John and Sebastion Cabot - Frederick Ober

Intermediary Explorations

Many and pertinent are the questions that arise in connection with an inquiry into the colonization of Greenland and the attempted settlements at Vinland. Why did the northern colony flourish four hundred years, while the more southern, with its temperate climate and manifold advantages, exist for a short period only, then sink into obscurity?

The last voyage to Vinland of which there is any account was in or about the year 1221; but the Greenland settlements were occupied so late as the opening years of that century in which Columbus made his first voyage to what is now called America. The northern Skraelings, or Eskimos, invaded the southern shores of Greenland in the first decade of the fifteenth century, and swept the settlements into the sea. They had been seen by Norse voyagers many years before, but evidently were not feared, though it was on account of the total absence of natives inimical to white men that the inhospitable sites in Greenland had been occupied and retained even after better had been discovered farther south. That was one reason, but a second and more powerful was, probably, Greenland's proximity to the parent colony in Iceland. The dreaded "Sea of Darkness" was, between Iceland and Greenland, narrowed to scarcely more than a strait, less than three hundred miles in width; but below it expanded increasingly, the Vikings found, the farther south they ventured in their frail craft.

It is less strange that the Northmen should have abandoned Vinland and ceased to voyage thither at all, than that all knowledge of the country should have faded away, in the course of centuries, and have become but a tradition, until it was revived by the publication of the learned Torfaeus's book, in 1706. Without allowing ourselves to become involved in a mere labyrinth of explanations, by which we should be diverted from the high-road of our narrative, and perhaps emerge without any information worth the while, at least we should remember that the Northmen, though valiant, were extremely ignorant and unobservant. They had no conception of the globe as we now know it, and were unaware of what their voyages signified. Moreover, says a critical historian: "Nothing had been accomplished by these voyages which could properly be called a contribution to geographical knowledge. . . . Except for Greenland, which was supposed to be a part of the European world, America remained as much undiscovered after the eleventh century as before. In the midsummer of 1492, it needed to be discovered as much as if Leif Erikson, or the whole race of Northmen, had never existed!" Suffice it that, when it was finally rediscovered, towards the end of the fifteenth century, North America was practically unknown, for the record of Norse voyages had been lost, and was not brought to light until two centuries later.

The impulse for the actual discovery of America was a cumulative force from the East, from the shores of the Mediterranean. Southern Africa, like North America, had been discovered, it had even been circumnavigated—and forgotten. Prince Henry of Portugal reopened the ancient waterways. The equator was crossed, finally, but after his death; the Cape of Good Hope was doubled, by Bartholomew Dias, and the way opened by which Vasco da Gama sailed to India.

While the Portuguese were creeping southwardly along the African coast, and while, later, Christopher Columbus, for the Spaniards, was thrusting his ships boldly into the Atlantic, America remained unknown. But there was a man with Bartholomew Dias, when he doubled the Cape of Storms, in 1486, who was to assist in lifting the veil from that virgin continent. This man was Bartholomew Columbus, who, on his return from the African voyage, was sent to England by Christopher, his brother, to lay his schemes before Henry VII. He was to visit, also, the court of France; but his first objective seems to have been the port of Bristol, in England, where it is thought that, being a seafaring man, Bartholomew had some old shipmates or acquaintances. Both Christopher Columbus and Bartholomew had been on voyages to Iceland, it is declared on good authority, and probably to Bristol, which is a very ancient seaport, and during the fifteenth century, at least, carried on a thriving smuggling trade with the isolated Icelanders.

