The relation which England bore to early Atlantic exploration offers some striking points of similarity to the position of Portugal. Situated like the peninsular kingdom upon the western verge of Europe, facing the sea of darkness, her hardy sailors had ventured into the northern waters just as those of Portugal pushed their way into the tropics. The exact date at which Bristol seamen began to resort to Iceland for trade and fishing cannot be ascertained; but such voyages were common in the fifteenth century,1 and, it is probable, even earlier, at a time when more or less regular communication was still maintained between Iceland and Greenland.2 That the seafaring men of p55Bristol knew by tradition of Greenland is possible, and even probable. Through their commercial intercourse with Portugal they were also familiar with the Azores, and may have known some of the early Portuguese ventures or projects to discover the islands of Antilia and Brazil.
Hence it is not altogether surprising that we find recorded similar attempts at western voyages by Bristol sailors several years before Columbus undertook his great experiment. In the contemporary chronicle of William de Wyrcestre is the entry: "In 1480, on July 15, the ships of . . . and John Jay, junior, of eighty tons burden, began a voyage at the port of Bristol, from King road to the island of Brasylle in the region west of Ireland faring over the sea, and Thylde [i.e., perhaps, Th. Lyde] is master of the ship, the scientific seaman of all England, and news came to Bristol on Monday, September 18, that the ships sailed the seas for about nine months [weeks?] and did not find the island, but were turned back by the storms of the sea to a port in Ireland for the protection of the ship and sailors."3
But England's first great achievement in oceanic exploration, like Spain's, was to be under the leadership of an Italian sailor, who first appears in the English records on March 5, 1496, requesting a patent authorizing him to make discoveries in the eastern, western, or northern seas, and granting him dominion over any islands so discovered.
p56 The wording of the patent, framed in accordance with the suggestions of this John Cabotto, indicates familiarity with the grants accorded to Columbus, and the omission from the charter of the words "Southern Seas" reflects, no doubt, his intention or that of Henry VII not to intrude upon the fields of discovery already occupied by Spain and Portugal.4 Indeed, during Cabotto's negotiations at court the Spanish ambassador Puebla informed his sovereigns that "one like Colon had come to engage the king in another enterprise like that of the Indies, yet without prejudice to Spain and Portugal."5
Of the earlier career of John Cabot very little is known directly. He is described by the Spanish minister as a Genoese who had been in Seville and in Lisbon endeavoring to secure aid for this discovery.6 In 1476 he received full citizenship in Venice after a residence of fifteen years.7 All that we know of the genesis of the project is derived from a letter of the Milanese agent, Raimondo de Soncino, written in December, 1497, from which we learn that Cabot had seen the kings of Portugal and of Spain occupy unknown islands, he planned to do the same for King Henry. Soncino adds that Cabot had a map of the world and a globe; and that earlier in life when in Mecca he had learned that the spices came from the remote east, and reasoned that as the p57earth is round their source could be reached by sailing westward. In another voyage he expected to reach Cipango, where all the spices in the world grow. If success crowned these efforts he hoped to make London a greater market for spices than Alexandria8 — a striking forecast of the shifting of the centre of the world's commerce that was to be a consequence of the discoveries.
Early in May, 1497, over a year after the granting of the patent, John Cabot set sail from Bristol with one small ship and eighteen men. After passing the western extremity of Ireland he ascended toward the north and then began to sail to the eastern regions, leaving the north on his right hand.9 After sailing some four hundred leagues10 he reached main-land, which he reported to be the land of the Grand Cam. Signs of inhabitants were found, but no people. He followed the coast for three hundred leagues, and then started upon the return voyage, which he did not interrupt to explore two fertile-looking islands which appeared on his right. Early in August he reached Bristol, having been absent about three months.11
The safe return and the successful paralleling for p58England of Columbus's work for Spain aroused great enthusiasm in Bristol and London, and Cabot was called "the great admiral." Frugal Henry VII kept his own feelings within moderate bounds, if we may judge from the entry among the privy-purse accounts, August 10: "To hym that found the New Isle, £10."12 In the December following the king granted him a pension of £20 per year, to be paid from customs' receipts at Bristol.13
Such, in brief, are the principal facts of the voyage on which England's rights to America were originally based. Even for this scanty narrative it is only within the last forty years that the slender details have been known. Few characters in history owe more to modern research than John Cabot. Not a writer himself like his great compatriot, he left his fame a legacy to his son, who, instead of devoting to it a pious memorial, like Ferdinand Columbus, deftly clothed himself with it and secured for over three centuries the principal credit of an expedition in which there is no direct evidence to show that he even participated.
In such accounts of the Cabot voyages as were derived from Sebastian Cabot in Spain he is always the principal actor; in some, his father is not mentioned; and in one he is described as already dead.14 In not one is the true relation of his father to the enterprise correctly given. The intricacies of the p59Cabot problem yield only to a careful classification of our sources of information: first, into English state documents; second, contemporary reports by Italian and Spanish envoys in England derived in part from John Cabot himself; and third, narratives in the Spanish and Italian writers derived fifteen or twenty years later from Sebastian Cabot. The first two classes agree with each other and are at variance with the third, which, in accordance with sound principles of historical criticism, must therefore be rejected.
