers had taken refuge from the Moors. Some of the Portuguese imagined it to be the abode of their lost king Sebastian. The Spaniards pretended that Roderick, the last of their Gothic kings, had fled thither from the Moors after the disastrous battle of the Guadalete. Others suggested that it might be the seat of the terrestrial paradise, the place where Enoch and Elijah remained in a state of blessedness until the final day; and that it was made at times apparent to the eyes, but invisible to the search of mortals. Poetry, it is said, has owed to this popular belief one of its beautiful fictions, and the garden of Armida, where Rinaldo was detained enchanted, and which Tasso places in one of the Canary islands, has been identified with the imaginary St. Borondon. (362)

The learned father Feyjoo (363) has given a philosophical solution to this geographical problem. He attributes all these appearances, which have been so numerous and so well authenticated as not to admit of doubt, to certain atmospherical deceptions, like that of the Fata Morgana, seen at times, in the straits of Messina, where the city of Reggio and its surrounding country is reflected in the air above the neighboring sea: a phenomenon which has likewise been witnessed in front of the city of Marseilles. As to the tales of the mariners who had landed on these forbidden shores, and been hurried thence in whirlwinds and tempests, he considers them as mere fabrications.

As the populace, however, reluctantly give up any thing that partakes of the marvelous and mysterious, and as the same atmospherical phenomena, which first gave birth to the illusion, may still continue, it is not improbable that a belief in the island of St. Brandan may still exist among the ignorant and credulous of the Canaries, and that they at times behold its fairy mountains rising above the distant horizon of the Atlantic.

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