We use cookies
This website uses cookies in order to improve your browsing experience. Read more on our cookie policies.
A kayak in Zierikzee
George Blaustein
01 June 2021
published in Issue One

Was a Dutch town founded by Inuits in the 9th century? For a long time, the local legend of Zierikzee, in Zeeland, was that Zierik, the founder, emerged from the sea in 849 CE. In 1696, one history — Mattheus Smallegange’s Nieuwe Cronijk van Zeeland — described the Zierikzee legend at length, in order to discredit it. It didn’t work: in the 18th century, a Greenland kayak hung in the Zierikzee town hall. Alas it was not the primordial kayak; it was probably acquired by the crew of a Dutch whale ship. It’s now in the local history museum.

Other such sea-emergences pepper Dutch history if you know where to look for them. English history, too: in Suffolk, in 1187, « a fish in all parts like a man, was taken and kept 6 months in the Castle there, whence he escaped again to the sea, » according to 17th-century history. In Holland in 1430, « after a violent tempest, … some girls of the town of Edam … going in a boat to milk their cows, observed a mermaid in shallow water » — this according to a 19th-century compendium of medieval curiosities. « They took it into their boat and brought it into Edam, dressed it in female attire, and taught it to spin. » Another source dates that tale to 1493, with the « sea-woman » living in Holland for « many years (some say fifteen) » and dying a Christian: « for the reverence which she bare unto the signe of the crosse whereupon she had been accustomed, she was buried in the churchyarde. »

Incredulity and credulity can be virtues or vices. Credulity can also be a strategy. The late historian Jack D. Forbes (Powhatan-Renape, Delaware-Lenape) saw in the Zierikzee kayak a real folk tradition, behind which lay a history of Atlantic crossings, from west to east, centuries before Columbus. In The American Discovery of Europe (2007), Forbes would go further, calmly suggesting « that the widespread reports of the existence of ‘mer-men’ and ‘mer-women’ in northwestern Europe be considered as possible evidence of early Inuit or other American arrivals. » It’s an appealing thought.

Subscribe to the European Review of Books, from €4.16 per month.
A digital subscription gives you access to our complete Library. A print+digital subscription brings you a print magazine designed like no other.