Tuesday, June 23, 2009

The First Flemings in America - Part One

Gentle Reader: My foray back to the historical and away from the current resumes with this posting. I have split the text into two sections due to length. The first, below, ends at about the time the Black Plague swept through Norway in 1350. The second part will cover the following 150 years of pre-Columbian Flemish contribution to the Discovery and Settlement of America.

The First Flemings[
i] in America – Part One: The First 500 Years: 850-1350

The American educational system emphasizes an Anglo-centric view of history. Britain is the ‘Mother Country’ even for those of us without a scintilla of British DNA. This extends to the belief in the discovery of America.

Consider no less a voice than Edmund Burke (1729-1797) – the Anglo-Irish member of the British Parliament and advocate of American independence, government minister when the Treaty of Ghent was signed (1783) and vocal advocate of French Republican ideals. Burke’s An Account of the European Settlements in America, (1770?) captures the essence of this educational emphasis:

“We [the British] derive our rights in America from the discovery of Sebastian Cabot, who first made the northern continent in 1497. The fact is sufficiently certain to establish a right to our settlements in North America: but the particulars are not known distinctly enough to encourage me to enter into a detail of his voyage.”

Leaving aside some dramatic inaccuracies (it was John not Sebastian Cabot who reputedly made North American landfall in 1497
[iii]), and ignoring other questions raised by British Isle partisans (eg, whether Irish monks landed in America in the 800s; or Prince Madog of Wales discovered and colonized the Virginia coast in the 12th century; or Richard Amerike funded exploration of the American coast and gave our continent its name in the 1480s, etc.), the fact is that other Europeans most assuredly landed in North America before John or Sebastian Cabot – and certainly before Columbus.

The best known of the first European explorers and the earliest for which the historical and archaeological record offers verification are the Vikings. Most importantly for us, the Flemish participated in the Viking exploration of America.

Norse Flanders
It should be no surprise that Flanders had ties with the Vikings. Viking raids along the Flemish coasts had occurred frequently from 820 AD until the end of the century. But the Vikings’ “most serious activity in Flanders occurred between 879 and 881.”[iv] It was during those years that Flanders itself saw not only raids but occupation by Viking bands These pagan marauders burned and pillaged churches and abducted Flemish women and children into slavery.

The base for one of the largest Viking bands in Flemish lands during the 879-881 occupation was St. Bavo’s Abbey (which they had also sacked in 851 AD) in Gent.[v] St. Bavo’s Abbey is important for several reasons. St. Bavo – St. Baaf in Dutch[vi] – lived in the late 6th/early 7th centuries and had been a dissolute Frankish warrior who reformed and proselytized. He is the patron saint of Gent (and recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of Christianity). The monastery that bears his name was built on land he donated and funds he forwarded. As we shall see later, the unique construction of this monastery would leave an impression on the Vikings quartered there late in the 9th century.

It was not only Gent that felt the wrath of the Norse. The city of Bruges/Brugge in the heart of Flanders also felt the lick of devastation and desolation. Bruges/Brugge, which came to dominate medieval Flanders and Western Europe in trade, finance[vii] and cloth[viii] for centuries, received not only the invaders through its gates but a name given by them. The municipality’s name, ‘Brugge’ in Dutch, is the modern derivation of the Old Norse word for bridge/jetty/landing place: Bryggia. In fact the first coins minted in Flanders (in 864 AD) and now found at the Gruuthuse Museum at Bruges, display these early depictions.[ix]

This suggests that the Flemish were kin in a sense to their Norse neighbors. Some historians in fact believe that Old Norse and Old Flemish were mutually intelligible at this time.
[x] This may have been the reason that the first counts of Flanders, Baldwin I and Baldwin II, tacitly cooperated with the Vikings.[xi]

That feeling of linguistic kinship may also be the reason why Queen Emma, wife of King Canute the Great (who ruled Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, England and held tacit suzerainty over Iceland, Greenland and Vinland by 1017), was able to communicate freely with the inhabitants of Bruges when she lived there in exile (1037-1040 – under the protection of Baldwin V), and took as her personal chaplain a Flemish monk.[xii] It is thanks to Queen Emma’s close ties to the Flemish Abbey of Bertin in Saint Omer (of whom we will hear more about in a later posting) – which at that time was solidly Flemish in character, language, and allegiance) – that we have today an insight into the historical record of that period: a manuscript known as the Encomium Emmae.[xiii]

