Eric the Red - George Upton

Journeys and Adventures of the Brothers Zeno

In the year of grace 1200 a certain Marinus Zeno, of the city of Venice, enjoyed an enviable reputation not only for his conspicuous virtues but also for his intellectual attainments. Called to the management of public affairs in Italy, he discharged them in such manner that it added to the affection and respect in which he was held. Among his many important accomplishments it is recorded that by his extraordinary tact and his good advice he settled a controversy among the Veronese citizens which threatened to lead to civil strife. He was also the first governor of Constantinople, in the name of the Venetian Republic, in 1205, at which period that kingdom was under Gallic and Venetian rule.

This Marinus Zeno had a son named Petrus Reymer, who became the father of a duke or doge of Venice. As this doge had no male heir, he adopted Andreas, a son of his brother Marcus. Andreas had a son named Reymer who became a famous senator, and whose son Petrus was a leader against the Turks in the Christian army which Venice sent to the Crusade. He was surnamed "the Dragon," as he had chosen the dragon for his insignia. His son was named Magnus and became famous as the procurator and leader of the army in many critical wars which were carried on at that time with the Genoese. Several princes fought for the freedom and power of Venice, but he freed it from all danger by his bravery.

His sons were Karl, Nicolo, "the Golden Knight," and Antonio. Nicolo was a man of great courage and lofty ideals. He had a passionate longing to venture forth and see the world, observe the habits of people and learn their languages, so that when the opportunity came he could be of service to his country, and acquire honors and a great name for himself also. He fitted out a vessel, sailed through the Mediterranean and out through the Straits to the open ocean, finally taking a northward course. He intended to visit England and Belgium, but a fierce storm arose. He was driven about by wind and wave, and when utterly ignorant where he was, saw land in the distance. His vessel, however, was no longer able to withstand the storm and it was wrecked on the shore of an island, but his crew and his effects were saved. This happened in the year 1380. When the islanders discovered that the vessel was wrecked, they rushed to the shore in great numbers and accosted Nicolo and his companions in such a threatening manner and with such a display of weapons that our helpless explorers, already exhausted by the storm and wreck, gave up hope and confidently expected death.

By good luck, however, a prince with an armed force was in the neighborhood. He heard of the wreck and of the threatened attack upon the sailors. He at once advanced to the shore and drove the islanders off. As they could not understand the language of the country, the prince addressed them in Latin and inquired whence they came. When he found that they were Italians and had come thence from Italy, he displayed the utmost good will and assured them they should not be harmed, but under his protection should be well treated and respected by all. This man was a powerful prince, for he possessed several neighboring islands, among them Porland, which were very rich and well populated. The name of this prince was Zichmni. Besides the island of Porland he was also regent over the dukedom of Soran, near Scotland.

Zichmni was not only powerful and rich in possessions but he was ambitious and warlike, especially upon the sea. In former years when he had defeated the King of Norway, who was master of the island at that time, he had been fired with zeal to win a still more famous name and to establish his authority over Frisland, an island even greater than Ireland.

Observing that Nicolo was a man of great ability and skilled both in seamanship and military warfare, he invited him and his companions to remain with him, which they did. His service was so important, indeed, that Nicolo was made commander of the fleet and given other honors. The fleet consisted of thirteen vessels, two long rowing and eleven sailing vessels, of which one surpassed all the others in size. With these they sailed westward and took possession without much effort of the islands of Ledova, Hosa, and some smaller ones, then changed their course and ran into a bay called Sudera, where, in the harbor of a place called Sanestola, they carried away several boats loaded with salted fish. After Zichmni had subjugated the entire country they went northward, and rounding a promontory sailed into a bay. They made a landing there, and other islands were added to Zichmni's possessions. The sea in that vicinity was so full of shoals and sand bars that it was the universal opinion that the whole fleet would have run aground had it not been for the extraordinary seamanship of Nicolo and his companions.

