IT HAD TAKEN Columbus more than a year since his return to Spain in June 1496 to fend off his critics and recover his standing with Fernando and Isabel. The paperwork detailing his fresh terms for exploiting the Indies was essentially completed by late July 1497, but there was still no new voyage for him.
Columbus’s efforts to move forward his exploration agenda were disrupted by a profound loss to Fernando and Isabel. Prince Juan, their sole male offspring eligible to inherit and unite the crowns of Aragon and Castile, died on October 4, 1497, less than six months after marrying Maximilian’s daughter Margaret at Burgos. Margaret was pregnant but gave birth to a stillborn daughter on December 8. Not until December 23 were fresh items of royal business completed for Columbus, as authority was granted to him and Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca to contract for provisions for another voyage, and Columbus was permitted to use royal profits and assets in the Indies to cover costs there.
As Columbus waited to return to sea, a letter in Spanish signed by an Englishman named John Day arrived. Addressed to el Señor Almirante Mayor, it was written sometime over the winter of 1497–98, after John Cabot returned from his second voyage and before he departed on his third. Within that letter was the most detailed account known of Cabot’s 1497 voyage to the New World as well as the only recorded mention of a previous voyage by Cabot in 1496. Pinned down in Spain and trying to organize a third voyage of his own, Columbus had developed an intelligence pipeline into Cabot’s activities out of Bristol.
John Day was a merchant active in Spain who moved in the highest circles of Columbus’s commercial associates. The English formed the second-largest merchant community, after the Genoese, in and around Seville, although most of them were downriver in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where they enjoyed special privileges under the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. In a 1499 suit at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Day gave power of attorney to another Englishman, “Pedro Albordin,” a Bristol native, to settle a debt Day owed to Batista Negrón and Francisco Pinelo. To guarantee the payment of the debt, Day had pawned a shipment of English cloth that was being held by Sebastian Doria, another member of the Genoese merchant community of Seville.
“Batista Negrón” was probably Battista di Negro, a Genoese merchant active in Seville from 1486 to 1503; if so, he was from the prominent family that had employed Columbus in the 1470s. Francisco Pinelo was the Genoese royal treasurer of Castile, whose nephew Bernardo was treasurer of the Indies enterprise at Seville. Sebastian Doria was from still another prominent Genoese family in Andalusia. A relative, Francisco Doria, formed a partnership with Francisco Catanio, Gaspar de Spinola, and Francisco de Riberol (of the Canary Islands conquest) to begin bankrolling Columbus’s activities in Spain in 1498, loaning him almost 200,000 maravedis to cover his expenses through 1501. These four Genoese partners in Seville also would form a partnership with Columbus to ship trade goods to Santo Domingo in 1500.
It turned out that “John Day” was an alias used in Bristol activities by a prominent London merchant, Hugh Say, who identified himself as a member of the mercers’ company. Related by marriage to Lord Mountjoy, Henry VII’s Master of the Mint, for whom he was listed as a “servant” in 1514, Say had been active in Bristol since at least 1492–93, when local customs records showed him importing oil and wine from Lisbon. He was granted membership in the Bristol staple in 1494 as “John Day of London, merchant.”
Hugh Say apparently also had connections to Icelandic traders in Bristol and was related through marriage to Bristol merchants associated with Cabot. His family may have been embroiled in Yorkist plots against Henry VII, with a father or brother indicted for treason. This would explain why he died with such a guilty conscience, leaving a large sum in his will to go “towards the building of our mother church Saint Peters at Rome to have pardon for wrongs done which I know not how to make restitution.” It also may explain why Say had removed himself to Bristol under an alias as the Warbeck crisis festered and why he took such care in his letter to Columbus not to communicate in any way that could be considered treasonous. Say had promised “when I get news from England about the matters referred to above—for I am sure that everything has to come to my knowledge—I will inform your Lordship of all that would not be prejudicial to the King my master.”
Say began by acknowledging receipt of an unknown letter in which Columbus had questioned him about Cabot’s activities. “I would be most desirous and most happy to serve you,” Say replied—by which he assuredly didn’t mean actually working for him but rather satisfying his curiosity. Say further acknowledged his promise to send Columbus two books. One was a “book of Marco Polo”; the other was Inventio Fortunata.
