Poor old Columbus, Cabot and Vespucci, slipping by the week out of respectable history – Columbus as a brutal maniac, Cabot as a failure and Vespucci as a liar. Why don’t we give them their due?
Because actually, they didn’t get to America first. The place was already populated, and the Vikings, the Chinese and probably the Bristol fishermen had long since made a similar crossing. Nor did they understood where they had arrived, though there is new evidence that Cabot may have done so.
No, what guaranteed them a place in history when those before are all but forgotten is that they worked out a method whereby they could cross the Atlantic and profit by it. Explorers before them had either sailed on behalf of a monarch (and received a knighthood and grateful thanks) or had done so secretly (and had kept their discoveries secret for fear that the whole world would make the profits instead). In other words, Columbus and Cabot weren't so much the Atlantic pioneers, but they were pioneers in the pursuit of intellectual property.
And because they never have their stories told together, as they originally were – and because academics avoid the likely explanations in favor of what they can absolutely prove. The truth is that all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Cabot and Columbus worked together, then plunged into debt, fell out and watched each other carefully and suspiciously for the rest of their lives (they were born at the same time, in the same place, frequented the same docks in Lisbon and Bristol, fell into debt at exactly the same time and pedaled identical plans around the crowned heads of Europe). That’s a very different story – of a race between business rivals, rather than epic scientific discovery.
Or that’s what I’ve tried to say in my new book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America.