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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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At that time, a great change had taken place
in the relative importance of the northern coast
of the new continent. The seas which bordered
the Baccalaos region were no longer a mere
common fishing - ground frequented by the
smacks of Portugal, Biscay, Normandy, and
England. The successful explorations of Jacques
Cartier had been followed by the planting of
French colonies. The part selected was not
Labrador, on which, in all the maps of the
period, was inscribed the uninviting legend, " No
ay en ella cosa de provecho " (" Here there is
nothing of utility "). On the contrary, the
French had chosen the country around the Gulf
of St. Lawrence and Cape Breton, which the
reports of Cartier and Roberval to Francis I.
represented to be a beautiful and fertile country,
with rich copper-mines, fine ports, and the most
navigable rivers in the world.

Under the circumstances, the cartographical
statement of Sebastian Cabot, as embodied
in the planisphere of 1544, may well have
been a suggestion of British claims, and a bid


for the favour of the King of England. To
place near the entrance of the Gulf of St.
Lawrence the landfall of 1497, was tantamount
to declaring that region to be English do
minion, as the discovery had been accomplished
by a vessel sailing under the British flag
" sub banneris vexillis et insigniis nostris," said
Henry VII.

Nor was the hint conveyed by Sebastian at
an unseasonable time ; England being then at
war with France, and continuing so until 1547-
At all events, it is certain that, to use the
language of Hakluyt, " the title which England
has to that part of America which is from Florida
sixty-seven degrees northward " is or was de
rived " from the letters granted to John Cabot
and his three sons."

Convinced that the location of the landfall at
Cape Breton is an after-thought of Sebastian
Cabot, and devoid of all authenticity, there is
nothing left but to examine the data furnished
in 1497 by John Cabot himself. These are con
tained in the first dispatch of Soncino, which I
translate :

" After sailing from Bristol . . the ship passed
Ireland more to the west ; then sailed toward
the north, and afterward east [Error for " west "],


when, after a few days, the North Star was to
the right." l

This is all we possess, in the nature of positive
data, to determine where, in 1497, John Cabot
effected his landfall. Technically speaking, the
only conclusion which geographers could infer
from such scanty details was that the landfall
had to be sought north of 51 15 N. lat, being
that of the southern extremity of Ireland.
Ireland, however, extends to 55 15 N. lat.
From what point between these two parallels
did John Cabot sail westward ? Supposing that
it was Valencia, and that the route continued
due west, he would have sighted Belle Isle or
its vicinity. But Cabot said positively that he
altered his course when to the west of Ireland
and stood to the northward. From what latitude
exactly, and where he again put his ship on the
western tack, are questions which no one can
answer beyond stating that it was north of 5 1
15 . I have surmised and said that, according to
Soncino s statement, and taking into account
the extremely northern latitudes in which all

1 "Partitosi da Bristo . . . Passato Ibernia piii occi-
dentale, e poi alzatosi verso el septentrione, commencio
ad navigare ale parte orientale, lassandosi fra qualche
giorni la tramontana ad mano drita."


the Spanish maps located the British discoveries
in the New World, the landfall must have been
in Labrador, west of Belle Isle, somewhere
about Sandwich Bay or Invuctoke l or about
53 30 N. lat. But this estimate I bring forward
only as a supposition.

Dr. S. E. Dawson, in an able and interesting
paper published in the twelfth volume of the
" Transactions " of the Royal Society of Canada
has opposed this conclusion ; and his arguments
deserve to be attentively examined.

A remarkable circumstance related in John
Cabot s verbal account of his first transatlantic
voyage, was the extraordinary number of cod
fish which he saw in the sea laving the newly
discovered regions.

I referred to Cape Chudley as a locality where
cod were more plentiful than anywhere else. My
opponent shows that now cod arrive there only
after August 15, at which date Cabot was
already back in England, and, that, consequently,
Cape Chudley cannot have been his landfall.
But I have never said that Cape Chudley was
John Cabot s landfall. I only advanced the
supposition that this cape may have been the

1 See Plate I. in the " Discovery of America," and in
"John Cabot, the Discoverer of North America," p. in.


terminus of Cabot s exploration of the three
hundred marine leagues (or miles) westward.
The most therefore that can be made out of the
argument is that Cabot found no cod at Cape
Chudley when he reached the place.