Shortly after this, upon the advice of Nicolo, an attack was made upon a city called Bondendino, still further to extend the sovereignty of Zichmni. After winning a victory the island sent messengers to Nicolo and acknowledged Zichmni's authority. Thereupon Nicolo went back to Frisland and wrote to his brother, Marcus Antonio, an enthusiastic letter, urging him to come. Marcus was not less eager to see the world than his brother Nicolo, and had always longed to visit strange peoples and acquire fame and honor for himself. Without delay he purchased a vessel and set forth in quest of his brother. After many difficulties and dangers he at last reached Frisland, where Nicolo welcomed him joyfully. Marcus settled down and lived fourteen years upon the island, four of them with Nicolo. Both enjoyed the favor of the prince, and Nicolo rose to supreme command. Their next venture was directed against Estland, which lies between Frisland and Norway, but there they met with severe loss.

Hearing that the King of Norway was approaching with a large fleet to attack them, they weighed anchor. In the meantime a furious storm arose, which drove them upon sand bars. The larger part of the fleet was lost at this place and the rest were wrecked upon a large, unpopulated island called Grisland. The Norwegian fleet was also mostly destroyed by the same storm. When Zichmni heard of the disaster, from one of the enemy's vessels which had escaped the storm, he replaced his fleet and set out to attack Iceland, which was then subject to Norway. He found it, however, so well fortified and protected that he decided it was wiser to refrain from any further expeditions at present and strengthen his fleet. Nevertheless he took seven islands in that part of the ocean, namely, Talas, Braas, Iscant, Trans, Mimant, Damberea, and Bressa. At Bressa he erected a fort of which he placed Nicolo in command. He left all he could spare of men, vessels, and munitions and returned to Frisland, which he reached in safety.

Nicolo, left in Bressa, determined to go to sea in quest of new countries. With this object in view he equipped three small vessels and sailed northward in July, reaching Engroneland, where he found a monastery of friars of the Order of the Preachers, and a church dedicated to St. Thomas, built at the foot of a hill, or volcanic mountain, like Vesuvius or Etna. There also they found a spring which supplied the friars with hot water for their cooking and other purposes. They had become so experienced that they could heat their ovens with the steam and bake their bread. They also used it to heat their gardens, which were covered in Winter, and cultivate the flowers and vegetation which belong to a more temperate climate. The native barbarians, regarding all this as something supernatural, held the monks in great respect and looked upon them with a kind of superstitious awe.

In the Winter time, when everything was covered with snow and ice, the monks warmed their cells with the hot water, conveyed to them through pipes. In their workrooms they used the same water, and the stones thrown up from the crater were reduced to lime by the hot water which was poured upon them, which lime became so hard that they easily made arches and vaults with it. They made indeed such good use of this material in building that the visitors regarded it with astonishment.

The Winter lasted there nine months and the inhabitants lived upon fish and game. They found there also many convenient harbors which did not freeze, owing to the hot water which ran into them. Consequently they were filled with seafowl in such multitudes that great numbers of them were easily caught every day. The dwellings of the other people were usually built in circular form, having only one opening for air and light, and the ground under them was so warm that the people never suffered from cold.

During the Summers vessels from Drontheim and the neighboring islands frequently landed there, bringing the monks articles which they needed, for which they exchanged furs and dried fish. The articles they brought usually consisted of material for clothing, grain, and timber. Brothers of the order often visited them, coming from Norway, Sweden, and other countries, but mostly from Iceland. The fishing boats were usually made of shagreen or fishskins, fastened together with fish-bone, and constructed in such manner that the fisherman could protect himself even in the roughest weather and expose himself to wind and wave without fear, as the boats stood the hardest shocks without damage.

This is what has been made known to us of Engroneland in Nicolo's accounts and in the chart which he has left. As he was not able to endure the severe cold and became ill in consequence, he returned to Frisland, where he died. He left two sons in his fatherland, Johann and Thomas, from whom was descended the famous Cardinal Zeno.

