Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Phoenicians in Patagonia - Part 5

Phoenician navigation skills, red dyes and gold: Brazil and Ophir.
See Index on all my posts on Phoenicians in America.
The Phoenicians had to be able to reach America otherwise we can't go ahead with our analysis. So today we will look into their navigation abilities to see if they were capable of crossing an ocean.

Phoenician sailors

Despite the belief that the Phoenicians hugged the shores and sailed close to them, Aubert [1] mentions that they sailed the high seas, in long voyages, that lasted several days. This type of voyage involved sailing by night, which in turn meant that they had to be able to get their bearings by astronomical means.

Opposing currents, dangerous shores or just to cut distances and shorten trips meant that they did not only use coastal navigation between their settlements, they also went out into the open sea.

However, bad weather (winter) did not allow this kind of sailing, which was restricted to good weather during the spring-summer-early autumn period.
Their basic vessel was the Merchant ship, a "wide and spacious [ship]", called

phoenician merchant vessel
Phoenician merchant vessel. Polish Stamp.

They had high bow and stern and though moved mainly by wind in their heavy square sail, they had up to twenty oarsmen for maneuvering. They could carry between 100 and 500 tons of merchandise. (Note that the caravels that Columbus sailed on to discovered America, the Pinta, Niña and Santa María displaced 60, 50 and 100 tons respectively). However the early sixteenth century Portuguese used 400 ton vessels in their trade with the Far East.

So, these ships were at least the same size or bigger than the Iberian boats used during the period of exploration and discovery that began in the early 1400s.
They advanced at about 5 knots (9 km/hour) and could cover 160 km (100 miles) a day.

Their main obstacles were the sea currents and head winds. The Phoenicians navigated during the season when the winds favored them and also, along coasts with currents that went in their same direction.

Crossing the Atlantic

There is a North Equatorial current flowing in a westward direction at about 0.7 knot/hour , from the Cape Verde Islands by Africa. To the south of the equator is the South Equatorial current, flowing from the African Gulf of Guinea towards Brazil, where it splits in two. The southern branch runs along the coast of Brazil all the way to Argentina. The northern branch reaches the Caribbean.

These would drag a ship from Africa towards America. The return trip could be done on the the weak eastward North Equatorial counter-current, which flows between those mentioned above.

Actually, Brazil was discovered in 1500 by Pedro Alvarez de Cabral, who trying to avoid the calms of the Gulf of Guinea, went further to the west en route to India and was driven by trade winds and currents towards the west, becoming the first European to set foot on South America, in Brazil.

It is likely that the Phoenicians, who sailed along the Western coasts of Africa for several hundred years, also found themselves under the same circumstances. It is probable that they also went out into sea, because like the Portuguese, they also knew that hugging the coast was not a good policy when faced with winds that blew towards the shore. These could dash the vessels against the rocks and destroy ship, cargo and crew.

But likely and probable don't mean that it did happen. Can we find proof in some other sources?

Yes, we can.

Brazil, what is in a name?

There are several theories surrounding the origin of the word "Brazil", I will mention them below:

  • The Celtic one. Before Cabral reached Brazil, Ancient maps depicted an island in the Atlantic ocean called Brazile (see Angelino Dulert's map of 1325). It was also spelled Breasail, Brasil and Hy-Brazil. The word is said to derive from the Gaelic words Breas and Ail, which mean "Great" and "Wonderful"; these were the "Very Best" Islands.[3]
  • Red: The dye. The Portuguese word "braza" (in Spanish Brasa) is an ember, a live burning coal. And it was used to refer to a strong red colored dye obtained from a variety of tree that grows in Brazil. [4]
  • Red: Molten Iron and Phoenicians. A variation of the above. This version says that the burning coal is related to molten red-hot iron, a metal which is abundant in Brazil, which the Phoenicians called BRZL in their language (which lacked vowels).
  • The Phoenicians again.. This one links Hy-Brazil to the Phoenicians. It states that the island "Figures in the Phoenician legends of 3,000 years ago, with the name Braaz". And that it was a land of plenty and peace. [5]

Red Phoenicians and Red Brazil

The interesting part of these theories is the red dye because, as I mentioned in my previous post, was the origin of the Greek name for them, "Phoinix" which meant "red".

