My Own Eulogy


One should only write such a thing
in a good mood.
And I am.
I am.

Scatter me in the trees and sunlight
in the wooded, fern-laden hills
of my country
after a day of food and drink
where birds speak for us
and play Nostalgia by Ethiopiques
for that is where you shall always find me
smiling drifting living dying ending. being
Then get mad and drunk and high and jam
or go to bed and wake in the morning
to be whoever you want to be
in and with
my memory of myself
and you

Saga of the West

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

‘Summer on the Greenland coast circa year 1000’ by Carl Rasmussen, 1875.

When a Genoese mariner sailed west across the ‘Ocean Sea’ in search of Asia in 1492, he happened upon the Americas and claimed them for the Spanish Crown that had financed his voyage. Christopher Columbus’ return to Spain in 1493 laid the foundations for contact between Europe and what he thought were Asia’s eastern shores, the ‘Indies’. In 1501, another Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, seconded Columbus’ subsequent realisation that the shores were not Asian at all, but an entirely separate continent “unknown” to European powers. This ‘New World’ soon bore Vespucci’s name, and by Columbus’ death in 1506, the link between the ‘Old World’ and America was firmly established, forever changing human events (1).

Or rather, the link was firmly reestablished. Half a millennia earlier, the Vikings had already begun colonising parts of North America. Their story is recorded in literature known as the Icelandic Sagas (Íslendingasögur). Set mainly between c. 850 and c. 1050 AD, the traditionally oral (2) sagas were committed to vellum in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries (3), the word ‘saga’ being Old Norse for ‘what is said, utterance’ (4). Two sagas recount the Viking exploits in North America: The Saga of the Greenlanders (Grænlendinga Saga) and The Saga of Erik the Red (Eiríks Saga Rauða). By investigating the potential transmission of the sagas and Columbus’ own whereabouts, this paper will seek to answer the question that naturally arises: did the Íslendingasögur help inspire Columbus’ first voyage?

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892

‘First Landing of Columbus of the Shores of the New World’ by Dióscoro Puebla, 1892.

Humanity in the Americas

The first humans to set foot in the Americas came on foot. During the Last Glacial Period (c. 115,00 – c. 11,700 years ago), what is now the Bering Strait between Siberia and Alaska was bridged by the lost region of ‘Beringia’. Over the millennia (c. 25,000 – c. 15,000 years ago), humans moved from Asia across Beringia into the Americas. The end of the Last Glacial Period saw sea levels rise to their current position, severing the human connection between the landmasses of Afro-Eurasia and America. Isolated, these early Americans soon populated North and South America with cultures and civilisations independent of those in the Old World (5). Thousands of years later, the long-lost cousins of humanity reunited on 12 October 1492 when Columbus landed in the Bahamas and encountered the Lucayan. In none of their wildest imaginations did either group think they were meeting their distant relatives.

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period

Beringia, the bridge between Asia and the Americas near the end of the Last Glacial Period.

Yet this was not the first ‘family reunion’. While Greenland is not connected to mainland North America, it is often considered part of the North American continent—though the definition of ‘continent’ varies—as it sits on the North American tectonic plate and shares flora and fauna with the mainland (6). ‘Chapter 2’ of Eiríks Saga Rauða tells of Greenland’s naming and colonisation by Erik the Red in the late tenth century; Europeans’ first contact with the Americas. ‘Chapter 8’ tells of the first contact with mainland North America, when Erik’s son, Leif Erikson, reaches ‘Helluland’, ‘Markland’, and ‘Vinland’, which twentieth-century archaeology suggests are Baffin Island, Labrador, and Newfoundland (7). Thorfinn Karlsefni later follows Leif’s route and in ‘Chapter 12’ he battles the ‘Skrælingar’, ancestors of today’s Inuit:

There was seen approaching from the south a great crowd of Skrælingar boats … the Skrælingar were all howling loudly. Then took they and bare red shields to meet them. They encountered one another and fought, and there was a great shower of missiles (8).

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688

Woodcut frontispiece of Erik the Red from Arngrímur Jónsson’s ‘Gronlandia’, 1688.

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968

Commemorative U.S. stamp of Leif Erikson, issued on Leif Erikson Day, 9 October 1968.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Bronze statue of Thorfinn Karlsefni by Einar Jónsson, Philadelphia, 1920.

Columbus’ enslavement of the Taíno in Hispaniola in the 1490s was not the first episode of violence and inhumanity between people of the Old and New Worlds. But as Fitzhugh writes:

Not least is the question of whether Nordic knowledge of the northwestern North Atlantic and its lands and peoples was transmitted to Europe from its medieval manuscripts and tradition-bearers in Iceland and Scandinavia, what information this consisted of, and whether it influenced later European exploration (9).

Columbus offers us no easy answers, for if he did know of the Íslendingasögur, he never indicated so (10). In Libro de las profecías (Book of Prophecies)—his collection of Biblical, Classical, and even Islamic sources ‘proving’ his Divine fulfillment of ancient prophecy—he makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (11), nor in his letters (12). Yet their absence alone from his writing does not mean he never encountered them. Plausible reasons for their omission include: he did not consider them noteworthy; he chose not to cite them; he cited them in work still undiscovered. Short of unearthing hypothetical documents, this paper will instead seek to determine the probabilities of Columbus and the Íslendingasögur crossing paths. To do this, both their paths need to be traced.

Transmission of the Íslendingasögur

The Íslendingasögur “exercised enduring influence upon the English literature of the Middle Ages” (13), but Columbus’ opportunity to encounter either their printed or oral forms in fifteenth-century Spain or Portugal was limited. Like the people mentioned in the sagas, it is hard to know precisely how far they themselves travelled. To determine where the sagas could have theoretically travelled by Columbus’ lifetime, we need to define the geographic extents of the ‘Viking World’.

Contemporary map of Old Norse place names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite

Contemporary map of Old Norse place-names by Sandra Rimmer, revealing the extent of the known world to the Medieval Nordic elite.

Graham-Campbell describes the Viking World as consisting of “a loose grouping of the Scandinavian homelands and new overseas colonies, linked by sea routes that reached across the Baltic and North Sea, spanning even the Atlantic”. Those colonies stretched from Novgorod to Normandy, and possibly even Newfoundland, while Viking raids took place in the Mediterranean and North Africa (14). After the ‘Viking Age’ (c. 790 – c. 1050 AD) (15), by the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the Christianisation of Scandinavia saw members of the Nordic elite pilgrimaging to Rome and the Holy Land (16). In the twelfth century, Icelandic, Danish, and Norwegian clerics studied at universities in Oxford, Cambridge, Paris, Orleans, Montpellier, and Bologna. By Columbus’ lifetime, Scandinavians were studying in Prague, Leipzig, Vienna, and Rostock (17). This is not to say that the Íslendingasögur necessarily travelled to these places too, but they could have. Additionally, with Scandinavians adopting the Latin alphabet in the eleventh century (18) and the first Icelandic histories being written in the vernacular and Latin (19), it is also possible that the Íslendingasögur could have been read, transcribed, or translated beyond Scandinavia.

The numbers of verified pre-Columbian Íslendingasögur manuscripts suggest this scenario is incredibly unlikely. No other saga survives in as many copies as Njáls Saga, of which there are just 18 extant copies, all in Scandinavia (20). With parameters set between 1200 and 1500 AD, Karlsson totals the number of existing texts at 59. Including earlier fragments, Lethbridge counts 64. Of Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða, Lethbridge counts just one and three copies respectively (21). That four copies survive is undoubtedly remarkable, that Columbus read one of them is undoubtedly impossible. Unless a miraculous fifth copy is someday unearthed miles from Iceland, it can be safely assumed none ever accompanied the Nordic elite to European universities or on pilgrimages to Rome and Jerusalem.

While Columbus never read the sagas during his time in the Mediterranean and Iberia, spoken versions cannot be dismissed so confidently. Unsurprisingly, Flint’s chapter on the texts Columbus is known to have read makes no mention of the Íslendingasögur (22). More surprising is their absence in her following chapter of “the stories of water and sea crossings [Columbus] knew, or might have known” (23). If a lifelong mariner like Columbus was as insatiable for clues of what lay to the west as Granzotto (24) and Philips (25) suggest he was, why is Flint left with nothing to say about the Íslendingasögur?

The dissemination of the Íslendingasögur was so limited, in part, because Iceland had a “conservative, exclusive society” which “maintained heavy restrictions on change” (26). Far from the affairs and concerns of continental Europe, Icelanders had about as much interest in sharing the Íslendingasögur with the outside world as the outside world had in hearing them—excepting, perhaps, certain explorers. Foreign interest in the Íslendingasögur is a more recent phenomenon. It was not until the nineteenth century when Scandinavian migration to the United States increased and English translations of Scandinavian histories became available, that interest in Viking history spread beyond its traditional bounds of Scandinavia (27). Other than King Eirik of Denmark marrying Princess Philippa of England, who happened to be a cousin of Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, Seaver writes “it is doubtful that the Spanish and Portuguese paid much attention to either Denmark or Norway in the late Middle Ages” (28). Even Icelanders at the time saw little importance in the territorial discoveries of Leif Erikson, Clements suggesting “Vinland was merely one more place where they could find furs and wood” (29). To Icelanders, the sagas serving as entertainment and expressions of cultural memory spoke of people and places closer to home (30). The common trait of intertextuality between sagas of genealogical histories, family feuds, and local places render single sagas taken out of this context largely meaningless and uninteresting to outsiders (31).

By the 1180s, the colonies in Greenland had come under Norwegian rule (32), and evidence that knowledge of Arctic colonies had spread beyond Scandinavia, if not knowledge of the Íslendingasögur themselves, is found in Church documents. A letter from Pope Nicholas V, dated 20 September 1448, concerns the Bishopric of Garðar in Greenland, the ‘Diocese of Ice’, which had become “cut off from Scandinavia … imprisoned in the ice, abandoned by all, left without support or hope” (33). The letter reads:

Profoundly impressed therefore with the responsibility of our position, it is not difficult to understand how our mind was filled with bitterness by the tearful lamentations which have reached our ears from our beloved children, the native and other inhabitants of the island of Greenland, a region situated at the uttermost end of the earth (34).

