The Matthew, a replica of the 15th century ship sailed by John Cabot from Bristol, England to Newfoundland, arrives in Douarnenez, France after recreating the return leg of that voyage (except the original Matthew went back to Bristol) with the sponsorship of Crest Homes in this file photo taken August 13, 1998. Photograph by: Clive Mason , Allsport
An Italian historian has unveiled a previously unknown document that sheds fresh light on explorer John Cabot’s discovery of Canada - a brief entry in a 516-year-old accounting ledger that shows Cabot had financial backing from a Florence-based bank in England and, most intriguingly, may have had prior knowledge of the distant land his famous 1497 voyage would put on the world map. (via New evidence suggests Cabot knew of new world before Columbus’s voyage)
- University of Florence history professor Francesco Guidi-Bruscoli, working closely with two British researchers and funded largely by a Canadian benefactor, has now pieced together the full story of Cabot’s Italian financing and published his findings in the scholarly journal Historical Research.
- At the heart of Guidi-Bruscoli’s discovery is a long-overlooked accountant’s notation in records held by a Florentine archive detailing a loan of “nobili 50” - 50 nobles sterling, or about 16 English pounds - to “Giovanni Chabotte viniziano” (John Cabot of Venice) “a trovare il nuovo paese” (to find the new land).
- Did Cabot already know about “the land” he was supposedly setting off to find? And is it possible that other sailors from England, where Cabot had moved to pursue his dream of overseas exploration, had previously visited “the new land” of North America - perhaps even before Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Caribbean Islands in 1492 and that epoch-making “discovery” of the New World?
- The clue, says Jones, is the ledger’s reference to Cabot’s goal being “the” new land rather than the indefinite “a” or some other less precise phrasing. ”The use of the definite article in ‘the new land’ is tantalizing,” Jones told Postmedia News by email. “And this isn’t just a translation issue - the implication is the same in the Italian, ‘il nuovo paese.’
- “I think we can be pretty certain that ‘the new land’ doesn’t refer to the land Columbus had found - given that the royal patent Cabot was granted was pretty clear about excluding these territories,” added Jones. “So, I think the reference must indicate that the Bardi believed that Cabot was going off to discover/rediscover a land already known about. The use of ‘new’ suggests it was a land which had been found relatively recently - so this can’t be a reference to the Norse voyages.”
- The discovery of the New World, so momentous in global history, remains a contentious field of study. Scientists disagree over the timing and origins of the original peopling of the Western Hemisphere by the ancestors of today’s aboriginal nations of North and South America. And while it’s now accepted that Viking voyagers reached the northern tip of Newfoundland around the year 1000 - leaving faint traces of their brief presence at L’Anse aux Meadows, a UNESCO World Heritage Site - the European “rediscovery” of the Americas in the late 15th century is not so straightforward.
- The most compelling clue is a two-page letter in Spanish - only found in the 1950s, and believed to have been sent to Columbus in 1498 by a mysterious English merchant and spy named John Day - that contains this startling statement about Cabot’s recently completed 1497 voyage to Newfoundland: “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.”
- The late British historian David Quinn, a dean of discovery scholarship, argued that the Day letter provided “a rational case for placing the English discovery of America in the decade before Columbus sailed in 1492, and possibly as early as 1481.” Quinn concluded the likeliest such discovery could have been made during a 1481 voyage organized by four Bristol men - Thomas Croft, William Spenser, Robert Straunge and William de la Fount - who had equipped ships named the George and the Trinity “to serch & fynde a certain Isle called the Isle of Brasile.”
- Before she died in 2005, [Alwyn] Ruddock had produced a detailed outline for a planned book about Cabot that suggested she had unearthed major new findings the explorer’s expeditions to Canada and the possibility of earlier English voyages to North America. Bizarrely, Ruddock ordered her research notes destroyed upon her death. But Jones has led the effort to reconstruct and rediscover Ruddock’s evidence - even gaining permission to search through her house - and recently found documents confirming her hint about the key role played in the Cabot-era voyages by the little-known Bristol sailor William Weston.