The unit will cover the reading, understanding, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation of the medieval Icelandic prose narratives, The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America translated by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Palsson. I will read two excerpts from The Overall Survey of the Ocean'Shores by Ma Huan and Robert Finlay article How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America. I will include the Journal of Christopher Columbus during his first voyage in 1492 translated by Clements R. Markham, and The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus by J.M. Cohen. I will also use excerpts about the three travelers from Voyages in World History by V. Hansen.
I will compare and contrast the "Gaenlendiga Saga" to the "Eirkik's Saga" since I deem it an essential step in our process to determine who reached America first and why. The sagas are very similar but they also contain different details in the description of the territories they found and the native people they met. (Magnusson, Magnus, Palsson Hermann. The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America. London: Penguin, 1965). My students need to get into the shoes of a "real" researcher who has various sources and whose task is to determine the correct historical facts. Each student will be required to draw conclusions and propose "who reached America first" based on the facts stated in the various source documents.
After the first complete reading of The Vinland Sagas, I will engage my students in a close reading and analysis of the pages relating to four voyages the Vikings did westward. I will start from the "Gaenlendiga Saga"
and, specifically, I will require my students to reread "Eirik explores Greenland" (Magnusson 49-51) and "Bjarni sighted land to the west" (51-54). These excerpts will give my students the background information about the first voyage of the Vikings. The same passages will require the students to determine whether the Vikings did reach any territories nearby America at the beginning of the eleventh century. These initial pages of the "Gaenlendiga Saga" explain exactly why Thorvald, father of Eirik the Red, started to explore new lands.
"Leif explores Vinland" (54-56) contains the necessary information about the second voyage of Eirik the Red who followed the same route of his father. In fact, the Saga says he "was outlawed and lived in Brattahlid, Greenland, as the only recognized authority of the land" (54). From there, Eirik's son decided to start a voyage - my students will identify it as second voyage - which brought to the discovery of new countries. They will learn that this was only the beginning of a more decisive exploration. In fact, Leif, Eirik's son, first landed in a country that was mostly covered by ice and rocks. When he landed the second time, he was in a flat, wooded and sandy area. He called it Markland (the southeastern coast of Labrador, or Newfoundland). As he did in the previous landing, Leif and his men hurried back to their ship and sailed away. This time they followed the north-east wind for two days. At that point, they saw another land again. The weather was fine and they found a grassy area. "There was a sound between the headland and what they said it was an island. They reached a place where a river flowed out of a lake" (56). The weather was mild, so they decided to spend the winter here, build houses, and continue the exploration towards the inside of the country. The saga also says, "in this country, night and day were of more even length" than in other locations and "on the shortest day of the year, the sun was already up by 9 a.m., and did not set until after 3p.m." (56). The geographical description of that area and the remark about the length of the day will clearly help my students understand that this location could have been anywhere between the Gulf of St. Lawrence and New Jersey. The same narrative prose says this country was rich in grapes, vines, and timber. Apparently, this was the reason Leif and his men decided to call it Vinland (57-58). This land was called Vinland for its abundance of grapes - "vinum" in Latin and "wine" in English.
The third voyage begins with "Thorvald explores Vinland" (59-61). In this chapter the students will have a detailed description of the country - "they found the country there very attractive, with woods stretching almost down to the shore and white beaches" (59). "They found no traces of human habitation or animals except on one westerly island" (60). The next exploration brought them eastward along the coast. They arrived at a heavily wooded area, and here they met some native inhabitants who used skin-boats. "Thorvald and his men divided forces and captured all of them except one, who escaped in his boat" (60). My students will also have descriptive details matching with the boats used by certain Native American tribes of New England after 1500.
After these first explorations, the Vikings did not stop visiting Vinland as the saga confirms. In fact, Karlsefni prepared another voyage - the fourth voyage, "Karlsefni in Vinland" (64-67). I want my students to focus on "the agreement with his crew that everyone should share equally in whatever profits the expeditions might yield" (65). Karlsefni ordered to cut timber, and to pick all the grapes, wild wheat, or any other produce they could find. They spent the summer and the winter in the same location without encountering any native people (65). The same excerpt contains other details about the native American tribes, called Skraelings in the saga. "The cattle were grazing near by and the bull began to bellow and roar." "This terrified the Skraelings" (65). The same passage will give my students information about the attempted trading exchanges between the Vikings and the Native Americans.
