The Smugglers' City
Department of History, University of Bristol


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Salazar's account of Bristol's discovery of the Island of Brasil (pre 1476)

Manuscript: Lope García de Salazar (1399-1476). Libro de las bienandanzas e fortunas . Cristóbal de Mieres codex (dated 1492), Madrid, Academia de la Historia MS. 9-102/2100, fol. 189a-b.
Topic first discussed in: Harvey L. Sharrer, 'The passing of King Arthur to the Island of Brasil in a fifteenth-century Spanish version of the post-vulgate Roman du Graal ', Romania , 92 (1971), 65-74.
Introduction: Evan Jones (April, 2007)
Comments on the text: Harvey L. Sharrer (April, 2007)
Translation of Salazar's account : Harvey L. Sharrer (April, 2007)


The Island of Brasil, also known as Hy-Brasil or O'Brazil, is a mythical island that appeared on many sea charts from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries.[1] The name is of Gaelic origin, meaning 'Isle of the Blest', although, as the passage below demonstrates, it later became associated with brazilwood, a wood producing a high quality red dye that was known in the fifteenth century from imports from the Orient. The name has nothing to do with the modern country of Brazil, which acquired its name in the sixteenth century because it too was known for a tree which produced a red dye.

Hy-Brasil was typically located on charts as lying somewhere to the west of Ireland. The Island of Brasil is significant to the history of Bristol's early discovery voyages because the first known voyages from Bristol, in 1480 and 1481, involved expeditions to search for this mythical isle.[2] Moreover, when the Spanish ambassador, Pedro de Ayala, wrote to his sovereigns in 1498, he claimed that 'For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three [and] four caravels to go in search of the island of Brazil and the Seven Cities'.[3] This suggests that Bristol had continued its search for Brasil after 1481. These expeditions are regarded as significant, in part, because it is generally supposed that John Cabot's 1496-98 voyages of discovery were launched from Bristol because of the port's established interest in Atlantic exploration, as evidenced by the Brasil expeditions.[4]

Since the publication of the John Day letter in 1956, Bristol's voyages in search of Brasil have received greater attention. This was because, in his letter to Christopher Columbus in the winter of 1497/8, Day suggested of Cabot's 1497 expedition that 'It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil' as your Lordship well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.'[5] These comments have often been interpreted as evidence that Bristol mariners had discovered America prior to 1497.[6] Some historians, such as Dr Alwyn Ruddock, have argued that such a discovery occurred but that Bristol's mariners were subsequently unable to find their way back to America.[7] By contrast, Prof David Beers Quinn posited that the 1480/81 expeditions were successful with Bristol men discovering North America at or around this time.[8] Quinn argued that this discovery was not publicised because Bristol's merchants wished to keep secret the rich cod fisheries they had found off the north east coast of America.

In 1971, Harvey L. Sharrer, wrote a short research note that bears on the debate.[9] Sharrer's paper concerned an entry in a Spanish Basque chronicle written by Lope García de Salazar (1399-1476). The entry in question must have been written before Salazar's death in 1476 and may have been written considerably earlier, given that it is found in the eleventh of this twenty-five 'book' chronicle. The entry concerns the island where the legendary King Arthur was supposed to have been buried following his final battle. While most accounts give this as Avalon, Salazar suggests Arthur's resting place was the Island of Brasil. Salazar finishes his account by noting that he has heard from certain Englishmen that a ship from Bristol had at one time found this isle but the mariners had subsequently been unable to relocate it. Sharrer took this as evidence that Bristol mariners had in fact discovered some unknown land to the west of Ireland. Since no islands lie between Ireland and North America, the account, if the story Salazar retold did relate to a genuine voyage, would provide further evidence that Bristol men had discovered North America before John Cabot's 1497 expedition.

