Post-classical history


TWO AND A HALF years after Roderigo de Puebla had made his only known mention of Cabot’s presence in England, he and his rival Pedro de Ayala were competing to deliver the first word by a Spanish ambassador in Henry VII’s kingdom of the Venetian’s activities. The intelligence failure had been atrocious. By this time, Cabot was already at sea on his third voyage, with a small armada determined to expand on his initial 1497 discoveries, trade for the riches of the Great Khan, and plant Henry’s banners wherever they went.

Having only returned to London from Scotland in September 1497, Ayala had missed all the fuss arising from Cabot’s own return the previous month. Ayala had then gone back to Scotland to promote a marriage between James IV and Henry’s daughter Margaret, thus missing Cabot’s appearance at court in December, which had inspired the lengthy report by Raimundo di Raimundis to the Duke of Milan. Roderigo de Puebla should have known about Cabot’s achievements and plans but for his own reasons had apparently chosen to share nothing about them with his monarchs. And Puebla most certainly was never going to share anything about them with his hated rival, Ayala.

That Puebla chose to write a short note about Cabot to Fernando and Isabel on July 25, the very same day as Ayala and so soon after the unnerving investigation into his conduct by Londoño and Matienzo, suggests he was rushing to avert further humiliation. Ayala’s report could only reveal Puebla’s lengthy silence on Cabot’s activities: Either Puebla had failed to inform his monarchs of important news he possessed, or had been so derelict in his duties as to not even have been aware of Cabot’s voyages. While both diplomats would have had access to information about Cabot at Henry’s court, Ayala’s report seems to have been the source of the bulk of Puebla’s note. Ayala made his comments as part of a lengthy assessment of affairs in England and Scotland, and Puebla likely was able to peruse and crib from it before it entered the diplomatic pouch.

“The King of England sent five armed ships with another Genoese like Colón to look for the Island of Brasil and the surrounding territories,” Puebla wrote. His strategy thus was to not even acknowledge that Cabot had made any previous voyages, let alone achieved his 1497 success. Puebla’s position was that this was a new initiative, aimed not at the Indies, which were so dear to Spain, but rather at the elusive mid-ocean island of Brasil. It was an indefensible position in the long term, but it would buy Puebla some time by sowing confusion over the truth of Ayala’s version of events and hopefully thwart immediate condemnation from his monarchs for once again not having reported anything at all about a matter of considerable diplomatic importance.

Puebla’s reference to Cabot, not by name but as otro Genovese como Colón, recalled how his monarchs, in their March 1496 letter to him, similarly called the unnamed Cabot uno como Colón. Puebla’s note lacked any recognition that he was discussing one and the same explorer; his description of Cabot also was a verbatim repeat of Ayala’s phrasing that day: “I have seen the map made by the discoverer, who is another Genoese like Colón who has been in Seville and at Lisbon seeking to obtain persons to aid him in this discovery.” It is difficult to believe both men failed to refer to Cabot by name and independently arrived at the mistaken impression that he was Genoese. This reinforces the likelihood Ayala was the original source and that Puebla, who had probably turned a blind eye to Cabot’s activities, repeated the “Genoese” error in filching from Ayala.

Puebla explained two of the ships had been provisioned for one year, whereas Ayala said all five ships were so prepared. “They say that they will have arrived [returned] for September of 1498,” Puebla added, agreeing with Ayala’s voyage timeline. Ayala’s report however was considerably more detailed, and worrying. He made a startling claim: “For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three [and] four caravels to go in search of the island of Brasil and the Seven Cities according to the fancy of this Genoese.” Although it was impossible for Cabot to have been directing and participating in such a search for the past seven years, it was true that he had been making his voyages out of Bristol for several years. But had Bristol sailors been making voyages of their own, before Cabot came along, since 1491? Perhaps the Bristol discovery of “Brasil” had been very recent and been kept very quiet. Or Ayala may just have garbled the details of the treaty between England and Norway of 1490, which had permitted Bristol ships to engage in the Icelandic fishery through licenses that had to be renewed every seven years.

Ayala said he had spoken with Henry several times about the Cabot venture, and testified to the king’s optimism. “He hopes the affair may turn out profitable.” Puebla made a similar claim: “The King has spoken to me on occasion about it; he hopes to have a very great share.” Ayala further advised that Henry had decided to send more ships westward this year “because last year sure proof was brought him they had found land.” Ayala also had intelligence to share of the latest voyage’s progress. “News has come that one of those, in which sailed another Friar Buil, has made land in Ireland in a great storm with the ship badly damaged. The Genoese kept on his way.”

