This article was written in the 1990s by the great Cornish writer and scholar Craig Weatherhill who sadly died in 2020. Any article or book written by Craig would have been very well researched and his opinions based on his findings, not made up.
Even in this more historically enlightened age, so many still believe what is. in fact. one of Cornwall’s greatest fallacies – that the Phoenicians sailed to these shores for our tin. It’s mentioned on television. in tourist guides and even in some town guides and other books. It used to be taught in our schools, explaining why so many Cornish people also believe it to be fact. There are even Victorian paintings depicting the richly clad Phoenician merchants bartering with hairy “ancient Britons” clad in rough skins!
The truth of the matter is that the Phoenicians are unlikely to have come within a thousand miles of Cornwall and, sadly perhaps, Joseph of Arimathea probably never heard of Cornwall or Britain, let alone visited with or without the young Christ. Sorry to be an iconoclast, but there we are.
Originally, the Phoenicians hailed from what is now Lebanon and Israel and were indeed noted seafaring traders within the confines of the Mediterranean, not venturing beyond the old Pillars of Heracles until at least 800BC.. They even get a mention in Homer’s Odyssey. There is mention of bronze – which implied Cornish tin to some – being used in the Temple of Jerusalem in the 10th century BC. and less reliable claims included the alleged use of Cornish tin in the manufacture of Achilles’ shield and helmet and even in the Temple of Solomon.
Phoenician navigators finally braved the oceans beyond the Mediterranean at around 600 BC. when Necho II, Pharaoh of Egypt commissioned a circumnavigation of Africa and, about a century later came the voyages of Hanno and Himilco. Hanno sailed down the west coast of Africa to the mouth of the Niger and possibly beyond. Of Himilco’s voyage, all we know of it comes from a long verse by the 4th century AD. roman poet Avienus. Presumably sailing from Carthage, by that time a powerful North African centre founded by the Phoenicians, he journeyed to Massalia (Marseilles) before venturing out into the Atlantic where his ship turned north, evidently being allowed passage through the Straits of Gibraltar which was blockaded by Carthaginian ships to all but their own traffic. He is said to have passed islands called the Oestryminides (taken as those off southern Brittany) and a “storm-washed crag”, taken by some to be Ushant, before arriving at a holy island called Hierni near which lived the Albiones. Hierni used to be thought to represent Hibernia (Ireland) and the Albiones to be the people of Albion (Britain, which was then actually Pretannika) but in fact, the sailing times given are all wrong for such a voyage. Hierni has never been identified, whereas a people called Albiones are known to have lived on the northern coast of Spain, itself an adventurous but coast-hugging voyage from the northernmost colony of Carthage, Gades (Cadiz).
This historian Strabo, of Asia Minor, who lived at about the time of Christ, mentions the islands called the Cassiterides – Tin Islands – and connects them with Phoenician trade but always overlooked is the fact that he finishes his account of them with: “So much for Iberia and the islands lying near it.” In other words, he was writing about Spain and Portugal, where tin was in fact mined, and not about the Scillies or Cornwall. The Spaniard Pomponius Mela in the 1st century AD. also mentions the Cassiterides in a geography which places them south of Brittany. After him, as the actu-al geography of Atlantic Europe became better known and recorded, the Cassiterides vanish from sight. In other words, they almost certainly belonged to the realms of ancient fantasy.
Added to all this is the fact that nothing of Phoenician origin has ever been found north of central Portugal, not in northern Iberia, in Ireland, Brittany or Cornwall. The bronze bull found at St. Just (Penwith) in 1832 has always attracted some to claim a Phoenician origin but its real provenance is unknown. Greece and Egypt has been suspected; it may even have been locally made.
Another source of Phoenician fervour has been the connection of Jews with Cornish mining, which has strongly entered the realms of Cornish legend. This link is a real one, but much too late. They were indeed involved with mining and smelting but only from about the 11th century until their banishment from Britain in 1290.
So who was responsible for connecting the Phoenicians with trade in Cornish tin? It all came from the fertile mind of a Tudor schoolmaster in Canterbury, John Twynne, who began to argue that Welsh words, dress, coracles and even the dark colouring of Welsh people were Phoenician. Other “historians” leapt straight on the bandwagon, after all, it was an attractive notion if nothing else. The Victorians really went overboard on the idea. The Celtic tribe of the Dumnonii, which included the Cornish, were “Spanish Phoenicians”; place names were claimed as Phoenician. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes got in on the act: in The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot, Holmes takes an interest in the Cornish language, declaring it to be akin to Chaldean and, therefore, largely derived from the Phoenician tin-traders.
Phoenician traders on Cornish shores is, admittedly, a colourful and highly attractive fancy, but that is, sadly, all it is – a fancy. But it seems to have such a hold on people that no matter of articles like this one make any difference. The Phoenicians will no doubt continue to feature in tourist literature and be pounded out by the media, however mythical their supposed visits were. Who was really responsible for ancient trade in Cornish tin?