Two things are noteworthy. Firstly, there is no reference to colonies or lands beyond Greenland, it is ‘the uttermost end of the earth’. Secondly, Greenland is described as a faraway island, not a part of Asia nor any other continent (35). These are significant points in light of other documents. In c. 1070, the German chronicler, Adam of Bremen, wrote in his Gesta Hammaburgensis ecclesiae pontificum (History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen) of his conversations with King Sweyn II of Denmark. Adam specifically mentions Vinland—tentatively believed today to be located at the L’Anse aux Meadows site in Newfoundland (36)—making it the earliest European record of the Americas (37):

[Sweyn II] spoke also yet of another island of the many found in that ocean. It is called Vinland because vines producing excellent wine grow wild there. That unsown crops also abound on that island we have ascertained not from fabulous reports but from the trustworthy relation of the Danes (38).

Fifty years later, Pope Paschal II appointed Eiríkur Gnúpsson as the first Bishop of Garðar and its “lands to the west” (39). According to the Íslendingasögur, however, Gnúpsson went looking for Vinland in 1121—the same year he received episcopal consecration in Lund, Denmark, from Archbishop Adzar (40)—suggesting contact between Greenland and Vinland had been lost (41). Bishop Jon Smyrill later made a pilgrimage from Greenland to Rome before his death in 1206 (42), but even if he had spoken of Vinland, any knowledge from him, or from Adam and Paschal II, appears forgotten in Nicholas V’s 1448 letter. Furthermore, the information privy to Nicholas V regarding Greenland, or Vinland to previous Pontiffs, and that privy to Columbus does not simply overlap. Nonetheless, Rome’s ties to the Catholic monarchies of Portugal and Spain, alongside Columbus’ own relationship to these monarchies, means the possibility of Columbus knowing of Greenland or Vinland cannot be ruled out entirely. In any case, however slight the possibility, Columbus’ knowledge would not have come from the Íslendingasögur, it would have bypassed them altogether.

Scholars who claim Columbus had knowledge of the Íslendingasögur often provide poor evidence or none at all. For example, Ólafsson writes unequivocally “Icelandic chroniclers spread the knowledge of these new lands to Europe. It is likely that Columbus knew about this discovery when he sailed west” (43). But he provides no sources for his assertions. Fitzhugh writes “Some scholars believe that [Columbus] … must have grasped the import of the Norse voyages” and cites “Stefansson 1942, Egilsson 1991, Quinn 1992, and Seaver 1996” (44). Yet enquiry into these sources reveals immediate flaws. Fitzhugh’s bibliography lists two of Stefansson’s works but neither date to 1942. Egilsson’s 1991 article appears in a magazine promoting Icelandic culture, Iceland Review. Published by MD Reykjavík, a tourism company, there is no publicly available archive of their publications (45), but given the quincentennial of Columbus’ first voyage was to take place the following year, Egilsson’s work is likely a celebration of Columbus’ Icelandic connection. No ‘Quinn’ appears in Fitzhugh’s bibliography, but he is probably referring to David B. Quinn, a specialist in North American colonisation. Quinn also wrote during the quincentennial, but his article appears to contradict Fitzhugh’s claim:

There is no need to suggest that [Columbus] learned of the medieval Greenland colony: Icelanders had lost interest in it after Norway took control of contacts with it in the late thirteenth century. He is still less likely to have heard of the Vinland sagas, even if they had been retained in folk memory, which is very doubtful, or had been written down in unintelligible language between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries (46).

The closest Seaver comes in her 1996 book, The Frozen Echo, to supporting Fitzhugh is when discussing Columbus’ possible trip to Galway, writing if he did make such a voyage then “accounts of unfamiliar land glimpsed by storm-tossed crews must have joined both vague tales of Vínland and reports of relatively uneventful working voyages to such well-known places such as Iceland” (47). Evidently, we must now assess the whereabouts of Columbus himself.

Travels of Christopher Columbus

In the Journal of his first voyage, Columbus wrote on 21 December 1492:

I have traversed the sea for 23 years, without leaving it for any time worth counting, and I saw all in the east and the west, going on the route of the north, which is England, and I have been to Guinea (48).

There appears no reason to doubt Columbus’ claim that he visited the West African coast, ‘Guinea’. The town of Elmina in Ghana grew around the São Jorge da Mina Castle, which the Portuguese completed in 1481 (49). Logic dictates that Columbus must have visited Elmina between 1481 and his proposal of a westward Atlantic voyage to the Portuguese in 1484-85 (50), as notes either written or authorised by him refuting the idea of an uninhabitable equator state:

It is not uninhabitable, for the Portuguese sail through it today, and it is even very populous, and under the equator is the castle of Mina of the most serene king of Portugal, which we have seen (52).

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572

Elmina Castle as viewed from the sea by Georg Braun, 1572.

Less convincing are the details surrounding Columbus’ “much-debated” (53) northern voyage, his ‘route of the north’, in the 1470s. Such a voyage could have very easily brought him into contact with some iteration of the Íslendingasögur, if it happened. Fernández-Armesto’s chronology of Columbus’ life states Columbus “Makes voyage to Iceland, perhaps via England and Ireland” next to the year “1477?” (54). He later adds:

Columbus might well have joined a Bristolian venture to Iceland. There is nothing inherently implausible in his claim, and his participation in such a voyage would also provide a context for the visit to Galway in Ireland which he mentioned in another marginal annotation (55).

That annotation appears in Columbus’ copy of d’Ally’s Imago Mundi and translates to “Men of Cathay have come from the west. [Of this] we have seen many signs. And especially in Galway in Ireland” (56). This note is not itself evidence that Columbus himself visited Ireland, but if stories of ‘Chinese’ bodies washing ashore in Galway hold some truth, an explanation might be that indigenous Americans, whose distant Asian ancestors crossed Beringia, could appear thus that Europeans could not distinguish them from Chinese. Instances of this phenomenon occurring in the Azores are cited by Morison (57) and Knox-Johnston, the latter writing “two bodies with Chinese-type faces (probably Eskimos) were found on a beach at Flores in the Azores” (58). The likelihood of corpses drifting across the Atlantic aside, why would Columbus have travelled to Galway in the first place? One explanation might be if he was en route to the farthest known land to most Europeans, ‘Ultima Thule’, Iceland. But if he travelled as far north as Iceland, why write ‘the north, which is England’?

As with the Íslendingasögur, Columbus offers us no easy answers regarding Iceland since he never wrote of such a voyage (59). His son, Ferdinand, is our sole source for the voyage and the evidence he cited has since been lost (60). Nevertheless, he claimed his father wrote:

In the month of February, 1477, I sailed one hundred leagues beyond the island of Tile [Thule], whose northern part is in latitude 73 degrees N, and not 63 degrees as some affirm, nor does it lie upon the meridian where Ptolemy says the West begins, but much farther west. And to this island, which is as big as England, the English come with their wares, especially from Bristol. When I was there, the sea was not frozen, but the tides were so great that in some places they rose twenty-six fathoms, and fell as much in depth (61).

The loss of Ferdinand’s physical evidence has led to the content of it coming under heavy scrutiny, particularly the impossible tidal measurements, the incorrect latitudinal coordinates, and the apparent folly of sailing amid the Arctic winter. Hanns Graefe offers explanations: Columbus was using Arabic measurements for the tide; he was not referring to the latitude of Iceland but Jan Mayen; his report of an ice-free coast is corroborated in “old records” found by Magnusen and is a fact that could only have been known to Columbus “as a result of personal experience” (62). Debate about measurement systems has validity (63), but Graefe’s claim that Columbus was giving the latitude of Jan Mayen is contradicted by the comparison in size to England. Whether Columbus was referring to the island of Great Britain (209,331 km2) or literally the country of England (130,395 km²) is unclear, but a comparison between either to Iceland (103,000 km2) in 1477 is more forgivable than to Jan Mayen (377 km2). What Magnusen’s ‘old records’ were, Graefe does not say, but both Storm and Ruddock cite evidence in the Icelandic Annals that refer to 1476–77 as “unusually mild” (64). Another of Magnusen’s claims, however, is described by Storm as “fantasy” (65) and De Lollis suspects it of being “freshly fabricated” (66). Lacking evidence, Magnusen claims that Bishop Magnus Eyjolsson of Skálholt was abbot of the monastery of Helgafell, where Grænlendinga Saga and Eiríks Saga Rauða were supposedly kept, and when Eyjolsson met Columbus in 1477, he showed them to him (67). Lacy, also with no sources given, paints a similarly Romantic scene of Columbus in Bristol, “where news of the Norse voyages would have made good conversation over a mug of ale” (68).

Established trade networks and a lack of record-keeping do leave open the possibility that Columbus entered England en route further north. Fifteenth-century Genoese merchants sailed to Southampton and London, and while Genoa and Bristol had no direct link, Lisbon and Bristol did. Bristol was the main English port for trade with Galway and Iceland (69), and despite no customs records of Columbus entering England exist, no records at all exist for Southampton in 1476–77 (70). Open-ended possibilities abound, but does any proof?

Ronciére first presented the so-called ‘Paris Map’ in 1924, now housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale, verifying for some Columbus’ northern voyage. The Paris Map depicts the North Atlantic with particular details of Norway, Ireland, and Iceland, which Seaver says provide “significant clues to Columbus’s geographical knowledge on the eve of his first trans-Atlantic voyage”. Rather than being the work of Columbus and his brother, Bartholomew, Nebenzahl suggests the Paris Map was merely commissioned by Columbus. Nevertheless, Pelletier concludes the Columbuses were involved in its creation. But the Paris Map proves only his knowledge, not his northern voyage (71). How else then could Columbus have come to possess such knowledge if not through personal experience?

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

The ‘Paris Map’ (1491), potentially revealing Columbus’ geographical knowledge of the North Atlantic and proving the veracity of his voyage to Iceland.

Palos in Spain is where Columbus first set sail in 1492, but its significance is more than symbolic because the Friary of La Rábida is located there and may have been the site where Columbus learnt of the north. Hunter (72) and Ruddock (73) both provide evidence that Bristolian merchants had contact with the Franciscans at La Rábida. Columbus’ own connection to La Rábida is not disputed and this is the most likely scenario in which information regarding the Bristol-Galway-Iceland route could have been shared with him. Such information could explain Columbus’ vague and incorrect notes and supplied him with details for the Paris Map. It is simply unknown if Bristolian merchants also shared the Íslendingasögur at La Rábida.


Seeking conclusions and closure in storytelling is a universal human instinct, but historical enquiry does not always satisfy this desire and all we can state for certain is an uncertainty: we do not know if Columbus ever knew of the Íslendingasögur. Written Íslendingasögur almost certainly never crossed Columbus during his time in the Mediterranean—but oral accounts may have, particularly at La Rábida. It is possible Columbus encountered the Íslendingasögur in either form in the North Atlantic—if he went there. He might have learned of the Viking colonies through Church sources—though this remains unclear. Frustrating as this may seem, the intertextuality of the Íslendingasögur offers a satisfaction to our need for narrative conclusion, a need which probably drives so much of the unsubstantiated writing on this subject. From our vantage point in the twenty-first century, by viewing the different strands of ‘discovery’ of the Americas, from Beringia to Vinland to Columbus, as individual episodes of one great human story requiring no fictional contrivances, we can appreciate the true wonder of humanity’s collective ‘Saga of the West’.