Encomium Emmae

Flemings Among the Vikings
Greenland is part of the Western Hemisphere and the North American continental land mass. The exploration and settlement of Greenland constituted first steps to reaching America. The earliest reference to Greenland in written form we have is from the one institution that throughout the Dark Ages kept records: the Church. In 831 Pope Gregory IV specifically outlined Greenland and Iceland as part of the bishopric of Hamburg, to which he appointed the Frank Anskar (801-865)
[xiv]. In 864 the Pope Nicholas I confirmed that the bishopric not only included the immediate vicinity of Bremen, but also the pagan lands of the Vikings – including Iceland and Greenland.[xv] Subsequent authority is believed to also have specifically been granted for Vinland's incorporation into the Archbishop’s ecclesiastic care.[xvi]

Psalter, Flanders ca 1250 AD

These documents of course exist as parchment records. But we also know of some of the personal details to convert the pagan Vikings to Christianity thanks in part to Anskar’s right-hand man and successor, the Flemish Saint Rembert (or Rimbert), Archbishop of Bremen (830-888).[xvii] Rembert spent decades with Anskar amongst the Vikings of Scandinavia, but following Anskar’s death continued these efforts for a further twenty-three years on his own. Archbishop Rembert’s proselytizing took him from his original Torhout abbey[xviii] through Friesland (where he halted a Viking attack) to Denmark, Sweden and beyond.[xix] Rembert’s example inspired colonies of Christians to sprout despite fierce opposition. Today, among Catholics in Friesland, Saint Rembert is venerated on February 4th, to commemorate the day in 884 AD that he stood down Norse marauders.[xx]

The Episcopal see of Bremen sent forth other Flemings as well to spread the light of Christianity in the Scandinavian darkness. One Fleming, Dankbrand by name,
[xxi] exactly a century after Saint Rembert’s death studied under his successor as archbishop, in 988 AD. Later, after a period of service as a warrior with the Vikings, Dankbrand took religious vows. His example converted the King of Norway, Olaf Tryggvesson, to Christianity, and Dankbrand became his court chaplain.[xxii] In 996, with the fervor of a new convert, King Olaf dispatched Dankbrand to Iceland to convert the island’s chieftains. Dankbrand concentrated his attention on the key Viking chieftain and towards the end of his three year stay, in 999, converted a principal chieftain who “became a devout believer and aided materially in the establishment of Christianity in the island.”[xxiii] It might be said then that the spread of Christianity to the Vikings owes something to Flemish fervor.[xxiv]

Modern reconstruction of medieval Hanseatic Cog

Westward to America
As many schoolchildren now know, Leif Ericsson is often given credit as the first European making North American landfall for whom we have reasonable archaeological and historic records. The date usually given for this event is circa the year 1000 AD. Archaeologists have uncovered a settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland that has the look of a Viking village. Farmers and amateur historians have also unearthed rune stones (cf the Kensington Rune Stone), metal weaponry (swords, daggers, halberds, axeheads), household implements (pottery, etc.) and even clothing.
[xxv] The historical record does not dispute that there were Norsemen in America. But what it leaves out is that behind this story we find the Flemings lurking, in a typically unassertive fashion.

The view of Greenland approaching from Iceland

As his name implies, Leif was the son of Erik the Red. Erik’s sojourn from northwestern Iceland was a consequence of a three-year sentence of banishment imposed about the year 983. Erik, who had heard of earlier sojourns to a westerly land,[xxvi] spent those three years exploring and settling southwestern Greenland with a small group of retainers. When he returned home to Iceland, his description and enthusiasm inspired perhaps as many as twenty-five shiploads of Norsemen to sail with him from Iceland to Greenland in 987.[xxvii] Despite their departure from Iceland, contact between the two Norwegian colonies was steady and consistent.

Leif Ericsson was back in Norway reputedly at the court of King Olaf Tryggvesson sometime in the late 990s. It is there that he converted to Christianity. “It was only at the court of King Olaf at Trondhjem that he [Leif] submitted to baptism.”
[xxviii] We do not know however, whether he was converted by the Flemish court chaplain Dankbrand or one of Dankbrand’s disciples. But that his conversion was real is manifest through his subsequent actions.