Nor can it be inferred from the absence of cod
in Southern Labrador before the twentieth of
June that Cabot s landfall must be located where
the fish is already to be found at that date ; i.e.,
Newfoundland, or Nova Scotia. Cabot does
not say when and where exactly "that sea is
covered with fishes." He may have observed
the fact only when returning from Cape Chudley,
homeward bound. Now if, according to my
hypothesis, he effected his return from Labrador
to Bristol in about thirty-four days, arriving in
the latter port on August 5, he might well have
noticed the amazing number of codfish in
Southern Labrador, or on the coast of New
foundland, between June 20 and the first week
in July, and have continued to see it for a long

A more important question mooted by Dr.
Dawson and in the true scientific spirit, but
with singularly erroneous conclusions is that of
the deviation of the magnetic needle.

The patriotic critic, avowedly availing himself


of the data furnished by Mr. Charles A. Scott in
his valuable paper on the variation of the com
pass off the Bahama Islands at the time of the
landfall of Columbus in 1492, has formed the
following opinion :

" If Columbus on a direct western course
dropped two hundred and forty miles from
Gomara, his point of departure to his landfall in
the Antilles, in 1492, with a variation of one
point west, it is altogether probable that John
Cabot, with a variation of a point and a half,
would have dropped, in 1497, three hundred and
sixty miles to the south on his western course
across the Atlantic ; and, again, if John Cabot
laid his course to the west by compass from
latitude 53 north, the variation, so much greater
than that observed by Columbus, would have
carried him clear of Cape Race, and to the next
probable landfall, Cape Breton." Trans. Royal
Society of Canada, Sect, xi., 1894, p. 58.

Such are the principal reasons alleged against
the probability of the landing of Cabot on the
coast of Labrador, and in favour of the opinion
that it was in the vicinity of Cape Breton. The
argument so far from being decisive is, on the
contrary, entirely hypothetical, problematic, and
erroneous in every respect.


The laws of the secular motion of the curves
of equal variation on the surface of the globe
are yet too little known to enable anyone to infer,
from the variations which Columbus experienced
in or about 25 N. lat., the variations which
Cabot experienced in 53 N. lat. There is
nothing whatever to show that the variations
experienced by Cabot were not inferior to one
point and a half west, or that they were not nil,
or even eastwardly. Again : If the variations
experienced by Columbus can be determined
more or less approximately by inferences drawn
from his own journal, we possess no such in
formation concerning the route followed by
Cabot. There is no ground, therefore, to say
that if the variation experienced by Columbus
was one point west, the variation experienced by
Cabot must have been one point and a half ; nor
can such consequence be inferred from any
known fact.

It is not exact to infer that if with a variation
of one point Columbus dropped two hundred
and forty miles in a course of about 3,150 miles,
Cabot dropped proportionately in a course of
about i, 600 miles, that is, three hundred and
sixty miles for a variation of a point and a half.
In the first place, such deviations are to each


other as the tangents of the angles of variation,
and not as the variations themselves. This,
however, is inconsiderable in the present case,
because the angles are small ; although in
nautical calculations every item tells. But Dr.
Dawson commits an egregious mistake when he
reasons as if Cabot s course and Columbus s
course had actually been of equal length. Now,
the course of Columbus was, we admit, about
3,150 miles, whilst Cabot s was, as we have just
said, about 1,600 miles only.

If with a variation of one point west on a
direct western course of about 3,150 miles,
Columbus dropped 240 miles, Cabot, in a course
of about 1, 600 miles, with an alleged variation
of a point and a half, certainly did not drop
" 360 miles." Far from it ! Any mathematician
might have told Dr. Dawson that Cabot then
would have dropped only 179 miles? This

1 In a course of 1,600 miles, an angular deviation of
16 52 in Cabot s route would, at the landfall, correspond
with a deviation equal to tan 16 52 x 1,600 = 179 miles.
The deviation of Columbus must be reduced from one point
(11 15 ) to 4 15 , to obtain 240 miles of linear deviation,
in a course of about 3,150 miles ; Cabot s deviation will have
to be similarly reduced from one point and a half (16 52
30") to 6 22 , which gives 179 miles of linear deviation.

Other errors quite as important could be pointed out.

enormous difference of about one half demolishes
the vaunted theory of my learned opponent from
top to bottom. And Cabot, instead of making
his landfall at the northern extremity of Cape
Breton Island, as Dr. Dawson alleges, would have
made it 1 8 1 miles more to the northwards ; that
is to say, in Newfoundland, on the eastern shore
of Cape Bauld, at the entrance of White Bay,
about 90 miles south of Cape Bauld.

