Post-classical history


LITTLE IS KNOWN about Cabot’s 1496 voyage beyond the fact that it was a failure. The weather was fierce and the food in short supply; the men were discouraged and contrary. Cabot’s vessel (name unknown) skulked back into Bristol, his attempt to reach Cathay having bowed to the harsh realities of a westward passage in the north Atlantic.

Columbus’s aversion to high-latitude sailing was not without justification. Storm tracks move from west to east on the jet stream, opposing the intentions of ships that could not make much progress toward the wind. Columbus practically could be blown to the Indies on the prevailing trade winds of the lower latitudes, then ride the westerlies home on a more northerly course. Cabot needed the right window of opportunity to sail to the west and then had to pray that it was not slammed shut a week or two out of port by the next low-pressure cell sweeping toward the British Isles.

While Cabot was away on his thwarted passage attempt, Columbus was crossing the Ocean Sea again, to set foot in Spain for the first time since September 1493. He had left La Isabella on March 10, pausing en route at Guadeloupe, where he claimed to tangle with Amazon warriors. He arrived at Cadíz on June 11 in command of the India, a vessel all too choicely named. Having been assembled from materials salvaged from the wrecks of the 1495 hurricanes, the ship symbolized the battered, patchwork state of Columbus’s effort to secure for himself, his monarchs, and the merchants of Seville the promised wealth that lay to the west.

The Española colony continued to flounder, and more than a year after Fernando and Isabel had liberalized regulations for the Indies over Columbus’s objections, not a single fresh voyage of exploration had occurred, owing to the disaster of the Sosa flotilla in February 1496. Returning at the same time as Columbus moreover was Juan de Aguado, who had been sent out by Fernando and Isabel to investigate the state of Española. The relationship between Columbus and Aguado had been prickly. Aguado’s royal orders, terse in the extreme, instilled in him the presumption that he should serve as Española’s governor while making his inquiries. Columbus had other ideas, and Aguado complained that Columbus waited five months before deigning to inspect the commission he was carrying from Fernando and Isabel.

Aguado returned aboard the Niña, and more than two hundred disgruntled colonists, brimming with complaints, also made the voyage on the two ships. Columbus was in another race home with a rival, and this time his adversary would not perish within days of regaining Spanish soil. Columbus would spend more than a year rebuilding his standing with his monarchs and shaping a fresh plan for his troubled discoveries.

Henry VII was in Bristol on August 12, 1496. The defeated Cabot would have been back in port by then, and the king could have learned firsthand from the Venetian what had gone wrong with his own quest to tap the riches of the Indies. The news would not have been encouraging, and Henry was not inspired to dedicate any of his own funds to a renewed effort. Back in March, when the letters patent was issued, Cabot’s scheme may have promised a solution to the feud with Venice over the suspended Flanders Galleys, but by August, it was clear that Henry was going to have to press on with solving his trade headache by conventional diplomatic means.

In July, England’s entry into the Holy League had been achieved, with the important proviso for Henry that he would not commit to going to war with France in defense of other league members. If ever Roderigo de Puebla proposed to Henry that Fernando and Isabel would condone a violation of the Treaty of Tordesillas by Cabot in exchange for Henry’s military support against Charles VIII, the king had not thought Cabot’s gambit worth the enormous cost of deploying an army and a navy in a continental battle. Henry ratified the treaty in September, and in November, his new allies in Venice chose an ambassador to his court, Andrea Trevisan. But Trevisan didn’t actually depart Venice, as the Flanders Galleys remained canceled in the wake of the previous flotilla’s multiple disasters.

Henry surely thought he had kept up his end of the galley bargain in signing on to the Holy League. In urging in early 1497 that these veritable treasure ships be sent once again, he also reminded Venice to send the promised ambassador. His kingdom had not received one from the republic on the Adriatic in almost a century, and he was anxious to discuss the affairs of the Holy League and the bewildering and highly fluid state of military and political affairs in Italy.

Venice’s concern for the safety of the galleys was genuine—French pirates were making the passage far too dangerous—and it remained resolute about not sending them. But the republic would dispatch the ambassador. The senate summoned Trevisan on March 22, 1497, and told him to prepare to leave immediately. He would travel through the heart of Europe rather than risk death or capture at sea.

