As every Irish person knows, St Brendan discovered the Americas almost a full millennium before Christopher Columbus made landfall there, in 1492. Or maybe it was the Canaries he found. Perhaps the Azores? Possibly Madeira. Unfortunately, the ancient Irish records are unclear on the matter.
The study of pre-Columbian contact with the Americas is a fascinating field, with claims made for the Phoenicians, Japanese, Chinese and Basques, among others, as being the first to arrive there after the Native Americans.
But it is an area of history that suffers from lack of evidence. This has allowed for the proliferation of fantastical myths that now coexist with sound theories and incontrovertible facts. Some of the wilder ideas are peddled by crackpot historians with ideological, nationalist or ethnic axes to grind, others by outright fraudsters.
But it is a legitimate field of academic inquiry. Leif Erikson’s colony of Vinland was once thought to be nothing more than a Norse myth invented to help pass the long northern winters cooped up in Viking longhouses, and a Norse map dating from 1440, which sketched the North American coast, was long dismissed as a forgery.
But in 1960 the remains of a Norse village were discovered at L’Anse aux Meadows, on the Canadian island of Newfoundland. Today it is the only site outside Greenland that is widely accepted as proof that others discovered the Americas before Columbus.
Now a Saudi Arabian film-maker, Khalid Abualkair, has produced a documentary, We Discovered America Before Columbus, that explores the likelihood that the Arabs of al-Andalus and the Muslim kingdom of Mali made contact with the New World centuries before Columbus.
The claim he makes for the Arabs of al-Andalus rests heavily on the work of one of the more colourful historians to have entered this field: Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo y Maura, the 21st duchess of Medina Sidonia, in Spain. She was known as the red duchess for her opposition to Franco, who had her jailed and then exiled.
She was also heiress to one of the most extensive private archives in Europe, and her research in these documents convinced her that the Arabs of al-Andalus – modern-day Andalusia – and Morocco had discovered and made frequent trips to the northern half of South America.
She claimed to have found references in the archives to indigenous American plants such as maize and peppers long before 1492. Before her death, in 2008, the duchess produced two books, detailing her thesis. The first, It Wasn't Us, was provocatively published to coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus's first journey.
The second possible pre-Columbian Muslim contact explored by Dr Abualkair involves the adventures of the even more colourful character Abu Bakr II, the mansa, or king, of Mali in the 14th century. His realm covered most of west Africa and held large deposits of gold.
It is recorded that he “did not believe that it was impossible to reach the extremity of the ocean that encircles the earth”, and around 1311 he handed over his throne to his brother and set off to explore the Atlantic Ocean, eager to discover if it had another bank, like the great River Niger, which flowed through his own kingdom.
The Arab historian Chihab al-Umari was in Cairo shortly after Abu Bakr’s successor passed through on his way to Mecca. Umari told how an advance expedition of 200 boats sent west by Abu Bakr was lost, except for one boat that returned.
Abu Bakr reportedly ordered the assembly of an even bigger armada, of 2,000 vessels, to follow the doomed fleet west. In the words of his heir, as recorded by Umari, “he departed with his men, never to return nor to give a sign of life”.
“So we know he left, but did he arrive?” Abualkair asks. There are hints in the historical record that he might have. Around the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia there were Muslim influences long thought to have been brought over with African slaves.
But the film-maker is now not so sure: “We need to conduct more research to find out if such influences were from the slaves or maybe the descendants of Abu Bakr.”
Abualkair is taking his film around Brazilian universities. Along with the local academics who appear in his documentary, he hopes to put a multidisciplinary team in place to test its thesis against archival, archaeological and linguistic records.
He is at pains to make clear that his film makes no claim of an exclusively Muslim discovery of the Americas. It opens with a generous survey of all of the pre-Columbian contact theories before detailing his own.
So what does he make of St Brendan? “There is theory and there is fact, and St Brendan is still a theory.”