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The discovery of North America by John Cabot; the alleged date and landfall, also the ship's name, the Matthew, a forgery of Chatterton? online

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[Discovery of North America
by John Cabot









JUNE, 1897


Discovery of North America
by John Cabot









JUNE, 1897



EXTENSIVE preparations are being made
at Bristol, England, in Canada, and in
Newfoundland to commemorate, on the twenty-
fourth of this present month, the landing of
John Cabot on the coast of the North-American
continent. The intention is praiseworthy ; but
it is well to recollect that we do not know
exactly when and where he first sighted the
New World. Nor do we possess means of
ascertaining these two points, admittedly of
paramount importance in a celebration of that


THE alleged date of the landfall rests exclusively
upon a statement brought forward, for the first

1 The greatest part of the present paper first appeared
in the June, 1897, number of "The Forum."


time, forty-seven years after the event, and
which, thus far, stands uncorroborated. It is
contained in a pamphlet in Spanish, written
about 1 544 by one Dr. Grajales, of the Puerto
de Santa Maria, 1 concerning whom we do not
know anything else. It was printed out of
Spain, and was intended to accompany a map
by Sebastian Cabot, apparently engraved in the
Netherlands. The type which served for print
ing the pamphlet was also used to print two
series of legends pasted on the right and left of
the only copy of that map known, which is now
in the National Library at Paris.

Translated, the passage relating to the date
reads as follows :

" No. 8. This land was discovered by John
Cabot, a Venetian, and Sebastian Cabot, his son,
in the year of the birth of our Saviour Jesus
Christ fourteen hundred and ninety-four, on the
twenty-fourth of June in the morning, to which

1 " Tratado de la Carta de nauegar hecho por el Doctor
Grajales en el Puerto de Sancta Maria": "An exposi
tion (or treatise) of the Sailing chart, made (or composed)
by Dr. Grajales in Puerto de Sancta Maria"; in "De-
claratio Chartae nauigatoriae Domini Almirantis," MS. in
the King s Library at Madrid. The reader will notice
that the title explicitly states that the treatise is the work
of Dr. Grajales.

they gave the name prima tierra vista ; and a
large island adjacent to it they named Sant
Juan/ it having been discovered on the day of
that saint." l

The numeral corresponds to that given in the
inscription, " De la tierra de los bacallaos ve a
tabla primera, No. 3 " (" Concerning the country
of codfish, see the first table No. 3 " [Error for
8]). This inscription is engraved in the map
over the region now known as Canada, and
embraces the country extending from New
Brunswick to Labrador inclusive.

The year 1494 is clearly an anachronism, as
the voyage was not undertaken until 1497, by
virtue of letters patent granted on March 5,
1496. As to the month, this also is doubtful,
for the following reasons : When John Cabot re
turned to England, he gave an account of his
voyage, which is briefly reported in a letter
written from London August 23, 1497, by
Lorenzo Pasqualigo to his brothers in Venice,
and by two despatches sent by Raimondo di

1 The meaning of the Latin text is somewhat different,
viz. : " No. 8. This land was discovered by John Cabot,
a Venetian, and Sebastian Cabot, his son, in the year of
the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ, 1494, on the 24th
of July, at the hour of five at daybreak."

Soncino to the Duke of Milan, August 24 and
December 18, 1497.

Pasqualigo states that John Cabot " coasted
three hundred leagues l [of the newly discovered
country]." This statement is corroborated by
Soncino, who " saw the description of the country
discovered by Cabot marked in a chart and on
a solid globe which the latter had made." 2
These three hundred leagues would have
amounted to six hundred, as Cabot had to
retrace his course when sailing homeward. Now
John Cabot was already in London on August
10, 1497, which implies that he had reached
Bristol about five days earlier. If we accept the
alleged date of June 24 as that of his landfall in
America, it leaves only forty-two days between
his arrival within sight of the New World and
his return to England. 3

1 "Andato per la costa lige 300." There must be,
however, a mistake in the statement. We should pro
bably read " miles " instead of " leagues." This diminu
tion of two thirds may palliate, but does not remove the
difficulty, as it yet leaves a traject to and fro of 300 miles
to account for in that short space of time.

2 " Esso messer Zoane ha la descriptione del mondo in
una carta, et anche in una sphera solida che lui ha fatto
et demostra dove e capitate."

