Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Madog ab Owain Gwynedd

1444600Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35 — Madog ab Owain Gwynedd1893John Edward Lloyd ‎

MADOG ab OWAIN GWYNEDD (1150–1180?), supposed discoverer of America, is not mentioned in ‘Annales Cambriæ,’ in ‘Brut y Tywysogion,’ or in any poem of the time, and there is no contemporary evidence of the existence of any son of Owain Gwynedd (d. 1170) bearing this name. Two passages in the poetry of Llywarch ap Llywelyn [q. v.] have, indeed, been quoted in support of the theory that Madog made a mysterious voyage to the west and discovered the New World, but neither will bear the significance attached to it. The first, appearing in an ode in praise of Rhodri ab Owain (Myvyrian Archaiology, 2nd ed. p. 202, ‘Ker aber congwy,’ &c.), manifestly refers, not to any expedition over sea, but to the battle of the Conway estuary, fought by Llywelyn ab Iorwerth at some point in the course of his struggle (1188–1195) with his uncles David and Rhodri. The second (ib. p. 205) certainly contains the name Madog, but there is nothing to show who is meant among the many Madogs of the time; moreover, the person of whose blood the poet has to prove himself innocent by the ordeal of hot iron clearly was murdered, though by an unknown hand, and cannot have sailed off publicly on an adventurous voyage, as it is assumed Madog did.

The earliest mention of Madog at present known to exist in Welsh literature is in a poem by Maredudd ap Rhys, a bard of the middle of the fifteenth century. Having previously begged (after the bardic manner) a fishing-net of one Ifan ap Tudur and succeeded in his petition, Maredudd returns thanks for the gift, and, speaking of his delight in fishing, compares himself to Madog, ‘right whelp of Owain Gwynedd,’ who would have no lands or goods save only the broad sea (Iolo MSS., Liverpool reprint, pp. 323–4). The reference to Madog in the third series of triads (Myvyrian Archaiology, 2nd ed. p. 401) may very well belong to the same period, though the manuscript is only of the sixteenth century. Madog's, we are told, was the third of three disappearances; he went to sea in ten ships with three hundred men, and none knew whither they went. It is to be observed that the first two disappearances are obviously mythical, the second being that of Merlin and nine other bards who went to sea in a house of glass; nor is any attempt made to connect that of Madog with discoveries in the west. Thus the triad, taken in conjunction with the allusion of Maredudd ap Rhys, appears to show that already, before the voyage of Columbus, a legend had sprung up as to mysterious seafaring on the part of a son of Owain Gwynedd. Such legends have, of course, been known in every age and country.

The first to set up a public claim on behalf of Madog as the discoverer of America was Dr. David Powel, who in 1584 gave to the world Humphrey Llwyd's translation and continuation of ‘Brut y Tywysogion,’ with additions of his own, as ‘The Historie of Cambria.’ In all probability the passage about Madog was substantially contained in Llwyd's manuscript, and the story may thus be thrown as far back as 1559. Powel tells us that Madog left Wales to avoid the unbrotherly strife which followed the death of Owain Gwynedd in 1170, and that, after leaving Ireland to the north, he came to a strange land, which must, says our author, have been Florida, or New Spain. He returned after his first voyage, and then with ten vessels made a second expedition, after which he was never heard of more. But reasons are given for believing that he founded a settlement in America, e.g. the occurrence of certain words of Welsh significance in American languages, the fact that in some parts of the continent the cross was honoured, and the avowedly foreign origin of the ruling class in Mexico.

It has been maintained by the defenders of the Madog theory that Powel's narrative is professedly based upon one by Gutyn Owain, who flourished in the age before Columbus. But it is only on one point, in fact, that he cites the bard, viz. the number of ships which Madog had with him on his second voyage; and tradition, we have already seen, had fixed upon ten as the number of Madog's fleet before there was any talk of his having discovered America. Powel's real authority, it is easy to see, was popular tradition—the old legend about the mysterious disappearance amplified into a discovery of the New World. We are told by him that in the popular account there was much exaggeration (of the kind to be expected in a fairy tale), so that he only gave what he took to be the basis of fact (Historie of Cambria, ed. 1584, pp. 166 et seq.)

A story so flattering to national pride naturally made great headway. James Howell accepted it, and in confirmation quoted the four lines from Maredudd ap Rhys (‘Madoc wyf,’ &c.) as having been found upon Madog's tomb ‘in the West Indies nere upon 600 years since’ (Ep. Ho-El. ed. Jacobs, iv. ep. 30). It was believed by Theophilus Evans (Drych y Prif Oesoedd, 1716, pt. i. cap. 1), who also quotes the supposed epitaph upon Madog. Sir Thomas Herbert (1606–1682) [q. v.], in his ‘Travels into Africa and Asia the Great’ (3rd ed. 1677), tells the story with much detail, though his arguments are only those of Powel refurbished. But the doughtiest champions of the theory were Dr. W. O. Pughe and his friend Iolo Morganwg [see Williams, Edward, 1740–1826]. In 1791 they wrote a series of notes in its defence for the ‘Gentleman's Magazine;’ in the ‘Cambrian Biography’ (1803, art. ‘Madog ab Owain Gwynedd’) it is stated in the most positive form; and in vol. i. of the ‘Cambro-Briton’ (1820, pp. 57 et seq.), with which Dr. Pughe was closely connected, a Dr. John Jones, who had thrown doubt upon it, is very severely treated. It was from Dr. Pughe and his circle that Southey heard the story; with the result that in 1805 he published ‘Madoc.’ So great was the enthusiasm at this period that Iolo Morganwg at one time thought seriously of visiting America on a tour of search for the ‘Madogwys’ (Waring, Recollections of Iolo Morganwg, 1850, pp. 36–7), and in 1790 a young man named John Evans actually left Wales with the intention of preaching the gospel to his imaginary kinsmen. He wandered about the continent a good deal and endured many hardships, but, though he reached the district (the lower Missouri valley) where the Welsh Indians were at this time generally held to be situated, there is nothing to show that he made any discovery of the kind expected (Enwogion Cymru, 1870).

During the present century the adherents of the theory have gradually disappeared. Catlin believed that the Mandans of the upper Missouri were remnants of the Welsh colony (North American Indians, 5th ed. 1845, ii. 259), but the arguments he alleges are not convincing. Thomas Stephens expressed himself somewhat doubtfully upon the question in the ‘Literature of the Kymry’ (1st ed. 1849), but, when a prize was offered in connection with the Llangollen Eisteddfod of 1858 for ‘the best essay on the discovery of America in the twelfth century by Prince Madoc ap Owen Gwynedd,’ he sent in an elaborate essay showing that the discovery could not have taken place. Though the ablest essay in the competition, this was denied the prize, on account of the opinions expressed in it.

[Stephens's Literature of the Kymry, 2nd ed. pp. 130 et seq.; Powel's Historie of Cambria, ed. 1584, pp. 166 et seq.; Cambro-Briton, i. 57 et seq., 125.]

J. E. L.