Tuesday, October 20, 2009

#21 Celebrating Bjarni Herjolfsson Day

Er ... Columbus Day. Or, rather, Native American Day (aka: Indigenous People's Day). Or Leif Ericsson Day. Or Vespucci Day. In fact, I was so inspired last Monday by all the various "discoverers" of America that I awarded them a whole week, and promptly took it off--a bit of a holiday from more pressing and lately depressing matters as Health Care Reform and Afghanistan. Not ready to go back there yet--as the President is still fiddling with the latter, and Congress is forever diddling with the former ... in the full carnal sense, it seems.

So ... what follows are some historical musings, of mainly the "What If?" counter-factual variety. Specifically--Why aren't we all Vikings? Us Americans, that is. It's a fluke of history we're not. Just as it's only slightly less a fluke that we're not all Hispanic, though rampant immigration/patriation seems to be making up for lost time and opportunities post-Columbus. The Spanish were perfectly poised to settle the whole of North America--in what could have been a grand pincer movement between Florida and California--from the early 1500's on, if they hadn't been so hungry for gold. Spain's was a conquest mentality in its approach to the New World, always. They weren't called Conquistadors for nothing. Their "take-the-money-and-run" strategy worked for them in MesoAmerica and to the South only because they got there first, and only because of the vast hemispheric distances that protected them from the settlement strategies of the English and French. To oversimplify a bit.

But what I've always found fascinating about all this--especially given my North-Germanic heritage--is what happened half-a-millennium earlier. When the Columbus Day break came around for us school-kids of the late 40s and 50s --Oct. 12th had to be a week-day or sometimes Sunday (then carried over to Monday), or you were out of luck back then--there was always a smart-ass like me who reminded everybody that the Spanish hireling from Genoa, Cristoforo Columbo, was a late-comer in the America-discovering business ... by 500 years. The first European to set foot on the Western Hemisphere was a Greenlander Viking appropriately named Leif (= "heir," cognate with our "leaving") by his father, the Icelander Eiric the Red--himself a notorious outlaw from Norway. Leif Ericsson actually discovered America, I would point out, and he gave it the much sexier name of "Vinland." Or so said revisionist historians and the Norse sagas I was reading. It often happened, of course, that an even smarter-assed kid would chime in with: "Well, it was really the Indians--they were here long before that." Argument over.

Technically, it wasn't Leif either, depicted above in Christian Krogh's famous painting. He got wind of (sorry) "new lands" west of Greenland some 15 years before his literally ground-breaking voyage dated about the year 1000. He got the news from a fellow named Bjarni Herjolfsson ("Bear War-wolf's-son"--love it), an Icelandic merchant-man. Seems Bjarni was blown off course on a late-summer trip from Iceland to Greenland on his way to visit his parents, who had settled there with Leif's father Eiric (who should be recognized as the first colonizer of the Americas, I think, because "Graenland"--his marketing name for the frost-bound island--lies within our continental plate). Anyway, when the storm abated, Bjarni and his crew found themselves within sight of "low-lying hills covered with forests" that had never been seen before. This was Vinland, as Leif, as much of a P.R. guy as his father, was to call it later. But Bjarni was overdue for his appointment with Mom and Dad in Greenland. So, despite his ferocious moniker and the pleas of his more adventurous crewmen, he refused to make landfall. Subsequently, even though these "new-found-lands" were evidently only a short hop away, it took another i5 years for Leif to get up his first expedition. But he did it in style. He even bought Bjarni's original Viking knarr to set sail in!

So, why isn't our country named Vinland? Or Bjarnica? And why is it that most Americans can't chat-up the Icelandic pop-star Bjork in her native language? It was all because of the Skraelingar. (more)