Monday, February 19, 2018


In a recent interview, Sir Robin Knox-Johnston was asked who the best sailor ever was. He did quote several: Captain Cook, Chichester, Francis Drake, Peter Blake, Franck Cammas saying also that it was quite an impossible question to answer. I agree with him but since he mentioned Captain Cook, I recalled some older ones.

In the middle ages there were several great or legendary sailors. The Vikings Eiríkr inn Rauda and Hrafna-Flóki Vilgerðarson or Sindbad came to my mind, but these are relatively recent comers, I meant really old sailors not the ones that lived 1000 years ago but the ones that really started it, 3000 years ago or more, the first great sailors whose fame and deeds remained in the collective memory.

Jason is the oldest one whose memory reached us and not only him but all the crew, the 49 Argonauts, with special reference to the boat builder, Argos, that gave the boat’s name. Legend says that the boat was built in Simi, a Greek Island near what is today the Turkish coast, famous on the Antiquity for their boats and naval boatbuilding.

The boat was sailed to Northern Greece, near the Volos Gulf, from where Jason left to explore the Black Sea, in search of the mythical Golden Fleece. It may not seem much today but certainly it was a huge feat 3500 year ago, a feat that allowed trade routes to be open and later led to the Greek colonization of the Black sea.

Odysseus (or Ulysses) is the next one on the list of legendary great sailors. He was the king of Ithaca and 3200 years ago fought on the Trojan War but his greatest adventure started after it, when he was trying to return home to Ithaca that is on the Ionian Greece coast, a long voyage from Troy, even today, around the Peloponnese.

That voyage took him 10 years and would be transformed on a vast exploration of the Western Mediterranean sea. The ones that sail on the Aegean know how treacherous those waters can be, even with meteorological information and we could only imagine how it would be without that and proper charts or lighthouses, 3200 ago.

The Meltemi led them way to the South and the rest is legend. We will never know if they continued exploring foreign lands for the sake of adventure or if they were trying all the time to find the way to Ithaca on unexplored waters. When Homer tells the story, more than 400 years have gone by, the legend was never written before but passed orally from generation to generation and many mythological fantastic stories were added to it.

Most reconstitutions place the western point of the voyage on the coast of South of France even if some opt for the Catalonia coast (Spain). Anyway all maps give a very misleading idea showing long stretches of offshore passages that would only happen at that time or for sheer necessity.

Minoan ship
These were coastal sailors and coastal boats that whenever possible sailed at shore sight and looked for shelter for the night whenever possible. Remember they were sailing uncharted waters with no lights and had no idea of what lay ahead. The 10 years voyage (if it really took that long) is explained by the need to pass the winters ashore since those boats were not suited for winter sailing. Even in Roman times, 1300 years later, they did not sail in winter.

But the first great sailors of ancient time were not the Greek but the Minoan that, long before the biblical deluge, had established trade routes all over the Eastern med. Unlike the Greek sailors they didn’t become known in our time since their civilization finished abruptly.

Greek Bireme
The volcanic explosion that, 3600 years ago, ripped apart Thera (Santorini) and caused the deluge, destroyed all their ships and inflected them a fatal blow, that led to Greek supremacy. Thera was one of their most prosperous colonies and probably the Atlantis whose destruction Plato talks about.

Now with the Minoans gone the Greeks found another unexpected competitor on the trade routes, exploration and colonization of new lands: the Phoenicians. While Greeks dominated the North Mediterranean, the South was dominated by Phoenicians (today Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) whose contribute to the modern world is vastly forgotten.

2800 years ago those two civilizations started to expand, first exploring than colonizing all the Western Mediterranean. While the Greeks had a bigger expansion to the East, colonizing the Black sea, the Caspian sea and the Anatolia, the Phoenicians went more to the west, colonizing not only the South coast of the Med but also the South of Spain and were the first to cross the Gibraltar straight to the Atlantic and some believe, the first to have crossed it.

They colonized the South of Portugal and the West Atlantic coast, established a trading route to the British Islands, a prime one due to the abundance of tin that had a high value on the ancient world. The word Britain, the name the Romans gave to the Island derives from the Phoenician name “Baratanac” that means “Land of Tin”. The original inhabitants used to call it Albion, a name that became disused.

Phoenicians and Carthage (one of its colonies) outlived the Greeks as an independent state and fought for the control of the Mediterranean with the Romans. After a long war, where they were almost at the point of defeating the Romans, they were finally beaten and Carthage and its culture were obliterated.

The Greeks had been defeated long before but because they never put a threatening menace to Rome its culture ended up to infiltrate and to enrich Roman culture becoming the basis of western culture.

The only references to the Phoenicians Atlantic sailing exploits comes therefore not from sources of their destroyed culture but from Greek and Roman sources. Through them we know that they were the first to use the Polar star for navigation (that was called the Phoenician star), we know of some of their greatest navigation exploits and about some of their greatest sailors.

That’s how we know that 2600 years ago Necho II, an Egyptian Pharaoh, had hired Phoenician sailors and ships to sail around Africa, starting from the Red Sea. There are some that believe they circumnavigated Africa!!!

Hanno and Himilco are the two great Phoenician sailors that became known to us. Both, around 2500 years ago, crossed the Gibraltar strait and went exploring, one to the South other to the North.

