Alternative history can be rather frustrating for the lack of references; in the case of claims made for Islamic explorers of the New World, this problem is compounded by the relative lack of translations of medieval Arabic texts. This problem is made still worse by the fact that Arabic names are transliterated so many different ways across time and space that even trying to search for an author by name is a challenge. Yesterday I talked a bit about the oldest Arabic text said to record a Muslim voyage to America. Today, I’d like to talk about what is said to be the next oldest, though it’s troublesome to do so because of the aforementioned problems.
A Muslim historian Abu Bakr Ibn Umar Al-Gutiyya narrated that during the reign of the Muslim Caliph of Spain, Hisham II (976 -1009 CE), another Muslim navigator Ibn Farrukh of Granada sailed from Kadesh (February 999 CE) into the Atlantic, landed in Gando (Great Canary Islands) visiting King Guanariga, and continued westward where he saw and named two islands, Capraria and Pluitana. He arrived back in Spain in May 999 CE.
For reasons that will become clear shortly, the only accessible copy of the text is found in the work of Don Manuel Ossuna Saviñón on the history of the Canary Islands. I translate now from the 1844 Spanish text, Resumen de la geografía física y política, y de la historia natural y civil de las islas Canarias, what I believe is the first appearance of the full story in English:
Al-Jazir Al-Kaledat, that is, the Fortunate Isles, says Ibn-el-Qouthia, were inhabited in the late tenth century, when the famous Ben-Farroukh traveled to them with other Arabs, landing on the island of Canaria. This expedition, which took place in the reign of Abdelmehc in the Arab year of 334, year 999 of Jesus Christ, was the first of which we have certain knowledge. Ben-Farroukh, who at the time commanded one of the vessels defending the coasts of Spain against two Norman invasions, supposed there existed islands beyond the Atlas Mountains, which because of their mild climate and fertility the ancients had rightly given the name of Fortunate.
Carried away by this ephemeral hope, he set out for the archipelago, and sighting the island of Gran Canaria, discovered the port of Gando, in which he landed in the month of February in the year 999. He entered at the head of 130 men that were with him, having to overcome all the difficulties that may hinder communications in a wild country, for the mountains were covered with thick forests, in which he could barely make his way through the trees.
A foreign presence was not a new spectacle for the Canaria natives, for they remembered several other expeditions of the Arabs, from which some of their companions had stayed among them so that the first relations of the captain with the islanders were very friendly. He visited Guanariga, who was King or Guanarteme of Gáldar, and the Guayres or Counselors, and gave them to understand, through his interpreter, that he and his companions were sent by a powerful monarch to pay tribute to the goodness, courage, and generosity of this prince, and that they had braved the dangers of a long journey to establish friendly relations with him on behalf of their sovereign.
Guanariga was flattered with the embassy and intrigued by so much deference, believing himself to be even more powerful than in reality he was, since a monarch of some distant nation had come to ask his friendship; he sent to have the Arabs conducted to his palace, which they found adorned with flowers and palm branches, and well supplied with fruits and roasted barley flour, which is done in the Canaries to entertain new guests.
Ben-Farroukh, who wanted to visit the whole archipelago of the Fortunates, sailed to the west, and surveyed four islands, designating them by the names of “Ningaria,” rising to the clouds; “Junonia,” a small island located to the south and very close to the first; and the islands “Aprositus” and “Hero,” of which the last was the westernmost. Navigating then to the east of Canaria he found “Capraria” and next to it “Pluitana,” which was near the African coast.
Having surveyed the other islands of the archipelago and visited some of them on foot, Ben-Farroukh decided to return to Spain, not only because food was scarce but because they had to report to their monarch about the lands they had explored. So they returned in May of the year 999, after having remained in the islands about three months.
Nearly all later references to the story are abridgments or highly truncated summaries of the above material. This story has been used to support claims for medieval Islamic voyages to America because the abridged versions eliminate the details about Capraria and Pluitana and merely present them as large islands “to the west,” allowing them to be identified with the Americas. The full text, as you can see from above, heavily implies that these are simply more of the Canary Islands.
Now here’s the fun part. Although this material is repeated endlessly on Islamic websites, in print, and in alternative history books, it’s not true. The Classical language should be a clue; the names of the islands are taken directly from either Ptolemy’s geography or Pliny the Elder’s description of the Fortunate Islands:
There are some authors who think that beyond these are the Fortunate Islands, and some others; the number of which Sebosus gives, as well as the distances, informing us that Junonia is an island seven hundred and fifty miles distant from Gades. He states also that Pluvialia and Capraria are the same distance from Junonia, to the west; and that in Pluvialia the only fresh water to be obtained is rain water. … According to the same author, in sight of these islands is Ninguaria, which has received that name from its perpetual snows; this island abounds also in fogs. The one next to it is Canaria; it contains vast multitudes of dogs of very large size, two of which were brought home to Juba: there are some traces of buildings to be seen here. (Nat. His. 3.67)
As Buenaventura Bonnet explained in a 1944 Spanish-language journal article, from which I have borrowed the above facts, “The real author of the forged manuscript is none other than Don Manuel Ossuna Saviñón himself” (my translation). Buenaventura Bonnet debunks the story point for point, noting errors of chronology, errors in French library referencing, and more.
As Bonnet points out, the text as given also bears striking resemblance to an account from the eighteenth century historian Jose de Viera y Oavijo, the author of two books on the Canary Islands. Part of his Noticias reads (as I translate): “that the Arabs, being owners Spain and Portugal, embarked from Lisbon on a navigation to the west, and after long rough seas were forced to retreat to the Canaries...” In his other book, the History of the Canaries, he writes (again in my translation): “As you wish, you can rest assured that the Moors from the Peninsula had some knowledge of the Canary Islands, under the name of Al-Jazir Al-Kaledat, i.e. the Fortunate Isles...” Note that the exact term reappears in Ossuna Saviñón. Bonnet lists several other direct plagiarisms or clear echoes of Viera y Oavijo’s language. Even the name of the king, Guanariga, originates in a corruption of Viera y Oavijo’s warrior Gariraygua.
(Bonnet also claims that the island name “Ningaria” is a misspelling of Ninvaria, from a misspelling that occurs first in 1344 in a papal bull—four centuries after the alleged Arab text was written. However, it’s actually a slight misspelling of Pliny’s Ninguaria, or snow island, from which the Spanish name Ninvaria is a later corruption.)
This is very good work, and a debunking that deserves widespread recognition. But because the relevant material debunking the hoax is in Spanish, while the most credulous (and widely read report) is in French, the fabrication has gone unnoticed by English-language alternative historians who, to this day, confidently assert (almost all on the authority of Youssef Mroueh) that an almost certainly imaginary Arabic manuscript describes the fictive voyage of Ben-Farroukh. This is, several centuries too late, a Spanish-Islamic counterpart to the notorious Italian Zeno hoax.