A member of Venice’s Great Council of forty ruling clans since 1480, Trevisan had been chosen for the diplomatic post from the ranks of the republic’s curti, or “new,” noble families. The Trevisans had been involved in the English trade for at least eighty years. An ancestor, Lorenzo Trevisan, had traded out of Southampton in the second decade of the century, and the family had provided a London consul, Pietro Trevisan, in the 1480s. Although the exact relationship between them all isn’t known, other Trevisans held other key posts in the Venetian diplomatic corps in 1497: Domenico Trevisan was the ambassador in Genoa, and Angelo Trevisan was secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Spain. It was Angelo Trevisan who would meet Christopher Columbus as well as Pietro Martire and write an account of the first three Columbus voyages that would be published in Venice in 1504. Andrea Trevisan, en route to England in the summer of 1497, was seemingly on his own collision course with a key figure in exploration history: his fellow Venetian John Cabot, who was not giving up on the northern passage project.

ON APRIL 3, 1497, the day before the Venetian senate resolved that Andrea Trevisan should travel to England with sixteen horses and two stirrup-men rather than twelve horses (to “go more honourably, as becomes the dignity of our State”), Christopher Columbus attended at Burgos the wedding of Prince Juan, heir to the Spanish throne, and Margaret, daughter of Maximilian I, who had been jilted by Charles VIII. Margaret’s young life was unfolding as a series of unfortunate ordeals. Her sea passage to Spain had been so horrendous that she had tied an identification tag around her wrist, convinced she was going to drown. The marriage ceremony sealed the formidable double union that bound the houses of Aragon and Castile to the Hapsburgs, as Philip IV already had wed the princess Juana.

Almost ten months after returning from Española to answer his critics, Columbus was still in Spain, with no clear opportunity to reinvigorate his discovery agenda. But at least he had successfully defended his original capitulation rights.

Fernando and Isabel’s profound dissatisfaction with Columbus’s performance in Española had been surmounted by their dissatisfaction with the utter lack of response by Spanish citizens, subjects, and merchants to the liberalized conditions for Indies trade, exploration, and colonization they had created on April 10, 1495. Only Berardi had stepped forward with his flotilla scheme. Not only were the four ships wrecked in the only flotilla mounted under the contract, but Berardi had died before they had even sailed, thus costing Fernando and Isabel the one Sevillan merchant who had been prepared to gamble money on Indies discoveries. Fernando and Isabel also hadn’t been able to bargain away some of their rights under Tordesillas to secure Henry’s military support of their feud with France. Stuck with Columbus, they were now determined to salvage Española rather than abandon it and were drawing a new blueprint for its development.

Fortunately, there were encouraging glimmers of promised wealth. Alonso de Hojeda, a former criado (page or retainer) of Fernando and Isabel, had ably demonstrated his instinct for unscrupulous brutality during the campaign against the Arawaks with Columbus in 1495 and in 1496 reported discovering a source of gold in Española’s interior. Columbus had also dispatched a party that found an alluvial load in the rió Haina and its stream courses on the south side of the island. Here at last Columbus was sure he had located Las Minas de San Cristóbal.

Beginning on April 23, 1497, and continuing through the next several months, the crown began issuing a series of detailed writs on how colonization should now proceed under Columbus. He was reaffirmed as Admiral of the Ocean Sea and governor and viceroy of the Indies, while Bartolomé, who had remained in Española, was formally recognized as the colony’s lieutenant governor.

The April 10, 1495, measures were revoked on June 2. Fernando and Isabel acknowledged that Columbus “claims that our writ and everything stipulated in it is prejudicial to the grants he holds from us and to the powers we gave him.” Unusually apologetic, their revocation stressed: “It never was and is not our intent or desire that Sir Christopher Columbus, our admiral of the Ocean Sea, should be harmed in any way, or that anything should violate or infringe on the contracts, privileges, and grants that we made and conferred on him; rather, we intended to confer on him additional favors in view of the services he has done for us.”

The privileges he had secured in 1492 and 1493 were reinstated. But the plans for Española were scaled back, and any further idea of enslaving the natives was firmly rejected by instructions to convert them to Christianity. Colonists would again be on the royal payroll, and Columbus was authorized to send 330 at the crown’s expense—500 if he could find the necessary funds from the colony’s revenues. The terms for organizing and administering these pioneers were those of a Castilian town, and Columbus was commanded to found a second settlement on the south side of Española to take advantage of the “gold mine” the king and queen had been told about.

Columbus was authorized to round up subjects and citizens of Spain who were guilty of various crimes and have them pardoned and put to work in Española at their own expense, doing whatever Columbus saw fit. “Those who merit the death penalty will serve for two years, while those who merit lesser penalties not involving death although possibly the loss of a limb shall serve for one year.” He was also empowered to gather men or women who “have committed crimes for which they merit exile to an island, hard labor, or service in mines” and have them work the mines of Española for the benefit of the crown. Columbus was given the additional right to exile anyone in Spain “guilty of misdemeanors not carrying the death penalty but who justifiably could be given a sentence of exile to the Indies, depending on the nature of the offense.” Those exiled by Columbus would have to remain on Española, “doing what the admiral orders for the time that seems appropriate to [him].”