  1. Wilcomb E. Washburn, ‘The Meaning of “Discovery” in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries’, The American Historical Review, vol. 68, no. 1, October 1962, pp. 9–10.
  2. Emily Lethbridge, ‘The Icelandic Sagas and Saga Landscapes: Writing, Reading and Retelling Íslendingasögur Narratives’, Gripla, vol. 27, January 2016, p. 56.

  3. James H. Barrett, Contact, Continuity, and Collapse: The Norse Colonization of the North Atlantic (Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2003), p. 140.

  4. ‘ONP: Dictionary of Old Norse Prose’, University of Copenhagen,; accessed 22 January 2020.

  5. Ker Than, ‘On Way to New World, First Americans Made a 10,000-Year Pit Stop’, National Geographic;; accessed 29 January 2020.

  6. Emily Upton, ‘Why Greenland is an Island and Australia is a Continent’, University of California, Santa Barbara;; accessed 3 February 2020.

  7. Jonathan Clements, A Brief History of the Vikings (European Union: Avalon, 2005), pp. 150–151.

  8. ‘Eiríks Saga Rauða’, trans. J. Sephton, The Icelandic Saga Database;; accessed 24 January 2020.

  9. William W. Fitzhugh, ‘Puffins, Ringed Pins, and Runestones: The Viking Passage to America’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, ed. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution 2000), p. 13.

  10. John Noble Wilford, The Mysterious History of Columbus: An Exploration of the Man, the Myth, the Legacy (New York: Knopf, 1991), p. 75.

  11. Carol Delaney, ‘Columbus’s Ultimate Goal: Jerusalem’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 48, no. 2, April 2006, p. 266.

  12. Christopher Columbus, The Authentic Letters of Christopher Columbus, trans. William Eleroy Curtis (Chicago: Field Columbian Museum, 1895), pp. 118–192.

  13. Alexander Bugge, ‘The Origin and Credibility of the Icelandic Saga’, The American Historical Review, vol. 14, no. 2, January 1909, p. 259.

  14. James Graham-Campbell, The Viking World (Hong Kong: Frances Lincoln, 2001), p. 10.

  15. Knut Helle, ‘Introduction’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 5.

  16. Eljas Orrman, ‘Church and Society’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), pp. 457–458.

  17. Lars Lönnroth, Vésteinn Ólason, and Anders Piltz, ‘Literature’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 495.

  18. Thomas Lindkvist, ‘Early political organisation: (a) Introduction survey’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 160.

  19. Nicolas Jaramillo, Íslendingabók and the Book of the Icelandic Sagas (Oslo: University of Oslo Press, 2018), p. 10.

  20. Emily Lethbridge, ‘‘‘Hvorki glansar gull á mér/né glæstir stafir í línum”: A Survey of Medieval Icelandic Íslendingasögur Manuscripts and the Case of Njáls saga’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi, vol. 129, 2014, pp. 55–56.

  21. Ibid, p. 65.

  22. Valerie I. J. Flint, The Imaginative Landscape of Christopher Columbus (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), pp. 42–77.

  23. Ibid, pp. 78–112.

  24. Gianni Granzotto, Christopher Columbus (London: Guild Publishing, 1986), p. 34.

  25. William D. Phillips, Jr., ‘Columbus and European Views of the World’, The American Neptune, vol. 53, no. 4, Fall 1993, pp. 263–264.

  26. Clements, p. 137.

  27. Ibid, p. 8.

  28. Kirsten A. Seaver, The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca A.D. 1000-1500 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996), p. 256.

  29. Clements, p. 158.

  30. Lethbridge, 2016, pp. 54–55.

  31. Ibid, p. 75.

  32. Magnús Stefánsson, ‘8 (d) The Norse island communities of the Western Ocean’, The Cambridge History of Scandinavia: Volume I, Prehistory to 1520, ed. Knut Helle, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. 213.

  33. Lewis Rey, ‘The Evangelization of the Arctic in the Middle Ages: Gardar, the “Diocese of Ice”’, Arctic, vol. 37, no. 4, December 1984, pp. 330–331.

  34. Nicholas V, ‘Letter of Nicholas V., September 20, 1448’, The Voyages of the Northmen, ed. Julius E. Olson (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), pp. 70–71.

  35. Ibid, p. 70.

  36. Stefánsson, p. 212.

  37. R. I. Page, Chronicles of the Vikings: Records, Memorials, and Myths (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1995), pp. 92–93.

  38. Adam of Bremen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen, trans. Francis J. Tschan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), p. 219.

  39. Terry G. Lacy, Ring of Seasons: Iceland, Its Culture and History (United States: The University of Michigan Press, 1998), p. 133.

  40. Richard H. Clarke, Lives of the Deceased Bishops of the Catholic Church in the United States: Volume I (New York: P. O’Shea, 1872), p. 17.

  41. Stefánsson, p. 213.

  42. Rey, p. 331.

  43. Haraldur Ólafsson, ‘Sagas of Western Expansion’, Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, eds. William W. Fitzhugh and Elisabeth I. Ward (Japan: Smithsonian Institution, 2000) p. 143.

  44. Fitzhugh, p. 13.

  45. ‘About Iceland Review’, Iceland Review;; accessed 5 February 2020.

  46. David B. Quinn, ‘Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland’, The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 49, no. 2, April 1992, p. 285.

  47. Seaver, p. 208.

  48. Christopher Columbus, The Journal of Christopher Columbus (During His First Voyage, 1492–1493), trans. Clements Robert Markham, (London: Chas J. Clark, 1893), p. 121.

  49. Wilford, p. 76.

  50. Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Columbus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. xvii.

  51. P. E. H. Hair, ‘Was Columbus’ First Very Long Voyage a Voyage from Guinea?’, History in Africa, vol. 22, 1995, p. 223.

  52. Samuel Eliot Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1942), p. 41.

  53. Paulo Emilio Taviani, Christopher Columbus: The Grand Design, trans. William Weaver, ed. John Gilbert (London: Orbis Publishing, 1985), p. 319.

  54. Fernández-Armesto, p. xvii.

  55. Ibid, p. 19.

  56. Quinn, p. 284.

  57. Morison, p. 60.

  58. Robin Knox-Johnston, The Columbus Venture (London: BBC Books, 1991), p. 22.

  59. Alwyn A. Ruddock, ‘Columbus and Iceland: New Light on an Old Problem’, The Geographical Journal, vol. 136, no. 2, June 1970, p. 180.

  60. Ruddock, p. 180.

  61. Ferdinand Columbus, The Life of the Admiral Christopher Columbus: by his son Ferdinand, trans. Benjamin Keen (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1959), p. 11.

  62. Hanns Graefe, ‘Die Islandfahrt des Columbus vom Jahre 1477’, Erdkunde, vol. 9, no. 2, May 1955, p. 153.

  63. Seaver, pp. 210–211.

  64. Ruddock, p. 183.

  65. G. Storm, ‘Studier over Vinlandreiserne’, Aarbøger for nordisk Oldkyndighed og Historie, 1887, pp. 369–71.

  66. Cesare De Lollis, Cristoforo Colombo nella leggenda e nella storia (Rome: 1923), p. 44.

  67. Taviani, p. 351.

  68. Lacy, p. 133.

  69. Taviani, pp. 318–319.

  70. Quinn, p. 280.

  71. Seaver, pp. 208–210.

  72. Douglas Hunter, The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (United States: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), p. 213.

  73. Ruddock, p. 187.

Land of the Free

“What do you think dying would be like?” my cellmate, Michael, asks me. He’s 34 years old and has spent just three months ‘outside’ since he was 17. His daughter, now half his age, has only spent three months with her father. He’s covered in tattoos, dark green and black marks on his arms, legs, hands, neck, and face; skulls, crucifixes, illegible scrawls. He’s your worst nightmare. I’m not sure if Michael is trying to intimidate me with his question or if he’s just thinking about the person he had murdered. I decide to answer with a question of my own.

“Have you ever been put to sleep for surgery?”

“Yeah”, he replies, a little surprised.

“Well, do you remember how you went to sleep and then instantly woke up, as if no time had passed, but in reality, a few hours had gone by?”

“Yeah”, he nods slowly.

“So, obviously I don’t know for sure, and it’s different if you’re religious, but I have a feeling that’s what being dead is like. It’s not like when you’re asleep. When you’re asleep and you wake up you’re aware that some time has passed, right?”

A dark, contemplative frown adds an additional series of lines across Michael’s graffitied forehead.

“You’re right”, he eventually says, “You’re totally right. You don’t remember a thing.”

“Right, it’s not an experience of nothing, it’s more absent than that, it’s pure nothingness.”

“Holy shit”, he says, looking off into the corner of our white concrete cell, “It’s like how you don’t remember anything from before you were born.”

“I think so, yeah.”

“It’s nothing. It’s totally nothing.”

“Which makes life something, right?”

He nods.

“Holy shit, man, that’s like a fuckin’ revelation.”

Whether or not he was trying to intimidate me, he’s not anymore. I’ve somehow earned his respect. Not that I think I needed to. I don’t know the details of his past, I don’t know what he’s been through and what he’s put others through, but he’s being nice to me. At this point in time, that’s all I care about.

“It’s totally not like being asleep”, he continues, his mind still occupied with this, “It’s not like a bad dream. It’s just… nothing.”

He lies back on his bed, the bottom bunk, and I lie back on mine, the top bunk. While Michael thinks about how death isn’t like a bad dream, I think about how life has suddenly, somehow, become one.

I was on my way to visit my girlfriend and her parents in California. A day ago, I was in Wellington. How the hell did I end up sharing a prison cell with a murderer in the Federal Detention Center in Hawaii?

Rewind 24 hours.

I’m in Auckland International Airport talking to a kind-faced Malaysian man named Sun about his trip to the United States. We’re both waiting for our Hawaiian Airlines flight to Honolulu, after which he’s going to Los Angeles and I’m going to San Francisco. I’m planning on meeting my girlfriend, Emma, and her parents, who live on the other side of the Sacramento Valley in a small mountain town called Mi Wuk Village. Emma and I are planning on camping in some of the national parks and visiting places like Death Valley, Monument Valley, and Portland. West Coast road trip. In Portland, I have a friend that I have never met, the publisher of my book, The Bloom. We’re probably just going to get a beer and talk about life and literature in her favourite brewery. Sun is going to meet his wife in San Bernardino. We board the plane just after midnight on the 2nd of November and fly northward into the night sky.

