An extract from The Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack
(Birlinn, hardback, 152 pages. Out now.)
In the second of two extracts from his new book, The Un-Discovered Islands, Malachy Tallack tries to unpick some of the myths that still surround one of the most famous phantom islands:
The story of Hy Brasil demonstrates a problem common to many of the places in this book. Namely, it is hard to establish facts about phantoms. Much has been written about the island over the centuries, and much of what has been written is almost certainly wrong. The traditional story, repeated in countless books and articles, begins with cartography and then moves backward into folklore. It goes something like this:
From the early fourteenth century, maps produced in Genoa and then elsewhere in Europe showed an island west of Ireland, circular in shape, labelled ‘Insula de Brazil’, or some variant of that name. Many of these maps also showed one or two other islands elsewhere in the Atlantic with the same name, but this was merely an etymological coincidence. While these other islands – and later the South American country – were named after a kind of wood used to create red dye, the northerly Brazil had an entirely different origin. It was derived either from the Old Irish word bres, meaning ‘beauty’ or ‘strength’, or else from some historical figure by the name of Breasal.
As these derivations suggest, the island was rooted in Celtic mythology. It was one of those mystical lands, like Tir na nÓg or St Brendan’s Isle, that echoed back to earlier beliefs in a paradise on earth. Brazil – or Hy Brasil, as it was later known – was a place rarely seen. It was hidden by thick fog, and only appeared to a chosen few, once every seven years. Or so the story went.
But the line between myth and map took a long time to become settled, and it seems the belief in an island somewhere to the west of Ireland lingered for centuries. Not only did Brazil continue to appear on charts of the Atlantic, but numerous ships were sent out from Bristol in search of it. Even John Cabot, who is generally considered the first European since the Vikings to reach North America, in 1497, apparently went looking for Hy Brasil. But without success.
There were exceptions though. A few lone sailors did claim to have seen the mysterious island, including several in the seventeenth century. The best known of these, a Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Ireland, gave an extraordinarily detailed description of the place, having arrived there by accident in 1674. These details were recounted the following year in a letter written by William Hamilton of Derry to his cousin in London.
According to this letter, Captain Nisbet and his crew were returning from France by sea when a thick fog descended, immersing the ship. When the fog lifted, the sailors found themselves beside an island, where cattle, sheep and horses grazed, as well as ‘multitudes of black rabbits’. The following day, an old man with ten servants approached the ship and conversed with the sailors. He told them that, until a few days previously, the island had been under the spell of a necromancer, making it invisible. Now, however, that spell was broken.
Whatever the truth or otherwise of such accounts, the island gradually began to disappear from maps, and despite a few unconvincing sightings right up into the nineteenth century, it made its last cartographic appearance in 1873 as ‘Brasil Rock’. And then it was gone. An old Irish myth had been taken up by mapmakers, resulting in centuries of confusion. But finally, the confusion was cleared up.
That, at least, is the traditional story, often repeated and widely accepted. But it turns out there are some very serious problems with it.
Firstly, there is good evidence to suggest that sailors in the late fifteenth century were using ‘Brasil’ as a codeword. What they were actually referring to was precisely that place John Cabot is credited with discovering: North America. Their secrecy was a means of concealing knowledge from other European powers, not just about the land itself, but about the extraordinarily rich fishery off the coast of Newfoundland.
Secondly, that famous account by Captain John Nisbet is a work of fiction. Not in the sense that Nisbet made his tale up – which would hardly be surprising – but, rather, the captain himself did not exist. He was invented by the Anglo-Irish writer Richard Head, who used the island of Brasil as a setting for several of his works. The pamphlet containing this letter was a piece of satire, and quite how it came to be accepted as genuine by so many is hard to surmise. It must surely count as one of the most successful literary hoaxes of all time.
Thirdly, and most significantly, research into the earliest recorded Irish myths has failed to turn up any mention of an island called Hy Brasil. There are plenty of tales of mysterious islands, both in lakes and in the sea, but neither that name nor any variation of it is used in connection with them until long after it began to appear on the map. In fact, according to a thorough study by Barbara Freitag, no reliable folkloric sources use that name until the nineteenth century. After which it became ubiquitous.
It seems that rather than beginning in myth and ending up on the map, as long believed, Hy Brasil went the other way. It appeared on charts first, was later used by sailors as code, then by writers as a fictional setting, and was finally appropriated into mythology.
None of which provides an answer as to what Brazil was doing on the map in the first place, of course. But it seems logical, once the myths and misconceptions are pushed aside, to assume that its name should have the same root as the other Brazils that appeared at the same time. Red dye, or brazil, was a hugely valuable commodity, and could be derived not just from wood but from certain types of lichen found on islands in the North Atlantic.
Perhaps the Geonese cartographers believed a source of this lichen lay to the west of Ireland. Or perhaps there were rumours, even then, of a new land across the ocean, where brazil might be found in abundance. The only thing we can say for certain is that we can never be certain. The truth of the matter is long lost. Hy Brasil is a phantom, a fiction, a myth and a mistake. It is all of these things, and in the end it is nothing.
Read the previous extract from The Un-Discovered Islands here
Find out more about the book at theundiscoveredislands.com