The Phoenician's main trade product for the Phoenicians was a purple dye obtained by crushing mollusks (sea snails). It was expensive and scarce. But purple is not red.

It is likely that they also made and sold red dye.[6]

If so, the "Brazil tree" and its glowing ember-red colored wood could have been a raw material for red dyes just like it was for the Portuguese one thousand years later in the 1500s AD.

The Bible also gives us some information about Phoenicians and a strange kind of tree, the "almug":

King Solomon had a fleet built which sailed from the port of Ezion-geber to Ophir, manned with Phoenician seamen. They came back with large quantities of gold, gems and almug wood[7]. The exact location of Ezion-geber (Red Sea? Eilat? or Mediterranean Sea?) and Ophir are unknown. [8]

This "almug wood", also known as "algum", is a tree which is " a wood commonly called brasil in Arabic albaccam of a deep red colour used in dyeing ". [9]

phoenician algum salomon and brazil
Text that links the Biblical Almug of King Solomon to the Brazil dye wood.. From [9]

So it seems that the red "brazil - algum" wood dye comes from Ophir.

The gold of Ophir

Solomon also brought gold from Ophir. We know that Phoenicians traded in gold, and we even have an account by Herodotus on how the Carthaginians traded in gold:

"There is a country in Libya [Africa] , and a nation, beyond the Pillars of Hercules [Gibraltar - that is, on the Atlantic Ocean] which the Carthaginians are wont to visit, where they no sooner arrive than forthwith unlade their wares, and having disposed them in an orderly fashion along the beach, there leave them, and returning aboard their ships, raise a great smoke. The natives, when they see the sample, come down to the shore, and laying out to view so much gold as they think the wares are worth, withdraw to a distance....[2]

But, as we said, they were secretive about their trade routes and sources. Was this gold trading place really in Africa? Or, on the other side of the Atlantic in Brazil?

One of the states that make up the Brazilian Federation, is Minas Gerais (Portuguese for "General Mines"), which as you can imagine was named after its great wealth of gold and diamonds.

Gold was discovered by the Portuguese in Minas Gerais state (General Mines) in the late 1600s when explorers from Sao Paulo went inland and found alluvial gold in its streams. As can be imagined, this led to a gold rush, and vast quantities of gold were extracted and transported to Europe, generating plenty of wealth for the Portuguese empire.

Minas Gerais is just inland a few hundred kilometers from the Atlantic seaboard, north of Sao Paulo and West of Rio de Janeiro, bordering with both of them.
Could the Phoenicians have sourced their gold from here?

And, did they manage to sail beyond the coasts of Africa?

We will see that in our next post.


[1] Aubert, María Eugenia, (2001) The Phoenicians and the West: politics, colonies and trade. Cambridge Univ. Press. pp. 167+
[2] Rawlinson, George, (1889). History of Phoenicia. Kessinger Publishing, reprint, 2004 pp. 139
[3] Marina Leslie, (1998). Renaissance utopias and the problem of history. Cornell University Press. pp. 36.
[4] Richard Stephen Charnock, (1859). Local etymology: a derivative dictionary of geographical names. Houlston and Wright, pp. 42.
[5] Geraldo Cantarino, (2004). Uma ilha chamada Brasil: o paraiso irlandes no passado brasileiro. Mauad pp 91.
[6] Roelof van den Broek and Inez Wolf Seeger, (1971). The myth of the phoenix. Brill Archive. pp. 65
[7] Bible, I Kings 9:26-28 , 10:11-12.
[8] John Haralson Hayes, (1986). A history of ancient Israel and Judah. Westiminster John Knox Press. pp. 213
[9] Sir William Smith, (1863). A dictionary of the Bible: comprising its antiquities, biography, geography and natural history. Little, Brown and Co. Vol. 3. vi.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
2011 International Year of Forests
2011 International Year of Forests Copyright 2009-2011 by Austin Whittall © 

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