St. Brendan's Island

St. Brendan's Island

Situated somewhere west of Europe, St. Brendan’s Isle is a phantom island often regarded as myth, since, unless it is the so-called "Eighth Canary Island" known since time immemorial to the Spanish and Portuguese authorities as San Borondón, only a few have claimed to have seen it.

In the English tradition, the island is named after the Saint Brendan who founded the Clonfert monastery and monastic school. It was apparently discovered by the saint and his followers while they were traveling across the ocean, evangelizing to islands. It appeared on numerous maps in Christopher Columbus’ time, apparently acting as one of the things spurring him on to explore the ocean westwards.

It also sparked some controversy, because the claim is that St. Brendan and his brethren arrived at the Americas first, around the 6th century(530 AD). The first mention of the island was in the ninth century Latin text "Navigatio Santi Brendani Abatis" (Voyage of Saint Brendan the Abbot), placing the island into Irish and European folklore.

In 1976, Irish explorer Tim Severin undertook St. Brendan’s voyage, using a leather currach, to see if the voyage was possible. They did manage to arrive at Newfoundland, following the records of the Latin text, confirming that it was possible to have made the voyage described, but they didn’t find the mysterious isle.

Other evidence

The evidence for San Borondón from Spanish and Portuguese sources is as follows.


In the second century, the astronomer, mathematician and geographer Ptolemy, speaking of the Canary Islands, described in his "Geografia" (Book IV-6-34) the same Isles of the Blest of which one island, "Aprositus Nesos" "can never be reached or is not visible." Due to its characteristics and weird behaviour, in which it appears and disappears, or hides behind curtains of mist or low cloud, it has been called The "Inaccessible" or "Insubstantial" or other such names.

Middle Ages

The existence of this rogue island has been observed, and sworn to, by thousands of people throughout history. Nowadays it is known generally as San Borondon, for St Brendan de Cluainfort (b. Tralee 484, d. Annaghdown 577) who claimed to have landed on it in 512 together with 14 monks with whom he held a mass. The monastic party reported its stay as 15 days while the ships expecting their return complained that they had been kept waiting a year, during which period the island remained concealed behind a thick curtain of mist.

In his "Navigatio Sancti Brendan Abbatis", the monk Barino mentioned having visited this same "Paradise" in the Atlantic, a thickly wooded mountainous island where the sun never set and it was always day: the flora was abundant, the trees bore rich fruit, the rivers ran with fresh water and the birds sang sweetly in the trees.

Christian authors such as the monk Gaunilo (Isla Perdida, 11th century) and the encyclopaedist Honorius Augustusdunensis were quite certain as to the existence of one or more mysterious Atlantic islands near the Canaries archipelago, some of which may be found marked on maps of the 11th century cartographer San Severo: other believers from the contemporary Moslem world were Al-Bekri and El Edvisi (1154).

In "Planiferio de Ebstorf" (1234), Marcos Martinez referred to "the lost island discovered by St Brendan but nobody has found it since" and in "Mapamundi de Hereford" (1275) the whole archipelago is described as "The Isles of the Blessed and the Island of St Brendan".

Early Modern Age

The greater precision of later accounts, particularly from the late 15th century onwards, bears testimony to the regularity with which the mysterious island was disposed to show itself to the Spanish and Portuguese settlers of El Hierro, La Palma and La Gomera. The quality of the witnesses, including bishops, priests, military commanders, mayors, doctors, fishermen and mariners was such that the chronicler Clavijo deemed the phenomenon "not of the vulgar imagination."

The Portuguese writer Luis Perdigon recorded the interest of the king of Portugal after a sea captain informed Henry the Navigator (1394 - 1460) that he had found the island but was driven off by tumultuous sea conditions. Henry ordered him back: he sailed off but never returned.

In his shipboard diary for 9 August 1492, Christopher Columbus wrote that he "had the assurance of many respectable Spanish inhabitants of the island of El Hierro, who were at Gomera with Doña Inez Peraza, mother of Guillen Peraza, later first Count of Gomera, that every year they saw land to the west of Gomera, and others of Gomera affirmed the same on oath. The Admiral recalls that while in Portugal in 1484 there came a person to the king (João II) from the island of Madeira to beg for a caravel to go to this land that was seen, who swore that it could be seen every year, and always in the same way."

Particularly from the beginning of the 16th century the reputation of the new island, and belief in its probable existence, increased. By the Peace of Elvira, signed on 4 June 1519, the Portuguese Crown conceded to the Crown of Castille all claims in the conquest of the Canary Islands including "La Isla Nom-Trubada o Encubierta" - the Not-found or Hidden Island. (The complete record of Portuguese maritime exploration was lost when fire destroyed the Lisbon archive in the 1755 earthquake.)

During his trip around the world in 1520, Magellan mapped the large bay south of the Río de la Plata in Argentina and named it Samborombón Bay in the belief that it was the place where San Borondón's island had become detached from the American continent.

The year 1566 saw the most determined historical effort to locate and explore the island of San Borondón when Dr Hernán Pérez de Grado, First Regent of the Royal Canary Islands Court, ordered the justices at la Palma, El Hierro and La Gomera to investigate the phenomenon. The enquiry was headed by Fernando de Villalobos, military governor of La Palma. Included in the panel of researchers were Gaspar Pérez de Acosta, a coastal pilot with 34 years' experience, and Fray Lorenzo Pinedo, a Franciscan monk with an excellent knowledge of seafaring.