3 If we were to adopt the Latin text (July instead of

We must assume that Cabot and his small
crew of eighteen men, after a voyage said to
have lasted more than fifty-two days (they had
left England early in May, 1497), rested awhile,
and devoted some time to refitting or repairing
their diminutive craft (" uno piccolo naviglio e
xviii persone se pose a la fortuna "), as well as to
taking in wood and water, and renewing the
stock of victuals, which could be done only by
hunting and salting game on shore. To these
necessary delays must be added the time spent
in skirting to and fro along three hundred
leagues (or miles) of coast. Nor should it be
forgotten that, in ranging an unknown and
dangerous shore, only a moderate rate of speed
could have been maintained. How could all
this have been accomplished in the limited time
which the alleged landfall on June 24 leaves to
Cabot before his return to England ? If we
suppose that, owing to westerly winds and the
Gulf Stream, he effected the homeward voyage
in one third less time than is stated to have
been required for the outward passage, that is
thirty-four days instead of fifty-two, then, as
Cabot was already back in Bristol on August 5,

June), it would leave only thirteen days. This date, how
ever, is clearly an oversight.

he must have taken the necessary rest in the
new land, made the indispensable repairs,
effected landings, and renewed his stock of pro
visions, besides coasting six hundred leagues (or
miles), all within eight days !

The date June 24, therefore, is highly im
probable. It may have originated in connection
with an imaginary island which figures in old
Portuguese charts, close to the north-east coast,
in about 50 lat. In some maps, Wolfenbuttel B,
for instance, the cartographer has placed it
within the Gulf of St. Lawrence. That island
was probably supposed by Sebastian Cabot, in
1544, to be identical with the one also im
aginary, as I propose to show which he then
borrowed from a French map, where it is in
serted in the same place. Dr. Grajales, who
knew of the almost constant practice in those
days of naming islands after the saints on whose
days they were discovered, may well have as
sumed the date of June 24 -that of the festival
of St. John the Baptist on seeing that the
island was labelled in those maps, " I. de San



As regards the landfall, the first cartographical
mention of the transatlantic discoveries of the
English is to be found in the planisphere
executed between June and August, 1500, by
Juan de la Cosa, the owner and master of
Columbus s flagship during his first voyage
across the Atlantic Ocean. In that celebrated
chart, there is in the proximity and to the west
of Cuba an unbroken coast-line, delineated like
a continent, and extending northward to the
extremity of the map. On the northern portion
of that seaboard La Cosa has placed a con
tinuous line of British flags. The most southern
inscription in that part of the coast in the chart
is, "Mar descubierta por ingleses " ("Sea dis
covered by the English "). The northernmost
reads, " Cabo de ynglaterra" ("The Cape of
England ").

On July 25, 1498, Pedro de Ayala wrote from
London to Ferdinand and Isabella that he
possessed the chart or mappamundi which
Cabot had brought with him, and that he would
send it to their Majesties. 1 It is fair therefore

1 "Vuestras Altezas ya tendran aviso de todo lo y


to infer that La Cosa s delineations embody the
results of Cabot s voyage. Unfortunately, owing
to the absence of degrees of latitude and longi
tude, as well as to the style of the projection,
the various positions cannot be determined ; for
the cartographical data are totally inadequate to
enable anyone to locate the landfalL It is even
impossible to ascertain whether the Mar des-
cubierta por ingleses or the Cabo de ynglaterra
was first seen, and to what locality either of
them corresponds. The two most competent
scholars who ever studied the question Hum-
boldt and Kohl came to different conclusions.
For the former, the Cabo de ynglaterra is a cape
near Belle Isle ; for the latter, it is Cape Race.

Further, John Cabot made a second voyage to
the New World, sailing from Bristol in April,
1498, from which voyage he, or his companions,
must have returned before 1500. There is con
sequently no reason why La Cosa s map may not
also include geographical information brought
back by the second expedition. This is all the
more likely, as the extent of the east coast
covered with English flags is greater in his map
than the distance, also in the latter, between the

asymismo al carta o mapa mundi que este ha fecho, yo
no la enbio agora, que aqui la ay."


eastern extremity of Porto Rico and the western
most coast of Cuba, that is, at least, nineteen
degrees, or three hundred and eighty marine
leagues. How are we to distinguish between
these data ?


