Carl O. Sauer has combined a broad knowledge of geography with legend, saga, and history to produce a highly readable work. His theme is the North Atlantic in the thousand years before Columbus, as he traces maritime activity in that ocean back from the immediately pre-Columbian voyages of the Portuguese, Danish, and English through the pursuits of the Hansa and the Hermandad de las Marismas (a kind of southern Hansa of the Basque and Asturian coasts) during the High Middle Ages and on to Viking and possible Celtic explorations of a still earlier day. Sauer’s contention is that all these Europeans looked upon the North Atlantic not as a “tenebrous sea,” but as a highway to religious and political refuge or to the main chance, particularly when economic opportunities of the Mediterranean basin declined. The net result is to diminish Columbus’ claims to preeminence, which in this as in other works Sauer is at some pains to discredit.
The point which will probably excite the most interest is his attempt to validate an old surmise by pushing the discovery of America back beyond the Norse to the Irish. According to him, in the fifth century, chiefly for religious reasons, the Irish began a westward advance that carried them via the Hebrides, Orkneys, Shetlands, and Faroes to Iceland, where they arrived at least a century before the Norse. Pressed by the Viking invaders, they then pushed on to Greenland and America, where they settled “Hvitramannaland”—Ireland the Great—in the St. Lawrence Valley some time in the tenth century.
Sauer bases these speculations chiefly on three pieces of evidence. The first is the prominence of Hvitramannaland in the Norse sagas; it is actually mentioned more often than Vinland. The second is the recent archaeological discovery of Helge and Anne Ingstad at the Strait of Belle Isle. Because of carbon dating and extensive evidence of ironworking, an activity seldom found among the Greenland Norse, Sauer argues that the site was Irish rather than Norse. Finally he cites frequent observations by the post-Columbian explorers that the Algonquian Indians practiced ceremonies resembling those of the Christian religion, an indication that they had been in contact with a Christian people over an extended period. While the first two arguments may have merit, the last is not convincing, for such observations were common among European explorers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wherever they went.
Aside from the case for an Irish discovery and settlement of America, most of what Sauer has to say is not particularly original. He relies for documentation and for some of his interpretive ideas on Fridtjof Nansen’s In Northern Mists, published in 1911, and on a relatively small number of other books. At least that is what one must assume from the rather inadequate footnotes and the total lack of bibliography. The insights and synthesis are nonetheless interesting and well worth the reader’s time.