The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
A wall of blue ice loomed from the drizzle, dwarfing the rowboat crawling around its base like a lost ant. Until today the only icebergs the oarsmen had seen had been distant white humps: now they wandered amid a fantasy of multi-coloured bergs, some like sapphires, others like heaps of dung, streaked with earth and rock, and others quite transparent, drifting black and almost invisible against the dark water.
Drifting shards of ice grated against the boat as the as the eight oarsmen strained to push it forward, heavy laden with a large anchor and long trailing cable. The craft had so little freeboard that the helmsman could dabble his hands in the water to taste the strange fizz of the ice.
The water was not freezing. The ice came from elsewhere, from some glacier squeezing citadels of ice from the white mountains on the horizon. No good could come of venturing further into this dreamscape, fretted Richard of Avon, the poxmarked little helmsman. The inlet was becoming narrower and ever more congested; it was time to turn back. But although Richard commanded the boat he did not command the ship to which it belonged. The captain of the Bonaventure of Bristol was Sebastiani Galieni, and ‘Seb’ did not easily turn back.
The oarsmen rested their oars and tipped the anchor over the side. They were warping the Bonaventure up the bay. Once the anchor was dropped the men back on the ship would bend themselves to the windlass and haul in the cable. Hopefully the anchor would hook into the sea-bed and the little three-masted ship would crawl towards the spot where it had been dropped and then the anchor would rise up to the daylight to be loaded back into the rowboat to repeat the slow wearisome cycle.
Richard decided to confer with the men while he was still out of earshot of the ship. A third of the ship’s crew were with him and the Bristol tradition was that the crew made the long term decisions, like when to go home, whatever ideas their Genoese captain might have.
‘Christ’s Arse, we’d be mad to go further. We must face up to that fancy Italian peacock the merchants of Bristol saw fit to put in charge of us and tell him to turn about, and then when we’ve mended the rigging we’re back to England. If he don’t agree, he can stay here among the bergs.’
‘Dost thou know the way home then?’ queried John of Gloucester. ‘Canst read the cap’n’s astrolabe? Or dost thou covet his silken hose?
The others laughed at the thought of fat Richard in the captain’s finery. Seb liked to dress in the latest close fitting Italian fashions, flaunting his legs in scarlet stockings, his short breeches vented to show his fine underwear.
Richard coloured. ‘We found the New-Found-Land that merchants paid him to find, with fresh water, woods, and codfish beyond measure, but Seb wanted to find Cathay, like in the fairy tales. And you fools went along with it. What did you get? Gales that shredded the rigging, kept us pumping day and night and spoiled the stores. Now he wants to land in this ice-bound emptiness. Face up to him and if need be we go home without him.’
Another shape disengaged from the drizzle, like a ship with a single sail. It drifted closer and a voice called across the water.
‘God’s bowels, it is a ship! – a living Christian ship’, screamed Richard. ‘Row for your lives – signal the Bonny to load the cannon!’
‘Cap’n, cap’n’, panted Richard, tumbling onto the deck, ‘the cannon! the cannon! The stranger carries no guns. She’s ours in an instant, with stores and cordage enough to get us to England.’
‘Calm Richard’, answered Sebastiani in his Italian lilt, ‘She’s a local craft, which means a Christian settlement nearby. If we befriend them they can take us to their prince.’
‘And what if he hangs us and seizes the ship?’
‘Then I shall declare myself King Harry’s ambassador and they’ll not dare touch us. Luckily we have some decent clothes that we brought to impress the natives of Cathay.’
‘And how do we explain this to them?’
‘I knows their langige’, broke in John of Gloucester.
‘Does they speak Glozztershire then’, laughed his shipmates.
‘Nay, it’s Icelander. I’ve sailed to Iceland and I knew a maid there who taught me some things.’
‘We’ll wager on that’, leered one of his shipmates. ‘Does your Martha know about this?’
These English would be frivolous and lascivious on the Day of Judgement, thought Sebastiani. Aloud he said ‘This is surely too far west for Iceland?’
‘Maybe,’, said John, ‘but they be Icelanders and they asked who we were’.
‘Then I appoint you my interpreter. Leave the cannon and fetch wine for our guests.’
It was late afternoon when they rounded the point where the narrow fijord opened up into a large iceberg free bay. The drizzle had cleared and sunshine bathed brilliant green hills below which stone walled thatched cottages lined a beach where laughing children played. There was a Gothic church, a manor house and well-built farms and byres stood among the fields.
‘What is this place?’ John asked Arni Magnussen, the big red haired pilot they had taken aboard.
‘Where else but Greenland’, he answered, gesturing to the hills. ‘The country your Ambassador was seeking.’
‘Of course, yes, …but this harbour?’
‘Brattalid, where Eric the Red landed over 400 years ago.’
John presumed that Eric must have been an Icelander. ‘Are you all Icelanders then?’
‘Some of us were. Others come down from Eric’s slaves who were Westermen from Ulster, so the sagas say. We are all Greenlanders now. Nobody ever joined the first settlers, though some left. Hast thou lived in Iceland?’