IT is not until a quarter of a century after La
Cosa had made his planisphere that we find a
Spanish map exhibiting the north-eastern region
of North America, named then either " Bacca-
laos" ("The codfish country"), or "Tierra del
Labrador" ("The land of the Laborer"), or
both, and set forth as being the locus of the
discoveries made by the English. The Sevillian
cartographers however seem to have drawn a
distinction, by ascribing the Baccalaos to Corte
Real, or the Portuguese, and the Tierra del
Labrador to the British navigators, or the

The services of Sebastian Cabot were engaged,
in 1512, by Ferdinand of Aragon chiefly on ac
count of his supposed knowledge of the geo
graphy of North America ; he having appro
priated to himself the merit of the discovery of
the American continent made by his father. He


filled in Spain the office of Pilot-Major from
February, 1518, until October, 1547, remaining
titulary of the post during his absence at La
Plata. Not only was Sebastian Cabot, by virtue
of his functions, supervisor of the chair of cosmo
graphy, but he was also a member of the com
mission of pilots and geographers required by
King Ferdinand to make a general revision of
all maps. It is evident, therefore, that the charts
made in Spain, particularly by the cosmographers
to his Majesty, must have represented North
America according to Sebastian Cabot s notions,
and doubtless borrowed from him the legends
inscribed thereon. Let us see now where the
discoveries of the English were invariably located
in such maps.

We still possess five specimens of Sevillian
cartography, which, considering the royal ordin
ances of the time, and the fact that three maps
are stated explicitly to be the work of Charles
the Fifth s cartographers, we assume to be
derived directly from the Padron General or
standard official map.

The first and roughest of all is the map sent
from Seville in 1527 by an English merchant,
Robert Thorne, to Dr. Lee, the ambassador of
Henry VIII. in Spain. In it, the northern ex-


tremity of the east coast bears the inscription,
" Nova terra laboratorum dicta" and on its sea
board we read, " Terra hec ab Anglis primum
fuit inventa" The region thus said to have
been discovered by the English extends from
50 to 65 N. lat. We then have two very ela
borate manuscript planispheres, known as the
" Weimar " maps. One is anonymous and dated
1527. The other, bearing date 1529, is signed
by Diego Ribeiro, who was his Majesty s cos-
mographer and master chart-maker, as well as
Sebastian Cabot s colleague in the Badajoz
Junta. The first of these mentions only the
Tierra del laborador, which is placed between
56 and 60 N. lat. This region, however, is
meant for the field of English discoveries in 1497,
and probably 1498, as is shown by the Weimar
Ribeiro map of 1529, made on the same scale
and after the same pattern, and where the inscrip
tion is followed by the additional remark, " Esta
tierra descubrieron los Ingleses " (" This land was
discovered by the English "). And what shows
still more clearly the identity of these English
discoveries with those accomplished by John
Cabot and his companions, is the legend added
in the same place by Ribeiro in the Propaganda
duplicate of his great map : " Tierra del Labrador,

laqual descubrieron los Ingles es de la villa de
Bristol" ("The Land of the Laborer, which
was discovered by the English of the town of
Bristol"). Finally, we have the map called
" Wolfenbiittel B," anonymous and undated, but
certainly constructed in Seville before 1531.
This also bears the inscription across Labrador,
between 56 and 60 N. lat. " Descubierta por
los Yngleses de la vila de Bristol

The chain of evidence is complete ; and it
shows that in Seville, during the first forty years
of the sixteenth century, cosmographers always
located the transatlantic discoveries of the Eng
lish, implying those of John Cabot, at least ten
degrees north of Cape Breton, according to the
scale of latitude inscribed on the Weimar maps.
This fact requires to be kept in mind ; for that
location is due, directly or indirectly, to Sebastian
Cabot, in consequence of the official positions
which he filled in Spain for so many years.


IN 1544, the engraved mappamundi of Sebastian
Cabot, already mentioned, appeared in Antwerp
or in Augsburg. There do we see for the first


time a different locus ascribed to the transatlantic
discoveries of the English under the flag of
Henry VII.

