Speech by Thor Heyerdahl



Mr. President, Ms. Ambassador of Sweden, Captain Ragnar Thorseth and crew members, Ladies and Gentlemen,

As a Norwegian, it is a very special pleasure for me to welcome the arrival in Cuba of a true copy of a Viking ship. Although I haven't participated in any part of its voyage, this is the second time I have the pleasure of being present at the arrival of this ship in a port of the New World. The first time was in Washington, and the second time here in Havana. When I saw you enter Washington Harbor on October 9, you had very successfully repeated the feat of our ancestors, the Vikings, traveling from Norway to Iceland, Greenland and New Foundland in Canada. There you were also able to visit the archaeological sites at L'Anse aux Meadows with its ruins left by the Viking Leif Erikson and his crew in the year 1000.

You entered the port of Washington on a very appropriate day, October 9, which had been proclaimed by the President of the United States as the day to commemorate Leif Erikson and the Vikings who crossed the Atlantic Ocean almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. I expressed my admiration for your carrying out the difficult and dangerous journey you made among icebergs in the arctic part of the Atlantic. Now I give you a warm welcome after your voyage through a temporary cold front in the Florida Straits that separate the two charming peoples living on each side of it.

Your crossing of the North Atlantic is a sporting triumph and it also has a scientific value, as it shows the modern world how our ancestors were able to colonize such distant islands as Iceland and Greenland and explore continental coasts like that of Canada 1000 years ago. But, personally, I think your friendly voyage from Washington - where I saw you last - to Havana - where we meet today - is the most significant leg of your journey, more important in today's world than sports and science. The Vikings were known as men who brought swords and violence to all coasts of Europe, Northern Africa and Minor Asia. You come to the Americas in the same kind of vessel, but with a message of peace and with the only wish of helping all those human forces willing to create a world of tomorrow that is safe for the children of today - the men and women of the future.

In the five thousand years of human history that we have knowledge of, families, tribes and nations have tried to improve their lives weapon in hand. Alliances of increasing size have been created between men united as soldiers, with increasingly more effective and ear and the arrow to intercontinental missiles and nuclear bombs. Five thousand years of experience in the Middle East and Western Asia, and a little less in Europe and the Americas. Without exception, the result has been that, one after the other, civilizations have been destroyed with weapons created by Man himself, reducing them to ruins which then have fallen into oblivion.

All great nations of today have suffered losses in the two world wars of this century. Millions of those of us who survived the battles of World War II remember with shame and sadness the great number of friends and other millions of poor souls who lost their young lives fighting for peace and justice. We know the great value of safeguarding peace through dialogue and constructive cooperation between all human beings, with one single aim - to wage a "world war" against poverty and injustice.

You on board this fragile Viking vessel have fought the superior forces of the elements. I wish you great success in all of the planned voyage from Canada and the United States in North America, to Cuba, Mexico and the other Latin-American republics still to be visited on your way to Rio de Janeiro, where you plan to arrive for the world conference on environment in 1992.

We know that the message you bring from port to port -- from the Old World to the New one, from the arctic world to the tropics, down to Brazil -- is a non-political, or rather pan-political call for the protection of the natural environment and peace for the future generations of the whole world. In a vessel designed in ancient times with elegant lines that could harmonize and cooperate with the oceans waves, you symbolically want to take a leap in time and leave behind a whole millennium of barbarism and wars, building a bridge to a 21st century of harmony and cooperation among young people with sound minds in sound bodies, in a sound environment, as in the era when homo sapiens started out to conquer the sea.

We know that destruction of nature had already begun five thousand years ago in the Middle East and spread all over Europe in the Middle Ages. We moreover know that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas -- hunters, fishermen and also settlers in villages and large cities -- lived in harmony with the forests, rivers and mountains, and worshiped them. They had lived off the riches of the land and the waters for thousands and thousands of years when the first Vikings arrived, until the arrival of the conquistadors' caravels.

As Norwegians, we feel great respect for the courage and determination of Christopher Columbus, who was a great organizer, explorer and scholar of his times. His first voyage, which had as a result a permanent and close contact between the Americas and the Old World marked a new epoch in human history and had influence on the life of nations all over the world, more than the influence of any other persons since the founding of the great religions. But we are also aware of the other side of the coin. The arrival in the Americas of the European conquistadors and colonizers did not bring fortune and prosperity to the indigenous inhabitants of the conquered American nations. However, it would be unjust to condemn Columbus and blame him for all the violence and brutality of explorers who came after him.

The voyage of this Viking ship, following the route of the old Vikings from Norway to Canada, which will end in Rio in the year of the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage, has not been planned to tion of Columbus. He was sufficiently great to be able to share this homage with the simple Viking sailors who crossed the Atlantic almost 500 years before he did.

Today, five centuries after that triumphant arrival in Cuba, it is time to correct an unjust error which, throughout these centuries has lived on in the public image of what the Europeans have called the "discovery" of America. How could either Columbus or the Vikings claim the honor of having discovered America, when we know that this continent was the home of thousands of tribes and dozens of real civilizations, millennia before any European arrived?

