ON FEBRUARY 17, 2006, a 418-word obituary for Alwyn Amy Ruddock appeared in The Guardian. Written by Edith Emma Mason, a former colleague in the history department at the University of London’s Birkbeck College, it briefly recapped the life work of an eighty-nine-year-old woman who had died on December 21, 2005.
Ruddock was a respected economic historian who had made what were widely believed to be breakthrough finds about the voyages of discovery to the New World in the late fifteenth century by the Venetian known to the English-speaking world as John Cabot. Mason noted how Ruddock had produced “a draft of a book about Cabot, but destroyed it because it did not meet her exacting standards. She began work on the book again, but her progress was slowed by failing eyesight and declining health.”
This second version of the Cabot book was never completed, stated Mason, who concluded by observing that Ruddock “left strict orders that all research papers were to be destroyed at her death.” Ruddock’s will had indeed instructed her trustees “to burn shred or otherwise destroy all my letters and photographs both personal and professional microfilms unfinished writings and other research and notes in my possession at the time of my death if this has not already been done prior to my death . . . as soon as possible after my death.”
On March 22, 2006, Evan Jones received a copy of the obituary from a colleague. A senior lecturer at the University of Bristol who specializes in Bristol maritime history of the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries, Jones was too young to have known Ruddock, but he knew her reputation and all about the Cabot book that never was. Mobilizing the Bristol historical community, Jones was able to confirm his worst fears: Ruddock’s unpublished life’s work had long since been fed through a shredder, stuffed into seventy-eight bags, and unceremoniously disposed of. A close friend and neighbor of Ruddock’s who was one of the estate’s beneficiaries and trustees had been compensated an additional five thousand pounds under the will’s terms for doing her posthumous bidding.
The revelation was a stunning coda to a perplexing and tragic career. What little Ruddock had published on Cabot was first-class stuff. Her proof that the letter by “John Day” to Christopher Columbus describing Cabot’s first English voyages actually was written by a prominent London merchant named Hugh Say was exemplary of her analytical and archival skills. In waiting for her book, scholars were persuaded for four decades that Ruddock was poised to turn the story of Cabot and the discovery of North America (in her own words) “upside down.”
In 1967, Ruddock had teasingly allowed in a letter to the leading exploration scholar David. B. Quinn, with whom she had been associated since her student days in Southampton in the late 1930s: “The documents I’ve got on Cabot do alter our picture of everything rather radically.” She would ultimately claim to have perhaps twenty-three new documents, which was an astounding haul, as it would almost double the number of known documents relating to Cabot’s voyages, most of which had been published in 1962.
But the book she had planned, which was well under way by 1966, kept changing its focus, or shifting between an academic and a popular work, or splitting into two books, and never appearing as promised. Following her retirement in 1976, fellow historians knew little more than that she had turned up important evidence, some of it probably in Italy. She approached Exeter Press in October 1992 with a proposal for a book that would be published in 1997, to coincide with celebrations of the five hundredth anniversary of Cabot’s discovery of North America. Her working title, Columbus, Cabot and the English Discovery of America, not only included Cabot’s rival Christopher Columbus but also intriguingly gave first billing to the Genoese mariner sailing in the service of Spain. Exeter contracted her to write the book, but beyond a 1992 synopsis of short chapter outlines (without a single cited source) and a few subsequent notes to an overly patient editorial staff, Ruddock never turned in a page of the manuscript. After her death, no one came forward who knew exactly what she had, precisely where she’d found it, or how deeply it was going to impact the status quo of exploration history. Tantalized by the prospect of a revolution in their understanding of North America’s discovery, scholars had waited for her to reveal her breakthroughs.
And waited, for decades. Historians withheld some of their own work, fearing Ruddock’s always-imminent revelations would render their efforts pointless and obsolete; some left the study area largely to her, knowing the head start she had and not wanting to invade her turf. Most certainly some young scholars avoided entering her field altogether. Then Ruddock died, and had the trustee of her estate destroy the photographs, rolls of microfilm, and papers that could tell others what she alone knew.