Say confirmed he was sending the Marco Polo book. Columbus already would have been familiar with Polo’s exploits, but Say could have been the source of the abridged Latin version of Marco Polo’s Travels printed at Antwerp around 1485 that appeared in an inventory of Fernando Columbus’s books. As there was no price written down for the book by the fastidious Fernando, it may have been one of the books he inherited from his father.
Say apologized for not being able to find the promised copy of Inventio Fortunata. In fact, no known copy of fourteenth-century work survives. Secondhand references indicate it included an account of the northern wanderings of King Arthur, who after conquering the northern islands of Scotland in A.D. 530 crossed over to Iceland and then to Greenland, leaving behind colonists. Even though Say was unable to make good on his promise of a copy of Inventio Fortunata,both Las Casas and the biography attributed to Fernando Columbus held that Christopher Columbus was informed in some way of the lost work’s geographic information. And while the manuscript was supposed to be concerned foremost with discoveries in high northern latitudes, Las Casas and the Fernando biography mentioned Inventio Fortunata in association with more southern landfalls. Fernando’s biography said “Juventio Fortunata” spoke of floating islands south of the Cape Verdes. Las Casas asserted that St. Brendan visited “many islands” beyond the Canaries and Cape Verdes that were “always burning,” and which he stated had been mentioned as well in Inventio Fortunata.
Say had further promised to send Columbus a map, but had not done so, “because I am not satisfied with it, for my many occupations forced me to make it in a hurry at the time of my departure.” Say then mentioned “the said copy,” from which Columbus “will learn what you wish to know, for in it are named the capes of the mainland and islands, and thus you will see where land was first sighted, since most of the land was discovered after turning back.” And so with this “copy” Columbus already had a rough sketch of Cabot’s discoveries.
Say’s letter is the most authoritative surviving account of the 1497 voyage. It is not only the most detailed; it is also stripped of details gathered first- or secondhand from Cabot himself, which spoke of brazilwood, silk, and other Oriental riches—the very sort of hyperbole that Columbus himself traded in where his own discoveries were concerned. Say’s geographic intelligence was divorced from Cabot’s agenda, with a factual purity Columbus himself never managed to achieve.
Say did agree with earlier accounts in indicating that Cabot had reached both the Isle of Seven Cities and mainland beyond. From the sketch map, Say explained, Columbus could see “that the cape nearest to Ireland is 1800 miles west of Dursey Head which is in Ireland, and the southernmost part of the Island of the Seven Cities is west of the Bordeaux River, and your Lordship will know that he landed at only one spot of the mainland, near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there with a crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father and those of the King of England.”
The account left some confusion over where the “cape” was. At first mention it was near the initial landfall, from which Cabot had then coasted back along the shore toward England. But later Say advised that Cabot departed for home “from the above mentioned cape of the mainland which is nearest to Ireland.” Although the exact location of the cape was problematic, the fact that the letter could have been a Spanish translation of a lost draft Say made in English is a possible source of the confusion. There was probably more than one cape, and it is best to set aside the cape issue and focus instead on the unfiltered information being conveyed to Columbus from Bristol’s docks by Say.
Say’s description indicated that Cabot first sighted land (thirty-five days after departing Bristol) at a place on the same latitude at Dursey Head, which is at about 52° north. This would have brought him to North America at southern Labrador or nearby at Cape Bauld in northernmost Newfoundland, coincidentally in the neighborhood of the only known Norse settlement in North America, at L’Anse Aux Meadows. Cabot evidently thought he had found the mainland of Asia. After going ashore for the first and only time and erecting the banners of the pope, Alexander VI, and Henry VII (there was nothing about a banner of San Marco for his native Venice, as related only by Lorenzo Pasqualigo), Cabot then had worked his way back toward home, south and east along the fiercely meandering north shore of Newfoundland. He would have been hoping to reach Quinsay, around latitude 45°, but the coast was trending mostly eastward and no great seaport of Cathay revealed itself.
He coasted Newfoundland to the point that he ran out of shoreline around the Avalon Peninsula. Here the coast turns sharply and trends westward into the Gulf of St. Lawrence at about 461⁄2° north. Cabot had now gone as far south as the latitude of the rio de bordeos—the mouth of Bordeaux’s river, the Gironde, is at about 451⁄2° north. The 1-degree discrepancy is more than acceptable. First, the latitude shared with the mouth of the Gironde was only a general orientation offered by Say. Second, a 1-degree error was a very good result for a late fifteenth-century mariner. Columbus made errors of several degrees. The result was actually impressive if the crew made a celestial observation from the rolling deck of a moving ship, as they went ashore only once, after first sighting land.
