WHEN LUIS DE SANTÁNGEL received his letter from Columbus posted at Lisbon on March 4, he quickly provided it to a Barcelona printer so the voyage account could be widely disseminated. A near-identical version, addressed to Gabriel Sánchez, Ferdinand’s treasurer (which may have been a case of mistaken identity by the printer and simply a variant on the Santángel letter) also began circulating in Europe. Both began appearing in print in April 1493, including in Cabot’s native Venice.
Meanwhile, Columbus—who must have known of Martín Alonso Pinzón’s death—had traveled from Palos to Seville, where he would have broken to his financier Berardi the good news of his discoveries as well as the bad news that theSanta María was a total loss. But there seemed little question that Columbus would be good for the debt, given the scale of his claims, and Berardi was soon securing the provisioning contract for the follow-up voyage.
The monarchs wrote Columbus at Seville on March 30, inviting him to Barcelona to report firsthand on his discoveries and to plan the next voyage, which they wanted him to make immediately. (“As you know, summer has begun and the season for the return trip already may be passing.”) Columbus’s claim to have reached a half-dozen islands on the perimeter of the Indies had opened a new frontier of expansion and prosperity that was assigned to the old kingdom of Castile and specifically to its capital, Seville, to administer.
Although it has long been considered possible that Cabot met Columbus in Valencia in early April 1493, when the explorer would have passed through town on the way to meet Fernando and Isabel, it is far more likely that the two men actually met at court in Barcelona in mid-April. Columbus’s return had coincided with a serious setback for Cabot and Fernando on the harbor scheme. On March 28, Valencia’s council had decided it would not fund the project. But the proposal had not died entirely. Even with the logistics of the Columbus venture on his plate, the king found time to make a last-gasp attempt on April 16 to revive interest in Valencia in financing Cabot’s harbor scheme by writing a letter suggesting that civic leaders consult the Santángel brothers.
The dying moments of the harbor project strikingly coincided with the birth of Columbus’s Indies trade and colonization venture in partnership with Fernando and Isabel. Cabot may well have been in Barcelona in April conferring with Fernando and his advisors (including Luis de Santángel) on how to get the Valencia harbor development back on track, even as Columbus’s venture was making such profound demands on the court. Cabot would have been in close proximity to virtually every key figure in the courtly and bureaucratic support of the first and second Columbus voyages and the development of Seville as the Spanish operational center for the Indies.
The connections to Seville were not trivial where Cabot was concerned, because he would next surface in the documentary record in that city on September 15, 1494. He was hired then by Seville to oversee another significant marine engineering project of interest to the Spanish monarchs: a fixed bridge across the Guadalquivir River to the island of Triana, the heart of Seville’s maritime activities. The hiring record indicated Cabot already had been in the city for three months attending to the bridge project, which was a crucial build-out of infrastructure for Columbus’s Indies venture.
That Cabot turned up in Seville around June 1494 for the bridge job is not in itself a curiosity. The project was consistent with his earlier proposal to build an artificial harbor for Valencia, which through no fault of his own had failed to move forward, and Seville was a powerful attractor. All roads of commerce in Andalusia led to Seville, and surviving records for bills of exchange also stress the close relationship between the Genoese merchant communities in Seville and Valencia, where Cabot was last encountered in the documentary record.
But as simple as it might seem to send Cabot along the trail of money and opportunity leading from Valencia to Seville, that still left the question of what he was up to for fourteen months, between the last mention by Fernando of the Valencia project in April 1493 and the Venetian’s appearance in charge of Seville’s bridge project around June 1494.
The most logical, if extraordinary, answer is that he sailed to the Indies with Columbus when the armada of the second voyage departed Cadíz on September 25, 1493.
ONE CLUE TO JOHN CABOT’S 1493–94 experience of the Indies lies in a striking observation in a March 28, 1496, letter from Fernando and Isabel to their London ambassador, Dr. Roderigo Gondesalvi de Puebla. The monarchs were replying to news Puebla had sent on January 21 of Cabot’s proposal to Henry VII to make a westward voyage to the Indies for England.
