The lost voyages of John Cabot
Lecture in the Boats that Built Britain series, National Maritime Museum, London, 17 June 2010
[SLIDE of picture in Bristol City Library] This is Cabot, as he probably never was – but may have been, of course – at Bristol docks on 2 May 1497, as he set out on the Matthew for what turned out to be the New World.
There he is on the dockside, clean shaven, fresh from receiving mass at the mariner’s church of St Nicholas, looking every inch a renaissance merchant adventurer – and it is my contention that Cabot was, first and foremost, an entrepreneur.
There is the Mayor of Bristol in his robes. This is the man, a few months before, who had become involved in an unseemly riot with the local monks. He was seen at its height, swinging his ceremonial sword around his head.
He claimed later that he was shouting “keep the peace, keep the peace”. I don’t know if the artist knew that about him when he painted this picture.
This is anyway how the Edwardians saw Cabot, after they rediscovered him in the 1890s and, I must admit, I imagine the scene like this too – colourful, thrilling, courageous, only a generation before the Reformation, but already feeling a little modern.
But of course we don’t really know what it was like. [NEW SLIDE] We don’t know much about the ship either, except the research that has been done to reconstruct her. We certainly don’t know the original colours of those magnificent sails.
I called this talk The Lost Voyages of John Cabot, which is partly a reference to his mysterious last voyage – a lost voyage if ever there was one – but its worse than that actually. Cabot is actually a lost man [NEW SLIDE].
Henry VII’s historian Polydore Vergil wrote 12 years after Cabot’s supposed disappearance: “He is believed to have found the new lands nowhere but on the very bottom of the ocean, to which he is thought to have descended together with his boat, the victim himself of that self-same ocean, since after that voyage he was never seen again anywhere.”
This is particularly sad because Vergil had taken over as deputy papal collector for England from a man who actually accompanied Cabot to the New World on his last voyage, Giovanni de Carbonariis.
Worse, if you look at the manuscript it is clear that Vergil had actually forgotten Cabot’s name, because he left it blank and had to fill it in later.
This is partly a measure of the fickle nature of history, and partly of the extreme disappointment about Cabot’s second voyage [NEW SLIDE].
He thought, the king thought, everyone thought, that he was heading for China and the riches of the East – bypassing Columbus, stuck so miserably on his in inconvenient Caribbean islands – but no. Instead of China, the New Found Land was actually somewhere else entirely.
And instead of gold, he found an absolute profusion of cod [NEW SLIDE].
So Cabot dropped out of polite history. Even a few years ago, at an exhibition about Atlantic pioneers in Seville, I found John Cabot’s considerable achievements were still being credited to his son Sebastian [NEW SLIDE].
It was Sebastian’s picture used on a Canadian stamp commemorating his voyage in 1897 [NEW SLIDE].
Despite the picture on the walls of the Bristol library, we still actually have no idea what Cabot looked like, except we assume that maybe he looked a little like his son – who we only ever see with his long white beard.
There have been some suggestions [NEW SLIDE, NEW SLIDE, NEW SLIDE].
But let’s start with what Cabot may have looked like, because actually after the past three decades, we do know a good deal more about him than we did.
Have a look at these portraits. These are some of the earliest proper portraits, as we would recognize them [NEW SLIDE, NEW SLIDE, NEW SLIDE].
Why do I show these? Because these are the faces of the Italian renaissance and Cabot was, among other things, a product of precisely this time and place [NEW SLIDE].
So we might imagine him like these people, clean shaven, earnest, especially when he was in his early 20s, indulging in a little light property development in his adopted city of Venice.
We know the kinds of sights and smells he knew, because we only have to look at the pictures of Carpaccio or Bellini [NEW SLIDE]
There’s his home as it is now [NEW SLIDE].
Property development, especially getting some expertise in dockside building, which was to come in handy later. And also trading on the lucrative route from Seville and Huelva, via Lisbon to Southampton and Bristol.
Taking out wine. Bringing back dried fish.