Cabot enjoyed an extremely brisk return crossing, completing in fifteen days a passage that wandered too far south and raised the European coast in Brittany. The speed further suggested that he departed from the Avalon Peninsula, the most easterly location possible, for him to have completed a passage of nineteen hundred nautical miles in such short order in a ship of his day. Say’s letter thus supported the opinion of Bristol mariners cited by Raimundo di Raimundis that the westward crossing could be made in a fortnight from Ireland if the weather cooperated.
By the “Isle of Seven Cities,” Say might have been referring to Newfoundland, but it seemed to be considered part of the mainland, because in Say’s confusing discussion of the “cape,” he advised that Cabot had steered for home “from the above mentioned cape of the mainland which is nearest to Ireland” and his departure presumably was from around Newfoundland’s Avalon Peninsula.
The answer seems to lie in the distances quoted in the different accounts. A common thread was a distance of four hundred leagues. The Pasqualigo letter said Cabot’s landfall came on the mainland seven hundred leagues distant (but not from where) and that it was coasted for three hundred leagues. As Say’s letter said the coasting was back in the direction of home, it would imply a return ocean passage of four hundred leagues for Pasqualigo’s account. Say’s letter gave a passage distance of eighteen hundred miles between Dursey Head and Cabot’s point of departure for the return voyage. With four Roman miles (of five thousand feet) to a league, Say’s distance from Dursey Head to the departure point thus was 450 leagues. The anonymous letter to the Duke of Milan on August 24, 1497, had Cabot discovering the Isle of Seven Cities four hundred leagues from England.
The entirety of Newfoundland would be depicted as an island archipelago by cartographers for centuries, including on a 1544 map printed at Amsterdam that has been attributed (not entirely persuasively) to Cabot’s son Sebastian. But the Avalon Peninsula of eastern Newfoundland, rather than all of Newfoundland, may be the best candidate for the Isle of Seven Cities or Antilla, four hundred leagues from Dursey Head. Both Seven Cities and Antilla often were presented as a group of islands—in Columbus’s case, the West Indies were called the Antilles. Cape Bonavista would have been the cape on the “mainland” from which the sail for home began. It would have been easy to presume the Avalon Peninsula to the south represented two islands, as mentioned by Pasqualigo and the unknown Milanese correspondent in London, and which doubtless were also the islands that the Burgundian and Genoese associates of Cabot expected in reward. Pasqualigo tellingly noted the two islands being seen on the way back, which was consistent with a coasting experience along the north shore of Newfoundland ending around Cape Bonavista. Cabot’s last experience of eastern North America involved a passing glance at the headlands formed by the deep, broad indentations of Conception and Trinity bays, which convinced the crew they were passing a pair of islands.
Still, dragooning the Isle of Seven Cities into the role of the two “islands” glimpsed as Cabot departed easternmost Newfoundland was an imaginative reworking of the prevailing geographic order—although no less imaginative than the way Columbus co-opted the Golden Chersonese to make Cuba serve as a peninsula of the Asian mainland. Cabot’s interpretation shifted Antilla far to the north of its presumed location and much closer to the Asian mainland. The Andrea Bianco portolan of 1436, the first to display an island called Antillia, had placed it in the middle of the Ocean Sea between about 32° and 38° north. It had since been slipping southward. Toscanelli put it west of the Canaries, around 28° north, and Martin Behaim in his Nürnberg globe fixed Insula Antilia genannt Septe citadedown at 24° north. Were Cabot’s find judged authentic, it would at least explain why no one had ever been able to find the Isle of Seven Cities in the locations cartographers promised.
Say’s account was full of small, well-informed details. He explained that Cabot’s ship was fifty tons, carried twenty men, and was provisioned for a seven- or eight-month voyage. He recounted the favorable winds from the east-northeast and the storm late in the outbound passage and how, as Cabot approached landfall, “his compass needle failed to point north and marked two rhumbs below.” Say reported the two shadowy figures running through the woods, the fear of Cabot and his men to investigate more than a crossbow’s shot inland, the length of wood with holes at both ends “and painted with brazil,” which would have been an unstrung bow decorated with red ocher used by the Beothuk or “Little Passage” people of Newfoundland, or the Innu of Labrador. Leaving aside Cabot’s timidity, it should not surprise us that he met no one; while he apparently coasted Newfoundland around the time of the Atlantic salmon’s spawning run in July, which brought families to the coast, there may only have been five hundred to seven hundred Beothuk or “Little Passage” people living in all of Newfoundland at this time. Of the return voyage, Say recounted a dispute with crew members who said they were steering too far north, which caused them to steer too far south and raise the European coastline at Brittany.