The days in which colonists could seek out gold and keep a portion for themselves were over. Fernando and Isabel reverted to the traditional model of all precious metals in their kingdoms being theirs alone, and they hoped the mines of San Cristóbal would fill their coffers through the labor of pardoned convicts while colonists focused on founding a proper, self-sustaining agricultural colony. But in truth, there were no such “mines.” The alluvial gold around the rió Haina nevertheless set off a rush that depopulated La Isabella. Bartolomé Columbus saw no choice but to follow these rogue adventurers and relocate the colony to their squatter camp, thus founding the city of Santo Domingo. Although this satisfied the crown’s orders to establish a second town on the south side of the island, La Isabella would fade away.

A relief flotilla was to depart for Española under Antonio de Torres in the summer of 1497. Columbus was remaining in Spain, as he had not yet secured permissions, or financial backing, for a fresh round of exploration. A third summer was slipping by without the Spanish expanding their very limited knowledge of what lay across the Ocean Sea.

DESPITE THE FAILURE of the 1496 voyage, John Cabot was able to amount another modest, single-ship venture for 1497. He departed Bristol sometime in May—as early as May 2, as late as May 20, depending on which secondhand account is believed. No log or journal from the voyage would survive and nary a word from Cabot himself would tell us where he went or what he saw.

There were eighteen to twenty men aboard the vessel, which was not large, about fifty tons. She might have been sixty feet long, a caravel not unlike the ones employed by Columbus, with high “castles” or raised deck areas at the bow and stern. One account called her a “ballinger,” a corruption of the French term for whaler, baleiner, as Bristol ships were known to both fish and hunt whales in Iceland. She probably had two masts rigged with square sails, a bowsprit with a single square spritsail, and a third mast at the stern supporting a triangular lateen that was an aid to tacking, or turning the bow through the wind. She would have rolled horribly in a swell and been lucky to manage an average speed of four knots. Maurice Toby’s so-called Bristol chronicle, which was probably written around 1565 and did not mention Cabot at all, said a ship called the Mathew was sent out by Bristol merchants on May 2 and discovered “the land of America.” It is charmingly possible that Cabot had something to do with naming her, as Mathew (or Matthew) was as near as one could come in English to the name of his wife, Mattea.

We have little idea of who was with him, and if any of his three sons accompanied him; Sebastian later would remark on the voyage only so far as to claim it as his own. Beyond the mysterious Burgundian and the Genoese barber-surgeon that the Milanese ambassador Raimundis would meet in December 1497, the crew ranks were fundamentally unknown, although we can be sure that they indeed were “practically all English and from Bristol,” as Raimundis would relate.

A recently discovered reward by Henry VII in January 1498 to a well-connected Bristol merchant named William Weston strongly suggests that Weston accompanied Cabot on the 1497 voyage. Weston traded to the Iberian Peninsula, and in 1480, he shipped cloth to Madeira, possibly one of the earliest trading voyages there out of Bristol, at a time when, coincidentally, Columbus was serving as a factor there. Weston’s father-in-law, John Foster, who died in 1492, had been one of the great citizens and merchants of Bristol.

Cabot—or whoever was serving as his ship’s master—would have directed the Mathew westward to pass to the south of Ireland around latitude 51° before turning north, up the open Atlantic, rather than sail north, up the Irish Sea. The latter passage would have carried the Mathew through the restricted waters between Ireland and Scotland, culminating in the tidal rip where only a dozen miles separate Torr Head from the Mull of Kintyre. Along the way, Cabot would have risked running afoul of Scottish pirates when relations between Henry VII and James IV were especially poor; the Scottish king had been launching border raids, and his support for the pretender Warbeck was well known. The southern passage, in contrast, would have taken the Mathew safely clear of the conflict and through waters of the Irish fishery that supplied the Bristol market. This passage agrees with the December 1497 account of Raimundis, who said Cabot departed Bristol and “passed Ireland, which is still further west, and then bore towards the north, in order to sail to the east [i.e., Asia], leaving the north on his right hand after some days.”