12th century Norse Catholic church ruins on today's Greenland

It is on record that Leif brought back with him a missionary priest when he returned to Greenland. Since the training to become a priest even then was a multi-year education, it is unlikely that the priest was an Icelander. From Greenland, sometime about the year 1000 AD, Leif and perhaps as many as 160 men and women landed on the North American coast. These pioneer Vikings were said to include a priest who baptized the first European child recorded to be born in North America, Snorrie Thorfinsson. It is this priest who also celebrated the first Christian service – and likely the first Christmas Mass – in the Western Hemisphere.[xxix]

The Viking settlement at L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland

Among Leif Ericsson’s party was also at least one “south country” man – a Norse term at the time for Germanic speakers, and that might include the Flemish – who was not of Norwegian ethnicity. It is this man who legend says discovered the grapes – critical for the celebration of Mass by these new Christians in North America – that suggested the name “Vinland” for this part of North America.[xxx] Modern scholars now believe that the label Vinland applied specifically to the Cape Cod area, Rhode island, and perhaps even Martha’s Vinyard.[xxxi]

Newport Tower – St. Baaf in the U.S.?
The largest trove of the rich archaeological record of the Norsemen in North America can be found near L’Anse aux Meadows at the very tip of northern Newfoundland, immediately across from Labrador, as cited above. This site includes longhouses and other signs of permanent settlement. Within the boundaries of the modern U.S. there is only one site that has raised a strong claim to pre-Columbian European permanent settlement. This is in Rhode Island, near Martha’s Vinyard. The site is called the Newport Tower.

Newport Tower, Rhode Island

Unusual for construction found in colonial America, the Newport Tower is built of cyclopean masonry – uncut stones neatly fitted together. More unique still is the structure itself: a circular tower with fitted slots for floor timbers and an internal floor plan unlike either the English blockhouses or the churches or homes that Pilgrim and Puritan colonists built as they settled the region in the 17th century.

St. Bavo's/St. Baaf's Abbey Gent

Much ink has been spilt and scientific grant dollars expended in trying to determine the provenance of this building. An article by a noted archaeological historian, Suzanne Carlson, made the best effort I have seen of fixing the cultural origins of the Newport Tower.[xxxii] Her conclusions suggest that the tower is clearly medieval in origin. Although she does not declaratively state her preference, one option Ms. Carlson offers is that the building may be in fact an architectural clone of St. Baaf’s/Bavo’s Abbey in Gent. Recall that during their occupation of Gent the Vikings in the 879-881 period squatted in St. Baaf’s/Bavo’s Abbey. Factor in Christian fervor, Flemish pioneer missionaries and strong trade ties, and the possibility of a link directly between the builders of Newport Tower and St. Baaf’s/Bavo’s Abbey is quite credible. If true, this would be further evidence of an early Flemish presence in North America.

Side-by-side comparison of the Newport Tower (L) and St. Bavo's/St. Baaf's Abbey, Gent

Bergen and Brugge
It may have been the attraction of trade, Christian conviction, or the simple quest, but according to Adam of Bremen, writing about 1070 AD, regular troops of Netherlanders set off from the Zwin and sailed first to Scotland before touching at Iceland, Greenland and ultimately America.

[xxxiii] These seafaring visits include, in their retelling, a fair amount of fantastic happenings (eg, giants, the discovery of gold, fortified cities and the like) which might be interpreted as later additions or a medieval copywriter’s embellishments. Since little archaeological record exists to substantiate these claims, they remain a tantalizing hint of direct expeditions to the New World before Columbus from the Low Countries.[xxxiv]

Hanseatic Trade Routes ca 1200 AD from Brugge to Bergen

As students of Low Country geography will recall, the Zwin, from which these possible New World visitors from the Netherlands emerged in the 11th century, was a busy waterway. In medieval times it served a number of major towns. The most important of these market towns was Bruges/Brugge. Bruges/Brugge was “the late-medieval center of world trade”.[xxxv] As mentioned above, Bruges/Brugge – the Norse-friendly town of the 800s – sat at the center of a vast web of trade in commodities from less-developed regions (primarily in the northern and eastern regions of Europe) in exchange for finished goods – especially textiles from Flanders. The Flemish textiles consisted of dyed cloths as well as finished clothing. These goods were shipped everywhere: from Novgorod (Russia) to Africa, the Middle East, and beyond. It is thanks to its manufacturing and technological export base that Bruges/Brugge became, by the late 12th century, the “most important commercial entrepot, the major Flemish port and drapery town of Bruges.”[xxxvi]

The harbor at medieval Zeebrugge, Brugge's outlet to the sea

Leif Ericsson’s venture yielded profits from the export of felled timber and cured animal pelts. Many staple commodities that were in short supply on Greenland but also attractive in continental European markets. Steady shipments of these raw materials leftthe Vinland colony until Leif’s settlers departed en masse in 1012, after which they continued but were more sporadic.[xxxvii] Exports from Greenland to European continental merchants included not only agricultural goods such as butter, cheese, seal hides, and occasionally wool, but also specific Arctic products such as polar bear furs, whale blubber, eiderdown (gathered from birds’ nests), narwhal tusks, gyr falcons, walrus hide ropes, and, last but not least, walrus ivory.[xxxviii]

The largest volume trade in northern Europe in terms of bulk was in furs. The number one emporium for northern European goods including furs from the 12th through 15th centuries was Bruges. So these Greenland goods – and any residual from the North American coast, found eager buyers in Bruges/Brugge.