This was the same route that Columbus travelled on his journey to England and Iceland in 1476, and back via Galway, where he famously glimpsed a rough boat, drifting in from the Atlantic, with two exhausted, emaciated figures on board, who he believed were Chinese.
Cabot’s specialty was skins, which took him into the Black Sea and gave him a wider interest in dyes – and from there an excitement about trading in the East [NEW SLIDE]. It may have been a family business.
These are more lost voyages.
So a merchant, and a developer, but still a Renaissance man. We know this because, at the age of 21, he was elected to one of the most exclusive clubs.
This was the confraternity of St John the Evangelist, also known as Scuole Grandi. And here we get another clue.
The confraternity of St John included some of the leading figures of the day in the great Renaissance art of cartography [NEW SLIDE].
The great Venetian navigator Priamo Capella was a member. So was his brother Febo, the greatest Venetian humanist of the age.
When Cabot joined, Febo Capella had recently come back from being Venetian representative in Florence, where he had become great friends with the group of Platonists who hung around the Medicis.
And they are pretty important in this story. There was the great Platonist Marsilio Ficino.
There was Giorgio Vespucci, uncle of Amerigo who would unknowingly give his name to the New World.
There was the architect Leon Battista Alberti. [NEW SLIDE] And there they all are in discussion.
But most important of all, there was the Sage of Florence Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli [NEW SLIDE], living just across the Arno from the Vespuccis.
Toscanelli was unmarried, staggeringly ugly, with a huge collection of maps, and a bee in his bonnet. He believed you could sail West to reach the East and had even corresponded with the young Columbus about it.
Which brings us to Columbus, who was born in 1451 in Genoa, around the same time – and certainly nearly the same place – where Cabot was also born [NEW SLIDE].
All the evidence suggests that Cabot was originally Genoese, but left the city at the age of 11.
Which brings us to the big conundrum, it seems to me. What have Columbus and Cabot got to do with each other?
My own feeling is everything.
All history involves leaps of imagination. No matter how contemporary and how certain the facts, there are always holes in our knowledge that historians have to fill with the information they have.
That’s difficult because the stories of Cabot, Columbus, Vespucci and the others have nearly always been told separately until now.
They are competing stories by competing nations.
Now, we have a great deal more information about Cabot and Columbus than we did even 30 years ago. And when you look at the stories as they originally were – as one story – you realise (I think you realise) that it implies a relationship between the two men.
That was certainly what the historian David Quinn thought.
The whole thrust of the story implies that the enterprise of the Indies was not originally a separate undertaking, almost identical but happening by coincidence, but a joint project by Cabot and Christopher and Bartholomew Columbus, which unravelled.
I certainly can’t prove it, but – and this may not be the kind of thing an academic historian could say – it seems to me that we should go beyond the facts sometimes, and say what we think probably happened.
Sometimes we just don’t know and all you can hope for is plausible probability.
So when the Spanish court was first informed about Cabot’s 1497 voyage, the plan was described as “according to the fancy of this Genoese.” [NEW SLIDE]
“Another Genoese like Columbus,” he said. So did others.
It was David Quinn who said that this constant repetition gave the impression that both voyages – Cabot’s and Columbus’s – were understood as part of a joint endeavor, by mariners from Genoa.
Then there is the circumstantial evidence which links them together [NEW SLIDE].
Both born in Genoa within a few years of each other.
Both in families with apparent connections to the same political party in Genoa’s violent politics.
Both with links to the coastal port of Savona.
Both with links to Toscanelli.
Both involved around the edges of the wool and silk trade from southern Europe to Bristol and London.
Both frequenting the same ports, notably Lisbon, which had strong links to Bristol and the strange stories of western voyages.
Both ending up so heavily in debt in the mid-1480s that they had to leave their homes and find somewhere else to live.
Both using the same Italian financiers for their later expeditions.
But most of all, both putting into effect very similar plans with very similar contracts with monarchs.
