A summary and brief analysis of the story that an ancient Welsh prince discovered America.
Welsh history is not generally a subject which lends itself to misty-eyed romanticism. To read any history of the principality is to learn of occasional moments of hope amongst a procession of grim defeats. There are few military triumphs or cultural landmarks to brag about.
There are no great Welsh storybook heroes. No equivalent of Lord Nelson or Davy Crockett. Unless we take the mythical King Arthur back a thousand years and return him to his origins as an Ancient British hero fighting against the Saxons, the closest Welsh history has to this kind of legendary figure is probably the medieval rebel Owain Glyndwr. And his story, ending in (another) series of bloody defeats is hardly the stuff of fairy tales.
And so, Wales’s greatest contribution to the pantheon of “picture book history” heroes must surely be dear Prince Madoc.
Three Centuries Before Columbus
In brief, for those new to the tale, the belief is that a Prince Madoc of Gwynedd sailed the Atlantic in 1170. He discovered America three centuries before Columbus and founded a tribe of Welsh speaking Indians.
Nice story. But let’s be clear – there is no evidence that it ever happened. None. It is a myth. Whilst it’s quite possible that the myth has its roots in the sea voyages of an actual prince, no records survive.
In any case, the story was first popularised long after the events supposedly took place. The Madoc story was truly given birth in the Elizabethan period. The myth provided a useful way of constructing a claim on the New World for the Virgin Queen. From that period on the myth has proven to be remarkably durable. Early explorers of the American frontier sought out the “Welsh” Indians. The story was even used to persuade Welsh men and women to emigrate to the United States.
Why then, has this unsubstantiated piece of five hundred year old Elizabethan propaganda not been long forgotten and why has it been adopted by so many diverse groups of people?
Partially because it is a very good story. A story of such charm that people through the ages have wanted to believe it. Even the academic Gwyn Alf Williams, who in his book on the subject spends much of his time mocking some of the more barmy claims surrounding the story, allows himself a few paragraphs speculating on the tantalising question of “what if it has some truth?”.
But the myth’s durability is probably also helped, in a strange way, by the lack of any concrete evidence. Its impossible to prove, and also very difficult to disprove. The very fact that we can say with no certainty that Prince Madoc of Gwynedd actually existed, far from being a large nail in the myth’s coffin, actually makes the theory harder to debunk. As there are no real records of his existence, there is nothing to prove that he was at home in Wales rather than taking it upon himself to discover the New World. Similarly, until every nook and cranny of the American continent was explored and its contents definitively documented, it was also impossible to prove that the fabled Welsh Indians were nothing more than a pleasant notion made to seem real by fabrications and wishful thinking.
This flexibility makes it easy to bend the story of Madoc into whatever shape the teller requires of it, depending upon his or her own agenda. This of course, gives us great insight into, not an alternative history of the Americas, but into the mindset of those doing the telling and of those lapping up the tall tales themselves.
Welsh settlers and “Welsh” Native Americans
Few adapters of the Madoc legend have been keener than some (by no means all) of the Welsh seduced by the promise of a new start in America in the nineteenth century. The enthusiasm for, and unquestioning belief in, the Madoc myth is seen in anecdotal evidence concerning the behaviour of Welsh settlers encountering Native Americans. Most notably, in the reaction to three Hopi Indians at Salt Lake City in 1863 who found themselves besieged by Welshmen keen to hear their mother tongue.
It’s easy to see why these members of a downtrodden people were happy to be able to claim that their forbears had “got there first”. Also, Madoc wasn’t seen simply as an explorer, but as a founder of a new nation. The chief appeal of the Madoc myth was not the mere fact that Madoc had made it in the first place, but that the culture had supposedly survived.
This was a potent thought at a time when perhaps indigenous Welsh culture was under greater pressure than ever, thought there can have been few periods in Welsh history where this wasn’t the case. It must have been a heartening thought to believe that Welsh culture had proven itself capable of surviving away from the pressures of anglicisation and a key motivation for those wishing to try and form Welsh speaking communities in the Americas.
The Alabama Welsh
Sadly for fans of a good story, but happily for fans of logic and common sense, the myth is largely now accepted as being just that – a myth. But even now that the plaque commemorating his fictitious landing in Alabama has been removed (after half a century of presumably confusing those who came upon it by turning accepted reality and common sense on it’s head) there is a group, the improbably named “Alabama Welsh”, campaigning for its return.
The story was given an additional shot in the arm four years ago by a new claim that actually a completely different Madoc from four centuries earlier was responsible for these great feats of exploration. In today’s Da Vinci-code inspired flourishing of pseudo history perhaps Madoc’s story is due a spectacular revival.