Nor is it logical to take into account only the
differences in the variations of the compass. The
route of Columbus was entirely in latitudes
where fine weather and a smooth sea prevailed.
It was besides in the region of north-east trade-
winds. The navigator has not then to contend
against the errors of reckoning due to beating
against head-winds and to changes of course
and speed in bad weather. The currents, as well
as the winds, were favourable to Columbus.
Finally, if he did experience a variation of one

For instance, taking as a basis Dr. Dawson s own data
for Cabot in a course laid to the W. by compass from lat.
53 N., and near the Irish coast, to be "carried clear of
Cape Race and to Cape Breton " the variation ex
perienced cannot have been a magnetic variation of " a
point and a half" (16 52 ), but a variation of more than
two points and a half (29 degrees !). Here, again, what
becomes of Dr. Dawson s initial theory ?


point westward, it was only in the meridian of
40 W. East of that meridian the variations
were much less, and possibly in a contrary
direction, as he probably cut the line of no
variation between 28 and 32 W. long. 1 There
was therefore, as regards the variation, a partial

If we now examine the regions necessarily
traversed by Cabot, we find that he did not
enjoy such advantages. He sailed constantly in
the region of the brave west winds, that is, with
head-winds which compelled him to tack nearly
the whole time. This tacking had to be carried
out in latitudes where gales and heavy seas are
almost constant. The consequence of these
difficulties is made apparent in the expression
of Soncino, that Cabot was compelled " to
wander a good deal." In such a case it is im
possible to ascertain the error, or deviation
between the course actually made by the navi
gator and that which he believed himself to have

Under these circumstances, it is bold to assume,

as Dr. Dawson does, that Cabot s course was

"west magnetic," and that the corresponding

true course was this magnetic course west, cor-

1 Schott, " Method and Results," chart and p. 7.


rected exactly by i| points of variation north
westerly. Yet, my opponent s belief that the
landfall actually was at Cape Breton rests
mainly upon this supposition.

Well may we say, therefore, that with our
present sources of information no one is war
ranted in asserting that John Cabot discovered
the continent of North America on June 24,
1497, and that his landfall was Cape Breton.



DR. DAWSON alleges that "if Columbus on a
direct western course dropped 240 miles from
Gomara, with a variation of one point west, it is
altogether probable that John Cabot, with a
variation of a point and a half, would have
dropped 360 miles to the south on his western
course across the Atlantic."

Yes, it is probable that then Cabot would
have dropped about 360 miles, provided his
course had been precisely of the same length as the
course of Cohtmbus.

Unfortunately for Dr. Dawson s theory, the
course of Columbus was about 3,150 miles,
whilst Cabot s was (in round figures) 1,600 miles

If Columbus, in a course of 3,150 miles, with
a variation of one point (n p 15 ), experienced a
deviation of 240 miles, as Dr. Dawson says, this
linear deviation corresponds with an angular de
viation expressed as follows :


tan x -


(Log 240 = 2,380211
Co-log 3,150 = 4,501689

Log tan x 2,881900
*=4 15 )-

The angular deviation experienced by Colum
bus was therefore reduced from one point (i i 15 )
(magnetic variation) to 4 15 , which is the true
angular deviation in the course.

Now (supposing all other data or circumstances
to be deemed equal) if, as Dr. Dawson again says,
Cabot experienced a magnetic variation of one
point and a half (16 52 30"), this variation
(considered as the angular deviation in the course)
must be reduced in the same proportion to obtain
the true angular deviation in the course; that
is, instead of one point and a half, it will be the
angular deviation set forth in the following pro
portion :

11 15 = 16 52 30"
4 15 " x

This angular deviation of 6 22 30" corre-


spends with the linear deviation tan 6 22 30" x
i, 600 = about 179 miles.

(Log tan 6 22 30" = 1,048155
Log 1,600 = 3,204120

Log linear deviation in the course = 2,252275
deviation =178 miles, 7.)


DR. DAWSON also alleges that if Cabot laid his
course to the west by compass from latitude 53
north, a variation of one point and a half " would
have carried him clear of Cape Race, and to the
next probable landfall, Cape Breton." In the
first place, as Dr. Dawson is unable to give the
longitude of the starting point in 53 north
latitude, he is not authorized to affirm that a
variation of one point and a half, taken as the
angular deviation in the course, would have
"carried him clear of Cape Race." Besides,
starting, for instance, from 53 north latitude and
11 west longitude of Greenwich, to double Cape
Race at a short distance, implies an angular
deviation of 1 1 southwards.