Modern Bruges/Brugge is remarkably unchanged since 1350

That said, trade tinged with Christianity remained the cornerstone of Flemish contacts with the New World. In the pre-Columbian era this is where we find our strongest archival records of Flemish contact with America. The Church – sponsoring Crusades to the Holy Lands (Flemings ‘captured’ and ruled the Byzantine empire in the 13th century) and supporting a bureaucracy that superficially united western Europe (medieval precursor of the EU?) – often levied extraordinary taxes both directly and (for an economy in which coins were not always plentiful) in kind on parishoners. Some of these records offer tantalizing clues to other early Flemish links to the New World.

The papacy often farmed out the collection of the extraordinary tithes it assessed. This practice was a cause of concern – especially because it could lead to abuse. From 1123 AD on Greenland had its own diocesan jurisdiction, the bishopric at Gardar. But because the round trip from Bergen, Norway to Gardar, Greenland reputedly took roughly five years, many functions that required quicker interaction with Europe by necessity were assumed by the bishopric of Bergen. The historic record suggests that ties between Bergen and Bruges/Brugge were close. Because, for collecting the Peter’s Pence levy in Scandinavia, Greenland and Vinland, “papal representatives had suggested that the papal monies be entrusted to loyal and honest merchants of Flanders.”

Gyr Falcons were literally worth their weight in gold

Pope John XXII’s tax-collector for Scandinavia in the early 14th century, one Bertrand de Ortolis, left this entry in the archives:

"Received at Bergen, Aug. 11. 1327, from the Archbishop of Drontheim [also known as Nidaros = modern day Trontheim], the tithes of the bishopric of Greenland, consisting of 127 lispfund, [1 lispfund = 20lbs] of walrus-teeth, which I sold, Sept. 6. by the advice of the Archbishop of Drontheim, and the Bishop of Bergen, to Jan D’Ypres, a Flemish merchant, for 12 livres, 14 sols Tournais, half of which has been paid to the king. In right of Saint Peter's pence, I have received for Greenland, three lispfund of walrus-teeth, which I have sold at 2 sols per pound."

Walrus ivory carved circa 1200

There is even a possibility that ties may have been too close: this may have even been a deal among friends. For example: although the deal was transacted in Bergen, both the Papal Legate, Bernardus de Ortelis, and Jan D’Ypres (Jan from Ieper) set out from the same home base in Flanders (Ortelis came from Bruges).[xli]

Since the Bergen-Bruges/Brugge connection was well established this may of course simply have been happenstance. Enough records exist to show a near-daily contact. In a letter to Aegidius Correnbitter at Bruges/Brugge on 29 September 1338 from Bishop Hakon in Bergen, the good bishop asks the merchant to sell for his account polar bear skins and dentes centinos, ‘whalefish teeth’ from a tithing in Greenland. ‘Whalefish teeth’ was the name Norwegians gave to walrus ivory.
[xlii] This ivory was rare, expensive, and highly sought after for knife hafts, figurines and jewelry. The Bishop of Bergen's familiar tone and the implied regularity of their business dealings suggest that this was just one more in a series of transactions that originated with European settlers in North America and concluded in Flanders. It was certainly not the last.

Increased hostility from the aboriginal natives and deadly internecine quarrelling abruptly ended the first documented attempt at European colonization in North America. Future visits by the Norse and their followers continued for at least the next 250 years.
[xliii] But it was not until the late 14th and early 15th century that we see substantial contributions by Flemings to the exploration and settlement of America. Please log back in later for my follow-on posting: The First Flemings in America – Part Two: 1350-1500.