"Eirik's Saga" confirms the same details reported by the "Graenlendinga Saga". I will follow the same strategy of an initial reading of the complete work followed by a second close reading of those excerpts that compare and contrast with the "Graenlendiga Saga". I deem this strategy an essential one to determine who reached America first. In particular, I will draw my students' attention on chapter 2, "Eirik explores Greenland" (76-78). I want my students to notice the striking differences both in tone and details between the two Sagas. In fact, the "Graenlendiga Saga" focuses on landscape details essentially and simply states that "next summer, he set off to colonize Greenland" (50). On the contrary, "Eirik's Saga" gives a lot of details about Eirik's fights in his homeland which ultimately caused him and all his followers to be outlawed (76-77). At the same time, they can see that both sagas confirm the same period of time - three years - to colonize or explore Greenland.
The second excerpt I will analyze is "Leif discovers Vinland" (84-88). The striking difference in this part refers to the fact that the king suggested Leif, who was ready to leave for Greenland in the summer, "to go there with a mission from me to preach Christianity" (85). This is interesting because the "Graenlendiga Saga" never mentioned religion as a clear purpose of exploration. Another important difference from the preceding saga is the reference to the provisions they prepared before starting this voyage, and the complete lack of any details or description of the new territories.
The third excerpt I will reread is "Karlsefeni goes to Vinland" (93-96). This chapter can be compared to the fourth voyage in the "Graenlendiga Saga". It is interesting to notice that it opens saying that "there were great discussions at Brattahlid that winter about going in search of Vinland." How did they know there was a new land named Vinland? If they already knew about its existence, why were they searching for Vinland? These are the questions my students will be required to respond by using the specific references to the previous saga. At this point we will also compare and contrast with the Introduction from The Vinland Sagas written by Magnus Magnusson and Herman Palsson (7-43). The only difference this chapter underlines is the abundance of tall grass, animals of all kinds, maples, grapes, wild wheat, rivers, and lakes full of fish.
"Eirik's Sagas" differs from the other saga for the abundance of details about the native population. In fact, chapter 10, "Karlsefni goes south", contains the same details as the other saga as far as the description of this land is concerned. However, it contains interesting details about the native populations who are also identified as "skin-boat" men (98). "The newcomers rowed towards them and stared at them in amazement. . ... They were small and evil-looking, and their hair was coarse; they had large eyes and broad cheekbones" (98). The same saga mentions the "Skraelings' attack"
(99-101). It says the indigenous people wanted to buy "red cloth, swords and spears" (99). The second time they came in huge number by boat and from the south. They waved their sticks but anti-clockwise and were howling loudly. A fierce battle followed. At the end of the battle, the Vikings realized that although the land was excellent, they could not live here permanently because of the unpredictable nature of the native populations.
I will also use the excerpt from Voyages in World History by V. Hansen as secondary source. This source will be used to verify the validity of the information we found in the Sagas (Hansen, Valerie. Voyages in World History. Boston:Houghton Mifflin, forthcoming 2009, chapter 10).
Zheng He and his Voyages
The other traveler I will take into consideration is Zheng He because he is sometimes referred to as a predecessor of Columbus. I will present my students chapter 14 - an excerpt - from Voyages in World History by V. Hansen. On handing out this passage, I will not mention that it is a secondary source because I want them to determine the difference between this specific document and the two excerpts from The Overall Surveys of the Ocean's Shores by Ma Huan. We will only read and take notes about the essential details the document reports about Zheng He. Specifically, we will focus our attention on the fact he is a Muslim Chinese who was captured by the Chinese soldiers, castrated and forced to become a soldier. "In leading China's navy to India and Africa, Admiral Zheng He was following the well-established routes taken by both pilgrims and Muslim merchants" (Hansen, chapter 14). Gavin Menzies maintains "four Chinese fleets . . .. visited every part of the world except Europe between 1421 and 1423" (Finlay, Robert. How Not to (Re)Write World History: Gavin Menzies and the Chinese Discovery of America. Journal of World History. 15.2 (2004): 29 pars. 14 Jul. 2007, 1). At this point my students will analyze and juxtapose Menzies and the primary source to determine whether the admiral Zheng He reached or did not reach America. Differently from Columbus, Zheng He never kept any journal or wrote any accounts of his numerous travels.
