The myth that Henry I Sinclair, Earl of Orkney, a vassal of the king of Norway, was mixed up in the European discovery of America a century before Columbus came to us from Johann Reinhold Forster, a German-born scion of a dispossessed Scottish noble family. Forster wrote in 1784 of Henry Sinclair’s involvement with the brothers Zeno (or Zeni, or Zen), whose story was told in the controversial account of their alleged voyage to Greenland and audience with fisherman who had returned from unknown lands beyond published by their descendant Nicolò Zeno the Younger in the 1500s, two centuries after the fact, and from non-existent documents that the younger Zeno claimed to have destroyed and then recreated from memory. Forster decided that the story’s fanciful manic pixie dream prince, Zichmni of Friesland, was none other than Sinclair: “This name of Sinclair appears to me to be expressed by the word Zichmni.” It was, however, a footnote which Forster labeled as “a conjecture” that struck him while contemplating the geography of the northern Atlantic.
Forster attributed no particularly great significance to this, mostly on account of his conviction that the Normans—here he means the Vikings and their descendants—had already settled Vinland centuries earlier, so at best the Zeno narrative reports Sinclair’s trip to Greenland and his hearing there some stories of fisherman who had visited the Vinland colony.
But Forster’s footnote apparently captured the imagination of his contemporaries. I’d like to share with you a strange account from December 1793 in the Anthologia Hibernica. The majority of the article intended to demonstrate that the Norse reached America and established a colony there, anticipating Carl Rafn’s nearly identical proposition, including some of the same evidence, by four decades. Much of the article is patently derivative of Forster’s version (to which it gives credit) but which lays its racial politics on its sleeve and definitively links the distant territory of Estotiland to America, a step Forster only cautiously suggested. It’s also interesting because it shows that prior to the late 1800s, Sinclair was decidedly not considered a voyager to America himself, undermining a key claim of the Templar/Bloodline enthusiasts:
On the return of the fishermen, Sinclair, then lord of the Orknies, was determined to undertake a voyage to Estotiland, accompanied by Antonio Zeno, an Italian and author of the discoveries related by the fisherman, who had resided 13 years in various parts of America, where he found the inhabitants in nearly the same state as when discovered by the Europeans in more subsequent periods. Sinclair and Zeno however did not arrive in Estotiland, being driven by contrary winds to Greenland from whence they returned home. From this period we have no account of Winland or Estotiland, though Antonio Zeno, besides his letter to his brother, from which the above is taken, wrote a particular account of Estotiland, Iceland, Estland, Norway, &c. which account is now lost. Sebastian Cabot arrived in Newfoundland in 1496, about 116 years after the fisherman mentioned by Zeno. He and subsequent writers and navigators, found, and there still exists, in the interior parts of Newfoundland, a tribe, differing remarkedly from all the American savages, both in their figure and mode o living, and have a strong enmity to the Eskimaux. These are most probably the remains of the Norwegian colony, who have been driven from the sea coasts by the savages: they have corn, are pagans, and tho’ clad in skins, their habit much resembles the ancient Norwegian. A gentleman who resided lately some time among them, assured the writer of this article, that several of their words were the same as the Irish, and that particular sentences so much resembled that tongue that he understood them by it. This however is scarce credible, unless we suppose, that part of the Norwegian colony was composed of Irishmen from Limerick, who followed Ari; or they might be some remains of the Welch colony, which, under the command of Madoc ap Owen, son of Owen Gweneth, prince of North Wales, went from the Isle of Anglesea in 1170, in a fleet of ten sail, to some part of America, but which was never heard of more; and which not improbably united to the Norwegian colony under Ari, and some from Winland, formed the colony and government of Estotiland, whose language being partly Welsh, was unknown to the Orkney fishermen, as mentioned by Zeno.