Hanno was an admiral and at the head of a fleet of 60 ships sailed as South as the Gabon (Guinea Gulf) colonizing the coast and establishing trade posts. That was not only an amazing feat of navigation but an amazing feat of logistics. The sources talk about 30 000 men and women and even if it seems vastly exaggerated to me, it can give an idea of the dimension of this colonizing expedition.

Above Phoenician warship, below merchant boat
Himilco went to the North on an epic journey that some believe reached what would be thousands of year’s later Viking lands. They were looking for amber and tin and probably also establishing trading posts. It is confirmed that he reached Albion (Britain) and Ierne (Ireland) that he sailed to Brittany (North of France) and some believe to Helgoland (Denmark) were he found the Eridanus, that would become the legendary amber river.

Some believe that Phoenicians were the first to reach America, based on the inscriptions of a stone found in Brazil and in fact, as they were colonizing the coast of Africa, it is possible that a storm would have pushed them there. But in my opinion that is just a possibility.

However that is a well established fact that in the XVIII century a pot with Phoenician coins was found on the island of Corvo (Azores) and that when the Portuguese arrived there in 1450 they found a statue of a man on a horse pointing to America with an inscription in an unknown language at the bottom. That is quite odd but well documented. Also some of the Islands of Azores appeared already on previous maps, so they had already been discovered by someone.

Roman Warship with the Corvus
One thing is for sure Phoenicians were among the best sailors of the ancient world, if not the best. In what regards warfare and naval battles the Greeks and later the Romans are the real winners, but that’s not the subject of this post and the superiority of the Romans had to do with a strange but effective invention they called “Corvus” (Raven) a kind of a huge platform with a big spike that landed on the adversary’s boat and allowed an easy boarding so they could fight as if they were on land.

A last word about the Phoenicians: some tend to make everything a political subject and rapidly there were people talking about an Israeli or Jewish discovery of America. It is not by any means certain that the Phoenicians have reached America, it is only a possibility but what is certain is that Phoenicians have culturally nothing to do with Israel or Hebrews. The Phoenician are identified with the Biblical Canaanites that Hebrews considered enemies.


  1. thanks for the info! melanesians colonised remote Pacific islands 20000y ago, Polynesians more recently but still before all these events

    1. 20 000 years ago?!!!! You put a decimal too much LOL. These are the dates:

  2. what about some of the Polynesian sailors and their incredible knowledge? sure it's more recent but they are worthy of consideration

    1. Yes, the Polynesian migration is a remarkable thing but it is a migration not an exploration.

      Except in what regards Islands from the same archipelago or near by islands trade routes were not established and many Islands remained isolated after they were populated.

      We are not talking about the same thing comparing with the trade routes and colonies on the ancient world that remained in close contact between them and the original migration point.

      Maybe due to the migration character, contrary to other cultures, there is not any individual great sailor or navigator that had remained on their collective memory.

      "While further influxes of immigrants from other Polynesian islands sometimes augmented the growth and development of the local population, for the most part, each island or island group's culture developed in isolation. There was no widespread inter-island group communication, nor is there much indication during this period of any interest in such communications, at least not for economic reasons. However, almost all these isolated colonies originating from Maritime Southeast Asia still retained the strong influence of their ancestral culture. These are very obvious in social hierarchies, language, and technology which point to a common source with the Dayaks, Tao, Ifugao, and Bajau."


    Just read this the other day and found it very interesting.

    The navigators who discovered Australia sailed back and forth from the Indon islands 60,000 years ago. So like today, they are the best sailors.


    1. " Aboriginal Australians arrived on the Australian mainland by sea from Maritime Southeast Asia between 40,000 and 70,000 years ago."

      Like on Polynesia we cannot confuse sea migrations with established trade routes or colonization that stays in contact with the ones that colonize.

      Australia remained isolated and without contact for tens of thousands of years.

      The first to have arrived there and to put it on a map, a secret one even so, seem to have been the Portuguese Cristóvão Mendonça on a exploratory voyage for the king D Manuel II. Portuguese were traders not colonizers and they found the aboriginals not rich enough or interesting to establish trade with.

      The Dutch have been there and acted in a similar way. And then the British, 250 years later, were the only ones that established a colony there.

  4. I think you are right that the Phoenicians were the first in the line of entrepreneurial, high tech and state supported and record keeping maritime explorers. This is the tradition that together with improved food storage ( from dried fish) allowed the Portuguese to dominate the Indian Ocean world for a time. I have been lucky enough to visit many of the places with a Portuguese past in Southern India and Malaysia Indonesia. It is a fascinating story.

    1. There is more that links Portuguese with Phoenicians: like the Portuguese the Phoenicians were a small "country" that managed, what was for their time, a global trading empire.

      Like the Portuguese and contrary to most other empires, they mingled and married with local populations that become their allies. No way they or the Portuguese could have done it other way with so few people.

      And you know what is awesome? We still have 7% of Phoenician genes and knowing our genetic story with genes from Iberos, Celtic, Phoenicians, Romans, Goths, Moors and Franks those 7% are trully amazing.

      It is not very well know that Lusitanians, one of our ancestors, that we still particularly cherish, become the biggest Carthage allies against the Romans.

      This alliance took place after the Romans, previously defeated by the Lusitanians, slaughtered an entire tribe (men, women and children), under truce, when they were discussing a peace treaty.

      Have a look in what regards Phoenician genes in Portugal:

  5. Prior to Roman ascendancy roads around the world were simple unpaved paths cut into the landscape by pack creatures, carts and people moving goods to trade, barter and local markets.