This is the clincher for me. Because the contracts they signed separately, even if they dreamed the plan up together, were revolutionary.
Here was the problem for explorers. Either they could hitch themselves to the plans of a monarch, get an expedition paid for and commissioned by them. But then they would get no personal rights over the land they found.
If they succeeded, they would come back and get a reward. Then wait for the monarch's call to go somewhere else, as Vasco da Gama or Bartholomew Dias had to.
Or they could raise money for a secret expedition, as the Bristol merchants seem to have done in the 1480s. But then, how were they to enforce their claims on the trade to the places they found?
It had to stay secret, and what was the good of that?
What Columbus and Cabot developed was something different. An agreement with a monarch that, if they succeeded, they would get a cut of all the proceeds of their discovery and other rights.
It was a very early example of intellectual property. It was different. It was also a plan which could have made them the wealthiest men in Europe.
They might have dreamed it up separately, but I don’t think they did.
So let’s just have a flight of fantasy here.
They must have had plans to get the royal support, in Portugal and failing that Castile, England or France.
They must have had a scheme to identify who they needed to contact once they got to the East.
And they must have had a scheme to raise the money themselves – because it would give them leverage with the sovereigns – perhaps through one mega-deal which went horribly wrong.
That is why, I imagine, they ended up so horribly in debt at the same time.
In fact, perhaps you’ll forgive me if I hazard a complete guess.
Perhaps their initial agreement was with the English, and with the merchant king, Edward IV [NEW SLIDE]. Edward was a merchant king, dealing with the same financiers as Cabot and Columbus.
Edward died, probably of a burst appendix, early in 1483. Those involved in trade with him were left high and dry. I imagine that, among them – heavily over-leveraged – were Cabot and Columbus.
So, here we are. We know that by 1484, both Cabot and Columbus were both disastrously in debt. To escape his creditors, Cabot was forced to leave Venice with his young family – three sons – and offer his services to other city states.
Could the enterprise of the Indies possibly survive this setback?
Then there was another of his lost voyages, to Mecca, which must have been in disguise, to track down their suppliers of silks and spices – the aloewood, cinnamon, nutmeg, sandalwood, tumeric, ginger and all the others that his father’s company specialized in, and which were also the objective of the enterprise of the Indies [[NEW SLIDE].
The result: another disappointment. The traders were not being deliberately evasive. They really had no idea where their wares came from.
They bought them from other merchants who had bought them from others, and so on for thousands of miles – by coaster and mule and cart, through distant straits and oceans unknown to these salesmen, just as they were unknown to Europe.
So what then? Cabot took his family to Milan, and it was here that he became part of the court of Ludovico Sforza, where he must have known another prominent member – and an old friend of old Toscanelli – called Leonardo da Vinci [NEW SLIDE].
Leonardo was actually employed as a musician, though he was spending his time designing military machines.
It is strange to think of Cabot and Leonardo together, but not actually very surprising. The enterprise of the Indies was a Renaissance project. It went with ancient cartography, double entry book-keeping and the arts, and the sheer hubris of that generation [NEW SLIDE].
Leonardo went on to greatness, but Cabot’s hubris was constantly being checked. Soon his creditors had tracked him down again and he had to shift his family to Savoy.
Then the same again and he had to move on to Valencia. And it was in Valencia in 1493 where historians have long imagined the crucial encounter that would set Cabot’s face once more for the Atlantic.
Cabot was there because it was the regional centre of the skin trade and was discussing a project to build a new jetty.
It was another frustrating plan. But Cabot was in the city at Easter 1493, when Columbus passed through on his triumphal procession to see Ferdinand and Isabella, the married monarchs of Castile and Aragon.
It is hard to imagine that he wasn’t in the crowd to see his former partner [NEW SLIDE].
We know what the scene was like because it was witnessed also by Bartholomew de las Casas, the future campaigner for the Indians, who was eight at the time.
There was Columbus standing like a Roman senator, proud and unsmiling, with six of his captives around him from the Indies.