In Mexico the Aztec and Maya empires had been preceded by the Toltec, Mixtec and Olmec civilizations, which had a highly developed culture with hieroglyphics in use long before any knowledge of writing had reached Europe from the ancient civilizations in the Middle East. And in South America, the pre-Incan civilizations which we have called Mochica, Chavin and Tiahuanaco, had attained cultural and political dominance over empires which in pre-Columbian times included today's sovereign nations of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and great part of Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

No European discovered America. Leif Erikson and his comrades on board the Viking ship arrived as the first European visitors. According to Norse chronicles preserved in Iceland dating from two or three centuries before Columbus' journeys, the Vikings that had settled in Greenland crossed the Davis Strait to the coast of what is known today as Canada with their families and also cattle. But these emigrants without guns were repelled by the much superior forces of the North American Indians and had to retreat to their settlements in Greenland. Five centuries later, Columbus and his followers from Medieval Spain arrived with the first firearms and -- although not discoverers -- they were the first European conquistadors to successfully settle on the mainland among the peoples they mistakenly called Indians.

We must correct another erroneous idea about the first European visitors to what they called the New World, or America in honor of the person who realized that Columbus was wrong when he thought he had found a shortcut to India. Most people think the Vikings came to North America as savage barbarians with swords and horns on their helmets, that they worshiped pagan gods, whereas Columbus was a devoted Christian who came with the Cross to save the souls of the indigenous peoples. This is wrong. When the Viking ships crossed the North Atlantic in the first decade of the 11th century, Norway was a rigidly Catholic nation, while Spain was under the influence of the Moslem faith imposed by Arab rule. In the 11th and 12th centuries, the Norwegian Viking ships fought for the Roman Catholic and Constantinople Church to restore Christianity in Spain and Portugal. Leif Erikson was actually no fierce Viking but a modest young man from the countryside who accidentally observed the coast of Canada when deviating from his route on a return voyage from Norway to Greenland. King Olav of Norway had sent a Catholic priest with him on his Viking ship and some religious teachers, to introduce Christianity in the pagan colony of Greenland. Erikson's father, Erik the Red, refused to be baptized, but his mother embraced the Catholic faith and built the first Christian church in Greenland, whose ruins are still there.

When Columbus crossed the Atlantic five centuries later, both nations but Columbus did not bring any priest on his first voyage. That he didn't do until on the second trip, when returning with armed soldiers to take slaves. It is a historic fact that the Norwegian King in the 11th century, Olav the Saint, was canonized by the Vatican -- an honor which neither King Ferdinand nor Queen Isabella were given.

The Viking ship that arrived in Cuba today did not bring any priest on board, nor religious or political doctrines. It only brings the message that, as the 20th century draws to an end, it is high time that all nations understand that we are all members of one sole human family, a great family that travels together through the universe on board the same small planet. We all depend on each other to coexist in peace, on islands and continents that are not separated but united by the oceans. No group of people has priority over any other, and none of us has the right to destroy the forests, the seas and the atmosphere, which are our joint heritage.

Let us celebrate the year 1992 as the year of human unity. But when remembering Columbus and the Vikings, let's not forget those who arrived in America long before they did, and who lived on every inhabitable piece of land, from Alaska down to Tierra del Fuego, thousands of years before any European even set sails.

Cuba will be a center of world attention this year when we are celebrating the European discoveries. It was in Cuba that Christopher Columbus found the first human settlements in the New World after his first crossing in 1492. In his own log book he used the most emphatic words he could find to describe the beauty of the Cuban landscape and the kindness, hospitality and high moral standards of the Taino people that received him on this island.

But who was in Cuba to receive Columbus? Who had discovered this island in the ocean before Columbus? It is time we realize that human beings set sail from other ports outside Europe before the era of the Vikings and Columbus.

Today, researchers in Cuba are exploring and excavating the land to give us the answer to the questions the first Europeans never asked themselves. The Tainos could have given them at least part of the answer. Their forefathers had arrived in Cuba from the American continent at a time when Europe was still in the Stone Age. And the Cuban pre-Columbian inhabitants never totally cut off their contacts with the main land. Personally, I'm here in Cuba today to cooperate with the Cuban archaeologists in the preparation of an abundantly illustrated book on pre-Columbian art in Cuba and the history of the first European influence. The ample material on art, pottery and beautiful sculptures, mostly in conches and stone but in some cases also in gold, show that in pre-Columbian times Cuba had maritime contact with what is today the United States, Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela. This means that the ancient Cubans navigated on the open ocean with their families, bringing along objects of art, two kinds of dogs, and several kinds of cultivated plants, such as sweet potatoes, pumpkins and cotton.

It is especially interesting that archaeology reveals that there was a particularly close contact over the Florida Straits in the centuries immediately before and after the arrival of the first Europeans. Straits in a Viking ship, must know that it takes courage and navigational skills to cross that space of water in an open vessel. Let's all hope that the peaceful traffic that started in this channel before the arrival of the Europeans, and was continued today by this Viking vessel carrying a clear message of peace, will soon be re- established for the benefit of all.

Thor Heyerdahl Havana, August 23, 1991

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