The best Bristol mariners would have been skilled in pilotage, which is a very different skill set from ocean navigation. Pilotage then was based overwhelmingly on building up a knowledge base of local waters: how certain headlands appear when viewed from certain approaches; how an island group would show itself; what the depths should be for a channel; how far offshore a vessel would “come into soundings” when approaching a landfall, as the deep-sea lead line began finding the hundred-fathom contour; what the bottom composition—mud, sand, shells, nematode worms—should be for that particular approach to land, based on samples retrieved by tallow smeared into the hollow of the bottom of the sounding lead or by the wad of cloth stuffed into it if mud was anticipated. And on and on. These pilots were far less dependent on charts than they were on the carefully compiled personal notebooks they called rutters. In fact, they scarcely had use for charts at all and were unlikely to understand the mathematical problems of plotting a course on a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional orb, particularly when the cartographers didn’t necessarily understand the problems themselves.

Bristol sailors knew the sea route to Iceland, which lay above latitude 63°; after clearing southern Ireland, they needed to do little more than follow the compass north for about 750 nautical miles. Cabot probably sailed half that distance, seeking a latitude sufficiently high for his purpose of delivering on a promised shorter passage to Cathay. Somewhere between latitudes 55° and 59°, between the parallels marking northern Ireland and northern Scotland, he would have turned westward, as Raimundis described.

Cabot, who before 1496 had no known practical experience in commanding a vessel on any ocean, within or beyond the sight of land, was making his second attempt to persuade a ship’s crew to defer to his conviction that Cathay would reward their collective persistence. The wind was favorable, from the east-northeast, and the seas were calm. It was a remarkably fortunate turn of the weather. In the early seventeenth century, English vessels were still swinging all the way south to the latitudes of Columbus’s passages to cross the Atlantic before turning north, up the eastern seaboard, to reach landfalls in northeastern North America. They were striving to avoid the punishing headwinds that had confounded Cabot on his first attempt for Henry VII. This time, Cabot was able to still hold to a westward course more than a month after his Bristol departure.

THE VENETIAN SENATE had no ambassador in place in England to report on the latest purported threat to their domination of trade in precious goods from the Orient—this one from within the ranks of their own citizens. The delays and difficulties in Venetian shipping to England, which had been a major factor in Henry VII’s decision to endorse Cabot’s plan to sail west to Asia, had also conspired to prevent the Signoria from getting an ambassador to England in a timely manner. The rulers of Venice apparently had no idea of Cabot’s letters patent, his failed 1496 voyage, or the renewed attempt he was now making to prove a westward route to Cathay, which if successful would undermine their trading monopoly in the Levant.

In fact, the Venetians had remarkably little knowledge of Columbus’s ongoing activities. There was not a single mention of Columbus or the Spanish plans for the Indies in the diaries of Marin Sanudo, who had access to senate papers, after an abstract of Columbus’s published 1493 letter describing his first voyage was recorded by the senate. The enormity of Venetian ignorance was underscored by the events that followed the return to Venice on May 17, 1497, of Francesco Cappello after a two-year stint as the ambassador to Fernando and Isabel. He had arrived in that post not long after John Cabot, the debtor of a likely relative, Nicolò Cappello, had left Spain under a cloud because of the Seville bridge debacle.

Francesco Cappello appeared in Venice with several gifts for the republic from the Spanish monarchs: two mules, a cloak tailored from cloth-of-gold, an assortment of parrots, and one human being.

The man was, as Sanudo recorded, “a dark-skinned king, or more precisely brown like a Canary islander, from those islands newly discovered by the king of Spain.” Sanudo further noted how “the said black king was presented to the Signoria, and he was well behaved, but did not know how to talk, although he had been caused to be baptized.”

The savii of the Collegio, the steering committee of the senate, debated what to do with the black king. Some advocated re-gifting him to the marquess of Mantua, Francesco II Gonzago, who as a mercenary military leader, or condottiero,led Venice’s army from 1489 to 1498 and had been commander in chief of the Holy League army against Charles VIII’s force at Fornovo in 1495. But the matter was left unresolved. On May 25, the man was paraded through Venice as part of the celebrations of Corpus Christi Day, joining the religious confraternities in the procession of candles, floats, and costumes.

Despite the initial report that the black king could not talk, the Venetians managed to gather from him the opinion “that it seemed to him he was in Paradise.” Cappello must have furnished what little was understood about his past, as related by Sanudo: “this one, as it is said, had 2,000 persons who ate under him, and in their country they eat human flesh, that is of executed criminals; and together with six other kings, he was brought to Castile by the caravels and troops of Spain, who went to conquer the lordship of the said islands; and it is said, that before they were captured, these chiefs made a stout defense.”