They were almost naked, wearing as much gold and finery as he could find, each of them carrying a brightly colored parrot in a cage. And with them were all the other wonders of what Columbus always believed was the orient. Hammocks, pineapples, iguana skins and gold masks [NEW SLIDE].
Now, Cabot had been to Mecca. He knew these men with parrots were not from the East.
Did he conclude correctly that Columbus had not, in fact, made it to China?
Did he realize suddenly that the opportunity was still there – if he could sail across the western ocean using shorter northern latitudes?
We don’t know, or whether the doubts gnawed away at him more slowly. Either way, via Seville and Lisbon, and a little more than three years later, Cabot was in Bristol [NEW SLIDE].
In March 1496, he had negotiated letters patent from King Henry VII of England, giving him rights over any lands he discovered that were “unknown to all Christians” [NEW SLIDE].
This was the formula the English used to defend themselves against accusations from Castile that they were trespassing.
It is usually assumed now that Bristol knew about land to the west.
A crucial letter to Columbus from one of his English contacts, only discovered in 1955, says this [NEW SLIDE]:
“It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil' as your Lordship well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.”
So Cabot probably knew as well, or had a damn good idea, that there was something over there. But this was Columbus’ former partner. His contribution was to say that, not only was there land, but it was also the coastline of the Orient.
He made one abortive attempt three months after the letters from the king.
But like Columbus and Magellan and Dias and so many others, he was forced back by a frightened crew.
We don’t know if that voyage was also on the Matthew, but there is something about the historic 1497 voyage the following year that smacks of desperation [NEW SLIDE].
A crew of 18 and a couple of friends – a Burgundian and a Genoese barber – and that was all. Even Columbus ventured forth with three ships. There really was no room for error.
And so we come back to 2 May, waiting for the famous fifty-foot tide that used to sweep Bristol’s shipping up the Avon.
On a good day, Cabot could have expected to reach north Devon and anchor there for the night. But, by tradition at least, this wasn’t a good day.
Tradition suggests that Cabot’s first day at sea was frustratingly slow. And before he had even reached the open sea, he had docked again to take on salt.
This voyage was so hand to mouth that some of the bills would have to be paid with a consignment of cod caught in the north Atlantic.
Cabot was desperate to get under way. He was in danger of being caught up in Perkin Warbeck’s uprising [NEW SLIDE]. 40,000 Somerset rebels were on their way to Bristol in his support.
Yet still Cabot waited. It isn’t clear why, but it must have looked as though his second attempt was going to go the way of the first.
The rebels demanded the surrender of the city. The mayor, who we saw on the dockside, sent an insulting refusal. Guns were hauled up onto the city walls.
Finally on 20 May, and it must have been with huge relief, Cabot was away and into the Bristol Channel, avoiding the Turkish slave ships that lay in wait out there, and heading for Bantry Bay [NEW SLIDE].
Then there was the last glimpse of Cape Clear, a few days on the familiar route to Iceland, before he turned west and into the unknown [NEW SLIDE].
Five weeks at sea, and on the night of 23 June, there was the unmistakable smell of pine trees. Then the following morning – Old Midsummer’s Day, John the Baptist’s Day – they sighted land.
We could devote a whole lecture to the arguments about where this was, Cabot’s Land First Seen, as he called it [NEW SLIDE]. We will never know, but it was probably in what we now know as Newfoundland.
Either way, there was a forest and a beach. Cabot and his crew landed, carrying a large cross and the banners of England, Venice and the Pope.
Then they found a snare and an old camp fire. Then what looked very much like an arrow and a needle.
They had to assume they were being watched. It would be tragic, to make this discovery and not live to report it.
So it was that the first discovery of mainland America was cut short because it was in fact already inhabited. They explored the coast for about 900 miles and, with huge excitement, they sailed home [NEW SLIDE].
We have to imagine Cabot making the journey from Bristol, past Silbury Hill, Maidenhead, Hammersmith, to get to the king and make his claim.