The primary source, I will use The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores written by Ma Huan, Zheng He's interpreter, and translated by J.V.G. Mills is a detailed account of Zheng He's travels. I will start our study from "Poem Commemorating the Journey". After the initial reading for the understanding of the text, I will analyze where the expedition(s) was directed and how the new territories are described: "The Emperor's glorious envoy received the divine commands, proclaim abroad the silken sounds, and go to the barbarous lands;" "clusters of mounts, green floating shells" (Ma, Huan. Ying-Yai Sheng-Lan 'The Overall Survey of the Ocean's Shores'. Bangkok: White Lotus, 1997, 73), and "from She-p'o again the Western Ocean broached" (74). The other details we will consider are the reactions on both the first encounter and the related descriptions: ". . .and strange the people are." "With unkempt heads and naked feet, a barbarous tongue they speak" (73); ". . .grateful, admiring our virtue, they show themselves loyal, sincere" (74). I will also require my students to discuss "the west with the east they mixed" (74). These details are important in order to determine what country they were exploring. Was it America? If it was, which other primary sources, the Vikings' Sagas and Columbus's log-book, do they reasonably compare to?
I also want my students to read "The country of Ku-Li" and determine the correctness of the information found in the "Poem Commemorating the Journey". "The Country of Ku-Li" is interesting because it starts with "This is the great country of the Western Ocean" (137). What is Ma Huan specifically referring to? Is that America? This documents will offer me the opportunity to look for references like the religion(s) the Chinese found in this country - "The population of the country includes five classes, the Muslim people, . . .", "There is a traditional story that in olden times there was a holy man named Mou-hsieh," and "the people knew he was a true man of Heaven", or "the king has cast an image of Buddha" (138-139). Similarly, interesting are details referring about the level of civilization of the native people at the time of the Admiral's arrival, the trades, and the plants, or trees growing in this area. Now, I will require my students to analyze Ma Huan's writing style and compare it to Columbus's one. I think this is an important step in order to lead my students to their conclusions on who discovered America, what these travelers were looking for, and what benefits, if any, they had.
Christopher Columbus: the Journal of his First Voyage
Columbus's voyage will begin with the First Letter of Paolo Toscanelli to Columbus (Markham, Clements R. The Journal of Christopher Columbus (during His first Voyage, 1942-93) and Documents Relating to the Voyages of John Cabot and Gaspar Corte Real. London: Elibron classics, 2005, 3). This document is composed of the "Prologue to Columbus" and "A Copy of the letter to Martins". I want my students to focus their attention on how Paolo Toscanelli defines the date of this letter to Columbus, "some days ago" (3). I want them to reflect and learn using temporal details referring to a specific year or moment in time. I will also draw their attention on specific details referring to Columbus's desire to "find a way to where the spices grow," "a shorter way to the places of spices," (3-4) and "his ancestors desired intercourse with Christians now 200 years ago" (6). These are important details in order to determine the causes for exploring new territories. The same document is important because it contains the information about the possibility to reach "the places of the spices" sailing westward. (5). Toscanelli claims that "this can be shown from the spherical shape of the earth" and to help understand he also prepared a "sailing chart" (5). Paolo Toscanelli seems very comfortable with his assertions since he writes, "It is asserted that none but merchants live on islands. For there the number of navigators with merchandize is so great that in all the rest of the world there are not so many as in one most noble port called Zaitun" - modern Quanzhov, Fujian province, China (5-6). This document will also help my students realize how Columbus could conclude that the first land he and his men encountered was India - "the spaces of sea to be crossed in the unknown parts are not great" (9). They will also closely read the "Second Letter of Paolo Toscanelli" to Columbus (10-11) which stresses the same motivations for the voyage. I deem these two letters extremely interesting for the amount of details referring to the geographical knowledge of those times, and for the possible activities of inferring and/or critical thinking they will allow me to develop.
After the two letters by Paolo Toscanelli, I will read the "Journal of the First Voyage of Columbus". I want my students to read the entire Journal and in class we will closely read only some excerpts which will be used to compare and contrast with The Vinland Sagas. Specifically, we will analyze the pages referring to the day - "January 2nd, 1492", when Columbus had the Spanish royal permission of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabela to prepare his expedition to India sailing westward (15-18). It will be interesting to compare how differently the Vikings and Columbus prepared their vessels before departing -"and came to the town of Palos, which is a seaport; where I equipped three vessels . . ... and departed from that port, well supplied with provisions and with many sailors" (17). We will also reflect on the different format as well as on the authors of The Vinland Sagas and the Journal of the first Voyage. These are not digressions from our primary objective to determine who reached America first. It is an essential activity involving my students' critical thinking skills in order to learn to interpret the information they read in the various documents.