[i] It goes without saying – but I feel I need to due to the stream of e-mails I receive from eagle-eyed historical aficionados – that my terminology of “Fleming” is meant in the broad sense to include those Dutch speakers south of the Maas River; e.g., the Dutch speakers in what is modern-day Belgium and northern France. Thus, I include Brabanters, Bruxellois, citizens of the bishopric of Liege, and Limburgers in this mix.
[ii] Isaac Kramnick, ed., The Portable Edmund Burke, (New York: Penguin, 1999), p.237
[iii] The best authority on the Cabots exploration of North America is still Henry Harisse, John Cabot, Discoverer of North America and Sebastian His Son, (London: BF Stevens, 1896)
[iv] David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders, (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1992), p.15.
[v] ibid.
[vi] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Bavo
[vii] Bruges has been recognized as the birthplace of the stock exchange. See Donatella Calabi, “Foreigners and the City: An Historiographical Explanation for the Early Modern Period” in the Fondazione Eni Enrico MatteiWorking Papers, 2006, Paper#15, p.7. Available online at www.bepress.com/feem/paper15 . Bruges has earned the mantle as the birthplace of capitalism. See James M. Murray, Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, 1280-1390, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005).
[viii] There is a huge amount of scholarship focused on this subject but one survey is Patrick Chorley, “The Cloth Exports of Flanders and Northern France During the Thirteenth Century: A Luxury Trade?”, in Economic History Review, 2nd Ser., XL, 3 (1987), pp. 349-379.
[ix] Noel Geirnaert and Ludoi Vandamme, Bruges: Two Thousand Years of History, (Bruges: Stichting Kunstboek, 1996), pp.7-8.
[x] Edward Freeman, The History of the Norman Conquest of England: Its Causes and Results, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1876), p.527.
[xi] David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders, op cit, p.18.
[xii] Harriet O’Brien, Queen Emma and the Vikings, (New York: Bloomsbury, 2005), pp.184-185.
[xiii] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Encomium_Emmae . Note that a sizeable percent of the population of modern Flanders - 28% - have some Scandinavian DNA. Please see Guido Deboeck, "Genetic Diversity in Flemish DNA" (2008) quoting Spencer Well's Deep Ancestry, here http://www.jogg.info/42/files/Deboeck.htm and Gerhard Mertens, "Y Haplogroup Frequencies in the Flemish Population", Journal of Genetic Genealogy, 3 (2): 19-25, 2007 found online here: http://www.jogg.info/32/mertens.pdf
[xiv] English translations of the primary documents that support this section can be found in Robert Burns Morgan’s, Readings in English Social History from Contemporary Literature – Volume IV Excerpting J. Barry Colman, O. S. B., Ed. From Pentecost to the Protestant Revolt, Vol.1 (ND:The Newman Press, Westminster, Maryland) pp. 280-283. Note also that the tide of Flemings to Norse regions was consistent and steady. "Even in the year 780 we had some emigrants. When Saint Adelhard, son of Count Bernhard and grandson of Karel Martel moved to Corbie in France to manage the abbey (780 to 814 and 821 to 826), he did not leave by himself. He was accompanied by a good number of like minded people. Ananother saint, Saint Asher (801 to 865) primate of the Scandinaviancountries, was appointed by Louis The Pious as the first archbishop ofHamburg. Since Asher was a Fleming, Louis donated to him the abbey of Torhout. Asher stayed there on a regular basis, and each time when hereturned to Hamberg a large number of Flemings followed in his wake." - from "Vlaamse Stam" (Flemish Heritage), amonthly magazine of "De Vlaamse Vereniging voor Familiekunde (V.V.F)"(The Flemish Association for Geneology). The article was contained in the Januari 1991 issue, pages 546 through 554, and authored by Marc van de Cruys.
[xv] Peter De Roo, History of America Before Columbus According to Documents and Approved Authors, Vol. I, “American Aboriginals”, (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1900), pp.45-48 – the actual transcription of the Latin text is found on p.53
[xvi] Thomas A. DuBois, Sanctity in the North: Saints, Lives, and Cults in Medieval Scandinavia, (Toronto: University Press, 2008), p.31
[xvii] See the online version of Anskar’s life, titled “Vita Ansgari”, at The Medieval Sourcebook: http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/pgc.asp?page=basis/anskar.html
[xviii] Adam of Bremen writing in about 1070 AD.
[xix] Despite the fact that Flemish missionaries – first Catholic then Catholic and Protestant – have made an outsized contribution to the spread of Christianity, a single book has yet to be written that I am aware of on the subject. For a recent synopsis of Catholic contributions in the U.S. Midwest alone please see Bart Ryckbosch, “Belgian Missionaries in the American Midwest” in the Belgian American Historical Society of Chicago Newsletter, Vol. 4, no. 2, (December, 2008) pp. 2-8 http://www.bahsc.org/images/newsletter/bahsc_newsletter_2008_12_vol_4_n_2.pdf . For a focused discussion of the Flemish Protestant missionary effort just in the Netherlands the premier work remains J. Briels, De Zuidnederlandse Immigratie 1572-1630, (Haarlem 1978).
[xx] Löffler, Klemens. "St. Rimbert." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912.
21 Jun. 2009
http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13057a.htm . There is a good explation of the history of Tourhout and the connection with Rembert here: http://www.geocities.com/heemkundetorhout/geschiedenis.htm . Note that the surname Rembert is found in the U.S. and that even a municipality in South Carolina carries the name.
[xxi] His name is also transcribed as Thankbrand, Thangbrand, Frangbrandr, etc. See for example, the Lutheran Church Cyclopedia: https://www.lcms.org/ca/www/cyclopedia/02/display.asp?t1=T&word=THANGBRAND
[xxii] Colman J. Barry, OSBB, Readings in Church History, Vol I “From Pentecost to Protestant Revolt”, 2007 reprint, pp.280-283 “Introduction of Christianity to Iceland”.