The date of the land-fall, June 24, does not appear earlier than the so‑called Cabot map of 1544. It was probably derived from Sebastian Cabot. In regard to the land-fall, controversy has been as busy with the identity of the San Salvador of Columbus, but the results are not so satisfactory. The Canadian scholars Dawson and Prowse advocate respectively Cape Breton and Newfoundland. Harrisse has been insistent for Labrador, but with slight assent from those familiar with the region, and he now inclines to a more southern region.15 In view of this uncertainty, it has been questioned whether John Cabot's report that he found the main-land should be accepted as final. He may have been as much mistaken as was Columbus about Cuba.
As a daring investigator, John Cabot must rank with the greatest of that age; his crew numbered eighteen, p60the exact equipment of the Niña, the smallest of Columbus's little fleet, and hence it may be assumed that the two vessels were about the same size — that is, about forty tons burden. Of a second Cabot voyage, in 1498, we have little unquestioned knowledge. A new patent was granted to John Cabot alone on February 3, authorizing him to take as many as six ships and such masters, mariners, or other subjects as should volunteer.16 In the early spring the fleet of five vessels set sail for the Spice Islands, if we may accept Soncino's report of Cabot's intentions.17 In the despatch of the Spanish ambassador Puebla,18 it is still the island of Brazil that is the goal, while the other Spanish envoy, Ayala, writes that the purpose was to visit the discoveries of the previous year.19 We are left strangely in the dark as to the results of this voyage, and this scarcity of information about the first attempt to found an English colony reflects how far England was behind Spain in appreciating such enterprises at that time and reminds us of what we have lost from England's having had no Peter Martyr or Oviedo.
It is unknown whether John Cabot came back alive or whether Sebastian Cabot went on the voyage. There is no record of the return of the expedition, yet as John Cabot, for lack of time, could not have explored in 1497 all the region marked on the La Cosa map, including the "sea discovered by the p61English," corresponding roughly to the waters from Long Island to North Carolina; and as to the account of the one Cabot voyage described to Peter Martyr about 1515 by Sebastian Cabot20 cannot apply to the first voyage for the same reason, this narrative has generally been accepted as a loose and inaccurate account of the voyage of 1498. On the basis of these two sources it would appear that in his second voyage Cabot followed the coast of North America down to the latitude of South Carolina, if not somewhat farther. This conclusion is confirmed by the injunctions of the Spanish monarchs to Hojeda in 1501 when about to set sail for the Caribbean Sea, to put a stop to the discoveries of the English in that quarter,21 clearly implying report to the monarchs that the English had either been met with in West Indian waters or that their English envoys had reported such an intrusion.
Additional evidence of an exploration of the southeastern shores of North America before 1502 is afforded by the Cantino map prepared in Lisbon in that year, which clearly depicts the peninsula of Florida and a considerable stretch of coast to the north, and applies some twenty names to it. Again we have the recollection in Robert Thorne's tract of an English voyage on which, "if the mariners would then have been ruled and followed their p62pilot's minde, the landes of the West Indies (from whence all the gold commeth) had been ours."22
Three years later, on March 19, 1501, King Henry granted to Richard Warde, Thomas Asshehurtse, merchants of Bristol, and to John Farnandez and Francis Farnandez, a very detailed and elaborate charter covering discoveries, trade, and colonization in all seas east, west, south, and north, excepting where the king of Portugal or some other Christian prince had made a settlement.23 In 1502 the company, if such it may be called, was reorganized, the names of Richard Warde and John Farnandez dropping out, and that of Hugh Elyot, of Bristol, taking first place.
Of their enterprises we have no record, but voyages seem to have been made under these charters. On December 6, 1503, an order of King Henry's to his treasurer recalls that on September 26, 1502, he "gaf and graunted unto our trusty and well-beloved subjectts ffraunceys ffernandus and John Guidisalvus squiers in consideracion of the true service which they have doon unto us to our singler pleasur as capitaignes unto the newe founde lande."24 That voyages were made under the second charter seem to be indicated by the grant of the king, September 30, 1503, of £20, "to the merchants of Bristol that have bene in the Newe founde Launde."25 Moreover, p63there is in Hakluyt a brief report of a voyage made presumably in 1503 by Nicholas Thorne with "a merchant of Bristowe named Hugh Elliott."26
It is worthy of remark, in connection with the activities of this company, that there is no reference to Sebastian Cabot; if he was a capable mariner at this period, and had been on either of his father's voyages, this complete silence is noteworthy.
The shadowy history of the work of these Bristol merchants and Azorean navigators must not be dismissed without noting that their organization was the pioneer English colonial company, the forerunner of the East India Company and of the Hudson's Bay Company; and that their charter stands at the head of the long procession of colonial charters which are the foundation-stones in the noble fabric of American written constitutions. For the development of the New World, however, England was not ready; her rulers found continental politics too alluring; it was a region where sooner or later they must clash with a friendly state whose alliance was sought and valued; and the country itself was uninviting. Therefore, after these early ventures, inspired by "another Genoese like Columbus," English connections with the New World fade away into the obscurity of unrecorded fishing voyages.
