Madog, the Welsh Columbus

Folklore / Thursday, December 28th, 2017

It should hardly be surprising of a man who has nineteen sons (and, presumably, a similar number of daughters, the insatiable old goat!), that most of them were illegitimate; although, since six of them were legitimate (and, presumably, a similar number of daughters), his wife was certainly no slouch.

The problem was that Welsh custom, and therefore law in the twelfth century, expected a man to divide his estate equally between all his sons, whichever side of the blanket they were born on.  Dividing a territory like Gwynedd into nineteen equal portions would have left each son with barely more than a farm, and there was no way of dividing the title of Prince of Gwynedd between nineteen people.  This is the reason behind the most exasperating feature of medieval Welsh history: that no sooner would one Welsh prince die having achieved some advantage for his domain, then his sons would immediately fall out and start a civil war that the enemy would capitalise on.

The sons of Owain Gwynedd in 1169 were no different, except for Madog and Riryd, who tired of the fratricidal squabbling (we can assume it wasn’t going well for them), and set sail from what is now Aber-Cerric-Gwynan (Rhos-on-Sea) with two ships, the Gorn Gwynant and the Pedr Sant, seeker a quieter, more prosperous life elsewhere.

The harbour at Rhos-on-Sea.

They sailed west, for east lay only England, where territorial strife was nothing unusual.  Little peace was to be found there.  Through the treacherous Menai Strait they passed, squeezing between the Llyn Peninsula and Ynys Mȏn (Anglesey).  Turning south, their last sight of their homeland was probably Ynys Enllis (Bardsey Island), soaring impregnably hundreds of feet out of the rough, cold Irish Sea that chopped relentlessly at the island’s black cliffs.  Around the coast of Ireland they sailed, passing Wexford and Cork, then, the Mizzen Head, the last bit of Europe, shrinking behind them into the distance, off into the wide-open Atlantic.

The Menai Strait, between Anglesey and the Llyn Peninsula

Nobody expected to hear of them again.  It was months before they returned, healthy and buoyant, burned by the sun, with news of a great land far to the west: a huge land; a land fat with riches, ripe for settlement.  This time assembling a fleet of ten ships, on Lundy Island, with its puffin colonies, bid farewell forever to their homeland and loved ones, and once again cruised out past the southern coast of Ireland, again into the great Atlantic void, never to be seen again.

Lundy Island

Hundreds of years later, early explorers of America reported circular stone forts, predating Columbus, constructed along the Alabama River by, according to the local Cherokee tribes, “White People,” and said to be of similar design to Dolwyddan Castle.  The Mandan Indians were said to be of wholly different appearance to other Native Americans, their hair turning white with age, living in towns and villages with permanent squares and planned streets, and speaking a language similar to Welsh, they fished from coracles, the traditional Welsh boats of ancient design, in preference to canoes.  Tragically, the Mandan tribe was annihilated in 1837 by a small pox epidemic.

Mandan Indians with boats resembling coracles, George Catlin

Is the story of Madog true?  The earliest known telling of it is from a fifteenth-century poem, three hundred years after the event, when news of Columbus’ discovery was all the rage across Europe.  Never the less, Elizabeth I used the story as a justification for establishing Virginia when the Spanish were asserting a prerogative over the entirety of the American continents.  In 1953, the Daughters of the Revolution erected a plaque in Mobile Bay, AL, that read: “In memory of Prince Madog, a Welsh explorer who landed on the shores of Mobile Bay in 1170, and left behind him, with the Indians, the Welsh language.”