IN SEPTEMBER 2009, I published the book Half Moon, on the 1609 Henry Hudson voyage. Intrigued by the crypto-history of New World discovery as a cultural and historiographical phenomenon, I had already turned my attention to new research on earlier voyages and accounts, both real and imagined. I became intrigued by the story of Alwyn Ruddock, her lost research, and the efforts to track down what she had found. As I learned, there actually had been more than two versions of the stillborn Columbus-Cabot book, and Ruddock had left work on several other major initiatives incomplete, ultimately destroying those as well. When Half Moon was published, some new evidence on early English voyages to the New World out of Bristol had just been announced by Evan Jones, who had been on the Ruddock case ever since The Guardian obituary was forwarded to him in March 2006. These in fact were old finds, by Margaret Condon from the 1970s, that had been lost by going unpublished during Ruddock’s idiosyncratic domination of Cabot scholarship. Jones had managed to bring forward these discoveries and reenlist Condon’s research aid in pursuing Ruddock’s lost Cabot evidence.
The alternately tragic and infuriating story of Alwyn Ruddock and her deliberately destroyed research is a tale unto itself, and one that I told in Canada’s History in April 2010. (A longer version, with more detail about Ruddock’s career and her relationship and correspondence with Quinn, is archived online at my website. See the bibliography.) It is but a prelude to the tale of the remarkable ongoing sleuthing by Evan Jones and his associates in the Cabot Project, as they hunt down the evidence for Ruddock’s otherwise-unsubstantiated claims. The quest has led them everywhere from the National Archives at Kew to archives in Italy to a shoe closet in Ruddock’s old house in West Sussex, which turned out to hold vital scraps of her papers that survived the destruction of her estate.
The Cabot Project’s evidentiary discoveries support a number of contentions Ruddock made in her synopsis and the supportive notes for the book she promised to Exeter Press. Late in the drafting of this book, Francesco Guidi Bruscoli joined the Cabot Project; following a fresh lead Jones had wrested from the contents of Ruddock’s shoe closet, he located in Italy the ledgers of the House of Bardi and found an entry that proved Cabot was a client of the London branch of these Florentine merchant bankers. Other assertions by Ruddock, particularly those surrounding the activities and the ultimate fate of the 1498 Cabot flotilla, remain unproven, as I discuss in the afterword.
As fascinating as Ruddock’s research and Jones’s diligent and inspired investigations were for me, I was never interested in simply writing the book that Ruddock did not, by appropriating the Exeter Press synopsis that survived her. Nor would I tell the story of Evan Jones’s dogged and productive effort with his fellow members of the Cabot Project to follow the evidence trail Ruddock had tried to erase. For one thing, that story is far from over; for another, I think Evan should tell it someday. The Ruddock file was the entry point for a more expansive story I wanted to tell about John Cabot and Christopher Columbus, which was not the same story Ruddock evidently had tried and failed to tell. As important as Ruddock’s findings are, they figure secondarily in this book. Nevertheless, the story remains very much one about “lost history,” as this book’s subtitle indicates.
My decision to call this book a “lost history” of discovery may strike some as curious, given the source notes and bibliography that refer to documentary evidence. Certainly the fact that Ruddock ordered all of her research materials and manuscripts destroyed speaks to that idea of “lost,” although it must be remembered that Ruddock never destroyed anything original in an archive, only her notes and copies of material. What was lost in the process was her years of ferreting, based on superb archival skills and an intimate knowledge of unindexed materials, some of them in private collections. Ultimately it may all prove to be recoverable. But the idea of “lost” extends well beyond the Ruddock materials, as does the challenge of recovery.
For one thing, we know far too little about the Indigenous perspective on the arrival of Europeans like Columbus and Cabot. When reading surviving European materials we must employ a critical eye, particularly in deciding what if anything written about the people of the New World is factually trustworthy. More to the purpose of this particular book, anyone who has tried to write about early exploration by going beyond secondary sources well knows how thin on the ground that surviving evidence actually is, how little of it exists to buttress the often-presumptuous assertions about the past that clutter standard histories.
Even in returning to “primary sources,” we are routinely relying on a published transcription of a document or, more specifically, on a translation of that transcription. We are called upon to make leaps of faith that editors of massive nineteenth-century editorial projects like the Calendars of State Papers were not making all-too-free translations of source materials. (Having said that, I remain in awe of the industrious scholarship of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century archival scholars Henry Harrisse, Henry Vignaud, and H. P. Biggar, whose work remains indispensable.) It is beyond the ability of most (if not all) researchers and writers to make a fresh reassessment of every single document involved in such a collection, particularly when compiling just one of them, as in the case of the CSP for Venice, represented a lifetime of work for one editor/translator. But in questioning materials at least selectively, lost aspects of discovery history do emerge. As this book well illustrates, standard translations can be faulty; individuals can be incorrectly identified in annotations. Such human errors have been perpetuated through repetition, confidently sanctified by scholarly footnotes. Source materials need to be reassessed from every angle, because they can yield insights obscured by the institutional processes of producing history.