Ayala’s “Friar Buil” was Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, whose participation had been noted by Agostino Spinola in his June 20 letter to the Duke of Milan. Cabot’s mirroring of Columbus’s second voyage now extended to the inclusion of a Bernard Buyl mimic. Carbonariis was no papal legate empowered by a bull, as had been the Minorite friar Buyl attached to Columbus’s second voyage, but Carbonariis may have imagined himself fulfilling much the same role in representing the church and carrying the word of Christ to the heathen. More lucratively, he may have aspired to the bishopric (a gateway to personal wealth) alluded to by Raimundis the previous December. But according to Ayala’s intelligence, Carbonariis’s adventure had been interrupted if not ended altogether, with his storm-damaged ship limping into an Irish port.

As far as Ayala was concerned, Cabot’s four remaining vessels were outward bound for a violation of Tordesillas. “Having seen the course they are steering and the length of the voyage, I find that what they have discovered or are in search of is possessed by your Highnesses because it is at the cape which fell to your Highnesses by the convention with Portugal.” Ayala thus had traced Cabot’s proposed course on a chart the Venetian had left behind and must have recognized “the cape” he was so confident belonged to Spain from whatever maps had informed his activities as one of two Spanish negotiators for Tordesillas in 1493. Puebla seconded Ayala on this point: “Seeing the course that they are taking to it, that which they are seeking is that which Your Majesties possess.” Here, Puebla implied he had seen a map with Cabot’s course, whereas Ayala was explicit about having inspected one. But Puebla was ambiguous about the provenance of what the English were seeking, for the Spanish monarchs “possessed” not only new lands but also more generally a (supposed) new sea route to the Indies.

Ayala reported that the distance to Cabot’s discoveries was “not 400 leagues.” Puebla was more circumspect. “I believe that there is nothing from here up to 400 leagues,” he wrote, not admitting that Cabot and the English had already made a discovery, which of course he should have reported at the latest in late 1497. Puebla instead made it sound like there was no landfall between England and the anticipated discovery of Brasil, four hundred leagues distant.

The distance of four hundred leagues should have told Ayala the lands reached in 1497 were more than likely within the Portuguese realm. Ayala however was convinced Cabot was a bald liar, and had not minced words with the English king. “I told him that I believed the islands were those found by Your Highnesses, and although I gave him the main reason, he would not have it. Since I believe Your Highnesses will already have notice of all this and also of the chart ormappemonde which this man has made, I do not send it now, although it is here, and so far as I can see exceedingly false, in order to make believe that these are not part of the said islands.”

Ayala had spent enough time in the Tordesillas negotiations to be quite familiar with the prevailing ideas of the world’s configuration. The Cabot map struck him as a tissue of cartographic lies. The mention of “400 leagues” by both Ayala and Puebla recalled the general agreement in the various letters of 1497 that placed the Isle of Seven Cities that distance to the west of Dursey Head. Ayala must have seen a chart that moved the Seven Cities far to the north of where anyone had previously located this landfall or its equivalent of Antilla. To a Spaniard, for Cabot to have truly reached Antilla, he had to have visited the islands Columbus discovered and so had ventured far to the south of where his world map claimed. Perhaps “the cape” Ayala saw on the Cabot map made him think of eastern Cuba, which Columbus said was the Golden Chersonese, a peninsula of mainland Asia. The map thus to Ayala was “exceedingly false,” a blatant distortion. The Venetian was trying to pass off his findings as another place altogether, with his map contrived to show that his discoveries had nothing to do with Columbus’s finds. He had already intruded on Spanish territory and surely was on the way back to the Indies.

As for Ayala’s assumption that Fernando and Isabel already knew about Cabot’s enterprise and moreover possessed a copy of Cabot’s map: perhaps Henry left Ayala with the impression he had already informed the Spanish monarchs of the Cabot venture. Perhaps Henry himself assumed that Puebla had long since told them about Cabot’s activities—or had been led to believe by Puebla they had been so informed and there was nothing to worry about. But nothing survives to indicate that the Spanish monarchs were apprised of Cabot’s journeys by any source in England after Puebla’s letter of January 21, 1496.

It may be that Ayala was shrewdly sticking a knife into his hated rival Puebla’s reputation: Surely, Your Highnesses, Dr. Puebla has already informed you thoroughly on this matter, his letter implied. And Cabot and his Bristol accomplices had been making these voyages for seven years! Would Dr. Puebla not have informed them about that as well? Should Fernando and Isabel reply to the contrary, only then would Ayala send a copy of the map. The proof would be unequivocal that on yet another matter of supreme diplomatic importance, Puebla had left his monarchs dangerously in the dark. Puebla’s hasty note, written the same day and so seemingly derivative of Ayala’s report, does read like an attempt to counter Ayala’s revelations. Puebla could not afford to have Ayala forward news on Cabot before he did. His note was an exercise in personal damage control, and in refusing to acknowledge Cabot had already succeeded in reaching a distant shore, Puebla created confusion where Fernando and Isabel deserved clarity. And all the while, Cabot’s flotilla sailed on.