The enterprising seamen of Bristol, many of them, were not only smugglers but buccaneers, as venturesome and valiant as the old Vikings themselves, though carrying on their operations in the guise of traders. Twelve years before Columbus accidentally arrived at the outlying islands of the West Indies (by which he gained the reputation of having discovered America), or in the year 1480, the Bristol men had sent out an expedition in quest of the isle of Brazil, known in Celtic traditions as O'Brasil, or "Isle of the Blest." Like the blessed St. Brandan's Isle, Atlantis, Antilla, Zipango, and a score of others that took refuge in the "Sea of Darkness" when pursued by the cartographers, O'Brasil was a mythical land, and has never been discovered. It was then as real, however, as was America before it was revealed, and not only Columbus, but Vespucci, went in search of it. The name became finally fixed to the country which now bears it: Brazil, in South America; but previously it wandered about like a veritable ignis fatuus, pursued by voyagers of every nationality and clime.

An old chronicler gives this account: "In 1480, on July 15th [two ships] began a voyage from the port of Bristol . . . in search of the island of Brasylle, to the west of Ireland, Thylde, the most scientific mariner in all England being the pilot. News came to Bristol on the 18th September that the ships cruised about the sea for nearly nine months, without finding the island, but in consequence of tempests they returned to a port in Ireland, for the repose of the ships and the mariners."

Eighteen years later, or in 1498, the Spanish ambassador in London wrote to his sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella: "The people of Bristol have, for the last seven years, sent out every year two, three, or four caravels, in search of the island of Brasil and the Seven Cities."

From this it would appear that Columbus was not the only mariner who was bent upon faring forth upon the vasty deep in search of new lands and peoples; for, even though the Bristol voyage of 1480 be discredited, there can be little doubt as to that of 1491, the very year before America was discovered! It would seem that the great ventures and discoveries of that age perhaps also of every age were made, not by the enlightened aid of the sovereigns, but in spite of them! How many years, for example, did Columbus importune the king of Portugal, and the king and queen of Spain, before the last-named finally sent him forth, so niggardly provided that it was scarcely less than miraculous that he and his motley crew safely accomplished the voyage?

But, if the Spanish and Portuguese sovereigns were penurious and mean, still more so was their, royal brother in England, Henry VII., who happened to be seated on the throne when the stout-hearted Bristol men were making their ventures on the unknown ocean. Isabella and Ferdinand nearly lost the services of Columbus by their procrastination; King John of Portugal stigmatized himself as an unworthy successor to Prince Henry the Navigator, when he rejected them; Henry VII. of England joined his company when he dallied over and finally refused the proffer of Don Bartholomew. Christopher's noble brother was at Henry's court in 1488, as witness this entry in Hakluyt's History, made about one hundred years later:

"The offer of the discovery of the West Indies by Christopher Columbus to King Henry the seventh, in the yeare 1488, the 13 of February; with the king's acceptation of the offer, and the cause whereupon hee was depriued of the same; recorded in the 13th chapter of the history of Don Fernando Columbus of the life and deeds of his father Christopher Columbus.... Wherefore; after that Bartholomew Columbus was departed for England his lucke was to fall into the hands of Pyrats, which spoyled him with the rest of them that were in the ship which he went in. Upon which occasion, and by reason of his pouerty and sicknesse which cruelly assaulted him, in a country so farre distant from his friends, he deferred his ambassage for a long while, until such time as he had gotten somewhat handsome about him with the making of sea cards [charts]. At length he began to deale with King Henry the seventh, unto whom he presented a mappe of the world, wherein these verses were written, which I found among his papers; and I will here set them down, rather for their antiquity than for their goodnesse:

"Thou which desirest easily the coast of land to know,

This comely mappe right learnedly the same to thee will shew;

Which Strabo, Plinie, Ptolomey and Isodore maintaine;

Yet for all that they do not all in one accord remain.

Here also is set downe the late discovered burning zone

By Portingals, unto the world which wilom was unknown,

Whereof the knowledge now at length thorow all the world is blown."

This "mappe of the world" which Bartholomew Columbus presented to the penurious king was probably a copy of that sent by Toscanelli, the Florentine, to Christopher, in 1474, and by which the last-named shaped his course on the first voyage across the Atlantic. As, it is believed, Amerigo Vespucci (then twenty-two years of age, and a Florentine) was in close touch with Toscanelli at that time, he also saw this map, and thus we have several great names closely linked together by this transaction: Christopher and Bartholomew Columbus, Vespucci, Toscanelli; to which will soon be added John and Sebastian Cabot, who may have been in England at the time.

