This is the story of how an ancient bit of Welsh folklore about a Welsh prince called Madoc ap Gwynedd was weaponised to challenge Spain’s sovereignty over her colonies in America by the British government.
Prince Madoc (the man “Port Madoc” was named after) was a very real person. As were all the other central characters in the accounts which follow. The legend has it, that when Prince Madoc’s father died, his two eldest brothers fought each other over who should succeed to the throne. It had dragged the whole kingdom into civil war and Madoc was so disillusioned with this, that in 1170 he put to sea in search of a distraction and an adventure. In 1584, Humphrey Llwd wrote an account of this legend. He described the exploration thus: “ sailing West, and leaving the coast of Ireland so far north, that he came to a land unknowen, where he saw manie strange things.”
The story claims that he found a beautiful and peaceful land which no one knew existed. He left a detachment of men there to establish a settlement, then returned to Wales to tell everyone about their amazing discovery. People were in awe of this exciting new land he had discovered and a flotilla of ships was launched to sail families of settlers back with him to start new lives in this new promise land. But what happened next, no one knows. They sailed off into the horizon, but none of them ever returned or were ever seen again. So, what happened to them? Did they make it? If they did why did no one ever sail back? The legend ends on a note of mystery.
That mystery persisted for the best part of another 500 years. Until 1660. A ship captained by a Welshman named Morgan Jones had been stranded off Oyster Point in modern day South Carolina in the good ole US of A. His situation was getting pretty desperate. The crew were virtually starving as they had been stranded there for nearly 8 months and had run out of food. They were miles off course from where they should have been and were nowhere near any British colonies. They were totally stranded in the wilderness and their options were pretty slim. It was a case of choosing certain death by remaining where they were, or probable death by swimming to shore and trekking through the wilderness until they came to “civilisation”. Given that stark choice, they plumed for probable death and set off, on foot, across the uncharted terrain, in search of salvation.
Jones wrote in his journal that he and his men encountered a tribe of indigenous people who took them prisoner. In his own words “That night they carried us to their town and shut us up close to our no small dread”. Jones and his men were terrified that they were about to be executed so when he was dragged from his cell and dropped on his knees in front of a warrior gripping a thick wooden club, he pleaded for his life in his mother tounge: “Ydw i wedi dianc rhag cymaint o beryglon dim ond i gael fy nharo ar fy mhen fel ci?” which is Welsh for “have I escaped so many dangers, just to be hit on the head like a dog?”. The warrior looked back at him quizzically, then a tribal elder pushed forward and gave an instruction to spare these men their lives… in Welsh!
They remained as guests of the tribe and observed them in their day to day to life. They documented the use of Welsh in conversation and the use of coracles on lakes and rivers for fishing. Once they were fit enough to travel, their new native hosts freely allowed them to leave and rediscover the British colonies they had been in search of.
They finally made it.
On returning to his home in New York, Jones told his pastor of his discovery and shared his journals about the encounter. Jones was from the South Wales coast, more than likely the Vale of Glamorgan and was not familiasr with the legend of Madoc. The presbyterian minister however, a man by the name of John Williams who was from North Wales knew all about it. And was fascinated by how it pulled together the loose ends from the old legend.
He took Jones’s account and wrote it up in a book entitled “An enquiry into the truth of the tradition concerning the Discovery of America, By Prince Madog ab Owen Gwynedd, about the year, 1170” . It was published in 1791 and it told the world of the link between the old legend and tied it together with Jones’ experiences and story.
It was met with great excitement. In fact, finding this tribe became an obsession for many early settlers in the sates. The country’s third President Thomas Jefferson among them.
Before we all get really excited about this however, it is worth pointing out that as much as Williams and Jones were real people and they both swore that these accounts were true, there were huge political issues being raised by this story. If Jones’ account was true and they proved that in 1170 Prince Madoc had discovered America, 300 years before Columbus, it challenged the legitimacy of Spain’s claim to the sovereignty of her colonies. It meant that America had been discovered by a Welshman and by modern association, a servant of the English crown. Therefore, the colony should belong to England not Spain. Even though in 1170, Gwynedd was not subject to English rule.
These two superpowers of their day had been battling over their individual claims of supremacy in the Americas for over 100 years at this point. Every possible bit of leverage they could find to either discredit one another or bolster their own position was grasped with both hands. Quite possibly this story among them. Even though in reality, neither were the legitimate rulers of the Americas. The continent already had its own indigenous people who had a far better claim to sovereignty than any European power. Unfortunately, the one thing the English and the Spanish were agreed upon was the total rejection of any such claim.
If you enjoy reading historically based Welsh legends and folklore, why not give my latest book a go? It is packed with stories like this all originating from the South Wales counties of the Vale of Glamorgan and Bridgend. Its called “Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale” and you can buy it on my website at https://bridgendvale.co.uk.
Also available from Amazon.