[xxiii] Jon Iordarsson Thoroddsen, Lad and Lass: A Story of Life in Iceland, translated from the Icelandic by Arthur M. Reeves, (London, 1890), pp.1-2, n.1
[xxiv] Dankbrand’s contribution seems forgotten among modern scholars. See Sigridur Juliusdottir, The Major Churches in Iceland and Norway: A Study into the Major Churches in Skalholt Diocese and Bergen Diocese in the 11th to the 15th Centuries, (Bergen, 2006).
[xxv] For pictures of the swords and implements see Hjalmar R. Holand, Explorations in America Before Columbus, (New York: Twayne, 1956), pp.132-138; text on Viking grave in Ontario pp. 101-2; on Norse halberds in America 197-202. Also, please see Hjalmar R. Holand, America, 1355-1364: A New Chapter in Pre-Columbian History, (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946), Plates VII – X (prior to beginning of text).
[xxvi] “The Norwegian Gunbjorn is the first man whom history credits with having seen Greenland” – perhaps in the year 900s. Poul Norlund, Viking Settlers in Greenland and Their Descendants During Five Hundred Years, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1936), Klaus Reprint 1971 New York, pp.16-17.
[xxvii] ibid, p.18
[xxviii] ibid, p.29
[xxix] Note that there is credible evidence that Leif Ericsson was preceded by others to Vinland/North America. See G.J. Marcus, The Conquest of the North Atlantic, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), pp.59-62. That said, James Robert Enterline in Erikson, Eskimos & Columbus, (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2002), p.6, has declared, “Leif Erikson, too, was a discoverer of America. There is no longer any controversy among scholars about that.” For the fact that a great many of the Icelanders were of noble or aristocratic Norwegian blood, see ibid, pp.47-48. For a dramatization of the first Christmas in America see http://www.geocities.com/heartland/meadows/2700/story51.htm
[xxx] John Fiske, The Discovery of America, Vol. 1, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1892), pp.165-6
[xxxi] Frederick N. Brown, III, Rediscovering Vinland: Evidence of Ancient Viking Presence in America, (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2007), Vol. I, p.183ff.
[xxxii] Suzanne Carlson, “Loose Threads in a Tapestry of Stone: The Architecture of the Newport Tower”, in New England Antiquities Research Association, Vol XXXV, No. 1, Summer 2001, Issue of the NEARA Journal; found online here: http://www.neara.org/CARLSON/newporttower.htm
[xxxiii] For Adam of Bremen in modern translation please see Francis J. Tschan, (trans. & ed.), History of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002). Adam of Bremen calls these Netherlanders “Frisians” since at that time Robert of Frisia was Count of Flanders (1071-1093). For the only detailed discussion of Netherlanders sailing for America I am aware of in a modern tongue please see Charles Van den Bergh, “Nederlands Aanspraak op de Ontdekking van Amerika voor Columbus”, in Bijdragen voor Vaderlandsche Geschiednis en Oudheidkunde Verzameld en Uitgegeven door Is. An. Nijhoff, VII (1850), pp.23-33.
[xxxiv] See Martinus Hamconius, writing before 1620, who claims that Netherlanders reached the mines of Mexico and settled Chile in Charles Van den Bergh, “Nederlands Aanspraak", op.cit., pp.30-33.
[xxxv] Marc Ryckaert, “Geographie eines Weltmarkets: Handel und Stadttopographie im mittelalterlichen und fruehneuzeitlichen Brugge,” in K. Friedland (ed.), Brugge Colloquium des Hansischen Geschichtsvereins, 26-29 mai, 1988, (Cologne and Vienna, 1990), pp.3-12 quoted in James M. Murray, Bruges, Cradle of Capitalism, op.cit., p.31.
[xxxvi] John H. Munro, “Flemish Woolens and German Commerce during the Later Middle Ages: Changing Trends in Cloth Prices and markets, 1290-1550“, University of Toronto, 2000, p. 3. Working Paper found online at http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/ecipa/wpa.html .
[xxxvii] Fiske, op.cit., Vol. I, pp. 166-171.
[xxxviii] Kirsten A. Seaver, Maps, myths, and men: the story of the Vinland Map, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004, p. 29.
[xxxix] Henry S. Lucas, “Mediaeval Economic Relations Between Flanders and Greenland”, in Speculum, Vol. 12 (1937), p.174
[xl] David Cranz, John Gambold, The History of Greenland: Including an Account of the Mission Carried on by the United Brethren in that Country, (London: Longman, 1820), p.254, n. xv. Note that the original Latin documents transcribed in P.A. Munch, Pavelige Nuntiers Regnskabs – og Dagboger, (Christiana, 1864), p.25 can be found online at http://books.google.com/books?pg=PA28&dq=%22Munch%22,+%22pavelige+nuntiers%22&id=nYRpAAAAIAAJ&ots=kOe8jbCybP My Latin is insufficient to correctly decipher this but if “Brugensis” means “Brugge” (which I believe it does) then it ties in even closer the link between Bruges and the New World trade. See also pp. 19, 27, and 28 in the Latin text for further references to Flemish-Greenland trade. The Flemish-Norwegian trade during this period (1282-1328) is described in the Latin text on pp. 54,-58, 100-101, 112, 117, 121-128.
[xli] Henry S. Lucas, “Mediaeval Economic Relations Between Flanders and Greenland”, op.cit., p.174
[xlii] Kirsten A. Seaver, “Desirable teeth: the medieval trade in Arctic and African ivory”, Journal of Global History, Vol. 4 (2009), pp.271-292, p.274 and p.284 quoting the Diplomatarium Norvegicum, Vol. 10, p. 30, letter to Aegidius Correnbitter in Bruges from Bishop Hakon in Bergen, 29 September 1338.
[xliii] See Holand, America, op.cit., for a detailed examination of the extensiveness of later visits. For a translation of the Kensington Runestone of 1362 please see http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Aegean/6726/kensington/kensington.htm . For a remarkable series of modern maps outlining the full likely extent of Viking activity in North America through artifacts see http://www.spirasolaris.ca/sbb4g1bv.html - especially Map 4: http://www.spirasolaris.ca/1amap4.html .