Zichmni was a man of undaunted spirit and never abandoned the hope of acquiring the sovereignty of the sea. Antonio, after his brother's death, was eager to go back to Venice, but Zichmni retained him in his service and despatched him upon an expedition to the westward to search for rich and thickly populated islands which had been described to him by a fisherman. Antonio has described this discovery in a letter to his brother Karl, the substance of which is here given:

"It was said that six and twenty years before this time four fisher-boats were tossed about on the ocean several days by a terrible storm. When the storm subsided they discovered an island, named Estotiland, lying more than a thousand miles west of Frisland. One of the boats was wrecked on the coast of this island. The six sailors were made prisoners and brought before the prince, who had many interpreters, but none could understand them except one, who spoke Latin. When the prince found who they were and whence they came, he retained them in his service and they remained there five years and learned the language of the natives. They saw much of the island and found that it was smaller than Iceland but much more productive, and that in the middle of it was a lofty mountain, from which flowed four rivers that watered all the land.

The natives were very intelligent and practised many of the arts. In the prince's library they found several Latin books, which none could understand however. The people had their own language and writing, and in the south there was a great, rich country, abounding in gold. Their intercourse was mainly with Engroneland, whence they procured furs, sulphur, and pitch. They planted maize and brewed ale, which the Northmen use as we do wine. They had forests of great extent and many towns and villages.

They had small sail vessels but they were ignorant of the use of the compass, though they held it in such esteem that they fitted out twelve boats and sent the strangers in them to a land farther south, called Drageo. After a dangerous voyage they made a landing, but the natives were cannibals and devoured most of the crew. The fisherman and his people were saved, for they understood the art of fishing with nets so well that they were employed to teach the natives and thus escaped being eaten.

In this manner they were employed for thirteen years and during that time served no less than twenty-five princes. In the course of his travels the fisherman obtained much information about the country. He described it as a very great land, a kind of new world, whose people were fierce and uncivilized. They went naked and had not sense enough to cover themselves when they were cold. They lived by hunting, and as they had no metal, used wooden spears with bone tips. They fought bravely and ate those they killed. Toward the southwest, however, there were more civilized people. The climate was milder. They had cities and temples to their deities, to whom they sacrificed human beings and then ate them. In those regions they had knowledge of gold and silver.

"At last the fisherman determined if possible to return to his country. After remaining three years in Drageo, he came by vessel to the coast of Estotiland. Thence he reached Frisland and told the story of the newly discovered country to Zichmni, who fitted out an expedition at once to ascertain the truth of the fisherman's reports. Three days before sailing, however, the fisherman died. Zichmni did not abandon his purpose on that account, but took several sailors with him who had been with the fisherman. He sailed westward and came to several islands belonging to Frisland. Thence sailing past many sand bars he reached Ledova, where he remained seven days to repair the vessels and provide necessary supplies. Thence he resumed the voyage and reached the island of Hope on July 1. As the wind was favorable he made no stop, but not long after a fierce storm arose and before it subsided he had lost his way and some of the vessels.

At last, however, the vessels came together, and a country was discovered to the westward. He steered for it and reached a quiet, secure harbor and encountered a multitude of armed natives ready to protect their island. Zichmni made signs of peace and they sent ten men to him, but only one of them could be understood. That one, upon being asked the name of the island and its people, and who ruled it, said the island was called Icaria and all the rulers had been called Icari, after the first King, who was said to have been a son of Daedalus, King of Scotland, who overcame the island and left his son to rule over it, promising to come back again. But he was overtaken by a storm and drowned, and in memory of his death it was called the Icarian Sea. They were contented with the condition in which God had placed them, whether they lived under their own laws or those of a stranger. When Zichmni realized he could effect nothing then and that if he prolonged his stay the crews would suffer for lack of subsistence, he availed himself of favoring winds and sailed home."

The adventures of these Venetian seafarers are set down in many geographies and historical narratives. Nicolo Zeno writes that he suffered shipwreck on the island of Frisland, in 1380, and was well treated by a prince named Zichmni. Zeno's description of Frisland does not in any way correspond with the well-known Dutch province of the same name, for we know that the Frisians, an old German people of the Istavone and Ingavone stock, dwell to-day, as they did then, between the confines of the Rhine, the North Sea, and the river Ems. Its history makes no mention of a prince named Zichmni. The Icelandic historian, Arngrim, in the second part of his work, "Icelandic Specimens," and others after him, do not hesitate to declare the Zeno narrative a fable.

