Note: This post has been updated to correct minor translation errors.
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.
The text in question comes from Ibn Umar al-Gutiyya (also: Qouthia or Kouthia), but so far as I know it is not available in English. Here is how alternative historians present it:
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.
This account was also added to Wikipedia as fact, and is there as of this writing.
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.
According to the Spanish author, this text was his own translation of a French translation of the original manuscript, done in 1842 by a M. Étienne from manuscript No. 13 in the “Biblioteca de París,” presumably but not certainly the Bibliothèque nationale.
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)
More than one later writer has thrown up his hands in frustration, unable to locate the original Arabic text anywhere. In 1874, Dr. Chil y Naranjo traveled to Paris to consult the original and was confronted with the sad fact that the librarians could find no mention of the alleged text in their indexes. The following year, he met with France’s leading Orientalists, and none had seen or hear of the alleged manuscript. He turned to M. Sainte-Clair Deville (yes, a member of the St. Clair/Sinclair family!), who identified the name of the alleged translator as probably referring to Mr. Etienne-Mare Quatremére, whose works were promptly reviewed, turning up no translation. A review of academic journals and publications for 1842 (the year of the alleged translation) finds no mention. A French scholar, Sabino Berthelot, in a widely-read 1879 natural history of the Canaries (written with Philip Barker Webb), later tried to justify this by claiming that the manuscript must have been in Cordoba, not Paris. Because French was so widely read, Sabino Berthelot’s credulous account became the default reference point for the alleged Arabic text. Nearly all later versions are reductions of Sabino Berthelot’s already truncated summary of Ossuna Saviñón.
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.
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