I have spent a good part of the past few months engaging in research for a book that I am writing, which is about the growth of empire during the Tudor period (to be titled The Tudor Empire). The last few weeks have been spent delving into the impact of the John Cabot transatlantic voyages of the 1490s, and during this period I became fascinated by the various myths and legends of the unknown Atlantic, particularly phantom islands.
Phantom islands are islands that were presumed to have existed, but which in reality did not. There was a long list of speculated legendary islands which were said to have been located west in the ocean. Such was the seriousness attached to these islands, some were included on maps and became the focus of transatlantic voyages. This post will provide a general outline of a handful of them.
Antillia (the Island of the Seven Cities)
The island of Antillia – which appeared on maps from as early as 1424 as an oddly shaped rectangle – was also known as the Island of the Seven Cities. This claim was based on an old Portuguese legend, of seven bishops who fled Iberia in fear of the Moorish invasion of the 734 AD, thereby leading to the colonisation of this Atlantic territory. The island was a serious consideration into the late 1400s, with Portuguese kings authorising explorers to search and claim it, particularly due to the rumour that silver would be uncovered.
The Island of Brasil
Not to be confused with the actual country Brazil. This island was indicated on many maps, with it positioned nearby the coast of south-west Ireland. This was based on an old Irish myth – ‘Breasil’ meaning ‘Blessed’ in Irish – and a series of other myths became attached to it; it was even mooted as a suggested burial place for King Arthur. Ultimately, it appears the name became attached to actual land discovered by Europeans in South America: Brazil itself.
Great Ireland (White People Land)
Further north was Great Ireland – otherwise known as White People Land – in which the natives were said to have ‘hair and skin as white as snow’. Its discovery remained a constant ambition of explorers, with many places suggested: Greenland or areas of North America.
A key reason as to these myths were believed for so long was simply the inability to prove or disprove them. The distances involved in transatlantic voyages was huge, and the ocean itself was beyond comprehension. Furthermore, the myths had additional caveats; the island of Brasil was apparently covered in mist and would only become visible once every seven years.
By the end of the 1400s, explorers had become ambitious enough – due to being armed with bigger ships and an improvement in navigation techniques – to attempt to set out across the Atlantic and find the truth. They may not have found these phantom islands, but they definitely found something far greater: the American continents.