The island of HyBrazil first appeared on sailing charts completed by cartographer Angelino Dulcert between 1325 and 1339. Based in Genoa, Dulcert asserted that HyBrazil could be found in the Atlantic Ocean, to the west of Ireland. The island continued to remain on maps and charts for several centuries, under various pseudonyms such as Insula de Berzil, Illa de brasil, Ui Breasail, or Brazil. It existed as a kind of terra incognita: within reach of sailors on the Atlantic, potentially visible from high cliffs on the west of Ireland.
Maps of the time acted as a disorderly mix of fact and fiction, compiled from personal observation, hearsay, and a variety of historical narratives. Without reliable longitudes and latitudes, cartographers strove to draw information from each and every resource. As a result of this confusion, the ocean continued to fill up with islands. If sailors could not find an island marked on their map, they simply assumed it was temporarily lost in the vast ocean space, rather than nonexistent. HyBrazil continued to appear, as in Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli's 1457 chart, which was used by Christopher Columbus on his 1492 voyage. Other islands such as Isola des Demonias, Frisland, Buss Island, Antillia, and the Islands of Saint Brendan frequently accompanied it. One might even speculate that the now obscure origins of the name HyBrazil might reflect modern-day Brazil, brought closer to Europe through the time's geographical fallacies.
In July 1480 Bristol merchant John Jay sponsored a ship to sail westward in search of the Isle of Brasil. The nine-week expedition did not find the island, and the ship was forced back to Bristol by storms. Several other attempts are reported. In 1496 an Italian merchant, Giovanni Caboto, arrived in Bristol. Known locally as John Cabot, he obtained a Royal Assent from Henry VII "to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions and provinces which before this time were unknown." He sailed for HyBrazil but never returned; his five ships and three hundred men were almost all lost at sea. Some returned to England to tell the story, after first reaching Newfoundland. By 1498, Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy to [End Page 5]
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London, reported that two to four ships a year were being sent from Bristol, all with the expressed intention of finding the island.
Despite the failure of these voyages, many encounters with HyBrazil occurred, most notably in 1674 with Captain John Nisbet of Killybegs, Co. Donegal. He and his crew were in waters west of Ireland, surrounded by fog. When it lifted, his ship appeared dangerously close to rocks. Nisbet and three crew then rowed ashore and found cattle, sheep, horses, and a large castle. They knocked on the castle door, but there was no answer. When night came the crew made their way to the beach and lit a fire. A "hideous noise" then arose, and they fled to the boat. They returned the next day to find a group of [End Page 7] old men on the shore, dressed in outdated clothes and talking "old fashioned speech." They claimed to have been locked up in the castle and that Nisbet's fire broke the spell of their imprisonment, causing the castle to collapse. The liberated men confirmed that the island was indeed "O Brazile" before being brought to Killybegs, where by virtue of their ancient clothes, money, and antiquated language, they persuaded many of their story. Upon the arrival of Nisbet's ship to Killybegs, a second ship set out under the command of Alexander Johnson. He too found the island and returned to confirm the tales of Nisbet and crew.
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