“With regard to what you say,” they advised, “that the one like Colon went there to get the King of England into another affair, like that of the Indies, without causing any damage to Spain or Portugal, if he helps him as us, the one from the Indies will be quite at liberty.”
Although his actual name was never used, this letter unequivocally was about John Cabot. It remains the earliest evidence of Cabot’s exploration ambition, which was such a radical departure from his known activities as a property renovator and a would-be harbor engineer and bridge builder. Neither Puebla nor the Spanish monarchs apparently were aware of exactly who was making the pitch to Henry—only that in being “the one like Colon” he was another man with a yen to prove a westward route to the Orient. Puebla also may have led the monarchs to understand that Cabot too was an Italian. Had Cabot’s name been stated in the lost Puebla letter, we would expect Fernando to have remembered him from the Valencia harbor development and the Seville bridge project—and perhaps even from the second voyage of Columbus.
The final clause especially of that sentence leaves us wondering about the letter’s meaning. We will address the full content of this letter later. For now, its most interesting aspect is the way it appears to grant Cabot experience of the Indies. Based on what Puebla has told them, Fernando and Isabel think Cabot has actually been there, for he is both “the one like Colon” (uno como Colon) and “the one from [or “of”] the Indies” (lo de las Yndias). There is no sensible candidate for “the one from the Indies” other than Cabot in this sentence, or indeed in the whole letter. To call Cabot lo de las Yndias was to link him explicitly with Columbus’s finds and activities.
The letter is not the only clue that Cabot had asserted to Henry that he had already been to the Indies. Such a boast would have given the English king confidence that the Venetian actually could find his way across the ocean to the Orient and would help explain what we otherwise cannot: how Cabot managed to secure an extraordinarily generous letters patent when the rest of his known résumé is so lacking in accomplishments that would recommend him to Henry.
A letter by an unknown correspondent in London to the Duke of Milan (likely written by one of the Spinolas in England) on Cabot’s return from his first successful voyage for Henry VII to the New World in 1497 described Cabot as “a very good mariner” who “has good skill in discovering new islands.” The writer may have been basing this characterization solely on Cabot’s accomplishments on the voyage he had just completed, but it did rather sound like a testament to the depth of his experience. If Cabot had proven skills in discovering new islands (let alone enough sea experience even to qualify as a “very good mariner”), he could have gained them only on one of Columbus’s voyages to the Caribbean.
It was impossible for Cabot to have been on the first Columbus voyage. Beyond the fact that the participants in the three-ship enterprise have been thoroughly studied and his name has never come up, Cabot was in Valencia during that voyage. However, not only was it possible for him to have participated in the second voyage, which discovered a plethora of new islands as it cruised through the Leeward chain after arriving at Dominica in the Caribbean; it was entirely logical. As circuitous as it appears, sending Cabot to the Caribbean on the 1493 Columbus voyage on business of the crown is as persuasive an explanation as one can find for how Cabot managed to get from Valencia to Seville, lose more than a year of known activity in the process, and also account for Fernando and Isabel’s reference to Cabot as “the one from the Indies” in their March 1496 letter to the ambassador Puebla.
The second Columbus voyage departed Cadíz on September 25, 1493. Although Columbus himself did not return to Spain until June 1496, twelve of the armada’s seventeen ships departed Española in February 1494 and arrived back at Cadíz on March 9. This return passage would have left time for Cabot to reappear in the evidence trail in Seville in June.
Once Cabot had come to the attention of Fernando in September 1492 and impressed him with his Valencia harbor plan, he apparently stayed active for more than two years within the milieu of marine infrastructure that was of priority to the Spanish state. Between the Valencia harbor project and the Seville bridge project was a state-sponsored initiative that cried out for the expertise Cabot had demonstrated to Fernando in his Valencia scheme: the envisioned royal trading center on Española.
