Monday 15 September 2014

John Cabot may have been the greatest of all

The discovery of the wreck of either Erebus or Terror, on the ocean floor in the Canadian Arctic, has been widely covered in the media - and not surprisingly, since they have been missing since 1845.

But it has made me think about John Cabot again, one of my heroes. Not least because he was included in the story in the Guardian, since deleted. Other reports also referred to Cabot's voyage, in search of the North West Passage, on which he also disappeared in 1498.

This is the conventional account, but it is coming under the spotlight.

We know that one of Cabot’s fleet of five ships 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 - which was actually the purpose, not at that stage the North West Passage.

Then nothing.  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

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, a few 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 launched a flurry of research in Cabot circles to see if Ruddock’s outline could be proven, still continuing, and with some success.

Because she seemed to have found evidence that Cabot and his accompanying priest Giovanni de Carbonariis reached Newfoundland safely in 1498.  Also 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 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 his 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

But the idea of Cabot going all the way down the coast of north America suggests that he was in fact the greatest of all the explorers who set out from our shores.  We shall see, but you can find out more in my book Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci and the Race for America, now an e-book.

In the meantime, I would have thought Cabot's voyages north were as important as Franklin's in the emerging international dispute about who claims the Arctic.

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