I wake up several hours later and see the pale blue waters off the Hawaiian archipelago underneath the plane’s wings. Gliding over fishing boats dotted around Pearl Harbor, we touch down and disembark. The customs line is long and slow and I begin getting a little nervous that I’ll miss my connecting flight. With about an hour to spare, I finally make it to the customs desk. Instantly, things turn sour.

“What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?” the stern woman behind the computer, fingerprint machine, and camera asks me.

“I’m just transiting on my way to San Francisco.”

“Let me repeat”, the woman says coldly, “What’s your purpose for visiting the United States today, sir?”

Caught a little off-guard by her accusative tone, I go into more detail.

“Well, I’m going to San Francisco to meet my girlfriend and her parents.”

“You have a girlfriend in San Francisco?”

“Yes. Well, she’s staying with her parents about three hours out of the city.”

“What’s their address?”

Now, prior to leaving New Zealand, I had to apply for my ESTA visa, just like any other New Zealander travelling to the United States. It’s a simple enough process and doesn’t cost a lot, but it requires you to provide an address that you will be staying at upon your arrival in the country. I had tried putting Emma’s parents’ address into the online application form, but for whatever reason, it wouldn’t accept their rural address. I tried again and again but it simply wouldn’t work. Before picking me up from the airport in San Francisco, Emma was going to be staying at her friend’s house in Oakland, closer to the airport and an address that would surely work. So that’s the address I used on my ESTA visa application form. It worked. So, now that the customs official is asking me “What’s their address?”, I give her the Oakland address that I had used on the form to avoid complications.

It seems innocuous. Big mistake.

I search for the address in Emma and I’s WhatsApp messages before the customs official then asks to see my phone. I’m not sure if I have the right to deny this request, but either way, if I don’t give it to her she’ll surely become suspicious and if I do give it to her she’ll see the messages between myself and Emma in which we talk about the Oakland address being that of her friend. I’m damned either way. I give her my phone and she reads the messages.

“Come with me”, she says, taking my passport and cellphone with her.

My heart sinking, I follow her into a small side room. There are a couple of rows of seats all facing a big television playing MSNBC news. Something about the endless madness of Donald Trump’s presidency dominates the room. Along one side of the room are several CBP (Customs and Border Patrol) officers sitting in booths with dark uniforms, guns, and serious faces, all pouring over documents and computer screens. The woman who led me into the room doesn’t say anything as she shuts the door behind me. None of the other officers say anything either. After standing there in confusion for a few moments, I approach one of the booths.

“Excuse me”, I say, “Can you please tell me what’s going on? I have a connecting flight I need to catch.”

The officer doesn’t look up from his paperwork.

“Well”, he says, leafing through his documents, “What’s going on with you?”

I’m not sure what to make of this reply. And why won’t he look at me?

I sit back down and wait. I’ve got about 40 minutes to board my flight to San Francisco. I’m starting to get incredibly anxious. Finally, after maybe five or ten minutes, a CBP officer at a booth calls out my name, sort of.

“David Cole?”

“Yeah, that’s me. David Coyle.”

“Your passport is invalid.”

Now my heart is really racing. Before I left New Zealand I had gotten a brand new passport through the correct government channels. How could it be invalid?

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“It has no signature, it’s invalid”, the officer says, placing it on his desk with a pen. I don’t find the joke particularly funny, given the circumstances, but laugh it off nervously and sign it. I realise their ridiculous attitudes and personas are simply aimed at irritating and agitating me, though I’m not sure of the precise reason for this approach, other than perhaps making people ‘crack’ and thus allowing them to be hit with the full weight of the law. Why antagonism is their chosen modus operandi is a mystery to me. As much as I wish I didn’t, I sign my passport with a visible tremor in my hand.

“Why are you shaking?”

“I’m just a little nervous.”

“Is it a medical problem?”

“No, no, I’m just a little bit nervous”, I say, “I’ve got a flight to catch soon and I’m not really sure what the problem here is.”

“Are you sure it’s not a medical problem?”


“Why are you nervous?”

I know what he’s doing. He’s asking repetitive questions that have obvious answers.

“I just don’t want to miss my flight.”

“So you’re shaking because you don’t want to miss your flight?”


“Don’t know why that would make you shake unless it was a medical problem.”

“It’s not a medical problem.”

“Where are you going?”

“San Francisco.”


“To meet my girlfriend and visit her parents.”

“Who is your girlfriend?”

“Her name is Emma Serianni.”

“How do you spell that?”


“And why is she in San Francisco?”

“She lives there. Well, she used to. She’s a dual citizen of New Zealand and the United States but she’s wanting to start a new life in New Zealand. She’s coming back with me in December.”

“So where does she live?”

“She’s staying with her parents at the moment. They live in California, a little place called Mi Wuk Village.”

“You’re going to stay with your girlfriend’s parents until December?”

“Yes. We’re going to do a little bit of driving around the national parks and make our way up to Portland too to see a friend.”

“What friend?”

“The publisher of my book lives there. I’m a writer.”

“What’s their name?”

I tell him.

“That’s the publisher’s name?”


“And what are you going to do in Portland?”

“Just meet her and have a drink, I think she wants to show Emma and I around the city.”

“So you’ve never met this woman?”

“No, not in person. We’ve been contacting each other via email.”

“Please unlock your phone. I want to see these emails.”

He hands me my phone and I unlock it, still with a slight quiver in my fingers. I know this isn’t going well. I show him the emails between the publisher and I where she says she looks forward to meeting me and buying me a beer.

“What’s this woman’s phone number?” he asks, putting my phone down.

“I don’t know. I’ve always only ever emailed her.”

“You don’t know her phone number?”

“No. You could easily find it online if you Google her company.”

“And where are you going to stay in Portland?”

“We’re not sure yet, we don’t know exactly when we’re going to drive up there.”

“So you don’t have any accommodation booked?”

“Not yet, no.”

“And you don’t have this woman’s phone number?”

“No, but you could easily find it.”

“Do you have your girlfriend’s phone number.”

“It’s in my phone, yes.”

“But you don’t know it?”

“No, it’s in my phone.”

“How much does your book sell for?”

This sudden change in the line of questioning makes this whole exercise all the more dizzying than it already is.

“Thirty-four dollars, something like that, New Zealand dollars.”

“How much US?”

“I don’t know. Depends on the exchange rate. Maybe twenty dollars.”

“Twenty dollars US?”


“What’s it called?”

“‘The Bloom’”.

“‘The Bloom’?”


“What’s it about?”

“Ah, it’s a complicated story, it’s a long poem, an epic poem.”

“An epic poem? What’s that?”

“It’s just a really long poem that tells a story.”

“So you’re doing business in Portland?”

“No. We’re just going to go for a beer, maybe she’ll show me around the office, I don’t know.”

“Why would she show you around the office?”

“I don’t know, just to introduce me to people, maybe show me how they make books. It’s a pretty casual meeting, definitely not business. You can see in the emails it isn’t business.”

“What’s your girlfriend’s name?”

“I already told you.”

“Tell me again.”

“Emma Serriani.”

“What does she do?”

“She’s between jobs at the moment, she’s hoping to find something in New Zealand in the near future.”


“Yeah, a job.”

“What kind of job?”

“Well, an office job, maybe immigration or at the local university.”

“What university?”

“Victoria University.”

“Where’s that?”



“Yeah. It’s the capital.”

“Why does she want to leave the US?”

I have to seriously bite my tongue here.

“She just wants to start a new life in New Zealand.”

“Where did you meet her?”

“In Wellington.”


“By the city library.”

“What’s the name of the library?”

“The Wellington City Library.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a student.”

“What do you study?”

“English literature, history, and Spanish.”

“¿Hablas español?”


“Why are you learning Spanish?”

“I lived in Mexico for a while, it’s a beautiful language.”

“You lived in Mexico?”

“Yes, I taught English.”

“Where in Mexico?”


“Where’s that?”

“It’s about two hours north of Mexico City.”

“So you speak Spanish?”

“Not fluently, but I can hold a conversation.”

“How did you afford this trip if you’re a student?”

“My grandfather died recently and left me with some inheritance.”

“When did your grandfather die?”


“What day?”

“I don’t know. I’d have to check.”

“You don’t know what day he died even though he left you with an inheritance?”

“It was mid-April. As I said, I’d have to check.”

“And he would want you to spend his money on a holiday?”

“I think he’d want me to enjoy life, yes.”

“What’s your father’s name?”

This kind of insane, pinball questioning lasts for two hours. I miss my flight. I start thinking I need to contact Emma and tell her I will be late. The CBP officer finally tells me I can sit down. The television is still on about Trump. The insanity begins to feel so very real. A few minutes later, the officer goes through my luggage. He goes through my backpack. He finds the two books that I’ve been reading, one on African dictators and Edward Snowden’s autobiography.

“You like reading about criminals?” he asks.

“Lots of people do”, I say, my patience running out.

He finds the chocolates I’m bringing for Emma’s mother.

“That’s all you’re going to give your girlfriend’s mother, some chocolates?”

“That’s all she wanted.”

He finds my notebook. It’s a personal diary that I’ve kept for the last few years. It’s full of ideas, thoughts, personal reflections, dark rumination, sad musings, despair, hope for the future. He begins reading it.

“You have depression?” he asks.

“Yes. Although, I’m feeling fine now.”

He keeps reading.

“Your girlfriend had an abortion?”

“My ex-girlfriend did, yes.”

“What was that like?”

“Excuse me?”

“What did that feel like?”

I pause in an effort to remain calm. I’m feeling like ripping this bastard’s head off. I give him a dead stare that I hope tells him he’s crossing the line.

“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy”, I say through gritted teeth.

He seems unfazed by his behaviour. He seems convinced I’m some sort of criminal, a drug runner perhaps, someone with suspicious connections to Mexico. I don’t really know what he’s thinking. I doubt it’s anything particularly intelligent. He finds the worthless Cambodian banknote that I’ve been using as a bookmark in one of my books.

“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”

“That’s a souvenir.”

“Is there any other foreign currency you’re not telling me about?”


He finishes ransacking my stuff before letting me pack it all back up again. He leads me to an interview room. He makes me raise my right hand and pledge, I’m not sure on what, to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. He questions me in this same absurd fashion for two more hours, pistol on his belt. At some point in this circus, I come to terms with the inevitable. He probably decided four hours ago that he wasn’t going to let me into the country. I’m heartbroken. I just wanted to see my girlfriend and meet her parents and my friend.