THE CONVERGENCE OF SIGNIFICANT figures at Barcelona in April 1493, beyond Columbus and the Spanish monarchs, was exceptional. On hand was Luis de Santángel, who was central to both Columbus’s exploits and Fernando’s efforts to secure financial support for Cabot’s Valencia scheme. Also appearing was Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, Archdeacon of Seville and Bishop of Badajoz, who was assigned the task in May of organizing the fleet for Columbus’s second voyage and who then administered trade and colonization efforts for the Indies at Seville.
The return flotilla of early 1494 would be under the command of Antonio de Torres, a member of Isabel’s household staff. His sister, Juana de La Torre, was governess of Prince Juan’s household; as we have seen, she would receive a letter from Columbus in the autumn of 1500 protesting his treatment as he was shipped back to Spain in irons to face charges of mismanagement of the Española colony. Both Antonio and Juana likely were related to Don Diego de Torres, governor-general of Valencia, who had dealt with Cabot on the harbor project on behalf of Fernando in 1492–93.
With Columbus’s second voyage, the Spanish monarchs were determined to create a state-owned trading facility in Española, with staff and settlers on the royal payroll. Spending significant royal funds on a new harbor in Valencia clearly was out of the question, but the monarchs were in immediate need of another new harbor—at La Navidad.
Based on Columbus’s report from the first voyage, Española was thought to be located on the perimeter of the Asian mainland. La Navidad was to be a Castilian royal property, governed by their business partner, Columbus. Fernando and Isabel were sending Columbus back to the rough-and-ready refuge that had been thrown together with materials salvaged from the wreck of the Santa María to transform it into a properly stocked and fortified royal trading post, with a town and farms to support it. Fernando and Isabel envisioned their own version of São Jorge de Mina, Portugal’s fortified trading post in West Africa, but the Venetian stations in the eastern Mediterranean, supplied by local farmers attuned to their needs, and with which Cabot would have been familiar, were also considered exemplary. They were sovereign enclaves on the frontiers of great mercantile opportunities, which was precisely the situation thought to exist in Española.
The public works project of the royal trading post in Española demanded skilled civil engineering, above all a harbor facility capable of managing the vast amounts of trade envisioned. Engineers did go along on the second voyage to plan the trading center and its supporting settlement and to oversee construction, some of it marine-related. In the earliest days, they dug, for example, a canal—a task that would have made someone with construction experience in Venice and a background in Valencia rather useful. We don’t know the names of any of these engineers—in fact, we don’t know the names of most of the people on the voyage, except for the sailors on three ships that explored the southern coast of Cuba with Columbus in 1494 and signed affidavits. The Libros de Armada, the official Seville records of the Indies voyages, did not begin until the relief flotillas of 1494. That Cabot might have been one of the engineers tasked to the Española outpost, after so impressing Fernando with the plan for an artificial harbor at Valencia, is entirely plausible. If Cabot was along, Columbus and Fonseca had to be aware of him, as the pair approved every participant.
If Cabot did in fact visit the Caribbean in association with Columbus in 1493–94, it would be an extraordinary change in our understanding of the New World’s discovery and exploration. An alternative explanation is that Cabot merelyclaimed to have made the voyage.
Cabot had opportunities to learn details about the first two Columbus voyages while in Spain, particularly inside knowledge of them while in Valencia and especially in Seville, and could have passed himself off in England as someone who was just back from discovering new landfalls. Seville teemed with individuals, from common sailors and minor nobles (some two hundred of whom are thought to have been from Seville) who participated in the second Columbus voyage and returned with Antonio de Torres in March 1494. There were also numerous Italian merchants and financiers in Seville on the fringes of the grandiose scheme to turn Columbus’s Española settlement and Seville into two nodes of a new trading colossus. And Cabot could not have been responsible for a project as critical as the Sevillan bridge without encountering Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, the logistical supervisor of the new trade and colonization enterprise.