At the beginning of this chapter attention was directed to the similarity between the first English and the first Portuguese attempts to explore the p64Atlantic. This similarity is especially striking when we notice how closely parallel with the Cabot voyages are the undertakings of the Corte-Real brothers. In pursuance of a charter issued May 12, 1500, granting to him any islands or main-land that he should discover,27 Gaspar Corte-Real set sail early in the summer and reached "a land which was very cool and with great woods."28 This is identified with much probability by Harrisse as the eastern shore of Newfoundland.
The next spring, 1501, with three vessels equipped in collaboration with his brother Miguel, he made another voyage, from which he never returned. Most of our information in regard to this second voyage is derived from the correspondence of Pietro Pasqualigo and Alberto Cantino, Italians living in Lisbon. In 1502 Cantino had a map made in Lisbon for the duke of Ferrara, and the testimony of this map points unmistakably to the conclusion that Corte-Real on this voyage reached the southern end of Greenland and then veered towards Labrador and more thoroughly explored Newfoundland.29 Cantino's report, however, of a coast where many large rivers flowed into the sea and where, upon landing, they found delicious fruits of various kinds, trees and pines of marvellous p65height and girth, would point rather to the northeastern shores of the present United States.30
On the other hand, the two caravels that returned brought between fifty and sixty captives who are described sufficiently closely to identify them as Eskimos. "They have brought from thence a piece of a broken sword, gilded, which was certainly made in Italy. A native boy had the silver rings in his ears, which, without doubt, seem to have been manufactured in Venice."31 Even more interesting than these relics of the Cabot voyages was the conjecture of those that returned that this land "is joined to the Andilie,32 which were discovered by the sovereign of Spain, and with the land of Papagá lately discovered by the ship of this king when on its way to Calicut."33 This is the earliest conjecture of a great continental region extending from the arctic circle to the tropics.
Of Gaspar Corte-Real nothing more was ever heard. His brother Miguel went out to search for him with three ships in May, 1502; two of these returned, but Miguel Corte-Real followed his brother to an unknown fate. King Emmanuel "felt the loss of these two brothers very much, and of his own royal and pious motion, in the year 1503, he ordered two armed ships to be fitted out at his own cost to go in p66search of them. But it could never be ascertained how either the one or the other was lost."34 Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, and perhaps John Cabot too, head the long and sad procession of daring navigators who have perished in these northern waters. Yet the Corte-Reals were more fortunate than John Cabot, of whom no memorial was erected for four hundred years; for the Newfoundland and the neighboring main-land was given on Portuguese maps and their derivatives the name of "Land of the Corte-Reals."35
1 See Anderson, History of Commerce, year 1415, who quotes Rymer, Foedera, IX, 322.
2 The Greenland colony survived into the fifteenth century, and the pope had news of the conditions there, after 1418. See the letter of Pope Nicholas V, September 20, 1448, in Documenta Selecta e Tabulario Secreto Vaticano, Rome, 1893, translated in The American Hist. Mag., April, July, and October, 1902. The letter of Nicholas V is in the July number, 288. Cf. also the facts recited in the letter of Alexander VI, ibid., 290.
3 Weare, Cabot's Discovery of North America, 59.
4 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 96.
5 Ibid., 110, 111.
6 Ibid., 160.
7 Ibid., 70.
8 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 144 ff.
9 "Ale parte orientale." It refers not to the direction, but to his destination, the Orient.
10 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 143, 159. The letter of Pasqualigo gives the distance as 700 leagues. Ibid., 138.
11 Letters of Pasqualigo and Raimondo de Soncino, in ibid., 138, 144.
Thayer's Note: Raimondo Soncino's letter is online, in Deane and Nash's English translation, at Elfinspell.
12 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 124.
13 Ibid., 128.
14 See the documents, ibid., 169‑209.
15 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 278 ff.; Harrisse, Découverte et Évolution Cartographique de Terre-Neuve et des Pays Circonvoisins.
16 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 156.
17 Ibid., 146.
Thayer's Note: See Soncino's letter at Elfinspell.
18 Ibid., 159.
19 Ibid., 160.
20 Weare, Cabot's Discovery, 169.
21 Navarrete, Viages, III, 86.
22 Winship, Cabot Bibliography, 98.
23 Biddle, Sebastian Cabot, 306.
24 Harrisse, John and Sebastian Cabot, 397, 398.
25 Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 692.
26 Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 692.
27 Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 59.
28 Goes, Chronica, translated in Markham, Journal of Columbus, 230.
29 Such, at least, is Harrisse's view, Discovery of North America, 63.
30 Markham, Journal of Columbus, l, li.
31 Ibid., 237.
32 Antilles. Antillia was the current Portuguese name for the West Indies.
33 Markham, Journal of Columbus, 235. The reference is to Cabral's discovery of Brazil.
34 Goes, in Markham, Journal of Columbus, 231.
35 For the evidence that the Gulf of St. Lawrence was explored by the Portuguese Fagundes in 1520, see Hugues, Cronologia, 27, 28, and Harrisse, Discovery of North America, 182.
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