The Phantom Island of Brazil
Map-readers knew about Brazil long before America was discovered; but they didn’t think of it as a giant country on a distant continent. Brazil, also known by the name Hy-Brasil, was a small, mist-shrouded island in the North Atlantic, not too far off Ireland’s west coast.
Only, Hy-Brasil never existed. Shown here on a Mercator map dating from 1623, it was one of many phantom islands that haunted marine cartography, sometimes for centuries, before more accurate observational techniques (and ultimately satellite photography) eliminated them all.
Like many other phantom islands, the cartographic existence of Hy-Brasil was based on a combination of flimsy legend, faulty observations, wishful thinking, and outright mendacity.
Although its name might refer back to age-old Irish legends of sea-faring expeditions striking land in the Atlantic, Hy-Brasil’s first recorded appearance on a map dates from around 1325, as Bracile on a portolan map.
In 1497, Spanish diplomat Pedro de Ayala reports home that John Cabot, the first European to visit North America since the Vikings in the 11th century, had made his journey with “the men from Bristol who found Brasil.”
Ayala also mentioned in that letter the Sete Cidades, a mysterious collection of seven cities supposedly founded in the 8th century on one or more islands in the Atlantic by Christians fleeing the Muslim conquista of Iberia. Which goes to show how fertile a breeding ground the oceanic expanse was for fantasies of phantom islands.
Sometimes fantasy became indistinguishable from fact. Hy-Brasil was rumoured to be continuously obscured by mist, except for one day every seven years. It must have been on one of those days in 1674 that captain John Nisbet, piercing a sea fog, anchored before the island, and sent a party of four ashore. The amazed sailors spent an entire day on Hy-Brasil, meeting an wizened old man - an Irish monk? - who provided them with gold and silver. A follow-up expedition by a captain Alexander Johnson also found Hy-Brasil, and confirmed captain Nisbet’s findings.