As well, key sources can be lost in the course of historiography. An important example where Cabot is concerned is the July 25, 1498 letter by the Spanish ambassador in London, Roderigo de Puebla, mentioning Cabot’s third voyage for Henry VII. Henry Harrisse transcribed it, untranslated, in his work Jean et Sébastien Cabot, published in France in 1882. But H. P. Biggar, who followed him with the influential The Precursors of Jacques Cartier 1497–1534 in 1911, left it out of his compilation of Cabot documents. James Williamson followed Biggar’s lead in omitting it from his standard reference work The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII, published in 1962. Because there wasn’t much in the short Puebla letter that apparently wasn’t in the much longer report by another Spanish diplomat in London, Pedro de Ayala, which was written the very same day, Puebla’s missive presumably was thought to be expendable from the Cabot syllabus of documents. Yet as this book shows, it is important to know that Puebla and Ayala, who were venal rivals, were writing to their monarchs about Cabot on the very same day in very similar language.
We also have long known that many key sources, such as ship’s logs, have disappeared entirely. When preserved at all (as in the case of the four Columbus voyages), they are known not infrequently through secondary sources. We are in fact incredibly reliant on the work of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century historiographers to tell us much of what we know about the early history of discovery, trusting that the facts they offer are reliable and that the now-lost documents they cite ever actually existed—and if they did, that the quotes, paraphrases, and asserted facts are at all reliable.
At this point you may be concluding that writing reliable (never mind definitive) early exploration history is a hopeless and discouraging task. On the contrary, I find it challenging and engaging. The gaps in documentation, the elusive veracity of what does survive, require what I have in the past cautiously categorized as “imagination,” by which I do not mean making things up. You need to be able to absorb a diversity of materials to try to overcome the losses, to bridge the gaps in the record, to understand context and incongruity, and then try to picture with as much common sense as can be summoned what seems to have been going on. Ultimately, for me “lost history” is the history that has not yet been told because we have readily accepted what has already been written as the final word, especially where major figures are concerned. History disappears because we collectively bury it. Some aspects of history, such as the American Civil War, are under constant reassessment and challenge. Other aspects, such as exploration history, require more of us to be asking imaginative, informed questions and entertaining perhaps surprising answers.
The connections I have posited in this book among John Cabot, Christopher Columbus, Martin Behaim and the early Portuguese voyagers, including the Corte-Reals, arise in part from that haunting institutional aspect of the lost history: primary materials we have known about for a long time but have misunderstood through imperfect and poorly annotated translations. In the case of Cabot, one of the most fundamental pieces of evidence for his exploration career in England—a March 1496 letter from Fernando and Isabel in Spain to Puebla, their ambassador in London—actually identifies Cabot in the original Spanish as lo de las indias—“the one from the Indies”—yet this essential fact somehow repeatedly eluded translation, including in the standard one by Biggar that is reproduced in Williamson and is still relied on by historians. A 1494 letter written by Martin Behaim to his cousin was translated from German reasonably well, but the key public figures Behaim referred to have been persistently, grossly misidentified. Recognizing whom Behaim was actually writing about helped to change considerably my understanding of his activities.
Behaim himself has been lost to exploration history for any number of reasons, among them a lack of modern curiosity into his 1493 voyage proposal to João II of Portugal, his overstated reputation for self-aggrandizing exaggeration, and a failure to engage the essential question left to us by nineteenth-century historians: what became of this enigmatic, talented, and driven man after he was last heard from in 1494 and before he died in poverty in 1506? The fact that he would prove to be a compelling bridge between the enterprises of Columbus and Cabot and even the Corte-Reals was not foreseen by me even halfway through the research. It took considerable time, and a steady accumulation of evidence, some of it circumstantial, to persuade me that Behaim could be a crucial missing link in the discovery narrative and even an active cohort of Cabot. In the end, Behaim’s career, and its twelve lost years, suggested to me what the perplexing Cabot narrative otherwise could not: how a failed Venetian bridge contractor on the run from powerful men in Seville so quickly managed to reinvent himself as a Columbus doppelgänger who could persuade England’s Henry VII to reward him with a handsome letters patent for proving a new westward route to Asia’s riches.