The Salazar account of the Bristol voyage is clearly significant to 'discovery history' and would remain so even if it were assumed to be a myth, rather than as an elaborated account of an actual voyage. Unfortunately, the publication of Sharrer's article went unnoticed for a long time by those interested in the history of Bristol's discovery voyages. This was probably because the article had been published in a philological journal devoted to romance languages that was not likely be be read by maritime historians. As a result, even Prof David Beers Quinn, the doyen of English discovery history, only became aware of Sharrer's article in 1992. This followed Quinn's reading of an article in The Independent, a British newspaper, by Dr J. Witherington of Lancaster University. Having read Sharrer's article, Quinn started to write a research note about the Salazar account.[10] Although he abandoned this note, he did discuss Sharrer's findings at the Annual Lecture for the Society for Nautical Research, which he gave in November 1992.[11] It seems likely that Quinn decided not to publish his note, because, just before he gave this lecture, he found out that Alwyn Ruddock was at last making moves to publish her long-awaited book on the voyages of John Cabot. It appears that he therefore felt it sufficient to pass Sharrer's article on to Ruddock, so she could incorporate the information into her book. It is at least the case that, on 10 November, he wrote of Ruddock that 'I have a piece of information for her that I will send as soon as I have given the SNR Lecture', while, a couple of months later, Dr Ruddock wrote to Quinn to say that:

'I was very surprised and pleased to read the article from ROMANIA you sent me before Christmas. This Spanish version of the Isle of Brasil is quite new to me and will be valuable too. The discovery was already reported and put on record in Italy before 1470 so the evidence from both Spain and Italy support each other convincingly, don't you agree?'[12]

The reference to 'the evidence from...Italy' presumably relates to Ruddock's claims, also made in other places, that she had found evidence, in an Italian source, that supported the notion that Bristol men had discovered America prior to 1497. Her letter to Quinn, however, appears to be the only known place where she associates a date with the the Bristol discovery.[13] Sadly, Ruddock never published and Quinn died in 2002. The only published mention of Sharrer's work is therefore a brief discussion by Dr A. N. Ryan. This closely follows the line of argument found in Quinn's unpublished note.[14]

In 2007, Evan Jones found out about Quinn's unpublished note and this prompted him to read Sharrer's article. He then contacted Prof. Sharrer (University of California) to ask whether he would be prepared to produce an English translation of the Salazar text for this webpage. Prof Sharrer kindly agreed, providing the 'Comments on the text' and the 'Translation of Salazar's Account' given below.

Notes to Introduction:
[1] T. J. Westropp, 'Brasil and the Legendary Islands of the North Atlantic', Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy, XXX (1912) sect. C. no. 8, 223-60.
[2] J.A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII (Hakluyt Society, Second Series, No. 120, CUP, 1962), 187-88.
[3] Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy in London, to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in Spain, 25 July, 1498
[4] Williamson, The Cabot Voyages, 43-44.
[5] John Day letter to the Lord Grand Admiral, Winter 1497/8
[6] Williamson, The Cabot Voyages, 30.
[7] A.A. Ruddock, 'John Day of Bristol and the English voyages across the Atlantic before 1497', Geographical Journal, 132 (1966)
[8] D.B. Quinn, England and the Discovery of America, 1481-1620 (London, 1974), 5-87.
[9] Harvey L. Sharrer, 'The passing of King Arthur to the Island of Brasil in a fifteenth-century Spanish version of the post-vulgate Roman du Graal ', Romania , 92 (1971), 65-74.
[10] Box 164, 'Brasil', 1992, David B. Quinn Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The draft is dated '13 July 1992'.
[11] Box 108 Folder 6, 'Who Discovered America Then? Columbus Perspective', Annual Lecture, Society for Nautical Research, Kings College London, 23 November 1992, David B. Quinn Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C
[12] Box 68, Ruddock, Alwyn, 1992, David Beers Quinn to Joyce Youings, letter 10 Nov. 1992; Box 158 Folder 9, Ruddock to Quinn, letter 1 Feb. 1993, David B. Quinn Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The extract from Ruddock's letter of 1 Feb. 1993, as well as much of the other material found in Quinn's papers, was supplied by Dr Jeff Reed (Washington, D.C.).
[13] For an account of Dr Ruddock's research and its destruction, see: Evan T. Jones, ''Alwyn Ruddock: 'John Cabot and the Discovery of America '', Historical Research (Published OnlineEarly , April 2007).
[14] A.N. Ryan, ' Bristol , the Atlantic and North America , 1480-1509' in John Hattendorf (ed.), Maritime History, Vol. I: The Age of Discovery (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1996), 251-52.

Comments on the text

Book XI of the Bienandanzas e fortunas, devoted to the history of England, contains a chapter in which García de Salazar reworks the 13th-century Post-Vulgate Roman du Graal version of King Arthur's passing following the battle of Salisbury Plain. While Arthur's final resting place is not clearly stated in other surviving Post-Vulgate texts, other medieval versions of the story have Arthur taken to the Isle of Avalon following the battle of Salisbury Plain or Camlaan. Writing before the year 1476, Salazar substitutes the Island of Brasil for Avalon based on an account which he briefly describes of Bristol sailors who found the island and took on there a cargo of brazilwood.

