June 29, 2009

Newfoundland: the final frontier

The explorer credited with officially discovering the island of Newfoundland has a fog of mystery surrounding his life and career.

Giovanni Caboto (AKA John Cabot). It's unknown exactly when and where he was born. Perhaps it was circa 1455 in Gaeta, near Naples. He was the son of a merchant.

By 1461 Caboto was living in Venice. In about 1482 he married a Venetian woman, Mattea, and they had three sons: Ludovico, Sebastiano and Sancio.

Like his father, Caboto traded in spices with the ports of the eastern Mediterranean, and became an expert mariner.

About 1490, Caboto and his family moved to Valencia in Spain. This was the era of Christopher Columbus. Caboto was maybe bitten by the exploration bug. Much like Captain Picard, he wanted to see what was out there. Specifically, across the Atlantic Ocean. The Portuguese and Spanish wanted to find new routes to Asia and its wealth. These routes would evade the monopoly on the spice trade held by the Italians. Europeans also wanted to spread knowledge of Christianity, and to contain the spread of Islam.

Portugal and Spain had no interest in Giovanni Caboto. Once Columbus had returned from his first transatlantic voyage in 1493 the Spanish likewise thought they had found their route to the east.

As a result, Caboto turned in 1494 or 1495 to England. He planned to reach Asia by sailing west across the north Atlantic. He thought that this would be shorter than Columbus' southerly route.

In England, Caboto received the support he had been refused in Spain and Portugal. First, the merchants of Bristol agreed to support his scheme. They had sponsored probes into the north Atlantic from the early 1480s, looking for possible trading opportunities.

These had been unofficial voyages. In contrast, on March 5, 1496, English King Henry VII issued letters to Caboto and his sons authorizing them to sail to all parts "of the eastern, western and northern sea" to discover and investigate.

Caboto made his first try in 1496. It was a failure. The following year, Caboto had better luck.

Cape Bonavista, however, is the location recognized by the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom as being Cabot's official landing. But it's also possible he landed on Cape Breton, Labrador or Maine.

The landing by the crew of the Matthew took place on June 24, 1497. Over 500 years ago. That's how long the New Found Land has "officially" been in existence. Some historians think that Bristol mariners might even have reached Newfoundland and Labrador even before Caboto arrived on the scene. Indeed, the Vikings (my family's ancestors) had already landed, but they thought they were in Greenland.

It's unfortunate John Cabot didn't keep better logs. He made a third voyage in 1498, but vanished from the historical record. It's assumed he was lost at sea - possibly shipwrecked, starved, or killed by natives.

The research and controversy continues.