Now contrast this with a Scottish account by Robert Heron from 1797 in A New General History of Scotland, also cited to Forster’s footnote, which elides some inconvenient facts for the sake of Scottish pride and puffs Sinclair up into a heroic figure wholly divorced from the historical record:
Sinclair, a vassal of the Scottish King, about this very period, in the end of the fourteenth century, conquered the Orknies from chieftains who were feudally dependent upon the King of Norway. It was in Sinclair’s service, that Zeno engaged. His talents for navigation, so highly superior to whatever those rude islanders were capable of, recommended him to the highest favour with Sinclair, and enabled him to advance the authority and grandeur of his lord among all the surrounding isles. He contemplated with curiosity, the manners of the rude Hebudians, their poverty, their incessant quarrels, their unwearied, paddling navigation; But, the active spirit of the people of the Orkney and Shetland isles, and the high enterprising ardour of Sinclair, victorious over his foes, and enlightened by the counsels of so able a navigator as Zeno, prompted them to push their enterprizes far away, towards the north-west. Tal Iceland, long since colonized by the Norwegians, they penetrated in some voyages, which were not attended with any very extraordinary difficulties. Greenland was explored by them in other voyages. As well as in Greenland as in Iceland, they found Christianity established, and the inhabitants neither without industry, nor strangers to the comforts which industry bestows. But, the limits of their adventures were not to be fixed, even there. The inhabitants of Greenland had, at this time, frequent intercourse with the people of a more western land, which they named Winland, or Estotiland, had even colonists settled there, and were acquainted with its productions. The existence and the bearings of this land, were made known by them to our adventurers; who repaired eagerly thither, and if not enriched by the voyage, at lest convinced themselves by personal inspection of the truth of what the Greenlanders had related concerning it. That land could be no other than the extensive AMERICAN isle of NEWFOUNDLAND. The bold Norwegians, as it would seem, had discovered the western hemisphere, in those illustrious days of their piratical navigation, when they conquered or ravaged almost all the maritime territories of the middle and northern parts of Europe. Establishing themselves in Iceland, exploring Greenland. […] They were not aware that they had discovered a country, of which the southern parts were rich and fair, and which was afterwards to attract, as to a focus, all the ambition, curiosity, and avarice of almost all Europe; they thought not of the extent and suture importance of America; and they were little careful to register and preserve the memory of their discoveries. It was after the rage for the discovery of new lands had been fully and eagerly awakened, that Zeno went to visit these northern seas, and conducted the inhabitants of the Orkney and Shetland isles to retrace the steps which ancient Norwegian navigators had once pursued. The circumstances of the expedition evince, that these islanders still retained the same spirit which had animated the ancient Norwegians, from whom they were chiefly descended. Had it not been for the memoirs of the Zeno’s, the adventure, like other adventures of a dark age, and a barbarian nation, had most probably been forever forgotten.
Heron chose to leave out the part where Sinclair became a vassal of the king of Norway, accepted one of that kingdom’s highest titles (jarl), and served at the king’s court.
What makes these accounts confounding—but illuminating—is the way they mix some truth with a great deal of Northern European posturing in service of an idea that was partially correct and partially the hope of the British Monarchy (which then included in personal union Scotland and Ireland) to bolster its prestige over the Latin empires of Portugal, France, and Spain by finding for America a mythic ancestor greater than the Italian scoundrel and cur Columbus.
To that end, we see why the Zeno narrative and the Sinclair claim became so widely accepted during the nineteenth century, for it provided evidence—from an Italian no less—independent of the Icelandic sagas that the Norse had ventured across the ocean and made their suspected settlements in America. The facts on the ground would eventually prove the existence of this colony correct, but the evidence marshaled more than a century before the discovery of L’anse-aux-Meadows in defense of the idea was underwhelming: myths, hoaxes, wishful thinking, and faith that the sagas spoke of history.
Despite the shaky foundations of the Sinclair myth, it suitably impressed those in power. On the strength of Richard Henry Major’s famous 1873 essay on Sinclair’s connection to the Zeno Narrative and Thomas Sinclair’s racist speech on the same subject at a Sinclair family reunion in Chicago at the time of the World’s Columbian Exposition, Britain’s prestigious Dictionary of National Biography included in 1897 the Sinclair myth wholesale, without qualification, confidently asserting that Sinclair met Nicolò Zeno in 1391 (when Zeno was actually returning to Venice from Greece), made Zeno the captain of his fleet (when he was actually in Venice and, according to twentieth century research, probably the Zeno who served as ducal counselor in Venice in 1393), and traveled to Greenland shortly thereafter, following the death of Nicolò Zeno (though in reality, Zeno did not die until c. 1402). The Dictionary simply asserts that Sinclair was Zeno’s Zichmni as though Forster’s “conjecture” has, in the interim, become incontrovertible fact.
The discredit for the entry goes to Thomas Finlayson Henderson, a Scottish historian best known as an expert on Robert Burns, and whose bias in favor of the greatness of the Scots—including the Sinclairs—was as evident here as anywhere.
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