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A Lost Colony by R. H. D.

 

Why does nobody—antiquarian, historian, or even novelist—open again that forgotten page of history, the story of the lost colony of Norwegians who disappeared in the fourteenth century from the shores of Greenland? Doctor Hayes, after he came back, had a good deal to say of them, but he did not gather all the facts, and his book, I believe, is now out of print.

I know no mystery made of such nightmare stuff as this in history; and mysteries are growing scarce now-a-days as eggs of the terrible Dinornis: we cannot afford to lose one of them.

The foremost figure in the story is of course Leif hin-hepna ("the happy"). There is much to be unearthed concerning that famous pioneer in discovery and religion, and we Americans surely ought to have enough interest in him to do it, as Leif unearthed this continent for us out of the hold of the sea and Demigorgon ages ago, while the dust of which Columbus was to be made centuries later was yet blowing loose about the streets of Genoa. Leif, besides discovering new worlds, turned the souls of all his father's subjects from paganism to such Christianity as the times afforded. I protest, this vigorous young Greenlander heads the roll of unrecognized heroes in the world: heathen and Christians have made demigods and saints out of much flimsier stuff than he.

The colony, too, out of which he came, what a spectral shadow it is beside the live flesh-and-blood figures of other nations! At the banquet of the boar-eating Scottish thanes there was one empty chair, and that was filled by a ghost. We hear of the East and West Bygds, settlements with hundreds of farms, churches, cathedrals, monasteries, set on the narrow rim of green coast which edges Greenland, lying between the impenetrable wall of ice inland and the Arctic Sea without. They had their religion, which Leif brought to them; they were busy and prosperous; they married, traded, fought, loved and died; and with a breath they all vanished from off the face of the earth. There is no ghost-story like this in literature.

Where will you find, too, such a delightful flavor of ancient mystery as in the old chronicles which tell of these people? Besides the Sagas there are the voyages of long-ago-forgotten navigators—Arthur himself, the Venetian brothers Nicolo and Antonio Zeni, King Zichmni, divers Frisian fishermen. These old records, coffee-colored with age and frail as skeleton leaves, are yet to be found in certain libraries, and surely would tempt any one with a soul above newspapers. In them you shall hear how these voyagers, in their poor barkentines of from ten to two hundred tons, entered into this region of enormous tides, of floating hordes of mountainous icebergs, of flaming signs in the sky—into all the horrors, in fact, of an Arctic winter and night, darkened still deeper for them by nameless superstitious terrors. They went down to these deeps in very much the temper with which a living man now-a-days would adventure into hell. The icy peaks of the far-off land they knew were glittering silver, and the sea was full of malignant spirits which guarded it. A mountain-magnet lay hid under the sea, dragging the ships down to it (as late, indeed, as 1830 skilled Danish navigators declared that they felt the stress from it, and fled in terror): the unnatural tides were the breathing of angry Demigorgon. There were, however, other sights and sounds not to be explained in even this reasonable fashion. On a fair day and a calm sea panic would seize the soul of every man on board, and the ship would turn and beat homeward, "as one who knows a frightful fiend doth follow him behind."

It is the mystery of the lost colony, however, which ought to be opened by some competent hand. In 1406, Queen Margaret, it will be remembered, laid an interdict upon trade with them: for two centuries afterward not even a passing barkentine touched upon the Greenland shore. At the end of that time, when explorers were sent from the civilized world in search of the long-forgotten colonists, they had utterly vanished. There, to this day, are their dwellings and churches, solidly built of stone in an architectural style which Graah fifty years ago described as simple and elegant: there are even the ruins of the monastery which the Zeni brothers declare was heated by a magical hot sulphurous spring, the waters of which were conveyed through the building by pipes. But the people had absolutely disappeared. Not even a bit of pottery, a grave or a bone was left; which last is a noteworthy circumstance, as portions of the human body are almost indestructible in that climate. Seventeen expeditions have been sent out by the Danish and Norwegian governments in search of this lost colony, the last of which was within the present half century. One of these was headed by Egedi, a poor Norwegian clergyman to whom is owing the civilization of Greenland, and of whose strange heroic life we know too little.

There are two or three conjectures to account for the disappearance of this colony. One is that they were all murdered by the Skröellings. But where are their bones? Besides, the colonists numbered from fifteen to twenty thousand, and were much superior to the natives in size, strength, intelligence and knowledge of war.

Graah, a Danish navigator who came in search of them in 1828, believes that they were carried off bodily by the English after the ravages of the "black death" in England, to repair the waste of human life, citing a treaty of 1433 in which England was charged with abducting Danish subjects for that end. Another theory is that the Frisian king Zichmni carried them off captive. Pope Nicholas asserts this outrage as a fact in a bull in 1448. But Zichmni is as uncertain a personage in history as Demigorgon; and the good popes were not so infallible as to matters of general news before the establishment of telegraph and postal service as they are now.

Mr. Dalton Dorr, who accompanied Hayes, tells me that among the Esquimaux there is a tradition that a colony of foreigners once owned the land, and about five centuries ago emigrated in a body northward, crossing the Mer de Glace—that they found an open sea, and somewhere within the eternal rampart of snow and ice now dwell securely by its shores. As early as 1500 the migratory Skröellings told of this colony far to the north-east. These rumors possessed substance enough to warrant the expeditions from Denmark, which have all been directed to the eastern coast. Graah heard from his guides of a strange people with high features, hoarse voices and large stature living beyond the limits passed by Europeans.

Here is a mystery surely worth finding out—a people exiled from their kind for centuries living at the Pole—something better worth search than even Franklin's bones. To give it reality, too, we must remember how many Arctic explorers have caught sight, as they thought, of an open sea near the Pole—a sea with strong, iceless swells, and on whose shores warm rains fell. Nobody need suggest that these people would probably, after our search, not be worth looking for. What shall we do with the North-west Passage when we have found it?

R. H. D.