On the other hand, we find geographies, like that of Camaldulenser Marurus of Venice, of the year 1459, which has a map containing the islands and countries described by the Zeno brothers and with the same names. Ortelius, in his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum  (1570) also speaks of them. Isaak Pontanus accepts the narration in his History of Denmark, and it is also to be found in the second volume of Histories of Exploration, by Ramusius. Plazidus Twela, in his work upon Marco Polo and other Venetian explorers, speaks particularly in his second volume of the genealogy of the Zeno family and about the original manuscript of the doubted narrative. In private records as well as in the royal archives of Venice, the pedigree of the patrician family Zeno is found, from which it appears that there were three brothers in the year 1381, Karl, Nicolo, and Marcus Antonio, of whom the first remained at home while the other two lived in foreign countries. Marco Barbaro published an authentic work in 1536, concerning the genealogy of the Venetian patricians, in the seventh volume of which we find mention of Antonio Zeno, in 1390, a description of himself and his experiences in the northern islands, and the statement that he lived fourteen years on the island of Frisland, four years of the time with his brother Nicolo.

It appears also that one of his descendants, Nicolo Zeno, born in 1515, when he was a boy, tore up the papers containing the narrative, the value of which he did not appreciate. When older, he realized their importance, collected the fragments, and from these and some documents which were intact constructed the narrative as it was given to the world. He also found in the palace a map, half mouldered by age, upon which the voyages were traced. He made a drawing of the map and restored the entire narrative as well as he could. The narrative of the Zeno brothers, however, offers difficulties of various kinds for historians as well as geographers. Besides the scanty knowledge of geography in the fourteenth century, we find another difficulty in the orthography of countries and names of persons, as they are written by a Southerner and pronounced by a Northerner. Besides this the reader is surprised to find the brothers Zeno using a style as bombastic and exaggerated as that of Don Quixote.

We shall now take up and endeavor to explain the names of persons, islands, and countries heretofore mentioned in this chapter.


The island of Frisland of the Zeno brothers is undoubtedly one of the Faroe Islands. The name Frisland must have been derived from Ferrisland, for thus the islands were called by English mariners. Upon the old maps we find the name written, Uresland and Vresland.


In the year 1784 John Reinbold Forster, a prominent companion of Captain Cook, called attention to the fact that Zichmni was the equivalent among Southerners for Sinclair. Henry Sinclair was, at a time which is uncertain, the earl or prince of Orkney and Caithness, and the geographical, political, and historical circumstances agree in the identification of Sinclair as Zichmni. The principal facts are the following: The earldom of Henry Sinclair came into the family through the marriage of his father, Sir William Sinclair of Roslyn, with Isabella, daughter and heiress of Malise, Earl of Strathearn, Caithness, and Orkney.

The last Scandinavian earl was Magnus, father of the first wife of Malise. In 1379 Henry Sinclair acquired from the King of Norway the recognition of his claim upon the earldom, but his investiture was loaded with severe conditions. In the "Orcaden" of Torfxus we have Sinclair's own explanation of his feudal relations with the King of Norway, wherein he binds himself to carry out the following conditions: "We agree also that upon our promotion to the earldom by our master and king, our cousin Malise shall renounce his claims and title to the countries and islands named so that our lord and master the king, his heirs and successors, shall not suffer from any obstacles or molestation from him or his heirs." Further on in the same work, it is written: "In 1391 the Earl of Orkney slew Malise Sperre of Shetland and seven others."

Assonet Rock



Estlanda, the locality of the battle in the Zeno narrative, is undoubtedly Shetland, lying between the Faroe Islands, or Zeno's Frisland, and Norway. The Shetland Islands also were a part of the earldom of Sinclair which was disputed by his cousin Malise Sperre. Hence it follows that the narration of Zeno can have no other meaning than that Sinclair in reality took from Malise what rightly belonged to him. In the meantime his struggle with his Scandinavian rival became, in the fantastic idea of Zeno, a war against Norway itself. Estlanda and the seven enumerated Icelandic islands adjoining signify Shetland and the group of small islands in its vicinity.


The people of the Southland are accustomed to use more vowels in their words than those of the Northland. They therefore seldom close a name of their own with a consonant and frequently in expressing a foreign word, which should begin with two consonants, put an "a" or an "e" before it, and sometimes in the middle of a word, where two consonants come together, they choose to insert a vowel. Thus Zeno spoke the word "Gronland" and wrote it "Engroneland."