“You falsified a federal document and lied to a federal officer” he finally says, having evidently killed enough of his shift, “As such, you’re in violation of section [I can’t remember what number] of the [something-something] Act and I have no choice but to deem you as inadmissible to the United States.”

He goes on talking in more of this masturbatory language. I don’t bother saying anything. The ability to change someone’s mind is dependent on the premise that they have one to begin with. He tells me he’s going to send me back to New Zealand on the next available flight. The next available flight isn’t until the following day, so he’s sending me to the Federal Detention Center, Honolulu. I’m not going to California, I’m going to jail.

I’m allowed to make a brief phone call to the New Zealand consulate in Honolulu. I ask the friendly kiwi accent on the other end of the phone to call Emma and my father to let them know what’s happened.

After making me take off my shoes, my belt, my hoodie, and my necklaces, I’m thoroughly patted down. It’s done in front of other CBP officers and is uncomfortable to say the least. I then have to face the wall, spread my feet, lean forward, and put my hands behind my back. Another officer cuffs me and he and his partner lead me through the airport to a waiting police car outside. The hot Hawaiian air hits me like a warm blanket. I’m shunted into the back of the cop car and driven to the twelve-story prison nearby.

I ignore the thick-necked officers’ attempts to chat to me and instead think of a certain irony. I’m thinking of the phrase that has always inspired me to travel, “Ships are safest in harbour but that is not what they are for”. In 1941, the Japanese attacked the US Pacific fleet while it was at anchor nearby in Pearl Harbor. The knockout blow that the Japanese had hoped to administer failed in part because none of the American aircraft carriers were in port that day. As it would turn out, aircraft carriers would prove to be the most important weapons in the war in the Pacific. As we arrive at the prison, formulating the exact contours and irony of this metaphor is how I distract my heartbreak.

Led into the basement of the building, I’m told to strip naked before being given pale green prison clothes and black Velcro shoes. I’m mugshot and fingerprinted. The medical officer asks me if I have sex with men or women before asking how many partners I’ve had in the last five years. He asks if I have HIV or if I’ve ever been raped. He tells me I can’t have my depression and anxiety medication because it isn’t life-threatening. Another officer then asks if I have any gang affiliations or tattoos and if I’ve ever testified against anyone in court. I’m cleared for admission into general population and told to wait in an empty concrete room. The echo of steel and concrete and the banality of white fluorescent lights make me realise this is a real prison. I see someone has scratched into the metal bench the words ‘BE HAPPY’. I’m far from happy. However, I gain some perspective when an old Samoan prisoner is ushered into the room with me. He tells me his wife and children are American citizens but that his green card application was denied. He was therefore in the United States illegally and locked up while he waits to be deported back to Samoa. He’s a nice man and puts me at ease somewhat as to who I’m about to encounter in general population. But he’s old and I’m pretty sure the prisoners will have different attitudes towards the elderly.

He and I are soon led upstairs to the male prison block. We have to face the back of the elevator as it takes us up. The particular part of the prison where I’m taken is a big long room with two levels of cells lining the perimeter. There’s stairs leading up to the upper level and tables lining the ground floor. It’s dinner time when I arrive and I can see all the prisoners are sitting in racial groups; black guys huddled around one set of tables, Hispanic guys huddled around another, Hawaiians and other Polynesians around another, Asians another, and white guys another. Everyone eyes me up as I walk towards my cell, number 218 on the second level. I don’t make eye-contact with anyone, but I also don’t keep my head low. I do my best not to look scared as shit, and I’m scared as shit. In my peripheral vision are the meanest looking mother fuckers; bald heads covered in vicious ink, teardrop tattoos running down their cheeks, muscles indicative of years pent up in confinement with only push-ups to pass the time. I’d be made a fucking meal of in no time. Passing the Hispanic prisoners, I hear the filthiest Spanish being spoken, but thankfully none of them are saying anything about me, though I can feel their eyes on me.

The guard leads me to 218 and pushes the door open. Being dinner time, it isn’t locked. I step inside 218 and see my cellmate, Michael, lying on the bottom bunk and reading A Tale of Two Cities.

“Hey”, I say.


“‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times’”, I say, quoting the opening line of his book.

“How’d you know that?” he says, sitting up.

“It’s a good book, huh?”

“It’s alright”, he shrugs, lying back down.

“I’m Dave.”

“Michael”, he says, reading his book, “Shoes by the door and sit down to pee, otherwise piss splashes everywhere.”

I see the toilet in the corner of the room.


Climbing the bunk, I lie on my back and keep quiet.

“So what ya in for, Dave?”

I tell him. He doesn’t believe me.

“They put you in here for that?”


“C’mon, man, what you hidin’?”


“Fuckin’ hell”, I hear him say from the bottom bunk.

“How about you?” I ask.


I don’t ask for any more detail. I offer him the orange they gave downstairs while they were processing me and at first he’s suspicious.

“What do you want for this?”

“Nothing, man. Honest. It’s yours.”

“You don’t want it?”

“Go for it, man.”


Gradually, the conversation starts flowing a little more easily.

“So where you from anyway?”

“New Zealand.”

“New Zealand! Shit. I heard it’s real nice down there.”

“It’s got its problems, like anywhere, but it’s nice, yeah. The police don’t carry guns.”

“What! The police don’t carry guns! How the fuck do they stop the criminals?”

“They keep their guns in their cars. Besides, not many criminals have guns.”

“Man, I gotta go someplace peaceful like that. I wouldn’t even do anything. I’d just hang out. The police don’t carry guns. Holy shit, man, that’s fuckin’ crazy.”

He asks if I have anything to read and offers me an old book of short stories. I stare at the pages but very little of it goes in.

“What time do they wake us up?” I then ask.

This is the only time Michael seems angry with me.

“Don’t ever fuckin’ talk to me about time, man. Six o’clock, eight o’clock, what the hell fuckin’ difference does it make?”

I don’t say anything. We just lie there and read. Michael’s friend from another cell, whose name I miss, then comes in and sits down. He’s missing his front teeth and has a skeleton tattoo on his face.

“They locked you up with a murderer for that?” he asks when I tell him why I’m there. I glance briefly at Michael who’s sat himself on a small table, he doesn’t acknowledge or deny the charge.

“Shit. Welcome to the U-nited States, huh?” his friend laughs, “They lock you up real fast around here.”

They tell me about their time in different prisons across the United States; Hawaii, Oklahoma, Arizona, Missouri. As they swap stories, I realise I’m no longer scared. I don’t know exactly who I’m talking to, but at least they’re real people, unlike the robotic authorities. I actually start to enjoy the conversation. They find it hilarious that we called being drunk in New Zealand being “pissed”.

Michael’s friend asks if I enjoy the food here. I tell him I haven’t tried it. He asks if he can have my meal downstairs and I say of course he can. We head down to the ground floor with all the other prisoners huddled around their tables. Some are watching a repeat of the World Series and some are playing chess. I get my meal and give it to Michael’s friend. He slinks off and I don’t see him again. Walking back to 218, I stop to watch two guys playing chess. They’re black and white, like the pieces, and I realise that either the self-imposed segregation isn’t as strict as I first thought it was, or games are an acceptable middle ground in which to mix and meet. The white guy loses and since I’ve been watching the game, the black guy asks if I want to play. He’s good, but I beat him.

“You got game, son, you got game, I’ll give you that!”

We start talking about strategy and how the game could have gone differently. For a moment, I forget I’m in jail. He packs up his chessboard and I’m left sitting at the table. Two Hispanic prisoners then sit down to play cards.

“You’re good sitting there, man”, one says to me in English, “You don’t get in our way and we won’t get in yours.”

I decide not to reply in Spanish and instead let them have the table to themselves. Feeling a little more comfortable, I walk around and see a small library, a kind of chapel room, and a shower block. The lights soon blink off and on and the prisoners begin slowly walking back to their cells. Dinner time is over, lock up has begun.

This is when Michael asks me what I think dying would be like. He keeps talking about death, the universe, God, and the nature of hallucinations, group and individual, for a couple of hours. He’s got those wide eyes where you can see the entire white outline of his iris. It has the effect of making him appear particularly frightening at certain moments when saying certain things. His conversation is real prison philosophy stuff, limited, like the prisoner, by the confines of his reality. It’s interesting, nonetheless. I can tell he’s had nothing but a lot of time to sit and read and think. His conversation fades away after lights out with him repeating my thoughts on death.

“It’s nothing, nothing” he keeps saying.

Then he makes me smile to myself.

“I mean, nothing isn’t ideal”, he says, “but it could be worse.”

It could be worse.

I don’t get to sleep for a long time. Not only am I thinking about how I should be driving through San Francisco with Emma at that very moment, but because I wasn’t allowed my medication, I can’t sleep. Taking the medication helps me sleep, not taking it makes me  incredibly anxious. It’s like trying to sleep after having three cups of coffee and an argument with your boss. Not only that, but I’m prone to having weird and noisy nightmares if I miss my medication. The last thing I want is to have a loud or embarrassing nightmare in a cell with a murderer.

When a guard wakes me up in the morning, I’ve had maybe two hours sleep. Michael bumps my fist as I leave.

“Don’t ever come back, man”, he says.

“I won’t”, I tell him, “And just remember, there’s nothing to it.”

The same procedure as when I arrived, just in the opposite order, then sees me handcuffed in the back of another police car driving to the airport. The officer keeps telling me that I smell. I don’t reply.

Back in the airport, I’m put in a holding room of some kind for six hours until my flight. They offer me food and water, but I’m neither hungry nor thirsty. I just want to go home. Bored out of my brain, I eventually get given something to read. I look at the words but struggle to take anything in. Finally, I’m escorted by a policeman through the airport to my flight to Auckland. Along the way, I see an official portrait of Donald Trump hanging up on a wall. I have had many great experiences in the United States in the past, it’s an incredible country filled with wonderful people and fascinating places that have a lot to offer, but this particular experience, this particular portrait—it’s the ugly, the punitive, the paranoid dark side. I can’t wait to leave it.

When the plane lands in Auckland eight hours later, the head flight attendant gives me my passport back. The nightmare is over. I’m back in New Zealand. I’m back in paradise. I’m home.

