Sunday, December 02, 2007

The red explorer

A medieval Saga tells the story of Erik, called "the Red", one of the greatest Viking explorers. The appelative "the Red" most likely refers to his hair color, and perhaps also his fiery temper. He was born in around 950 in the Jaeren district of Rogaland, Norway, but his family settled in western Iceland after his father, Thorvald Asvaldsson, was banished for murdering a man. Wandering would become a habit during his life. So, they occupied land in Hornstrandir, and dwelt at Drangar, where he became a Norse Chieftain.

Continuous banishment

After his father's death, he got married and moved south to Haukalar. There, when his servants were clearing land for farming, they accidentally started a landslide on his neighbour Valthjof's farm. A kinsman of his, called Eyjolf Saur, killed the servants for this misfortune, and in revenge, Erik killed Eyjolf. This caused him to be thrown out from the region and installed in Sudrey.

Around the year 982, tragedy accompanied him again in a quarrel with his neighbour Thorgest, because of some beams he had borrowed from Erik and was never given back. When Thorgest refused to return them, Erik stole the beams back. A great fight arose, where two sons of Thorgest died. Eventually, at the next Thorsnes Thing event, where judgments were carried out annually, the Icelanders decided to convict Erik of these murders and banished him from Iceland.

Erik the Red, considering that he was never welcomed in any land, decided to find one by himself. He had heard of a discovery of new lands in the West, around 50 years before, by the explorer Gunnbjorn, son of Ulf the Crow. He then prepared a ship and left from Snaefellsnes, promising to return if he found the land. His friends Thorbjorn, Eyjolf and Styr, and other crew, joined him in his banishment.

After three weeks, he eventually reached North American lands and rounded the southern tip of a great island, and sailed up the western coast. He found it unpeopled and, for the most part, ice-free and consequently with conditions that promised growth and future prosperity. According to the Saga, he spent his three years of exile exploring this land and naming its places.

The New World

When Erik returned to Iceland, he brought with him stories of the new land he called "Greenland". Although the high medieval climate was milder than it is today, Erik purposely gave the land a more appealing name than "Iceland" in order to lure potential settlers. He explained, "people would be attracted to go there if it had a favorable name". Ultimately he did this, though, to gain favor among people, as he knew full well that the success of any settlement in Greenland would need the support of as many people as possible.

His salesmanship proved successful, as around 600 people, especially among those living on poor land in Iceland, joined him to Greenland in the Spring of the year 985, in what was one of the greatest Arctic expeditions of all time. 25 ships left Iceland in that dangerous voyage, of which 14 arrived to Greenland. They established two colonies on the southwest coast: Vestribyggd (West, close to present-day Godthab), and Eystribyggd (East, in modern-day Julianhab). In the latter Erik built the estate Brattahlid, from where he ruled his colonies as Paramount Chieftain, a respectable title that practically gave him independence in his lands from Iceland. Although these facts are told as a legend, carbon tests performed on archeologic remains of what is thought to be Brattahlid give this date as accurate. There the first Greenlandinc Thing (parliament) was founded based on the Icelandic one. Laws were not centralized but decided by the people, and not written down, but memorized by an elected Lawspeaker. The first Christian church in the New World, Thjodhildakirkja, was also built in there by Erik's son Leif Eriksson.

In the next years more settlers arrived from Scandinavia and gradually occupied all the southwest coast of Greenland, which was actually the only area suitable for agriculture. There were around 400 farms in the territory, which reached 5000 people in its best time. During the summers, armies of men were sent to hunt above the Arctic Circle for food and other valuable commodities such as seals, ivory from tusks, and beached whales. In these expeditions they probably encountered the Inuit (Eskimo) people, who had not yet moved into eastern Greenland.

Commerce flourished with Iceland and Norway. Greenlanders exported ivory, ropes, sheep and furs. Iron and timber, not present in the island and necessary for building, were brought from Europe to chieftains, who distributed it among the surrounding farmers. Although the colonies' dependence on these goods was high, trade was very active since Greenland ivory was very appreciated in Europe, as the trade of elephant ivory had been blocked by conflicts with the Islamic world.

In 1002, a group of immigrants brought an epidemic that ravaged the colony, causing Erik's death. However, the colonies survived and rebounded again under the protection of the king of Norway. In 1126, Norvegian control grew by founding a diocese dependent on the archdiocese of Trondheim. In 1261 the population finally accepted the overlordship of the Norvegian King and started paying tributes, although it continued to have its own law.

Decline started in 1348, with the arrival of the Black Death and the Inuit attack to the Western Settlement. Since 1380, the trade with Europe gradually declined, stressed by the prohibition of all private commerce by the new Danish government of the Kalmar Union in 1397 and the loss of interest in the colonies. The population had to be excused several times from paying taxes, and archeologic findings show an increasingly empoverished diet for men and animals. In 1418, English pirates sacked the Eastern Settlement and by the end of the 15th Century, the Norse population of Greenland had disappeared. The most probable ultimate reason for the abandonment of the colonies was that climate became colder in what is called the "Little Ace Age". Moreover, the Norse never learned the Inuit techniques to adapt to cold winters, kayak navigation or ring seal hunting.

The sons of Erik

Erik's son, Leif Eriksson, also made History by becoming the first Viking to explore the lands of Vinland and Markland (present-day Newfoundland, in Canada) around the year 1000. Settlement there resulted a disaster, since the colony Leifbundir only lasted ten years. The reason was the continuous conflicts with what they called "skraelings" (literally, "ugly men"), who, in the first contact, killed Leif's brother Thorvald. Fights were usually won by Vikings, but they soon realised that establishment was impossible without a military support, and travelled back to Greenland. They returned periodically to gather timber for building, as the journey was far shorter than going to Iceland. The last known journey to Vinland dates from 1347.

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