The next excerpt we will analyze thoroughly is the journal entry dated "Thursday, 11th of October"
(35). I want my students to learn what Columbus took into account in order to conclude that the land was not far away. He writes, "The course was W.S.W., and there was more sea than there had been during the whole voyage. They saw sandpipers, and a green reed near the ship" (35), and "the crew of the caravel Nina also saw signs of land, and a small branch covered with berries" (35). The next day, they arrived at a small island called Guanahani by the local people. Unlike the Vikings, Columbus was received hospitably by the local people, who wore no clothes. He landed and took possession of this country in the name of the Spanish King and Queen (36-37).
Since Columbus's journal contains very detailed descriptions of the native people and of the relationships between Columbus, his men, and the inhabitants of these territories, I will require my students to determine the similarities and differences with The Vinland Sagas. I will also engage them in an activity to scaffold their metacognitive skills. In fact I want my students to look at style of the two documents (The Vinland Sagas and the Journal of the first Voyage of Christopher Columbus) and determine the composition techniques. Another striking difference with the Sagas I want my student to focus on is the fact that the Vikings did not encounter the indigenous people - the Skraelings - on their arrival whereas Columbus says, "presently, they saw naked people" (36). The number of these native populations differs between the two sources too - "presently, many inhabitants of the island assembled" (37).
In the same excerpt, other factors - conversion to Christianity and the explorers' intentions and/or considerations- can be analyzed and compared. Differently from the Sagas, Columbus claims the inhabitants of these territories could be easily converted to Christianity because they were learning quickly whatever his men were teaching them. Similarly to the Vikings, Columbus exchanged red caps, glass beads to put around the necks, and many other objects of little value. "It also appeared to me - Columbus - to be a race of people very poor in everything" (38-39). He also concluded that these local people should be good servants. Another interesting consideration I want my students to focus on is how carefully Columbus observed what the natives brought him in exchange of his gifts since he wanted to find out whether these territories were rich in gold (39).
I will also closely read the journal entries "Saturday, 13th of October and Sunday"
and "14th of October" (39-42). We will analyze the description of the south-western island and compare with the ones we studied in the Sagas. "This island is rather large and very flat, with bright green trees, much water, and a very large lake in the center, without any mountain, and the whole land so green that is a pleasure to look on it." (40). The same journal entries further discuss the nature of the local populations. We will also analyze and reflect on Columbus's considerations and/or personal judgments about these inhabitants (41). I want my students to discuss and compare Columbus's attitude and the Vikings' one along their exploring process.
It is also interesting to study the "Letter of Columbus to Various Persons Describing the Results of his first voyage and Written on the Return Voyage" (Columbus, Christopher. The Four Voyages of Christopher Columbus. London: Penguin, 1969, 115-123). The letter contains a detailed description of the various islands he discovered, the description and personal evaluation of the indigenous populations, interesting references to the verbal and non-verbal communications with these people, the peculiar exchanges between Columbus's men and the natives, and Columbus's conclusions about the profits the king of Spain would obtain from this exploration. This document might be considered a repetition of the log-book but I want my students to read it for two reasons. First, I want them to understand that a good researcher needs other documents to confirm the validity of the information contained in the previous ones. Secondly, I want them to analyze by comparing and contrasting the ethos, logo and pathos of this letter with the Journal and The Vinland Sagas, and the excerpts from The Overall Survey of the Oceans' Shores. This activity will give them the opportunity to draw the adequate conclusions about the underlying causes of these explorations.
I will also use the excerpt from Voyages in World History by V. Hansen as secondary source. This source will be used to verify the validity of the information compared to the primary sources (chapter 15).
The visual documents are another important component of the unit because they will engage my students in understanding, analyzing, evaluating, and comparing and contrasting activities with a consequent scaffolding of their critical thinking skills. In particular, I will use the Vinland Map, the North Atlantic Map drawn by Sigurdur Stefansson, the Atlantic Map, the Greenland Map, the North America Map, the pictures of the Viking Ship, the Algonquian Birchbark Canoe (Northeast) used by the indigenous people, the Map of the First Voyage of Columbus, the Map of the Four Voyages of Columbus, the Three Vessels of Columbus's First Voyage, the restored picture of the Toscanelli Map, and Zheng He's Ship.