Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Why Didn't the Norse Settle North America?

     Almost 500 years before Columbus, Snorri Thorfinnsson became the first white person to be born in North America. Labrador and Newfoundland were first discovered by Norsemen based in Greenland sometime around 1000 AD, under names such as Markland and Vínland. The site of the second area is disputed, but that was where Snorri was born. How many Norse settlements were made, how long they lasted, and how frequently attempts were made at settlement are all unknown. Certainly, only a single Norse site has been archaeologically discovered, and that in Newfoundland. What is known is that the first bishop of Greenland visited Vínland in 1120, so there were presumably people living there. In 1347 a Greenland ship bringing timber from Markland was driven to Iceland, but whether it had visited a colony at the time is unknown. Shortly afterwards, the Greenland settlements themselves disappeared from history.
    The Norse venture into North America is one of the great might-have-beens of history. Why did it fail? It has been suggested that the European weapons of the day were not markedly superior to those of the natives. Climate change, particularly the start of the Little Ice Age, has also been implicated. But I think there were more profound reasons.
     For a start, we might ask the obvious question: why did the seventeenth century settlements in what are now the United States and Canada succeed? What advantage did the Europeans have over the Indians. Let me list the ways.
  1. Superior weapons - bullets over bows.
  2. Superior methods of agriculture. Maize might have been an excellent Indian crop, but the white man had livestock, draught animals, and ploughs - all permitting a much higher population density. Indeed, the land hungry settlers of the United States were always wanting to train the Indians in modern agriculture so that they would not take up so much useful land.
  3. Infectious diseases. These were not part of the plan, but they did a pretty good job of clearing the way for the settlers. In fact, it seems likely that the vast Mound Builder culture of the Mississippi Valley was destroyed by smallpox and measles before any white man managed to see it. The same thing happened in Mexico. When Cortez arrived, his party included a slave carrying something far more deadly than any firearm: smallpox. Spreading faster than any Spanish horse, it was raging in Mexico City by the time the conquistadors arrived. Within a century, the population of the country had fallen 90 percent.
  4. Most important of all, there was a direct sea route back to the mother countries, whence the settlers were able to arrive in overwhelming numbers, bringing whatever was not present in the new country. This last is something not often recognized. Until mines could be discovered in America, every lump of lead for bullets, every axe, saw, nail, or iron bar to make them had to come from overseas.
     Now let us look at the situation in Markland and Vínland. 
     Iceland was settled by Norwegians eluding royal authority at home - although, eventually, royal authority caught up with them. In the meantime, they had discovered and settled in Greenland. Greenland also eventually accepted the sovereignty of the Norwegian king, but his power was likely to have been nominal. And it was the Greenlanders who discovered North America. Essentially, Iceland was a Norwegian colony, Greenland an independent Icelandic colony, and Markland/Vínland a Greenland colony. The route to the New World went: Norway → Iceland → Greenland → America. Only very rarely were there direct journeys from America to Iceland, and none to Europe.
     That should have put paid to factor #3, infectious diseases. They would all have burned themselves out before they got there.
     As for #1, superior weapons, a native tradition exists of stone giants wielding a very long fingernail as a weapon. While obviously based on sword-swinging, armoured Norsemen, the lack of firearms in the eleventh century put the natives on a more even footing with the newcomers. It is likely that opposition from the locals was a major cause of the abandonment of the first colony.
     Factor #2 was also a non-goer. The lands where the British eventually settled was prime agricultural country. Labrador and Newfoundland were - and are - marginal at best. The first Norse settlers found that they could live off livestock and fish, without even the need to grow hay for the winter. They certainly didn't plough anything. And let's not forget that they came from Greenland, where cereal crops were practically unknown.
     Finally, we get back to factor #4. Iceland had few trees, and once they had been cut down to build ships, and the ships themselves wore out or were lost, there was no way to build more. For contact with the outside world they were dependent on any country which could provide ships - in this case, Norway. Even as late as the nineteenth century, any Icelanders who found some driftwood carved his brand on it, and it became his, because wood - any wood - was very valuable. Greenland was in an even more precarious position. The sailing season from Iceland was short, and merchants would undertake it only if they could be assured of a profit. All too often, it was just not worth their while to make the trip. After a while, the need for metal in Greenland must have become acute. In America the situation would have been even more dire.
      In addition, we might introduce factor #5: motivation. England, France, and the Netherlands could see profits awaiting them in the New World. What did America have to offer the Norse? Only timber for the Greenlanders - perhaps to be passed on to the Icelanders. But the real decisions belonged to the king of Norway and his council, and they had plenty of timber - as well as their hands full with their other Scandinavian neighbours. 
     Greenland was left to wither on the vine, the victim of several disastrous factors coming at once. Probably the onset of the Little Ice Age was the straw that finally broke that camel's back. America would have been abandoned and largely forgotten long before. The wrong part had been discovered at the wrong period. Its time was yet to come.