It is not known that either of the Cabots ever met Christopher Columbus, nor did the latter ever see Toscanelli, the learned doctor who furnished him with the precious chart; but Amerigo Vespucci was intimately acquainted with the Genoese and the Florentine, and was succeeded by Sebastian Cabot, after his death, in the office of piloto mayor, or chief pilot, of Spain. This little world was smaller then than now that is, the known and habitable portion while men of real attainments were so few as to be conspicuous. As they were depended upon to supply brains for kings with empty pates and these latter were relatively numerous they could always be found among the hangers-on at royal courts.

King Henry listened, but not understandingly, to the plans proposed by Christopher Columbus through his brother Bartholomew. He is said to have promised his assistance in carrying them into execution; but, handicapped as he was by the delays which supervened through poverty, caused by the pirates, Don Bartholomew was compelled to depart from England without accomplishing anything at all.

If Christopher Columbus, instead of spending the best years of his life in servile attendance at royal courts, had cast off all dependence upon kings and courtiers, and placed his business in the hands of such men of affairs as the enterprising merchants of British Bristol, or Spanish Seville and Cadiz, he would have fared much better, and America might have been discovered the sooner. But he could not rid himself of the fetish of royalty, and fawned upon it until finally there was grudgingly granted him as a boon what he should have demanded as a right. The Spanish sovereigns, in 1492, after delaying their answer to his requests nearly seven years, reluctantly yielded their permission, with beggarly assistance, for a voyage—and that accomplished, England's opportunity was gone forever for the New World had been found.

Don Bartholomew made the best of his way back to Spain, whence he was sent, in command of some vessels, to the West Indies, where he finally met his brother, at the newly founded settlement of Isabella, on the north coast of Hispaniola. There, says the old English chronicler quaintly, "Christopher Columbus being returned from the discovery of Cuba and Jamaica, found his brother Bartholomew, who before had been sent to entreat of an agreement with the king of England for the discovery of the Indies—as we sayd before."

But for the ignorance of a paltering king, in truth, the English might have had the glory of achieving this discovery; though they were hardly worthy that high honor, for they had not, says Robertson, in his History of America, at that period attained to such skill in navigation as qualified them for carrying it into execution.

"From the inconsiderate ambition of its monarchs, the nation had long wasted its genius and activity in pernicious and ineffectual efforts to conquer France. When this ill-directed ardor began to abate, the fatal contest between the houses of York and Lancaster turned the arms of one-half the kingdom against the other, and exhausted the vigor of both. During the course of two centuries, while industry and commerce were making gradual progress both in the south and north of Europe, the English continued so blind to the advantages of their own situation that they hardly began to bend their thoughts towards those objects and pursuits to which they were indebted for their present opulence and power. While the trading-vessels of Italy, Spain, and Portugal, as well as those of the Hans Towns, visited the most remote ports of Europe, and carried on an active intercourse with its various nations, the English did little more than creep along their own coasts in small barks, which conveyed the productions of one country to another. Their commerce was almost wholly passive. Their wants were supplied by strangers; and whatever necessary or luxury of life their own country did not yield was imported in foreign bottoms. The cross of St. George was seldom displayed beyond the precincts of the narrow seas. Hardly had any English ship traded with Spain or Portugal before the beginning of the fifteenth century; and half a century more elapsed before the English mariners became so adventurous as to enter the Mediterranean."

"In this infancy of navigation," continues the historian, "Henry could not commit the conduct of an armament destined to explore unknown regions to his own subjects. He invested one Giovanni Gabotto, a Venetian adventurer who had settled in Bristol, with the chief command, and issued a commission to him and his three sons, empowering them to sail, under the banner of England, towards the east, north, or west, in order to discover countries unoccupied by any other Christian state; to take possession of them in his name, and to carry on an exclusive trade with the inhabitants."