But, just as we have seen that the deviation
experienced by Columbus in a course of 3,150


miles was only 240 miles, corresponding with an
angular variation of 4 15 , although the mag
netic variation was supposed to have been 1 1 15 ,
and that the course of Cabot with an alleged
magnetic variation of one point and a half (16
52 ) had to experience proportionally an angular
deviation of 6 22 only, according to the pro
portion :

4 IS 6 22

11 15 16 52 "

So, for Cabot s course, which experienced an
angular deviation of 1 1 necessary to pass in the
vicinity of Cape Race, the magnetic variation,
which we call x, will have to be in conformity
with the equality of the relations :

11 4 15 6 22

x n 15 : 1 6 52 *

That is, the magnetic variation which Cabot
must have experienced in order to double Cape
Race is equal to

Consequently, if Cabot actually doubled Cape
Race, he did not experience a magnetic variation
of one point and a half only, as Dr. Dawson
says, but a variation of over two points and a
half, viz., of 29 degrees !


This mathematical demonstration, and the
reasons given on pages 29-31, apply with
as much force to Sir Clements Markham s
theory of Cabot s landfall at Bonavista Bay,
as set forth in the paper read at the Royal
Geographical Society, April 1 2th, 1897 ("Geo
graphical Journal " for June, 1897, P a g e 608).



THE occasion of the fourth centenary of the dis
covery of North America by John Cabot, under
the British flag, may lend interest to the follow
ing remarks :

Barrett s "History of Bristol" (Bristol, 1789,
4to, p. 172) contains this statement :

"In the year 1497, the 24th of June, on St. John s
day, was Newfoundland found by Bristol men, in a
ship called the Matthew \ as it is in a manuscript in
my possession."

With one or two exceptions, all the historians
of Cabot have placed implicit confidence in that
assertion, and henceforth the ship s name, the
" Matthew," hitherto absolutely unknown, and
which stands uncorroborated, became as famous
as that of the " Mayflower."

1 Reprinted from " Notes and Queries."


Endeavours were made to discover Barrett s
manuscript, inasmuch as alleged old Bristollian
documents are not always to be trusted, particu
larly those quoted by Barrett, owing to his con
stant personal dealings with Chatterton (" Notes
and Queries," Vol. V., Feb. 2Oth, 1858, p. 154,
and "Dictionary of National Biography," Vol.
III., 1885, pp. 285, 286). But the searchers have
failed thus far to find it.

In Mr. G. E. Weare s " Cabot s Discovery of
North America," just published (London, 8vo,
pp. 115-122) there is an account of a MS.
Chronicle, formerly in the possession of the Fust
family of Hill Court, Gloucestershire, which MS.
was certainly akin to Barrett s.

The earliest mention of the existence of that
MS. in the Fust family is relatively recent. It
dates only from the death of Sir John Dutton
Colt, who had inherited the MS. from a niece of
Sir John Fust, who died in 1779. After Sir
John Dutton s death, in 1845, it passed to Sir
E. H. Vaughan Colt, who sold it to Mr. William
Strong, a Bristol bookseller. Mr. Strong re
quested his assistant " to collate the entries
therein with Barrett s and Seyer s Histories, with
a view to the extraction from the Chronicle of
all the entries which were yet unpublished, or

which contained information supplemental to
any matter or event already published in either
of those histories." Mr. Strong subsequently
sold the MS. Chronicle, together with the ex
cerpta, to Mr. John Hugh Smyth-Pigott.

In the year 1849 a sale was held of Mr.
Smyth-Pigott s collection. The catalogue men
tions the MS. as being " from Sir Francis Fust s
library." In that case it would be traced back
to 1769, which is the date of Sir Francis s death.
The MS. was bought in by Mr. Pigott, after whose
decease it was again sold, in 1853, and purchased
by Mr. Kerslake, a Bristol bookseller, for i i $s.
Finally, it was burnt to ashes in the conflagra
tion of his store, February I4th, 1860. But the
excerpta or " collations " made by Mr. Strong s
assistant escaped, and they are now in the
possession of Mr. William George, a Bristollian
bookseller. I borrow all these details from Mr.
Weare s book.

It is one of those excerpta which this writer
has inserted in his work ; but he omitted to state
that it was already published twenty years ago
(in Vol. IV., p. 350, of the "Encyclopaedia Britan-
nica") and from the same extracts. The com
plete text is as follows :



"1496. John Drewes [Mayor]. Thomas Vaughan,
Hugh Johnes [Sheriff]. John Elyott [Bailiffs].