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Flander's Birthright and the Right of Return

Readers of this blog are likely well aware of the prominent role that the Red Star Line, a shipping concern that dominated the transhipment of migrants from the port of Antwerp to New York City during the heyday (1892-1924) of large scale European immigration to the United States. Today there are non-profit societies centered around the Red Star Line in Europe and America as well as a museum being built in Antwerp, near the docks where these emigrants embarked for America and the promise of a new life.

Many of these emigrants were Jews from Eastern Europe. They fled pogroms as well as economic insecurity. Their last look backward at Europe - if they indeed did so at all - was from the deck of the Red Star Line ships leaving Antwerp. As they waited, patiently, for that next ship to the Land of Opportunity they were sometimes captured, anonymously and perhaps unsuspectingly, by the Flemish folk artist Eugene Van Mieghem. It is his drawings you see posted here. More of which are found in abundance both at Flanders House New York in a temporary exhibit as well as at their rightful home in the Eugene Van Mieghem Museum in Antwerp. For those of you able to travel to New York City and Antwerp I can strongly recommend a visit to both.

It is estimated that these ships carried perhaps as many as two million people from Antwerp to America during that time. The contribution that those immigrants made to the growth and success of the United States is immeasurable. Arguably, and in part, the position of the United States today on the world stage is a direct consequence of the hard work, ingenuity and self-sacrifice of those Jewish immigrants.

Later, the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of these same immigrants, as they rose in socio-economic status, also contributed to the establishment and prosperity of what they viewed as their ancestral homeland: the State of Israel. Since my father and grandparents left from those same docks in Antwerp I ask myself: what can we Flemish Americans learn from the example of the Jewish immigrants to the United States?