Say also reported the voyagers’ impression that the land they discovered was cultivated. They were sorely mistaken; their imaginations turned nervous glimpses of open ground into agricultural bounty. Cabot would have had to sail well down the coast of eastern North America, beyond Nova Scotia and Maine, to find semisedentary people practicing agriculture in cleared fields anywhere along the seaboard. Nevertheless, Say reported: “[I]t seemed to them that there were tilled lands where there might also be villages.”
The appearance of the words tierras labradas (worked or tilled lands) in the original Spanish of Say’s report is noteworthy, as it arises from the first known landfall that was in the general vicinity of what we call Labrador. Instead of a later Portuguese voyager having inspired the name Labrador, as often has been weakly proposed, Cabot’s 1497 voyage would have introduced labels on maps now lost to us denoting the alleged tilled lands or, more particularly, the land of the “farmer,” which in modern Spanish is labrador and in Portuguese lavrador.
Columbus had also wanted to know more about Cabot’s 1496 attempt. “Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage,” Say obliged, “here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.” To this day, that is the entirety of what is known about the 1496 voyage.
A fairly arresting part of Say’s letter was his assertion that the land Cabot had discovered was already known to Bristol sailors and, moreover, that the earlier discovery was something Columbus himself knew about. “It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found Brasil [el brasil] as your Lordship well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil [la ysla de brasil], and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.”
Say thus contended that an earlier landfall thought to be the island of Brasil turned out to be part of a larger mainland. His observation revealed the kernel of a serious dispute. Bristol interests were not about to concede that everything Cabot had discovered belonged to him and his sons under the letters patent, which had promised the Cabots the rights to lands “unknown to all Christians” and “newly found by them.” Say also agreed with Raimundis that these waters were rich in cod and thus were a potential source of wealth that had nothing to do with Oriental silk or brazil-wood. “All along the coast they found many fish like those which in Iceland are dried in the open and sold in England and other countries, and these fish are called in English ‘stockfish.’”
It wasn’t clear what Say meant when he asserted a landfall known as Brasil had been discovered “in the past,” as phrased in the standard translation. The original Spanish, en otros tiempos (“in/at other times”), could refer to an event (or several events) that had occurred within the past few years or several decades earlier. Say thus could have been referring to a successful recent search for Brasil, made sometime between 1481 and the early 1490s. Or he could have been alluding to a more distant event, a landfall in the 1460s or 1470s or even earlier that Bristol sailors had not been able to find again.
As for Say’s assertion that this prior discovery of Brasil was a fact Columbus “well knows”: How long had Columbus known this? Say might have been reiterating something he had already explained to Columbus in their last encounter or that Columbus had gathered recently from other English merchants around Seville or Sanlúcar de Barrameda. But it did rather sound as if Columbus had been aware of an English claim to a discovery of Brasil for some time.
Columbus could have heard of the search for Brasil by Bristol merchants when he first arrived at La Rábida around 1485. There was a compelling connection between the Franciscan monastery that sheltered him and helped secure his capitulations from Fernando and Isabel and Bristol voyages in search of the quasi-mythical landfall in 1480–81.
ON OCTOBER 18, 1480, an English merchant ship called the Trinity departed the mouth of the Avon downstream from Bristol on a trading voyage to Andalusia. This was probably not the same Trinity that would depart Bristol in search of Brasil the following summer. The Trinity of the Andalusia voyage was a substantial merchant ship of three hundred tons while the Trinity of the 1481 search for Brasil had to be much smaller, as the terms of Thomas Croft’s trading license limited ships to sixty tons. Nevertheless, one of the three owners of the Andalusia-bound Trinity was John Jay, Jr. On September 18, 1480, an eighty-ton vessel backed in part by Jay had returned to Bristol from a failed search for Brasil, only a month before the Trinity cleared the Avon.