‘Tell me, did Snorri Liefson and Igmar Olafsdottir arrive safely?’
He saw the blank look on John’s face. ‘I feared not, or they would have sent a ship, ere now. T’is ten years since Snorri’s ship came. He’d lost his way in a storm and stayed here long enough to marry the beautiful Igmar and take her away with him to Iceland. I am betrothed to Helga, Igmar’s sister. She is even more beautiful and we will marry when I inherit the farm.’
‘Were there ships before Snorri?’
‘The sagas say many ships once traded here for ivory, falcons and seal oil, but that was before the Great Pestilence struck Christendom. Only Snorri’s ship has been here in the last one hundred years. We have no wood to build our own great ships, so we pay no taxes and have no Pope to correct our heresies.
‘The only strangers we meet are the Skraelings, small savages who hunt seals on the coast. There will be excitement in town tonight.’
For three days they drank the Greenlanders’ mead and ate their fresh killed beef from the byres. They played music, sang, told stories, went to the byres to make love and slept on the floor of the Great Hall until they woke to continue the feast.
Helga was as beautiful as Arni had promised; tall, dark haired and blue eyed. She was fascinated Sebastiani, especially when he told her he had been to Rome.
‘We compose a new chapter of the saga each year’, she explained in broken Latin, ‘but we have little to put to memory now but the weather. Once we Greenlanders travelled to Rome, as well as Iceland and Norway. We know of so many places we can never see. I wanted to go away with Igmar. Tell me about Rome.’
Then Helga decided to teach Sebastiani Icelandic. ‘Follow my lips.’ Her face was so close to his that he could see only her iceberg-blue eyes. He could taste the mead on her breath. Without thinking he kissed her with the most bewitching kiss of his thirty-seven years.
Their bodies were in the byre, mashed together with an axe in the act of love.
Richard looked at them and was deeply happy. He no longer need envy Sebastiani’s finery or Helga’s delicious flesh. He could scarce have been happier had he wielded the axe himself. He had not had the joy of killing them but he would enjoy avenging them.
His horrified shipmates stood beside him, still dazed from the debauch.
‘Cap’n Galen offered himself to these savages as King Harry’s ambassador’, declared Richard, ‘and look how they treat an English ambassador. Let us teach them about England.’
The quayside was crowded. Men, women and children jostled for a view as the English sailors charged their cannon with bags of scrap iron. They chattered as the sailors turned the strange machine towards them and as they trained the swivel guns on the ship’s rail into their midst.
They screamed as the cannon roared forth and hot metal tore into them. The quayside swirled with black smoke. People fought to escape or drag loved ones to safety as the English let loose the swivel guns and fired again and again until the blood spilled over the quay into the water. Then the archers took up the work, picking of the fugitives. Only the dead and dying were in sight as Richard lead his men ashore, brandishing Sebastiani’s gilt handled sword.
‘Remember Agincourt! FOR ENGLAND AND SAINT GEOOOOORGE!!’
They killed every living thing, even the priest at his altar. Then they torched the thatch, burning the irreplaceable roof-beams to make Brattalid uninhabitable.
The merchants of Bristol waited in vain for the return of the Bonaventure, as did Richard’s wife and infant son. The ship lay wrecked in Scotland. Richard survived the wreck to be murdered on the beach by the wreckers, eager for the gold rings he had taken from Sebastiani’s corpse. His murderess confessed on her deathbed and gave the rings to the Church.
It was 75 years before Bristol sent another ship in search of the New-Found-Land, and meanwhile the country wallowed in the orgy of murder they call The Wars of the Roses. Not until 1728 did another ship visit Greenland, when the Danish priest Hans Egde sought out the lost colony fearing they had forgotten their faith. He found the ruins of Brattalid but the only inhabitants were the Eskimos, whom he stayed to Christianise.
In 1992 Igmar Ericsdottir of Reykijavik, great grand-daughter several times over of the Igmar who came from Greenland in 1408, married her English sweetheart in the roofless shell of Brattalid church. He gave her an Italian Renaissance ring, bought at auction in London. Igmar had met Steve Richardson at AvonArtCollege in Bristol. Today they farm the green hills above Brattalid and their dark haired, blue eyed children laugh and play on the beach.
Historical Note: Nobody knows what became of the Norse colony in Greenland. The usual suspect is climate change, but the colony seems to have been in good heart when the Icelandic ship paid its unscheduled visit in 1409, that lead to the wedding in Whalesey church. There were reportedly 3000 guests and the church was then quite new. It still stand, a roofless shell with empty mid-Gothic windows. That the settlement was destroyed by English pirates is not a new idea; it forms the basis for Jane Smiley’s book, The Greenlanders (Flamingo 1993) although I have given it a different twist.
Brattalid was never the capital of Norse Greenland, but I have used the name as, being Eric the Red’s farmstead, it is the best known place name in the settlement.
The descendants of the Greenland bride who went to Iceland still live in the island and the bloodline returned to Greenland when one of them married the first Inuit (Eskimo) prime minister of the autonomous territory of Greenland in 1993. The ceremony took place in Whalesey church.