Today we discover America. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
"What're you reading?" my
friend from India asks me. "It's about a Welshman
named Madoc who discovered Alabama in 1170 AD," I
reply. "Discover?" says he. "I guess you have to've
been European to've 'discovered' America." "Not
really," I answer. "The Chinese reached Mexico by sea in
Columbus's arrival was merely the first
well-documented one. Scholars debate when Asians
passed over from Siberia on dry land. No one doubts
the Norse were in Greenland a thousand years ago,
but details are thin. And we're not sure how far
into the mainland they got. Claims made before the
invention of printing are fuzzy. We hadn't yet
agreed on rules of documentation.
Take St. Brendan, the fifth-century, seafaring,
Irish Christian scholar. His missionary travels are
told in exaggerated legends with all the usual
mermaids, dragons, and cities under the sea. The
Brendan legends seem to flow from older tales of a
pagan Ireland. At the same time, they include
details unlike any in Irish folklore. They include
details outside Irish experience. For example, they
describe what sounds like West Indian coral.
The ancient Celts were fine sailors. Their
flat-bottomed boats, called curraghs, had wooden
frames covered with ox hides. They sound skimpy,
but they criss-crossed the oceanlike Irish sea. And
we know for a fact they reached Iceland before
So we're back to that book I was reading about the
wildest of the Celtic claims. It's the story of
Madoc, and you can read about it on a DAR plaque at
Fort Morgan, Alabama:
In memory of Prince Madoc, a Welsh explorer,
who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170 and
left behind, with the Indians, the Welsh
language, says the plaque.
Madoc's story is an old Welsh legend that got a
huge boost when Queen Elizabeth blessed it in 1580.
Of course a pre-Columbus claim to America made a
fine political weapon. In 1792, the Welsh sent a
young man out to look for the children of Madoc's
people among Mandan Indians along the Missouri
River. He could find nothing. He despaired, tangled
in Spanish/English politics, took to drink, and
finally died, still young, in New Orleans.
Still, Madoc's story didn't run into serious
debunking until 1858, when a Welsh scholar
systematically demolished it. Yet that demolition
was as inconclusive as the Madoc claims were in the
first place. Everything is patched with "ifs."
People keep claiming to find traces of Welsh in the
Mandan language, and similarities to Welsh hide
boats in Mandan canoes.
It's a story that should've been true even if it
wasn't. And if it wasn't, then some other claim
was. Too many of those stories! I doubt each one,
but I cannot doubt them all. Columbus had to be
just one of the many who dared -- and the few who
I'm John Lienhard at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Williams, G.A., Madoc: The Legend of the Welsh
Discovery of America. New York: Oxford
University Press, 1987.
Deacon, R., Madoc and the Discovery of
America. New York: George Braziller, 1966.
Ashe, G., Land to the West: St.Brendan's
Voyage to America. New York: The Viking
The person in Elizabeth I's court who drove the
story of Madoc was her Welsh science advisor -- the
brilliant alchemist, scholar, and sometimes
magician, John Dee.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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