Curiously, however, when driving back to Wellington and stopping at a bar to enjoy a pint and watch a pink and yellow sunset over Lake Taupo, the snowcapped peaks of Ruapehu and Ngauruhoe shining brightly in the distance, I then get an unusual email. It’s from a reporter working for Stuff and The Dominion Post. She says that she has heard about my experience in Honolulu and wants to call me. None of my friends know I’m in Taupo, only my immediate family, everyone else thinks I’m in California enjoying my holiday. I fire back an email asking how she found out about what happened to me in Hawaii. She says she can’t tell me. I reply that, therefore, I can’t tell her anything either.

I finish my beer as the purple sky deepens. I think of John Lennon’s “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Heartbroken, but not broken, I begin planning for Emma’s arrival in December.


[I decided not to go to the press with this story. If I ever want to visit the United States again (and despite what their government might think, I really don’t want to visit again, especially not any time soon), but if I do want to visit, I have to go for an interview at the consulate in Auckland and pay $260 (I have to do this even if I’m just transiting through the country and not leaving the airport, for the rest of my life). If I had given the press this story, I can’t imagine my interview at the consulate would go well. I decided to write this account for my friends and family on my own website where I can control what is written and when it is taken down, probably in a couple of weeks. And let’s be honest, this basically just saves me from retelling the story a thousand times over!]

Sonnet of Colour


One day of blue in twenty-fourteen’s June,
Sunburnt was I, my face as vinted fire
From San Francisco’s golden afternoon;
My cheeks; a red not seen since ardour’s ire.
Was when at dark, as I was walking home
Through Tenderloin, blackest of the districts,
In yellow shame, I gave a man a loan;
One green George Washington paper ticket.
When shouted a homeless girl down the street
“Hey! White boy! White boy! Give me a dollar!”
“Well, alright, but don’t call me ‘white boy’, please,
For we all bleed the same blooming colour.”
Was then the homeless man looked up and said
“Yeah, girl, can’t you see? He ain’t white – he red!”

a wet night in wellington


I look up and see
a storm of a thousand falling lights;
swirling droplets of white ember,
silver beads.

Evening air flickers with rain,
cast under the ink,
passing through the black
naked branches of a tree;
pearl outlines the leaves,
deeper green than the shaded seas
an inlet a mile deep.

The madman without shoes;
rocks upon his folded knees,
sat in the ashes of the cigarettes
he collects
and smokes,
“The madman without direction;
rocks about the dampened streets,
mind the puddles.”

Television skies,
roaming channel greys
felt on cheeks like pins;
ice dabbing not the ears,
the eyes.

Breath-like smoke,
huddled girls looking for a jacket.

Left Bank to Opera House Lane
then home;
rows of punked-up concrete,
metal grails,
brickwork bracing downcast waters
to wash us all away.

My toes are wet.

Cuba Street

A bar called Highwater
Is where the sea once fell ashore
In unseen, endless bends of foam.
The Ivy: a queer reminder of
How green flora vanished into moss.

A homeless man is kicked out of it;
The bar, that is.
Tossed again into gutters of beer and smoke,
Muttering “**** the Council”
And kicking a can himself.

A well-dressed man shakes his head,
The silk tie hanging around his neck
In choking disapproval.
But he will say the same
Three words at his three o’clock appointment.

A busker plays a song for coins;
The silent beggar plays far sweeter
Music in his mind.
His debt is eternal.

A ripped poster for a gig
(at which the couple holding hands will break
each others’ hearts)
Is torn up further in the wind.

“A Ghost In Spite of Himself”
Opens at eleven – tickets cost the world.

A black Saturn overhead tonight,
One star alone is shining:
Its name is WISE-1049;
It’s six light years away,
So don’t forget to see it burning.

A young man enters Hotel Bristol.
He’s old enough to buy and beer and gamble
Just the sort of man he’ll be
In six more flaming candles.

Continuous manmade sleep is sought
And on this avenue believed.


Mexican soldier guards marijuana bonfire

(i) A Mexican soldier stands guard as marijuana is incinerated behind him in the border city of Tijuana, 20 October 2010. Tijuana is a major drug smuggling route into the United States, making it one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Its homicide rate is nearly seventy times higher than that just across the border in San Diego (1).


Nixon and Elvis

(ii) Elvis Presley meets President Nixon at the White House, 21 December 1970.

Elvis Presley’s photograph with President Nixon during a visit to the White House on December 21, 1970, became a powerful cultural endorsement for Nixon’s so-called ‘war on drugs’. Speaking of drugs as “anti-American”, Elvis told Nixon he blamed drug abuse on communist brainwashing and the Beatles. Saying he was “accepted by the hippies”, he pledged to support the President’s anti-drug agenda and asked for a Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) badge for his collection. He got one (2).

Six months later in June 1971, the term itself—‘war on drugs’—was being popularised by the American press following Nixon’s own pledge to wage a “‘national offensive’ against drug abuse” (3). The Controlled Substances Act (1970) had gone into effect in May and gave Nixon the renewed ability to declare such an offensive, while the means to carry it out came in July 1973, with the establishment of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

The 1970s, however, do not actually mark the beginning of America’s drug war. Rather, they are part of a pattern of escalation, one which continued in the 1980s when Pablo Escobar expanded the Colombian cocaine market, making him the richest criminal in history and ensuring that billion dollar drug cartels would remain in his place ever since (4). President Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to stop illegal immigration and drug imports is a contemporary example of this escalation.

This pattern also appears in statistics: in the last twenty years, DEA funding has doubled and fatal overdoses from illicit substances have quadrupled (5). These overdoses are on top of the thousands of other victims resulting from direct or indirect contact with the black market, both domestically and internationally. If only counting from Nixon’s speech in 1971, the war on drugs is still America’s longest and deadliest conflict; approaching half a century and millions of victims.

In reality, it is much longer and much deadlier.

Focusing on federal government legislation, this blog will provide historical context for understanding why this conflict has taken this devastating trajectory, charting development over time, and explaining why one battlefield in particular—marijuana—is so hotly contested today. The federal government did not start this war, but it has left an indelible impact on how it continues to be fought.


Opium Wars

(iii) British East India Company iron steamship Nemesis destroying Chinese war junks, Anson’s Bay, 7 January 1841. Painting by Edward Duncan, 1843.

Human drug use is older than human civilisation and societies around the world have had long and varied relationships with it (6). However, when British warships forced China into repealing its 1729 prohibition of opium, first in 1839 and again in 1856, modern drug use became forever entwined with economics, race, globalisation, and violence (7). The California Gold Rush of 1847 to 1855 then saw approximately 25,000 Chinese immigrants arriving in the United States, some inevitably bringing their opium habits with them (8).

In 1804, Friedrich Sertürner synthesised morphine from opium, naming it after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams (9). Charles Wright first synthesised diamorphine in 1874, but it was not until 1897, when Bayer pharmaceutical company employee, Heinrich Dreser, independently synthesised the drug that it became commercially available under its brand name, heroin (10).

Historian Johnathan Lewy discusses how usage of these opiates in America grew significantly after conventional wars. In 1898, victory in the Spanish- American War made the Philippine opium trade an American problem, while the First and Second World Wars, followed by Korea and Vietnam, saw rises in the numbers of morphine and heroin addicts (11). Lewy theorises that white America’s relationship with opiates may have its roots in the invention of the hypodermic needle and its use to administer morphine during the Civil War (12). In the wake of all of these factors, San Francisco became an early drug war frontline by outlawing opium dens in 1875 (13).

Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the cocaine alkaloid in 1856 and by 1886 John Pemberton’s popular recipe for Coca-Cola was among many commercially available products containing the drug (14). This was because, nationally, no laws prohibited anything. Howsoever it had formed, by 1900, America’s relationship with drugs was manifest in the booming patent medicine industry; opium, morphine, heroin, and cocaine were all legally available to anyone who wanted them (15).

Focusing on Chicago at the turn of the century, historian Joseph Spillane writes that “The rise of ‘recreational’ usage of cocaine and opiates at the end of the nineteenth century, especially among socially and economically marginal groups, created a sense of public crisis” (16). Spillane claims the foundations for this panic were “both real and imagined” (17). Chicago’s authorities reacted, as had San Francisco’s in 1875, driving the drug trade underground where it began “bearing most of the characteristic features of the contemporary illicit drug trade” (18).

Historian Michael M Cohen, meanwhile, alleges that “the root of the drug- prohibition movement in the United States is race” (19). He claims that San Francisco’s 1875 clampdown on opium dens came “lest some white woman should fall into the hands of the yellow peril” (20). He also points to the myth of “negro cocaine fiends”, which claimed cocaine made black men superhumanly sex-crazed and violent, as driving the anti-cocaine movements of the Jim Crow South (21). Cohen also suggests that Mexican labourers migrating into California and Texas during the economic hardships of the Great Depression were the basis for the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 (22). He then concludes:

When it came time for the United States to declare its first war on drugs during the Progressive era, the South’s racial politics fused with broad national anxieties about race and immigration to shape dramatically not only U.S. public policy but also the nation’s moral judgments about drugs as well (23).

This last point on morality is what Spillane writes about, citing plenty of primary sources, like as municipal investigations and reports, and engaging them in a complex dialogue with each other. Cohen relies more heavily on secondary sources, however, both historians identify crucial pieces of a complex puzzle: moral panicking and racism. Their given timeframes of investigation are 1890 to 1940, with a thirty-year overlap of 1900 to 1930.

In Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial, Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas devote their fourth chapter to a similar time period, titling it ‘The Punitive Paradigm: The Early Struggles, 1900–1930’ (24). This coincides with the prohibition of alcohol in 1920 and its repeal in 1933 and adds legitimacy to scrutinising the federal government’s actions in this era (25).


Upton Sinclair's The Jungle cover(iv) Cover of the first edition of Upton Sinclair’s 1906 landmark work, ‘The Jungle’.

The federal government’s first effort to legislate drug use was the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. It came about after the collective work of various people and institutions, including the American Pharmaceutical Association, investigative journalist Upton Sinclair, and many others working within the nation’s rapidly urbanising landscape. Published in 1906, Sinclair’s The Jungle exposed the unhygienic conditions in which many migrants were forced to work in the meatpacking industry, highlighting the need for urgent national regulations of consumable products (26).

Targeting the food and patent medicine industries, the law’s stated purpose was “preventing the manufacture, sale, or transportation of adulterated or misbranded or poisonous or deleterious foods, drugs, medicines, and liquors, and for regulating traffic therein” (27). Among other repercussions, the law “required that all narcotic ingredients, as well as cannabis, be listed on the labels of any patent medicines shipped in interstate commerce” (28). The legislation also led to the creation of the Bureau of Chemistry, renamed the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1930.

Importantly, the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 did not criminalise the issue of drugs. It merely regulated their use as a health issue.

