Journey to the Islands of Tin

James Lloyd recalls a time when Britain was an isolated and mysterious country, its location a secret that those in the know were prepared to defend with their lives.

Herodotus was not convinced that they even existed. Writing in the late fifth century B.C., the Father of History acknowledged that tin must come from somewhere and that it was reputed to come from islands in a sea to the north-west of Europe but he had failed to find any reliable information on the Cassiterides, or “Tin Islands”. Other classical writers were similarly stumped, though the consensus was that they were off the north-western coast of Spain.

Yet tin was getting into the Mediterranean from somewhere. It had already passed through various hands by the time it reached Greece or even Italy and the only people who knew where it really originated, the only people who knew where the Tin Islands were and how to reach them, were the Phoenicians.

The Phoenicians were a Semitic people, founders of the cities of Tyre and Sidon of Biblical fame (or infamy). While the Sumerians and Egyptians were still struggling with ideographical writing systems, they developed the first alphabet, from which our own derives. They were also master mariners, who pioneered the use of bitumen to waterproof their ships, enabling them to cultivate a trade-route that stretched from their native Lebanon, along the Barbary Coast and out into the Atlantic, all the way to the Tin Islands, from which they bought tin to smelt into bronze or to sell to the Greeks. To maintain their monopoly on the Mediterranean tin trade, they kept the whereabouts of the Tin Islands a secret.

At some point in the early first century B.C., a Roman sailor decided that he would discover the location for himself. He sailed across the Mediterranean, between the Pillars of Hercules and towards Cadiz. He waited for a Phoenician vessel to set out for the Tin Islands, planning to shadow it.

He did not have to wait long. Soon enough his agents in the town reported that the next ship to leave the port was bound for the Tin Islands. The Roman allowed it a good start and then pushed after it, endeavouring to keep it just on the horizon, thinking by that stratagem that he would not be spotted.

The Romans were not, however, as clever as they thought. The Phoenicians did realize that they were being stalked and by whom. They also knew that Roman ships were built for the placid waters of the Mediterranean, whereas their own craft were equal to the rough and tumble of the Atlantic. They sailed out into the open ocean, allowing the Iberian coast to slip from view. It would add days to their journey but the sacrifice would be worth it to lose the Romans.

Their pursuers would not give up so easily. They maintained the chase, braving the unaccustomed swell. Soon they were in the Bay of Biscay. The Romans knew that the Tin Islands must be somewhere nearby. The Phoenicians knew it too and now their captain hit upon a final, desperate stratagem. He directed his ship towards the shallows off the Cassiteridean coast. This would mean disclosing their location to the Romans but that no longer mattered. The Romans would never return home with the information.

The Phoenician ship ran aground first. The sailors made their peace with Baal Hadad and braced themselves, as planks splintered and chilling swell smashed them fore and aft. The Romans realized that they had been led into a trap but they turned too late. Soon, both ships were aground on the shallows and hundreds of men, Roman and Phoenician alike, were being cruelly tossed by the black water, which dragged them down into its freezing depths and swallowed up the secret of the Tin Islands.

A few hours later, when the locals came down to the beach to collect the flotsam, they found an unconscious man clutching what remained of a mast. They prodded him awake and the Phoenician captain recognized the black cloaks and ankle-length tunics of the Cassiterideans and smiled. When the captain made it back to Cadiz and reported his misadventure, the city reimbursed him for the loss of his cargo, as a reward for keeping the location of the Tin Islands a secret.

This story was recorded late in the first century B.C. by the Greek writer Strabo, by which time the Romans had found the Cassiterides and, apparently, lost interest in them, since no Classical source clearly identifies them with any of the better-known islands or countries in that part of Europe. Even today, no one knows for certain where the Tin Islands were. Islands in the mouth of the Loire have been suggested, as have the Scilly Isles, though they have no tin, or even that the islands are in fact mythical. The most frequent suggestion is Britain. This is perhaps over-flattering. Cornwall is the main producer of British tin. Would the Phoenicians have named a peninsula the Islands of Tin, or attributed tin-production to the whole island of Britain? It must be remembered, however, that “Cassiterides” is a Greek word and the Greeks had not seen the source of the Phoenicians’ tin. They were only extrapolating from information that had been deliberately kept obscure.

The Phoenicians certainly did trade with Britain. One is used to thinking of Ancient Britain as an isolated island on the edge of the world, with neither a booming tourist industry nor huge international market but this is a skewed interpretation. The Roman and Greek authors who wrote of the Cassiterides knew little of Britain but that was because they were Romans and Greeks. The inhabitants of what is now France, Belgium and the Netherlands had only a short hop across the Channel. Many exotic artefacts have been uncovered from Ancient British sites, such Egyptian glass and pre-Claudian Roman coins. Even if the Phoenicians had not traded these materials with the Britons personally, the island was still part of a European trading network that the Phoenicians dominated. There is even a labyrinth cut into the grass at Saint Agnes in the Scilly Isles, reputed to be the work of the Phoenicians (though this is probably wishful thinking – it is first recorded in 1729, when a lighthouse-keeper owned up to having “re-worked” it).

No one will ever know for sure if the Tin Islands were Britain or not. What is certain is that Ancient Britain was not a small, isolated little country, its back turned to Europe. It was an outward-looking and economically active place, with lucrative trading arrangements which stretched right across the known world, despite being part of no one else’s empire.

Sound familiar?

Photo credit: Saint Agnes: Troy Town Maze (Chris Downer) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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