We have authentic statements by Biorn Jonaus and Ivar Bardson that there were hot springs owned by a cloister in Greenland but they state that it was a cloister of Benedictine nuns. They also affirm, as Zeno wrote, that these springs were near the cloister and were utilized. In our day the existence of hot springs about twenty-five miles from Ounartok in Greenland is well known. But Jonaus does not mention a cloister of the Dominican Order of Preachers. According to Messenius, the first Dominicans came to Scandinavia in 1220 and settled upon the Swedish peninsula of Schonen and erected several houses of their order in various parts of the country. Old geographies mention the cloister of St. Thomas on the eastern coast of Greenland in latitude seventy. Alzog, in his church history, mentions the existence of a Dominican cloister in Greenland upon the authority of the Dutch Captain Hani (1280). But this could not have been the one dedicated to the Dominican Saint Thomas Aquinas, who died in 1274 and was canonized in the fourteenth century.

Nicolo was so astonished at the discovery that the monks used the steam for cooking, baking, and gardening, something unknown in the South, that he naturally assumed the natives would ascribe it to magic or something supernatural and that this accounted for the esteem in which they held the monks, who were their benefactors and devoted their time in that rigorous climate to the beneficent offices of their religion. Nicolo, who stood so high in the esteem of the wealthy and powerful Prince Zichmni, must have been quite humbled when he found that the Greenlander was of more consequence to these monks than he, whose pedigree filled a folio volume and who enjoyed the privilege of having a dragon or lion traced upon his shield.


Estotiland, which, according to the statement of the fisherman, was a thousand miles to the west of Frisland, appears upon the old maps as Festland, and corresponds to Labrador. Ortelius locates Estotiland as the most northern point of the American continent. The story of the fisherman apparently related to three regions of America, of which two went by the name of Estotiland and Drageo, while the third, the name of which was not given, was still farther south. Drageo also was farther south. There the cannibals were found who killed and devoured some of the seamen. Finally, we come to a great country in a New World to the southwest. The name of this country is unknown. There were cities and temples there. Human sacrifices prevailed and gold and silver were in use. This last region corresponds to Mexico or the peninsula of Yucatan, where we now find the ruins of pre-Columbian cities, such as Uxmal, Kabah, Mayapan and others.


The last expedition to be considered is one to arouse the curiosity of the reader. Unfortunately, Antonio Zeno writes to his brother Karl, the journey was undertaken at an unlucky moment. The fisherman who was to have been the pilot died three days before their departure and Zeno says they were obliged to take some of his sailors as pilots. After a severe storm they not only lost their course, but the entire voyage seems in reality to have been a haphazard wandering about on the Atlantic, until at last they discovered a region which bore the mythological name of Icaria, whose king, as well as the sea which washed its coasts, was called Icarus. This part of the narrative, more than any other, appears to be fabulous.

Johann of Kolmo

Franz Lopez von Gomara, so called from one of the Canary Islands, upon which he was born, according to his statements, learned much about the Norwegian nature and navigation of Olaus the Goth. In his Universal History of the Indies  we find a description of Labrador and the statement that Norwegians came there with the pilot Johann Scolvo. After him Herrera makes the same general statement but calls the pilot Juan Seduco. In a later narrative, in which Estotiland and Labrador are treated as the same country, mention is first made of the fisherman from the Faroes and the brothers Zeno. We also learn from it that eighty-six years after the voyage of the brothers, the Pole, Johann Scolvus, in the year 1476, had started toward the north pole and landed in Estotiland. Selewell for the first time acquaints us with the true name of the pilot who accompanied the expedition, and notes the significance it had for Columbus.

Johann of Kolmo, a little place in Massovia, was commissioned by King Christian I of Denmark, in 1476, to open up unbroken communication with Greenland. He went to Labrador and to the strait afterwards known as Hudson's. The report of this expedition was circulated through Spain and Portugal. It was specially notable because of the influence it had upon Columbus, and because it was the first journey made to the north with the hope of finding a passage through what is now known as Behring Strait.