This was London which had just escaped from the Warbeck rebellion. And over the next few months, we get a much clearer picture of the kind of man Cabot was.
He was out of debt, with a pension from the Henry.
He had set up house in Nicholas Street in Bristol, but was also flaunting his new silk clothes in London.
He was, in short, a celebrity, giving public lectures about his voyage. Demonstrating the globe as he saw it. Calling himself an admiral like Columbus.
Globes were new and exciting in those days. Cabot made his own. Columbus’ rival Martin Behaim made one which we can still see today, in the picture of the Ambassadors in the National Gallery [NEW SLIDE].
That’s a picture of Renaissance power in the days of Cabot’s triumph.
Globes, and also playing cards. 1495 was the year that the playing card craze first took England by storm [NEW SLIDE].
That’s why the queen we use today is actually a portrait of Henry VII’s queen Elizabeth of York.
So there was Cabot, we can imagine, in the London taverns playing cards. We also know that he was boasting to his friends that he would call islands after them [NEW SLIDE].
There is something hail-fellow-well-met about Cabot.
We can’t know this for sure, but we can tell a little about explorers by the way they name his discoveries.
Columbus, the religious maniac, called them after saints or members of the Castilian royal house.
Vespucci, the Florentine scholar, called them after classical allusions.
Cabot called them after his mates.
And of course he was also then preparing his last lost voyage, the following year. We know he was promised ten ships. We know Henry VII’s financial position was such that he set sail with five, one of them paid for by City investors.
We know that he sailed with a very senior cleric, Giovanni de Carbonariis, the deputy papal collector for England.
Carbonariis’ boss, incidentally, was Adriano Castellesi, the bishop of Hereford, in his house, the Borgia Pope Alexander VI would later fall ill very suddenly – presumably poisoned.
But that’s another story [NEW SLIDE].
We know that one of Cabot’s fleet turned back into an Irish port. The others carried on, not into the unknown, but in the sure and certain hope that they would follow that strange forested coast all the way down to China.
But not quite nothing.
There have been rumours of rocks carved on the Massachusetts coast with the names of Cabot’s sons.
Venetian ear-rings found by a Portuguese expedition a few years later.
And echoes of what you might call a violent encounter between English pioneers and Castilian settlers as far down south as the coast of what is now Venezuela [NEW SLIDE].
Every nation has its own conspiracy theory about how it was them, really, who discovered America.
For the past century or so, we have what you might call the English conspiracy theory – that America was called, not after Amerigo Vespucci, but after Cabot’s Welsh backer Richard ap-Meric.
Then, three years ago, a Bristol historian called Evan Jones came up with evidence – or rather evidence of evidence – that Cabot might have survived and come home after all.
It turns out that the great historian of exploration, Alwyn Ruddock, had been commissioned to write a book to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Cabot’s landing.
There were rumours that she had made some staggering discoveries in a series of newly discovered archives. But she wasn’t satisfied with the book, tore it up and started again.
When she died in 2005, her will instructed her executor to destroy all her notes and research. More than thirty bags of papers were burned.
Two years later, Evan Jones asked the University of Exeter Press if they’d ever had a book proposal from her. They had, and it’s launched a flurry of research in Cabot circles to see if Ruddock’s outline could be proven.
Because she seemed to have found evidence that Cabot and Carbonariis reached Newfoundland safely in 1498.
And that the expedition headed south along the coast of what is now the United States towards some kind of encounter with the Spanish on the coast of what is now Venezuela.
Cabot then struggled north in Autumn 1499 with the remainder of his expedition, presumably riddled with shipworm.
But the real bombshell was that Ruddock believed that Cabot left Carbonariis and his fellow friars on Newfoundland, where they set up the first European colony in north America since the Vikings.
She also believed that Carbonariis sent his own expedition north to Labrador, before the Portuguese on a ship called the Dominus Vobiscum, possibly sent out from England for the purpose in 1499.