" This year, on St. John the Baptist s Day, the land
of America was found by the Merchants of Bristow in a
shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew ; the which said
ship departed from the port of Bristowe, the second day
of May, and came home again the 6th of August next

" 1497. Henry Dale [Mayor]. John Spencer,
Richard Vaughan [Sheriffs?] William Lane [Bailiffs]."

The reader will notice that the above citation
is presented in the form of and as if it were a
literal copy of an official document originally
written in 1497. The old time civic entries of
years dating, we are informed by Mr. Weare,
from the 2Qth of September and ending on
the 28th of September. Now, the name of
" America," which is conspicuous in that extract,
was not invented until ten years afterwards, in
April, 1507, at St. Diey, in Lorraine, by a
German geographer, called Martin Waltzemiiller
or Hylacomylus, 1 in these words :

" Nunc vero et hae partes sunt latius lustratae et alia

1 " Cosmographiae introductio " . . . Urbs Deodate . . .
Finit. vij Kalend. Maij Anno supra sesqui Millesium vij.
(" Bibliotheca Americana Vetustissima," p. 94.)


quarta pars per Americum Vesputium (ut in sequenti-
bus audietur inventa est quam non video cur quis
jure vetet ab Americo inventore sagacis ingenii viro
Amerigen, quasi Americi terram sive Americam dicen-
dam, cum et Europa et Asia a mulieribus sua sortita
sint nomina : But now that those parts have been
more extensively examined and another fourth part
has been discovered by Americus (as will be seen in
the sequel), I do not see why any one may justly
forbid it to be named Amerige? that is, Americ s Land,
from Americus the discoverer, a man of sagacious
mind, or America, since both Europe and Asia chanced
to receive their names from women." (Cosmographiae
introductio . . . Urbs Deodate . . . Finit. vij. Kalend.
Maij Anno supra sesqui Millesium. vij.)

But this fact remained unknown until Hum-
boldt disclosed it in his " Examen Critique,"
published at Paris in 1834.

The extract from the Fust MS. gives also the
alleged date of the discovery, viz., " On St. John
the Baptist s day [June 24th]." This day was set
forth for the first time only in 1 544, by one Dr.
Grajales, of the Port of Santa Maria, in Spain,
when preparing the inscriptions of Sebastian
Cabot s map, which was first published in that
year. As to the date of " June 24th," it is highly
improbable (supra, pp. 7-8).

1 Edward G. Bourne, in "The Nation," Oct. 6, 1892.


So much for the common belief that the above
mentioned excerptum is contemporaneous with
Cabot s first voyage.

The Fust Chronicle, purporting to have been
written by one " Maurice Toby, Gentleman,"
otherwise totally unknown bore the following
title :

" A Brief Chronicle, conteyninge the accompte of the
Reignes of all the Kings in the Realme of Englande,
from the entering of Brutus untill this present yeere, with
all the notable acts done by the dyvers of them, and
wherein is also conteyned the names of all the Mayors,
Stewardes, Bayliffes, and Sheriffes, of the laudable
town of Bristowe, now at this time called ye Worshipp-
full City of Bristowe, with all the notable acts done
in those days, from the first yeere of King Henry y e g d ,
A.D. 1217, untill the present yeere, 1565."

If the Chronicle was not written until 1565,
of course there is no anachronism either in the
use of the name "America," or in the date of
June 24th, 1497. But m tnat case > we must
assume that they are interpolations, or that the
extract was not intended to be given as an
original text. This alternative is difficult to
believe, on account of the technical form of the
excerptum, of the specific reference to " this


year," and of the names of mayors, sheriffs, and
bailiffs therein inserted.

We must at present examine the question of
authenticity from another point of view.

The extract states that the discovery of " the
land of America " was made " on St. John the
Baptist s day." Although the statement was in
serted in a map of 1544, its earliest mention in
a book is not earlier than 1589, when Hakluyt
published a translation of the cartographical in
scription in the first edition of his "Principall
Navigations." It is evident that "Maurice
Toby, Gentleman," whom I strongly suspect
to be of the same family as the monk Rawley
cannot have transcribed in 1565 a phrase which
was written at the soonest in 1584 (Hakluyt s
" Discourse on Western Planting ") and pub
lished only five years afterwards. But some will
answer that he may have borrowed it from the


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 2 of 3)