To begin with, and interestingly enough, Flanders and Israel are roughly comparable in many metrics. Flanders is comparable to Israel when it comes to infrastructure, population and GDP:

area 13,522 sq km
population 6,058,368 (2004 est)
density 439/km2
GDP 200 billion Euros
per capita GDP 26,891 Euros (2005)

area 20, 770 sq km
population 7,411,0002 (2009 est) of which approximately 5 million are Jews
density 324/km2
GDP $200.630 billion
per capita GDP $28,206

As the son of a Flemish immigrant to the United States I share the desire to make contributions I can make to the success and prosperity of my ancestral homeland. The contribution that 4 million American Jews have made to the well-being of roughly 6 million Israelis is dramatic. What can Flanders and the Flemish diaspora learn from this experience of the Jews who departed Antwerp a century ago?

Permit me to offer a plan. My suggestion is that the Flemish government consider extending rights to the Flemish diaspora that are neither unprecedented nor unusual. The Flemish government should offer those of us with a true Flemish heritage the same rights that Israel offers Jews: the Right of Return.

Wikipedia defines this concept thus:

"The term right of return refers to the principle in international law that members of an ethnic or national group have a right to immigration and naturalization into the country that they, the destination country, or both consider to be that group's homeland, independent of prior personal citizenship in that country. This belief is sometimes reflected in special consideration in a country's immigration laws (called "repatriation") which facilitate or encourage the reunion of a diaspora or dispersed ethnic population."

Of the at least 30 nations that Wikipedia cites as offering a safe haven for their ethnic diaspora perhaps the most prominent or best known is that of Israel. The specific legislation in Israel's constitution is called the Law of Return.

"The Law of Return (Hebrew: חוק השבות, ḥok ha-shvūt) is Israeli legislation, enacted in 1950, that gives Jews, those of Jewish ancestry, and their spouses the right to migrate to and settle in Israel and gain citizenship."

Israel originally promulgated this law as a reaction to the Holocaust. Jews would never again be forced to literally roam the globe in search of a refuge. Instead, they could be assured a place where their ethnicity would not entail physical and economic hazard to them and their families. However, other, modern - and to be fair, controversial - social engineering objectives have come to the fore. One prominent stated desire is to offset the exodus of some of Israel's best and brightest for the U.S. by offering a haven to those Jews from around the world searching for an economic haven. The practical outcome of this policy is a pool of immigrants who both provide a steady pool of inexpensive labor for the menial jobs native-born Israelis reject while giving them a stake in the survival of the Jewish state.

Another, equally successful target is those Jews from more affluent strata whose motivation is a romantic attachment to their heritage. This group provides a steady stream of immigrants, largely from the United States. These immigrants bring with them not only well-educated believers in Israel but also the intangible resources of contacts and connections in American society, government and business. Those ties aid the Israelis on the world stage as most everyone would agree.

Any large body of immigrants, if unassimilated, raise difficulties for the body politic. The sons of the large immigrant waves of the 1890-1910 period in America, the same we see pictured here, were assimilated through the public education system first and then the crucibles of World War 1, the Great Depression and World War 2. They were molded into Americans through our state religion (the belief in the American Dream) and shared sacrifice. But the formative experiences were accidents of history, not intentional policy.

The Israelis, while having compressed a great deal of shared sacrifice into their 60 year history, have taken a practical approach to the assimilation and acculturation of 'romantic immigrants'. This program is privately funded but officially endorsed. It is called "Birthright Israel".

Birthright Israel's stated purpose:

"Taglit-Birthright Israel provides the gift of first time, peer group, educational trips to Israel for Jewish young adults ages 18 to 26. Taglit-Birthright Israel's founders created this program to send thousands of young Jewish adults from all over the world to Israel as a gift in order to diminish the growing division between Israel and Jewish communities around the world; to strengthen the sense of solidarity among world Jewry; and to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish people."

Today there are literally millions of West Europeans and Americans of Flemish descent. I do not claim that they are in the same physical danger as the Jews were who fled East European pogroms or the Holocaust. Nor, despite the global economic malaise the world is currently muddling through, are they at any specific, relative economic disadvantage. Quite the contrary. Especially if Flemish Americans are an indication, the diaspora of those of Flemish descent is well-educated and prosperous.

This is precisely my point. The diaspora of those with Flemish ethnicity is financially secure and in many cases, just like Jews around the world, well-assimilated into their current countries.These are the people that Flanders should extend a hand to. It is to these people that an offfer to resettle in their ancestral homeland of Flanders would bring the most benefit to Flanders.

Flanders needs a "Birthright Flanders". This would be an opportunity for Flanders to pull back in the sons and daughters of the Flemish diaspora. At the very least it would generate a better understanding and appreciation of Flanders in the Flemish diaspora communities overseas. At best we can make a strongly positive contribution to Flander's image overseas and prosperity at home.