This map gives a geographical representation
of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and its vicinity en
tirely unlike that which had figured previously
in Spanish charts, particularly in those which
were constructed by the state cosmographers of
Spain at the time when Sebastian Cabot was at
their head. Nor was it ever reproduced in maps
emanating from Spanish chart-makers. On the
extremity of a large peninsula of the north-east
coast, we read, " Prima tierra vista," that is, " the
first land seen," or the alleged landfall of Cabot.

The locality was doubtless intended to repre
sent Cape Breton. Then, in a gulf adjoining,
which is meant for the Gulf of St. Lawrence, there
is a very large island, named " /. de S. Juan"
This unexpected insular configuration is ex
plained in legend 8 of Grajales, which I have
already cited.

In reality, there is no such island anywhere
near the north coast of Cape Breton, unless it be
Newfoundland. In those days, however, and for
many years after 1497, Newfoundland was be
lieved to form part of the mainland. The falsity
of the statement can be easily accounted for :


Sebastian Cabot s entire configuration of that
locality and most of the legends and names in
scribed in it have been boldly plagiarized from
the Dieppe map drawn by the French carto
grapher, Nicolas Desliens, in 1541. This map,
which is now in the Dresden Royal Library, is
based upon the discoveries of Jacques Cartier. 1

Further, in this plagiarism of Sebastian Cabot s
his delineation of the pretended " Isla de S.
Juan " does not even represent an existing island.
What he has thus depicted, and claims to have
discovered and named, is, in reality, only a car
tographical distortion, an amalgam of islets,
sunken rocks, shoals, and sandbars, known as
" The Magdalens." These, some French carto
grapher (probably Desliens himself) had con
glomerated by mistake, ascribing to them the
shape of a compact island of considerable di
mensions ; and Cabot actually reproduces it with
no other authority than the erroneous map itself.

In this way was John Cabot s discovery located
in 1544 at such a great distance from the latitude
where it had figured in all the Spanish maps
made while Sebastian held the office of Pilot-

1 See the facsimiles in "John Cabot, the Discoverer of
North America." London : B. F. Stevens, 1896, pp.


Major, and according to models necessarily con
structed from data furnished by him.

It lies with the believers in the authenticity of
the landfall at Cape Breton to account for this
sudden and unexpected change, and to explain
why, after constantly inscribing the discovery in
Labrador, Sebastian Cabot came at such a late
hour to place it at least 10 degrees farther south.
His admirers have hitherto neglected to answer
this all-important question seriously, and with
an adequate knowledge of the subject. They
allege that as the Spanish government was very
jealous of imparting to foreigners any informa
tion concerning its colonial enterprises and dis
coveries, chart-makers were prohibited even
under penalty of death ! -from marking on maps
any geographical data of the kind. This theory
I myself believed in to a degree when I com
menced studying American cartography thirty-
four years ago, and even subsequently. It is,
nevertheless, erroneous in every respect.

In the first place, there is no evidence what
ever that, notwithstanding the rights conveyed
by the Bull of Demarcation, Spain ever laid
claim to the north-east coast of America. The
inference is rather the other way. The famous
map of Juan de la Cosa, Columbia s own pilot,


and Chief Cartographer of Spain, not only sets
forth that the north-eastern borders of America
were discovered by the English, but acknow
ledges tacitly the supremacy of England over
the region, by dotting it entirely with British

True it is that, in 1511, one Juan de Agra-
monte obtained from Queen Juana leave to go
with two vessels " to ascertain the secret of the
new land," that is, the strait which was supposed
to lead to Cathay through the Baccalaos ; but it
was " on condition that two of his pilots should
be Bretons brought direct from Brittany." This
shows that Spain was not yet then in possession
of the geographical knowledge requisite for such
an enterprise.

The Spaniards in fact never sailed north of the
Carolinas until 1524, when Estevan Gomez went
in search of the western passage. Nor do we
find them visiting that coast again until 1541,
when Ares de Sea was commissioned by
Charles V. to see " what Jacques Cartier had
discovered in the country called Canada."
Further, we have the positive statement of
Oviedo, then State Chronicler for the Indies,
that his countrymen and himself had no know
ledge of the Northern regions ; and that was


the reason why the model map of Chaves
did not extend beyond 21 15 . Spain, therefore,
had nothing to conceal regarding the geography
of the north-east coast of America.