In his history, Abreu y Galindo reports a conversation with a French adventurer claiming to have visited San Borondon, departing hence when a storm set in, and making the voyage to La Palma for shelter within a day. In another report, Alonso de Espinosa, governor of El Hierro, described sighting San Borondon island north west of El Hierro and "leeward" of La Palma. He listed 100 witnesses to the apparition. In the same year, 1570, Pedro Ortiz de Funez of the Inquisition obtained the statement of Marcos Verde, a person of renown in the Canaries, according to chronicler Clavijo. Verde swore on oath that after returning to the Canaries "from the Berber coast" he observed from a high point "an island to the west where none should be" and set out for it. Upon arrival, he anchored in a bay at the foot of steep cliffs and at nightfall went ashore with a party of men to explore. The group split up and took different paths but all were driven back to the sea after hearing "terrified voices screaming for help". Once all had returned aboard ship, according to the chronicler Nuñez de la Peña, a hurricane set in causing the vessel to drag anchor. They left the anchorage to obtain sea room at which time the island disappeared.

Nuñez de la Peña also describes how a French ship, masts and rigging down, approached the island to obtain a lee during a severe storm. Once ashore a tree was felled and fashioned for repairs, the whole afternoon being taken up with this work: when night fell the storm had risen to such an extent that the crew embarked with haste and abandoned the island, arriving next day at La Palma.

Another deponent to the 1570 enquiry was Pedro Velho, a pilot of Setúbal in Portugal, who stated that due to severe weather he alighted on San Borondon with two men and there saw "marvellous sights": cows, sheep and goats at pasture, freshwater rivers, cliffs, mountains, beaches, thick forests, strange fruits and plants. He also reported seeing hieroglyphic inscriptions and traces of human presence. At dusk the sky clouded over and a hurricane set in at which, fearing for his ship, Vello returned aboard hurriedly, deciding to get clear of shore immediately: as he sailed, he lost sight of the island, which had seemingly vanished, but he lingered for some considerable time in the area "in the forlorn hope of finding the two men he had left behind exploring the jungle."

The island is considered to be much larger than La Gomera, on the north-south axis about forty miles in length and twenty-five broad. Its estimated position puts it over a trench 6000 metres deep. Its contours appear to be two large bare mountains at each end with a heavily forested central section of relatively low land. The most frequent apparitions of San Borondon are at dawn and sunset: witnesses have reported seeing the sun set behind the island. In the days of sail, many seafarers approaching the Canaries from the west noted in their logs having sighted La Palma from afar and been surprised to come across a second La Palma the next day.

Fray Abreu y Galida reported in "Historia de la Conquista de las siete Islas Canarias" that "the island of St Brendan (San Borondon), which is the eighth and last, whose existence may be inferred from sightings of its apparitions, seems to be located at 20 degrees 30 minutes of latitude and eight leagues (40 kilometres) due west of Gomera." (The longitude given in the coordinates is based on the old measurement before the introduction of the Greenwich meridian).

Modern Age

In 1719, the Scottish monk Sigbert de Gembloux reported seeing the island, as did Don Matea Dacesta, mayor of Valverde, El Hierro in 1721. As a result of these sightings, that same year Muy y Aguerre, military governor of the Canary Islands, appointed a new commission of enquiry under Gaspar Dominguez, a sea captain: no fresh evidence was uncovered and subsequently interest waned. According to the Canary historian Ramirez, in 1723 a priest performed the rite of exorcism towards the island during one of its apparitions behind low cloud: this was witnessed by a large number of persons and sworn to on affidavit.

In his "Noticias", Vol I, 1772, chronicler Viera y Clavijo wrote: "A few years ago while returning from the Americas, the captain of a ship of the Canary Fleet believed he saw La Palma appear and, having set his course for Tenerife based on his sighting, was astonished to find the real La Palma materialize in the distance next morning." Viera adds that a similar entry is made in the diaries of Colonel don Roberto de Rivas who made the observation that his ship "having been close to the island of La Palma in the afternoon, and not arriving there until late the next day" the officer was forced to conclude that "the wind and current must have been extraordinarily unfavourable during the night."

In 1759 a Franciscan monk mentioned but not identified by name by Viera y Clavijo wrote to a friend: "I was most desirous to see the island of San Borondon and, finding myself in Alexero, La Palma, on 3 May at six of the morning, I saw, and can swear to it on oath, that while having in plain view at the same time the island of El Hierro, I saw another island of the same colour and appearance, and I made out through a telescope, much wooded terrain in its central area. Then I sent for the priest Antonio Jose Manrique, who had seen it twice previously, and upon arrival he saw only a portion of it, for when he was watching, a cloud obscured the mountain. It was subsequently visible for another 90 minutes. being seen by about forty spectators, but in the afternoon when we returned to the same point we could see nothing on account of the heavy rain."

Further expeditions were organised in the search for the island, but from the 19th century onwards, reported sightings of San Borondon became less frequent.

In 1958, D. M. Rodriguez Quintero of Los Llanos de Aridane, La Palma, allegedly obtained a photograph of the island.

In Ecuador, South America, there is a town and a county named Samborondón. The real origin of the name is still unknown, but there might be a relation with San Borondon.

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