The Spanish text has been edited by Harvey L. Sharrer, The Legendary History of Britain in Lope García de Salazar's 'Libro de las bienandanzas e fortunas' (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1979); and by Consuelo Villacorta, Libro XI de la 'Istoria de las bienandanzas e fortunas' (Bilbao : Universidad del País Vasco, 2000). Ana María Marín Sánchez's 1993 Licenciatura thesis for the University of Zaragoza, containing a complete and reliable transcription of the Cristóbal Mieres codex, was published by the University of Zaragoza on microfiche and is also available online.

Translation of Salazar's account [1]:

How Morgain [2] took King Arthur on the boat to the Island of Brasil and enchanted it so that it cannot be found

Girflet, leaving the king when he could do no more, climbed up to a high knoll that overlooked the sea so as to see what was being done to the king. He saw a boat come, covered with cloths of silk, and it reached the shore. He saw Morgain, who was the king's sister by his mother, come off onto land with ladies and damsels. And they took the king onto the boat with his arms and horse and went with him along the inner shore during the third day of the battle, for that same day in the afternoon the king had left by himself with Girflet, as has been stated.

When Girflet lost the mentioned boat from sight, he went forward along the shore to learn more news of the king, considering himself a sinner in having so left the king. And the next day, in the morning, he found at a small church by the seashore a new sepulchre [and] lettering on it that said: 'Here lies King Arthur of England '. And he asked a hermit whom he found there if he had seen him interred there, and he told him that the day before he had seen Morgain with other ladies and damsels leave the boat and that they had brought there a dead knight, who they said was the king, and that they had buried him there. Girflet, to be more certain of this fact, raised the tomb of the sepulchre and found no body in it at all. And he did find the very helmet that the king, whom he had seen put onto the boat, wore when he was wounded in the battle, and nothing else, regretting that he found nothing more of the king. And he said: 'Since this is the last thing that I find of my lord the king, I want to end my days here in his service and that of God'. And he then became a hermit.

And it is said about this King Arthur, and the English now still say it, that Morgain, his sister, took him to the Island of Brasil,[3] which is 25 leagues off Cape Longaneas,[4] which is in Ireland, and that she enchanted that island so that no ship can find it, for she was very knowledgeable about enchantments, which Merlin showed her, thinking to have her as his beloved, and that both are alive there. And their being alive is nothing to be believed, but there is no doubt that this island is there and that it is enchanted, for all the mariners find it on the charts that they use to guide themselves and sail the seas, which were made at the beginning of the world, much before this.

And the English say that that island can be found if the ship can see the island before the island the ship, for a vessel from Bristol [5] found it one dawn and, not knowing that it was it, took on there much wood for firewood, which was all of brazil, took it to their owner and, recognizing it, he became very rich. He and others went in search of it and they could not find it. And sometimes ships saw it but due to a storm could not reach it. And it is round and small and flat.

Translation Notes
[1] The translation is a very literal one, maintaining the peculiarities of Salazar's unadorned narrative style, vocabulary and syntax.
[2] For this translation, the Spanish forms of Arthurian names have been regularized using corresponding forms commonly found in the French prose romances, except for 'Arthur' which is Anglicized.
[3] The translation maintains the Spanish spelling of the toponym Brasil for the name of the island but, at the end of the account, gives the English form ' brazil ' in place of the Spanish 'brasil' for the wood (brazilwood) that the Bristol sailors found on the island.
[4] 'Le cap de Longaneos' is in fact a Basque name for Land's End in Cornwall: Martin de Hoyarsabal, Les Voyages aventureux, ... contenant les reigles et enseignemens necessaires à la bonne et seure navigation. Seconde édition, reveuë et corrigée (first published 1579, Bordeaux edition, 1633), pp. 59, 61-63, 68-73. Information supplied by Dr Michael Barkham. The name 'Longaneos' may be derived from 'Longships', a small island that lies two miles west of Land's End. It may also be related to 'Lyonesse', a mythical sunken kingdom which, according to medieval Arthurian literature, was believed to lie beyond Cornwall.
[5] The Mieres codex reads 'briscol'.

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