The crew of the three hundred–ton Trinity certainly could have carried with them to Andalusia word of the recent search for Brasil backed by her co-owner Jay. Some of them might have been participants in the search. An accounts book of the purser, John Balsall, showed there were even three crew members with Spanish names, which eliminated any possible language barrier in disseminating news of the 1480 search. What is more, the Trinity spent several weeks around Isla Saltés, by the monastery of La Rábida, mainly trading in English cloth with merchants from the local towns of Huelva, Palos, and Moguer. The Balsall accounts showed that the Trinity’s men visited La Rábida, recording a donation “paid to the friars at Our Lady of Rábida to pray for us.”
In the weeks that the Trinity’s men (who included those three Spaniards) spent in the vicinity of La Rábida, there would have been plenty of time to share the news of the (failed) 1480 effort out of Bristol by the Trinity’s co-owner, Jay, to find Brasil—an effort that would resume under Thomas Croft soon after they were back in Bristol. Columbus was still about five years away from reaching La Rábida, but the Bristol mariners’ stories of the search for Brasil could have reached the monastery’s learned friars, who in turn would have shared them with Columbus as they spent years debating what lay to the west before his capitulations were secured. Bristol ships would have continued to appear in the harbor in ensuing years, and their sailors would have continued to give the Franciscans money to pray for them. And so there would have been many other opportunities to share scuttlebutt of a success unknown to us that came after 1481 and for that scuttlebutt to reach Columbus once he had appeared at La Rábida.
What Say foremost had done for Columbus was explain that the Bristol discovery of the Isle of Brasil, which the Genoese explorer already knew about, had proved to be something else altogether. Cabot’s voyage had shown that the Isle of Brasil was actually part of a greater mainland. It remained to be determined what that mainland actually was, and who was entitled to it.
THE HUGH SAY LETTER never named the head of the English exploration enterprise out of Bristol, referring to Cabot several times only as “he.” Presumably in a previous exchange Say had informed Columbus of the man’s identity. If Columbus had already crossed paths with Cabot in Spain or knew him from his own second voyage and the preliminary engineering work on ill-fated La Isabella, the intelligence from Say must have been as infuriating as it was perturbing. Unable to mount another voyage of exploration, including the one northward to Cathay planned by Bartolomé in 1495, and having been unwilling to test northern waters himself, Columbus had allowed someone from within his own greater Indies enterprise to raise the banner of another monarch on a shore across the Ocean Sea.
Columbus’s own claim that Cuba was a peninsula of the Indies mainland was widely doubted. So what of Cabot’s claim of a mainland to the north of his finds: Was it Cathay, in the land of the Great Khan? Or had the Venetian found another troublesome slab of geography that had to be aggressively shoehorned into the general template of Marco Polo’s travel narrative, Pierre d’Ailly’s Imago Mundi and Toscanelli’s letter and map? Say’s letter notably declined to call the tierra firma Cabot had coasted Cathay or any part of the Indies.
Whatever it was, more would soon be known. As Say advised, Cabot was preparing a substantial follow-up voyage: “[W]ith God’s help it is hoped to push through plans for exploring the said land more thoroughly next year with ten or twelve vessels.”
Columbus needed to secure a Spanish claim to lands he had left unexplored before Cabot sewed up even more of them. Yet he was hobbled by his aversion to sailing in the cold and storms of northern latitudes. Say’s letter, and the lost sketch chart, would have made clear an undeniable yet extremely misleading fact: The cape nearest to Ireland was 1800 miles, or 450 leagues, from Dursey Head. As the westernmost Cape Verdes, the starting point for measuring under Tordesillas, were thought to be about 35 degrees of longitude west of Ireland, Say’s report made it fairly clear that whatever Cabot had found fell within the Portuguese realm, which extended westward to a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verdes.
João II had more than likely declined Münzer’s and Behaim’s idea of a westward voyage in 1493 because, under Tordesillas, whatever Behaim found presumably would turn out to be Spanish territory. Cabot had now shown there was in fact a landfall to the west that was within the territory assigned to Portugal, and this provided a major disincentive for Columbus to dedicate a voyage to investigating the discovery.
Columbus didn’t know that what Cabot had found was a geographic anomaly. Newfoundland may have been positioned far enough to the east to be considered at least partly Portuguese, but below and behind it was an entire unknown continent that by the terms of Tordesillas belonged to Fernando and Isabel. If Columbus failed to investigate Cabot’s find and left eastern North America open to Henry VII to probe on succeeding voyages, a monarch who paid no heed to Tordesillas would be able to plant his banner all along the shore of a vast new land.