In the second place, there is not a shadow of
evidence that Spain ever concealed her trans
atlantic discoveries, or prohibited cartographical
information concerning them. Thus do we see
Christopher Columbus himself, who, more than
anyone else, was interested in preventing trans
gressions of his privileges and of the rights of
the Crown, order, without any hesitation, for the
use even of a Venetian admiral, " a map of the
newly discovered lands, detailed and complete."
When Magellan had accomplished his famous
discovery of the straits that bear his name, which
one might suppose Spain would have reserved
exclusively to herself, it was at once graphically
described in all maps and globes, with the exact
route. And what is more, the information was
conveyed openly to the Archbishop of Salzburg,
by Maximilianus Transylvanus, the secretary of
Charles V. Several other instances of the kind
could be cited.

It stands to reason that it would have been
impossible to keep such information secret. Did
not the numerous ships equipped in Seville, in


Cadiz, and in Palos for the New World carry
charts ? And was it not indispensable that such
maps should be as exact and complete as pos
sible? Look at the relatively numerous speci
mens of Sevillian hydrography which have come
down to us. Do they not set forth all and
singular the geographical knowledge of the New
World which the Spanish pilots and cosmo-
graphers possessed in the first half of the six
teenth century? When once in the hands of
the four hundred pilots and masters who at
one time were in the employ of Castile, ex
clusively for the American trade, how could
they escape the curiosity of the numerous mer
chants and adventurers who flocked into the
southern ports, waiting for a favourable oppor
tunity to cross the ocean and explore new
countries ?

My opponents reply by quoting the following
passage from the above-mentioned letter sent in
1527 from Seville, by Robert Thorne, with a
map, to Dr. Lee : " That it [the map] is not to
be showed or communicated there [in England]
with many of that court. For though there is
nothing in it prejudiciall to the emperor, yet it
may be a cause of paine to the maker, as well
for that none may make these cards but certayne


appointed and allowed masters." What does
this prove ? Only that Thome s map had not
been indorsed by the competent authorities, as
the law required. 1 But this obligation was not
intended to withhold geographical information.
The government acted in the interest of the fisc,
and more particularly of navigation, which
suffered greatly from a competition created by
incompetent cartographers. 2 And we have only
to cast a glance at Thome s map in Hakluyt to
see that it is scarcely possible to imagine a
poorer specimen of cartographical handiwork.
The words in Thome s letter, " though there is
nothing in it [the map] prejudiciall to the
emperor," the reference to the pilots, who alone
are authorized to make maps, and the fact that
its configurations are identical with those in all
the charts of the time, without any addition
whatever, show conclusively that the proviso
accompanying the transmission of the map to
Dr. Lee was not prompted by the motives
which certain critics allege.

Again, if the Spanish government had any
particular reasons for making a secret of the
geography of the Baccalaos region, how is it

1 "Discovery," pp. 257-259 ; "John Cabot," pp. 74-75.
a See the " Colloquio " written by Fernando Columbus.


that Sebastian Cabot, who was Pilot-Major of
Spain, inscribes so fully and as exactly as he
could in a map intended to be engraved, the
configurations of Cape Breton, Newfoundland,
and Labrador, and this chiefly in the interest of
a rival nation ? Moreover the history of Spanish
jurisprudence in the sixteenth century leaves no
room to doubt that had it been so great a crime
to mark maritime discoveries in maps, we should
find some ordinance or law on the subject.
There are no traces of anything of the kind in
the numerous Recopilaciones de Leyes published
in Spain.

I venture to suggest another explanation. It
is, I think, now admitted by all who have read
the authentic documents published in my latest
work * on the subject, that Sebastian Cabot was
an unmitigated charlatan, who frequently dis
guised the truth, and was constantly engaged in
plotting and corresponding in secret with foreign
rulers, all whom he betrayed in turn. He had
tried several times to ingratiate himself with the
English king. In 1538, he intrigued to influence
Sir Thomas Wyatt, resident ambassador at the
court of Spain, to recommend his services to

1 " John and Sebastian Cabot." London : B. F. Stevens,
and New York : Dodd, Mead Co., 1896.


Henry VIII., which in fact was done by Sir
Philip Hoby when he returned to London. But
the manceuvre succeeded only several years

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Online LibraryHenry HarrisseThe discovery of North America by John Cabot; the alleged date and landfall, also the ship's name, the Matthew, a forgery of Chatterton? → online text (page 1 of 3)