Saying you actually had been somewhere was much more persuasive than voicing informed opinions about how hypothetically to reach a distant place. Travel narratives of the time already were mixtures of fact and fantasy. As we shall see, another eyewitness account of Cabot in England in 1497 would reveal the Venetian’s assertion that he had once been to Mecca, an extremely dubious claim.
Cabot would not have been the only explorer, would-be or actual, to pad his résumé in hopes of either securing royal favor or inflating his reputation. Amerigo Vespucci, a Berardi partner whom Cabot could have met in Seville in 1494, is an enduringly controversial figure who may have invented for himself a voyage to the New World in 1497, although he did sail to South America in 1499 and 1501. The sixteenth-century French royal geographer André Thevet would claim to have made a New World voyage that was more than likely pure fantasy and shamelessly plagiarized other writers. More pertinently, John Cabot’s son Sebastian would play so fast and loose with facts that he claimed his father’s voyages as his own; it is difficult to be confident about much of anything Sebastian would assert in the way of his New World voyages or his own past, beyond one documented expedition to South America he made for Spain in 1526 that ended in folly.
On balance, though, the case for John Cabot actually having participated in the second Columbus voyage is reasonably persuasive. He would have been along as an engineer, not as a de facto explorer, although it was the latter role that the Venetian most certainly would claim for himself at Henry’s court in proposing his own voyage plan. The more one studies John Cabot, the more he appears to be a Columbus doppelgänger: someone who was not only inspired by the Genoese explorer, and probably was associated with him, but who was determined to pass himself off as a version of him and to replicate his essential Indies plan in more northern latitudes for another European monarch.
THE SEVENTEEN-SHIP ARMADA that sailed from Cadíz on September 25, 1493, was of truly incredible scale, eclipsing the dozen ships Portugal had sent out to create São Jorge de Mina in 1482. Columbus was taking more than three hundred settlers with him and an estimated twelve hundred people in all. Many of those extra bodies were young nobles out for an adventure, veritable tourists who were eager to see for themselves what Columbus had found across the Ocean Sea. Their departure turned into a festival of civic, maritime, and religious dimensions.
“The sailors carried out their most solemn rituals, those departing kissed their loved ones, the ships were all draped in tapestries and the ropes wrapped with fringed banners,” according to the Pavian doctor of arts and medicine and professor of philosophy Nicolò Scillacio, to whom Guillermo Coma, one of the Spanish nobles in the flotilla, wrote an eyewitness account. “The royal standard decorated the sterns of all the ships. Flutists and guitarists held even the Nereids, Nymphs, and Sirens themselves rapt with their melodious tunes, and the shores rang with the blare of trumpets and cornets, while the deep sea resounded with the roar of the bombards.”
As it happened, the Flanders Galleys under the command of Tomasso Zeno had put in to Cadíz en route to England. The Venetians joined in the exuberant salute of Columbus’s armada, led by his new flagship, the Maria-Galante:“[F]ollowing the example of the Spanish fleet, with similar ardor and enthusiasm, [the Venetians] participated in the nautical rites, offering prayers to the ships setting out toward the Indies.”
What a strange experience this must have been for the men of the Flanders Galleys. The sheer spectacle of this maritime event was contagious for any sailor, without parallel in the age of exploration. And yet they were cheering on what was supposed to be the beginning of the end of the Venetian trading monopoly to the Orient through the Levant, a monopoly that filled the holds of the very galleys that had paused in the harbor of Cadíz en route to Sluys and Southampton. We can well suspect that looking back at Zeno, the young nobles of the ballestraria and their crossbows, the navigating officers, priests, physicians, musicians, and the rest, was a Venetian who was on his way to Española to help Columbus build the trading center that would undermine his own Signoria’s wealth and privilege.
The reception awaiting the armada in Española would be far less exuberant and joyous.