Although I had hoped to have something new to say about the intersection of the lives and careers of Cabot and Columbus, I did not expect Columbus to be quite so rewarding as a subject of fresh inquiry. I thought the 1992 quincentennial celebrations already would have encouraged a thorough reassessment, but in fact much of the essential documentary legwork occurred only after that seminal year. The massive thirteen-volume Repertorium Columbianum project, which endeavored to provide definitive, scholarly, annotated English translations of a disparate body of documents related to Columbus, was issued between 1996 and 2004. Above and beyond finding indispensable the volumes of that work, I realized that a significant amount of scholarship had been produced in Spain, some of it in the past decade, that addressed key areas of Columbus’s activities and milieu and none of which had been translated into English. I cannot claim to have absorbed even a fraction of what has been generated in Spanish journals and books on the broad subject of Columbus and the early Spanish presence in the New World. But in order to make use of key works like Antonio Rumeu de Armas’s writing on the Canary Islands, Alicia B. Gould’s seminal Nueva Lista Documentada on the sailors of the 1492 expedition (with its dense, cascading footnotes further illuminating events, individuals, and activities of succeeding New World voyages), and some of the papers and publications addressing Italian mercantile activity in Spain, I had to make sense of them in their original Spanish. On another language front, Jerome Münzer’s manuscript journal of his enlightening tour of Spain and Portugal in 1494–95, which was written in Latin, has never appeared in English translation. The fortunate fact that an annotated scholarly French translation appeared in 2006 gave me access to a work that proved to be far more critical to the story than I had originally imagined, as I had sought it out as a source of descriptions of Seville and Valencia during the time of Cabot and Columbus.
There were limits to my multilingual adventurism. I was aware that M. F. Tiepolo had published an important paper on Cabot’s problems with Venetian creditors in 1973; I was not aware that despite its importance to Cabot scholarship, no one apparently had ever translated it from the original Italian. The ever-helpful Evan Jones forwarded me a copy; with the aid of a dictionary, I pressed my Romance languages skills to the snapping point, but they were enough to extract the basic information I needed. I would not, however, trust myself with so critical a fresh translation as that of the 1496 Fernando and Isabel letter, and for that I turned to Janet Ritch, an expert in early French and Spanish who teaches at the University of Toronto and York University and whom I knew from my previous work on Champlain. Janet was invaluable in working through a fiendishly opaque bit of late fifteenth-century Spanish; understanding context was so important to her producing a new translation that raises important questions about Cabot’s past and the Spanish sovereigns’ attitude to his proposed English endeavor. We went back and forth several times by email, puzzling over the phrasing. Although responsibility for the final interpretation rests with me, I could never have arrived at it without her careful guidance. Janet was also indispensible in translating the 1498 Puebla letter that had been hiding in plain sight in Harrisse’s 1882 volume. Conrad Heidenreich, professor emeritus at York University and a leading expert on Samuel de Champlain and his cartography, was invaluable in securing a new translation of the above-mentioned Behaim letter, which first involved transcribing it in comprehensible modern German. This new translation allowed me to see how misunderstood its content has long been and what the letter might actually be telling us about Behaim’s activities right before he dropped out of sight.
I would be remiss not to mention another aspect of lost history. Ruddock’s failure to produce her long-promised book on Cabot (and Columbus) and her decision to have her papers destroyed are but two examples of how the work of modern historians has been quite literally lost or thwarted. The American Hispanist scholar Alicia Gould, author of the exhaustive Nueva Lista Documentada, was expected to produce a definitive new biography of Columbus but was felled by an aneurism while entering the Spanish archives at Simancas in 1953, before she could make good on that considerable promise. Yet another scholar whose promise of a groundbreaking work went unfulfilled was Louis-André Vigneras. A naturalized American born in France, Vigneras was a Romance languages scholar who would eventually teach at George Washington University and deserves to be known as one of the great scholars of early Portuguese and Spanish voyages to the New World. He spent years researching a Columbus book that never materialized. He did produce a manuscript capturing many of his careful insights into early Portuguese and Spanish voyages, but it was lost in the 1960s, evidently after he gave it to a leading British academic to read. His only book, The Discovery of South America and the Andalusian Voyages, was severely edited down, resulting in a still-important volume that represents but a shadow of the research he had amassed.