Mrs Winslows Soothing Syrup

(v) Before in 1906, Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for babies did not have to mention that it contained morphine and alcohol.


The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 was successful at regulating the food industry and reining in the patent medicine industry; for example, Coca-Cola no longer included cocaine (29). However, the law did not address the underlying issue of morality that Spillane suggests underscored the anti-drug movements at this time. In other words, drug users were still not criminals.

As mentioned, America’s acquisition of the Philippines and its opium trade in 1898 perpetuated the “internationalization of the problem” (30). Then, The Hague’s International Conference on Opium in 1911 ended without a consensus on the need for international drug laws, but it did “open the door to domestic narcotics legislation” in the United States (31).

San Francisco opium bonfire 1914(vi) Opium, morphine, and heroin about to be burned in front of San Francisco City Hall, still under reconstruction following the 1906 earthquake, February 1914.

Having attended the 1911 conference, Dr Hamilton Wright—“the father of American narcotics laws”—led calls for a federal bill “that would eliminate all non-medical use of narcotics” (32).

The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 is described by historian Erich Goode as “the single most important piece of drug legislation ever enacted in the United States” (33). It was sponsored by New York Democrat, Representative Francis Harrison, who cited an “enormous increase in the importation of and consumption of opium in the United States” (34). With cooperation from major pharmaceutical associations and with no organised resistance from drug users, Harrison’s act became law (35). Only Southern Democrats, worried of federal government infringement of states’ rights, voiced any opposition (36).

The law stipulated three requirements for anyone trading in “opium or coca leaves, their salts, [and] derivatives” (37). First, traders had to register with the federal government (38). Second, records had to be kept of all transactions (39). Third, taxes had to be paid (40). Technically speaking, the law’s language did not criminalise drug sellers or users, but punishments for noncompliance on behalf of retailers made the trade “more troublesome than profitable” (41).

The law also required unregistered buyers (drug users) to obtain prescriptions for their drugs, which could be issued by physicians in “good faith” (42). Almost immediately, a Pittsburgh physician’s arrest for prescribing drugs to an addict led to the Supreme Court ruling that the language of “good- faith” was “so far vague” and ruled in favour of the physician (43). Even so, between 1914 and 1938, nearly 30,000 medical professionals were arrested and nearly 3,000 served sentences (44). This pressure saw the medical profession withdrawing from the dispensing of narcotics and addicts were forced to turn to the black market.

By its very nature, drug addiction was thus implicitly unlawful, and by the 1920s, drug users had been transformed from patients into criminals.


The First World War, the failed prohibition of alcohol, and the Great Depression were transformative events on an unprecedented scale. The economic, social, political, and technological landscapes were dramatically altered and influenced how the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 came about. The effects of this law are still being reckoned with today.

In June 1930, the agencies tasked with implementing the Harrison Narcotics Act of 1914 were merged into the Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN). Journalist Johann Hari claims that the newly-appointed FBN Director, Harry J Anslinger, sought to prevent his agency from fading into irrelevancy as support for the prohibition of alcohol began to wane (45). However, newspaper articles linking marijuana to violent crime date back to at least 1919, with New Orleans police making their first arrests for possession of “a Mexican smoking weed better known as ‘Mary Warner’” in June 1923 (46).

Evidently, however, unlike opiates and cocaine, marijuana was not as widely known by the American public. Mirroring opium’s early entanglement with race and economics, marijuana’s use in America is generally attributed to Mexican migrant farm workers in the states along the border (47). During the Great Depression, these Mexican labourers began seeking employment in places like California, Texas, and Louisiana (48). It was in New Orleans that marijuana began being introduced into the African American community, where it entered jazz musician circles, black and white, who in turn introduced it to intellectuals and criminals alike (49).

In November 1926, Dr W A Evans sought to reassure the public of their growing concerns of this new “Mexican drug” (50). He wrote that it is “mistaken” to suppose “the drug is habit forming, or that it renders its victim a public menace”. Of its effects, he wrote that one “laughs inordinately; he is annoyingly ostentatious to the opposite sex; jazz works him into a frenzy of joy; he is quite imbecile in his words and actions yet he is not dangerous” (51).

That same month, the use of marijuana by American soldiers stationed in the Panama Canal Zone was the subject of an extensive investigation. The investigation concluded that “The influence of the drug when used for smoking is uncertain and appears to have been greatly exaggerated. The reports seem to have little basis in fact, and there is no medical evidence that it causes insanity” (52).

However, towards the end of the 1920s, with Mexican immigration increasing, these early reports were drowned out as a mutually beneficial relationship between newspaper mogul, William Randolph Hearst, and Anslinger began to form (53). The FBN fed increasingly salacious stories of marijuana-induced rapes, murders, suicides, and insanity to Hearst, helping boost newspaper sales while also helping the FBN to ferment the public opinion needed for a federal ban (54).

Full page articles were published describing marijuana as “evil”, “insidious”, and “a false god” (55). It was also called “Green Goddess” and “loco weed” (56). Spillane’s moral panics and Cohen’s racism is evident: “The drug is particularly popular with Latin Americans … its use is rapidly spreading to include all classes” (57). Testifying before the Wickersham Commission in 1931, New Orleans Police Captain Richmond Hobson said marijuana “motivates the most atrocious acts” (58).

That marijuana inspired criminal behaviour was a common theme, one article stating that “When smoked in cigaret [sic] form, marijuana has an effect similar to that of cocaine … It undermines both body and mind, one of its most vicious effects being the development of criminal traits” (59). Anslinger himself appeared in numerous newspapers, explaining how marijuana’s late arrival meant it was not covered by the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act, and since only California, Texas, and Louisiana had prohibited the plant, a federal ban was needed (60).

Even after the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was enacted, FBI Director J Edgar Hoover wrote articles like ‘War on the Sex Criminal!’—an early use of the terminology ‘war on…’—where he blamed marijuana for “torture, rape, mutilation, and murder”. Noting “The sex fiend may strike anywhere, at any time”, Hoover praises Anslinger’s work towards the “eradication of a drug which violently affects the sex impulses” (61).

Scholarly work added to this literature condemning marijuana. Publishing ‘Marihuana as a Developer of Criminals’ in 1931, Eugene Stanley writes how marijuana causes “a rapid flow of ideas of a sexual nature” before detailing a Persian ritual of sexual domination of “young men whom the Shiek [sic] desired to subjugate”. He also tells how the word ‘assassin’ derives from the Arabic name of a Persian military unit given hashish (marijuana) and called “Hashishan” (62). Testifying before Congress in 1937, Anslinger repeated this story (63).

This mixture of exoticism, eroticism, racism, and fear can be seen in Louis Gasnier’s Reefer Madness propaganda film. Released in 1936, it claimed to depict the dangers of marijuana. What it really depicts is the result of the media and federal government’s overzealous reaction to marijuana. The title is now synonymous with this era of fear and disinformation.

Anslinger’s law imposed a so-called ‘nuisance’ tax of one dollar on marijuana sales. Anyone found with marijuana without proof of paying this tax could be fined or imprisoned. In 1969, after marijuana’s upsurge in popularity during the 1960s brought it to the fore, the Supreme Court ruled the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 unconstitutional. Controversial psychologist, Timothy Leary, had claimed that showing proof of this tax’s payment forced him to incriminate himself, violating his rights under the Fifth Amendment (64). This led to the Controlled Substances Act (1970), which remains in force to this day.

The hysteria of the reefer madness era was still being felt, and in the heightened political climate of the 1960s, marijuana was classed as a Schedule I narcotic, meaning it has “high abuse potential, no medical use, and severe safety concerns” at a federal level (65).

Reefer Madness movie poster(vii) Theatrical release poster for ‘Reefer Madness’, 1 January 1936.


Considering marijuana’s strictest possible classification at a federal level, as the map below indicates, the government is not enforcing this law.

(viii) The legal status of marijuana by state as of 18 May 2019 (66).

Legal status of marijuana by state

Ten states have now legalised marijuana for full commercial use, a reversal of the gradual state-by-state prohibition seen in the 1930s before the federal ban came into force. In a twist of irony, the nation’s capital, the very city trying to impose a nationwide prohibition, has legalised the drug. This blog has shown why this particular battlefront has come about; by the federal government’s reaction to public fears, moral and racial, “both real and imagined” (67).

President Carter tried to deescalate the war, saying “We can, and should, continue to discourage the use of marijuana, but this can be done without defining the smoker as a criminal” (68). His proposal went nowhere and with President Reagan, alongside his wife Nancy’s anti-drugs campaign of ‘Just Say No’, and with President Bush also, “the drug war escalated as never before” (69). President Clinton, who claimed to have once smoked marijuana but without inhaling it, later said “[President Bush] hasn’t fought a real war on crime and drugs; I will” (70).

Fatal drug overdoses from illicit substances have increased fourfold since Clinton’s hardline rhetoric with 70,237 Americans dying in 2017 (71). Over half a million Americans die each year from tobacco and alcohol (72). Deaths from marijuana are difficult to calculate partly because marijuana is often used concurrently with other drugs (73). Of those 70,237 deaths in 2017, however, none were attributed to marijuana alone. This is not to say that marijuana is without risks, particularly concerning the mental health of habitual users, especially so in teenage users (74). Yet with two-thirds of Americans supporting legalisation and 41.9% claiming to have used marijuana at least once, including President Obama, the Schedule I classification is appearing increasingly unsustainable (75).

For some, the first African American president also being the first to openly admit to marijuana use likely further conflated the issue of race and drugs. For others, it likely reaffirmed their beliefs of the relatively benign nature of the drug. The history of racism, however, is evidenced in today’s incarceration rates; the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) stating that “African Americans and whites use drugs at similar rates, but the imprisonment rate of African Americans for drug charges is almost 6 times that of whites” (76).

Obama smoking(ix) President Obama photographed smoking marijuana while attending Occidental College in Los Angeles, 1980, circa Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ campaign.

This blog has shown why finding the line for marijuana between the laissez-faire approach of the late nineteenth century and the increasingly severe approach adopted by the federal government during the twentieth century is being so fiercely contested today. But will the outcome of the battle of marijuana help bring about a conclusion to the war on drugs? As this blog has shown, the scope of factors that contributed to the war is nothing if not extraordinarily vast and complex. Critics of America’s drug war often point to Portugal, which decriminalised all drugs in 2001, as an alternative model of how central governments can deescalate the seemingly endless trend the war has developed. Studying a decade of data, criminologists Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens conclude:

Decriminalization of illicit drug use and possession does not appear to lead automatically to an increase in drug-related harms. Nor does it eliminate all drug-related problems. But it may offer a model for other nations that wish to provide less punitive, more integrated and effective responses to drug use (77).