The Venetians were terribly confused about the origin of the black king. It was commonplace to compare, as Sanudo had, the physical traits of Indigenous peoples of Columbus’s Indies with the Guanches of the Canaries, as Columbus himself had drawn the comparison the moment he saw his first New World residents. Yet the particular scale of Venetian confusion was captured precisely in Sanudo’s further comment on June 2 that Cappello had returned home with il re di Canaria preso in le Indie—“the king of the Canaries taken in the Indies.”

Cappello had delivered gifts from two separate Spanish conquistas, but to judge by Sanudo’s report, the Venetians thought the Canaries and the Indies campaigns were one and the same thing. On Columbus’s way home in 1496, his men had looted a settlement on Guadeloupe, helping themselves to large red parrots they called guacamayos; these were probably some of the parrots “of diverse kinds and colours” Sanudo noted among the gifts borne by Cappello. Columbus had arrived at Cadíz with the parrots on June 11. No later than June 10, seven Guanche menceys or kings captured in the final stages of Alonso de Lugo’s conquest of Tenerife in April and May appeared at Almazán. One of them had been chosen as a token of Spanish gratitude for Venice’s friendship.

On June 2, 1497, the Venetian senate finally decided to send the black king twenty miles west, to Padua. There he could live in a house at the palace of the city’s governor, Fantin da Pesaro. The state would provide the king five ducats a month for lodging and expenses as well as two ducats a month for a servant. He would also be given clothing “from time to time, as he had need.”

On June 18, the black king entered Padua with Pesaro. Sanudo’s mention of the relocation of this solitary Guanche chief from Tenerife whom the Venetians thought was from Columbus’s Indies is the last time any word is recorded of him. The Venetian senate returned to its business, with the Rialto’s warehouses still gorged with goods of the Orient and Columbus’s Indies venture a nonexistent threat to their domination of the trade. Thousands of miles away on the Ocean Sea, a Venetian citizen was about to make his own terribly confused and confusing discovery in the cause of breaking the republic’s grip on Asia’s riches.

THE NORTHERN PASSAGE to the land of the Great Khan was turning out to be far more arduous than the weeklong jaunt that Münzer and Behaim had promised João II in 1493. But where Cabot’s 1496 voyage had been battered by storms and foiled by an unhappy crew, on this second attempt he was able to press on, even when foul weather beset the Mathew for two or three days late in the passage.

The compass also began to behave strangely, indicating that north was two rhumbs, or points—about 23 degrees—more to the west than what the polestar told them. No one then understood the reason for the difference between geographic north and magnetic north, but the closer Cabot approached northeastern North America, the more pronounced this magnetic variation would have become, as the angle widened between the direction of the geographic pole and the north magnetic pole in what is now the Canadian Arctic. Had Cabot been relying fundamentally on the compass to guide him, the variation would have bent his course increasingly southward as he steered west. A crossing that may have begun as high as latitude 59° had been deflected to around latitude 52°.

That piloting error may have saved Cabot’s life, preventing him from steering on south of Greenland into the Labrador Sea, where dangerous ice floes and icebergs are common in June. But his latitude likely also remained high enough to spare him the confusion of the Grand Banks.

Whoever was piloting the Mathew would have been deploying a deep-sea sounding line, probing for the continental shelf and the promise of landfall. Had Cabot approached North America as low as latitude 47°, he would have come over the hundred-fathom line of the Flemish Cap with Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula still 350 nautical miles to the west. Cabot and his crew would have expected landfall within a day or two, based on the way they were accustomed to coming into soundings on European shores. (Approaching Portugal, a mariner came into soundings as close to land as forty nautical miles.) But after the banks dramatically shallow, hundreds of miles from shore, they deepen again as one sails west, before actual land is sighted—provided it can be sighted at all.

The Grand Banks are notorious for fog, as the warm Gulf Stream, coursing northeast, meets the cold flow of the southerly Labrador Current. The fog can be so thick that the bow of even a small vessel like the Mathew cannot be seen from the stern. It is easy to understand how would-be discoverers, whether Portuguese from the Azores or Bristol sailors seeking Brasil, could have in the past found the banks with a deep-sea line but not actual land beyond them, as they were compelled by subsequent increasing depths while enshrouded in claustrophobic fog to turn back and look for a landfall in the heart of the banks that wasn’t there. All the while they would have been dismayed by the perplexing, increasing divergence between north as indicated by the direction of the polestar and the needle of their compass.

On June 22, Fernando and Isabel issued the writ authorizing Columbus to settle pardoned criminals on Española. Two days after that, Cabot made Columbus and his monarchs pay dearly for leaving the far reaches of the Ocean Sea unexplored for three years, as the empty horizon ahead thickened.

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