I was extremely fortunate at the outset of this project to make the acquaintance of Jeffrey Reed, an avocational researcher in Washington, D.C., with a doctorate from the University of London, who has dedicated himself to recovering Vigneras’s lost scholarship. The world of exploration scholarship as it happens is a small one: Reed met Alwyn Ruddock through David B. Quinn. The papers of Quinn, who died in 2002, reside in the Library of Congress and contain numerous letters between him and Ruddock that provide clues to what Ruddock had discovered about Cabot. Reed took it upon himself to search through the mass of correspondence to produce a transcription of all the relevant exchanges between Quinn and Ruddock, which he provided to Evan Jones to aid in his search for Ruddock’s lost evidence. Reed’s efforts also turned up in Quinn’s papers the archival discoveries by Margaret Condon in the late 1970s that went unknown until Jones pulled them together and announced them in 2009. Jones posted online extracts from the file of transcribed correspondence between Quinn and Ruddock so that anyone can access it. (See Jones, “The Quinn Papers,” in the bibliography.) Reed also provided me with a detailed transcription of the Quinn–Reed exchanges, and in addition to forwarding me copies of every scholarly paper he thought would assist me, he also shared with me sections of his Vigneras recovery project in draft form.
At Quinn’s urging, Reed had hunted down these lost writings of Vigneras, reassembling them from what he described to me as a “box of junk” in the Library of Congress. At the time of writing, Reed was hoping that the Vigneras manuscript eventually would be published. He had sent some of the draft material to me in hope that they would be of use in my own work, above all to help me understand (as he remarked at one point) that much of what had been published about Columbus made no sense. Given the unusual nature of this source, I cannot provide citation notes that have specific page references. And except for two short translations of phrases in primary materials, I have not quoted from Vigneras’s work out of respect for Reed’s project. It deserves to be published; in a future edition of this work, I hope to be able to provide citations that point at a specific published Vigneras source. For now, it is important to me that readers understand the insights Vigneras developed that have gone unrecognized.
I hope this makes it clear why this book has been dedicated to the memories of Gould, Ruddock, and Vigneras. I never met any of them, but they all truly began a voyage that never reached the distant shore, and I have benefited from the efforts they made to get there.
In summary, Christopher Columbus and John Cabot generally have been considered coincidental players in the European push-out into the Atlantic. Sailing for different monarchs in different corners of Europe, their westerly quests separated them by thousands of miles. But we must now view them much differently: as men who began working in the service of Spain but who with Cabot’s move to England became rivals. Their actions and achievements over a few short years at the end of the fifteenth century locked in the course of the colonization and exploitation of the Americas. In Columbus, Cabot found inspiration that reached the point of bald mimicry. In Cabot, Columbus found an infuriating doppelgänger, whose exploits for England’s Henry VII threatened to undermine his particular claims of discovery and his precarious privileges with the Spanish sovereigns. Through Behaim and Münzer, I have striven to draw links between the major players in the westward search, including the Portuguese. And as the reader will see, none of the exploration careers and voyage schemes is fully comprehensible without accounting for the geopolitics of Renaissance Europe.
To understand the career of either Cabot or Columbus, we now must understand the career of the other. The courses they shaped are more deeply intertwined than previously imagined. Together, they allow us to see one of the most monumental events in world history—the European discovery of two continents in the Western Hemisphere where no one had thought to look for even one—with a fresh and comprehensive vision.
IN ADDITION TO REPEATING my thanks for the assistance of Jeffrey Reed, Janet Ritch, and Conrad Heidenreich, I must make special mention of Evan Jones. As the driving force behind the Cabot Project and a senior lecturer at Bristol University, he has proven to be the antithesis of the secretive and cagey Ruddock. He has been exemplary in placing documents and findings in the public domain, and his willingness to share with me essential details of new discoveries before they have been published has been remarkably generous. In return, I have shared with him some of my ideas about Cabot and Columbus prior to publication. I would like to think that the Cabot Project has kept more of its powder dry than I’m aware of; in any event, I look forward to the day when its complete findings are published. We are in the midst of a renaissance of scholarly research on early English voyages to the New World. Dr. Jones and his colleagues deserve to reap accolades for such a tenacious pursuit of a difficult if fascinating (and at times unorthodox) evidence trail. Already they have reinvigorated scholarship on early exploration in the Atlantic realm that otherwise would have been unlikely to attract the energy and curiosity of a new generation of historians.
Preparing this book required the input, advice, and assistance of a number of additional indispensable people. My doctoral supervisor at York University, Carolyn Podruchny, was both supportive and accommodating as I completed this book in the midst of my course work. My agent, Jeff Gerecke, helped me focus my particular narrative interest in Cabot and Columbus, and of course found the project good homes in publishing houses. The manuscript went through a preliminary shakedown with editor Fiona Serpa and a further fine-tooth combing by copyeditor Debra Manette. Finally, Stacy Nation-Knapper undertook a careful proofing of the page galleys and compiled the splendid index. My thanks to all.
And in closing, I thank my wife Deb for her continued support and encouragement, and for creating and defending the space I need to produce such work.