When Cabot got home early in 1500, the political situation in England had changed. The proposed marriage between Arthur Prince of Wales and Catherine of Aragon [NEW SLIDE] was now back on.
The news that Cabot had ventured into Spanish waters, instead of finding China, was a threat to the marriage treaty and was suppressed. So was Cabot’s pension.
He died in despair a few months later.
This version of the story looks like a conspiracy theory, and has yet to be confirmed. But if it’s true, then Carbonariis was the great hero of the 1498 voyage, setting up the first European church in North America, probably in the Newfoundland town of Carbonear, and dedicated to St John [NEW SLIDE].
Carbonariis himself remained behind with his church and lived and died in the New World.
But the idea of Cabot going all the way down the coast of north America is not quite new, as we’ve seen.
Because it also explains one other conundrum, which is known as the Juan de la Cosa map [NEW SLIDE].
This was discovered in a Paris junk shop in 1832 and purports to have been made by the former captain of the Santa Maria, somewhere in the New World, in 1500.
It is usually considered genuine because it doesn’t include the news that Vasco da Gama had reached India round the tip of the Cape of Good Hope. As it wouldn’t have if it had ben made in the Americas at that date.
Yet up there on the coast of North America are a series of English flags, and a number of mainly unreadable place names – including one that looks like St Nicholas – and the phrase ‘sea discovered by the English’.
This must refer to Cabot’s second voyage. Yet how did Juan de la Cosa know about this in 1500, unless he had actually met Cabot?
So that leaves John Cabot probably as our greatest explorer, if only we could unlock the secrets of his Lost Voyage.
We might also, perhaps unfairly, hazard a guess about his fate.
Other transatlantic mariners who died within weeks of their return, like Columbus’ rival Martin Alonso Pinzon, probably died of the same virulent form of syphilis that Columbus’ first voyage brought back to Europe.
It may be that Cabot did too. Or maybe he died of wounds from the encounter in Venezuela. Maybe he just died of bitter disappointment.
Either way, he was soon unfairly eclipsed by his son Sebastian and forgotten. It isn’t clear why Sebastian wanted his father forgotten, but he seems to have done.
The Cabot legacy was the English claim to North America and the Newfoundland fishing industry.
This wasn’t small. A century later, cod were being pulled out of the Grand Banks at the rate of 200 million a year.
By 1784, one English politician could say that the Newfoundland fishery “was a more inexhaustible and infinitely more valuable source of wealth than all the mines in the world”.
There is a huge irony here [NEW SLIDE]. The Spanish got the gold and silver, which was used to buy in luxuries from all over the world. In fact, the Spanish stopped producing anything much themselves, relying on the 16th century equivalent of financial services.
Their empire unraveled thanks to inflation, while the gold and silver made its way north in return for English cod [NEW SLIDE].
Surely nobody could make a similar mistake today.
One other thing before I stop.
Mariners had traveled regularly, though accidentally, to lands on the other side of the Atlantic before 1492 and 1497. So what was special about Columbus and Cabot?
The answer is that they‘d cracked the basic business problem: how to profit from their enterprise. And that is what it was – not so much a voyage of discovery – but an enterprise of enormous ambition, which would have made them staggeringly rich.
As it was, Columbus’ ambitions were such that the court case his family launched against the Spanish crown lasted until the 18th century.
You get the feeling from Columbus of an ordinary man, with a rather bizarre personality, flung into a situation that overwhelmed him.
[NEW SLIDE] Cabot we just don’t know enough about. But something of his achievement, and ebullience perhaps, echo down the centuries.
We can see his footsteps, even if we can’t quite see the man himself.
For someone who died in bitter disappointment, that is no mean achievement.
His real achievement was part of one shared by his generation. In the 1480s, the maps of the world were strange mysterious and magical, with Jerusalem at their heart. In the 1520s, apart from gaps in the South Seas, they were largely complete.
Just 20 years in the whole of human history, and Cabot must take an important share of the credit.