One thing is certain: the war is far from over.




1. Kate Linthicum, ‘Meth and murder: A new kind of drug war has made Tijuana one of the deadliest cities on Earth’, Los Angeles Times, 30 January 2019;; accessed 20 May 2019.

2. ‘Memorandum for the President, Re: Meeting with Elvis Presley, 21 December 1970’, Nixon Presidential Materials, National Archives.

3. ‘War On Drugs Gets White House Priority’, New York Amsterdam News, 5 June 1971, p. A1.

4. ‘The Richest Man In the World’, Forbes, 5 October 1987, p. 153.

5. Drug Enforcement Administration, ‘Staffing and Budget’, US Department of Justice;; accessed 18 May 2019. ‘Figure 1. National Drug Overdose Deaths’, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics, December 2018; trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates; accessed 18 May 2019.

6. Erich Goode, Drugs in American Society, 9th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015), p. 269.

7. Ibid., p. 42.

8. John Faragher, Mari Buhle, Daniel Czitrom, and Susan Armitage, Out of Many, Vol 1, 6th ed. (United States: Pearson, 2008), p. 411.

9. Rudolf Schmitz, ‘Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner and the Discovery of Morphine’, Pharmacy in History, Vol. 27, No. 2, 1985, p. 63.

10. Doug Latimer and Jeff Goldberg, ‘Heroin Boys’, BOMB, Vol. 1, No. 2, 1982, p. 24.

11. Jonathan Lewy, ‘The Army Disease: Drug Addiction and the Civil War’, War in History, Vol. 21, No. 1, January 2014, pp. 118–119.

12. Ibid., p. 102.

13. Michael M Cohen, ‘Jim Crow’s Drug War: Race, Coca Cola, and the Southern Origins of Drug Prohibition’, Southern Cultures, Vol. 12, No. 3, Fall 2006, p. 56.

14. Goode, p. 35.

15. Eva Bertram, Morris Blachman, Kenneth Sharpe, and Peter Andreas, Drug War Politics: The Price of Denial (United States: University of California Press, 1996) p. 61.

16. Joseph Spillane, ‘The Making of an Underground Market: Drug Selling in Chicago, 1900-1940’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, No. 1, Autumn 1998, p. 28.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Cohen, p. 56.

20. Ibid.

21. Ibid., p. 57.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid., p. 77.

24. Bertram, Blachman, Sharpe, and Andreas, p. 61.

25. U.S. Const. amend. XVIII (repealed 1933).

26. Thomas Napierkowski, ‘Reviewed Work: The Jungle by Upton Sinclair’, Polish American Studies, Vol. 52, No. 1, Spring 1995, pp. 92–93.

27. Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906, § 1.

28. Bertram, Blachman, Sharpe, and Andreas, p. 63.

29. Goode, p. 35.

30. Toby Seddon, A History of Drugs: Drugs and Freedom in the Liberal Age (New York: Routledge, 2010), p. 68.

31. Goode, p. 43.

32. David F Musto, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), p. 31. Goode, p. 43.

33. Goode, p. 43.

34. Bertram, Blachman, Sharpe, and Andreas, p. 67.

35. Ibid.

36. Ibid.

37. Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, § 1.

38. Ibid.

39. Ibid., § 2.

40. Ibid., § 1.

41. Goode, p. 43.

42. Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914, § 8.

43. United States v. Jin Fuey Moy, 241 U.S. 394 (1916).

44. Goode, p. 45.

45. Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream (United Kingdom: Bloomsbury, 2015), p. 10.

46. Kent Hunter, ‘Some Mexican Slayings That Were Hushed Up: Murderers of U.S. Men Go Free; Washington Notified’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 17 Sep 1919, p. 10. ‘Police Raid Sellers Of Mexican ‘Smokes’’, Washington Post, 17 June 1923, p. 2.

47. Goode, p. 47.

48. Bertram, Blachman, Sharpe, and Andreas, p. 80.

49. Goode, pp. 47–48.

50. ‘Sale of Marijuana to Miami School Students Is Barred’, Atlanta Constitution, 20 May 1928, p. 2.

51. W A Evans, ‘Hashish As Public Menace’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 3 November 1926, p. 10.

52. ‘Marijuana Smoking Is Reported Safe’, New York Times, 21 November 1926, p. E3.

53. Alexander Chasin, Assassin of Youth (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 174.

54. ‘Attacker of Girl Is Doomed to Hang’, Washington Post, 23 November 1935, p. 2. ‘Woman Raped On South Side; 2D In Two Days’, Chicago Daily Tribune, 3 July 1936, p. 3. ‘Ft. Clayton Insane Called Numerous’, New York Times, 26 September 1935, p. 26. ‘Use of Marijuana Spreading in West’, New York Times, 16 September 1934, p. E6. Chasin, p. 174.

55. Nell Clarke, ‘More ‘Mary Jane’ Laugh Addicts’, Washington Post, 2 September 1928, p. SM6.

56. ‘Narcotics Commissioner Urges Drastic Action Against Hashish’, Christian Science Monitor, 2 October 1931, p. 4.

57. ‘Use of Marijuana Spreading in West’, New York Times, 16 September 1934, p. E6.

58. ‘Use of New Narcotic Reported Spreading’, Washington Post, 5 March 1931, p. 1.

59. ‘The Threat of Marijuana’, Atlanta Constitution, 25 August 1934, p. 4.

60. ‘Government Will Ask States To Ban Growing of Marijuana’, New York Times, 6 September 1931, p. 37.

61. J Edgar Hoover, ‘War on the Sex Criminal!’, Los Angeles Times, 26 September 1937, p. K2.

62. Eugene Stanley, ‘Marihuana as a Developer of Criminals’, The American Journal of Police Science, Vol. 2, No. 3, May – June 1931, pp. 254–256.

63. US Congress, House of Representatives, Committee on Ways and Means, Hearing on Taxation of Marihuana, 75th Cong., 1st sess., April 27–30, May 4, 1937.

64. Leary v. United States, 395 U.S. 6 (1969).

65. Controlled Substances Act (1970), § 812 (b) (1) (A–C).

66. ‘State Policy’, Marijuana Policy Project;; accessed 18 May 2019.

67. Spillane, p. 28.

68. ‘Drug Law Revision’, Congressional Quarterly Almanac 32, 1977, p. 41E.

69. Bertram, Blachman, Sharpe, and Andreas, p. 110.

70. William J Bennett and John P Walters, ‘Suddenly Losing the War Against Drugs’, Washington Times, 7 February 1995, p. 2.

71. ‘Figure 1. National Drug Overdose Deaths’, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and National Center for Health Statistics, December 2018; trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates; accessed 18 May 2019.

72. ‘Smoking and Tobacco Use: Diseases and Death’, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention;; accessed 19 May 2019. ‘Alcohol Facts and Statistics: Alcohol-Related Deaths’, National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism;; accessed 19 May 2019.

73. Stephen Sidney, Jerome E Beck, Irene S Tekawa, Charles P Queensbury, and Gary Friedman, ‘Marijuana Use and Mortality, American Journal of Public Health, Vol. 87, No. 4, April 1997, pp. 588–589.

74. Adam R Winstock, Chris Ford, and John Witton, ‘Assessment and management of cannabis use disorders in primary care’, BMJ: British Medical Journal, Vol. 340, No. 7750, 10 April 2010, p. 801.

75. Justin McCarthy, ‘Two in Three Americans Now Support Legalizing Marijuana’, 22 October 2018, Gallup;; accessed 20 May 2019. ‘National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 2011’, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration;; accessed 19 May 2019. David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (London: Atlantic Books, 2012), p. 293.

76. ‘Criminal Justice Fact Sheet’, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;; accessed 19 May 2019.

77. Caitlin Elizabeth Hughes and Alex Stevens, ‘What Can We Learn From The Portuguese Decriminalization of Illicit Drugs?’, The British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 50, No. 6, 1 November 2010, p. 1018.


i. ‘Soldier guards the incineration of marijuana in Tijuana’, 20 October 2010, Associated Press;; accessed 20 May 2019.

ii. ‘Richard M Nixon Meeting with Elvis Presley, 12/21/1970’, Roll 5364, Ref. No. 194703, Nixon Presidential Library, National Archives.

iii. ‘The East India Company iron steam ship Nemesis, commanded by Lieutenant W. H. Hall, with boats from the Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling, destroying the Chinese war junks in Anson’s Bay, on 7 January 1841’, by Edward Duncan, 30 May 1843, Ref. No. JEAWJD, NMUIM/Alamy Stock Photo.

iv. ‘Cover of The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, first edition’, The Jungle Publishing Co., 1906.

v. ‘Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup’, Ref. No. DTEFTG, 503 collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

vi. ‘Opium about to be burned in San Francisco’, February 1914, Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

vii. ‘Theatrical poster for Reefer Madness’, 1 January 1936, Ref. No. J152335505, Hulton Archive/Stringer, Moviepix.

viii. Created using MapChart with data sourced from ‘State Policy’, Marijuana Policy Project;; accessed 18 May 2019.

ix. ‘Barack Obama posing for a portrait session while he was a student in 1980’, Lisa Jack, Ref. No. 16429831, Contour RA.









Of all the pictures taken on that day… 

to one particular my thoughts remain:

At first glance, she is so easily missed,

Some woman at the edge of the abyss.

The mad circus of September’s horror;

The raining people and flames, heroics,

This falling cultural              apocalypse,

A woman at the          edge of the abyss.

Having survived        the un-survivable,

Coming then          to the indescribable:

Is at the gate of blackened smoky mist,

There woman at the edge of the abyss.

A haunting image of her standing there:

Known only as a woman from her hair,

Breathes the life into all my loneliness,

Poor woman at the edge of the abyss.

& the Devil’s crooked-smouldering teeth,

& with the New York City streets beneath,

How in the world did it all come to this?!

When woman at the edge of the abyss.

She is so small next to all that carnage;

Evil’s will to destroy: finely harnessed.

In the steel and burning broken wings,

Our woman at the edge of the abyss.

Yet sizes speak unto something greater:


Maybe she was given this final glimpse?

Doomed woman at the edge of the abyss.

But she should miss all the coming grief;

Crusader-blinded eyes of terror’s deeds,

Comes paranoid century politics…

My woman at the edge of the abyss.

For of the vortex of that darkened hole,

Will soon suck in some many million souls;

Collapsing Empire went collapsing in…

…Liberty at the edge of the abyss…

Septermber 11, North Tower impactSeptermber 11, North Tower impact close up, Edna Cintron