ESCAPING THE DOLDRUMS, Columbus enjoyed seventeen consecutive days of good weather and, on July 29, was hoping to soon sight land, having been at sea without interruption since departing the Cape Verdes on July 4. In the intense heat, the seams in the hull had worked open; the provisions, for both his crossing and the Española colony, had begun to spoil. Two days later, he was running out of freshwater and felt he could no longer hold this course in search of landfalls João II had suspected and Inventio Fortunata had promised. He called for a more northerly heading. They would now try to reach Dominica or one of the other “cannibal islands” he had discovered on the second voyage and replenish the casks before they all perished from thirst.

At noon on the very day Columbus in desperation and disappointment ordered the course change, one of his servants, Alonso Pérez Nizzardo, climbed the rigging and spotted land fifteen leagues to the west.

“And it pleased our Lord,” Columbus noted, “by his Exalted Majesty, that the first lands seen were three rocks all united at the base, I say three mountains, all at one time and in one glance.” The sight was prophetically apt, for Columbus had been relying on the supernatural oversight of the Holy Trinity on his third voyage. In gratitude, he named the landfall Trinidad.

DESPITE THE FACT THAT he understood the Cabot flotilla was provisioned for a full year, Ayala expected it would be back by September and promised to tell Fernando and Isabel what he learned then. But there would be no additional report from Ayala or Puebla on the matter. Their July 25 letters were the last contemporary accounts of John Cabot’s activities. The Venetian and his English ships might as well have sailed off the edge of a flat earth.

John Cabot’s 1498 flotilla was the largest English expedition dedicated to exploration for almost a century. The scale of the effort did not save it from a most peculiar fate. If not actually lost to the Ocean Sea, it was soon lost to history. Not a single account of the voyage would endure. No contemporary chronicle or observer had a thing to say about it. When the Great Chronicle of London entry for September 1497 to September 1498 noted that the flotilla had left in early May, it concluded with the foreboding words: “Of whom in this mayor’s time returned no tidings.”

Only four years after the voyage, the scholar and cleric Polydore Vergil (Polidoro Virgilio) of Urbino arrived in England as Alexander VI’s collector of papal revenues, replacing Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, who had vanished from the historical record along with the 1498 Cabot voyage. Vergil was commissioned by Henry VII to write an official history of England, an exercise largely devoted to burying the contentious nature of his claim to the throne, which Vergil worked on well after Henry’s death in 1509. In a manuscript copy preserved in the Vatican was a paragraph devoted to Cabot written around 1512–13 that never appeared in the printed edition, which was first issued at Basel in 1534.

There was talk at about this time that some sailors on a voyage had discovered lands lying in the British ocean, hitherto unknown. This was easily believed because the Spanish sovereigns in our time had found many unknown islands. Wherefore King Henry at the request of one John Cabot, a Venetian by birth, and a most skilful mariner, ordered to be prepared one ship, complete with crew and weapons; this he handed over to the same John to go and search for those unknown islands. John set out in this same year and sailed first to Ireland. Then he set sail towards the west. In the event he is believed to have found the new lands nowhere but on the very bottom of the ocean, to which he is thought to have descended together with his boat, the victim himself of that self-same ocean; since after that voyage he was never seen again anywhere.

Vergil was not the most reliable scholar, but his unpublished account, even with its obvious flaws, would reinforce the idea that Cabot had been inspired by a prior discovery by Bristol mariners and would also support the general conclusion that persisted into the twenty-first century: Cabot had perished on the 1498 voyage.

CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS SPENT almost two weeks in the vicinity of Trinidad in August 1498, nearly committing one of the greatest blunders in the history of exploration. He probed the large embayment on its western side that he called the Golfo de la Ballena(gulf of the whale), now called the Gulf of Paria. “He says that all that sea is fresh,” Las Casas remarked, inspecting the admiral’s lost journal. Columbus thought this gulf was enclosed by four islands and so could not fathom where such an enormous volume of freshwater could originate, “because it did not appear to have the flow from great rivers, and that, if it had them, he says it would not cease to be a marvel.”

Columbus failed to grasp that all the land to the south of Trinidad, as well as the mountainous terrain enclosing the gulf to the west, was the mainland of South America. He examined the silt-laden gulf, so charged with freshwater, and compared it to the Guadalquivir at Seville yet did not accept that this was incontrovertible evidence of an enormous river nearby. He did not recognize that the entire shore of the gulf’s south side was part of the great delta of the Orinoco River. The fourth largest river in the world by volume, after the Amazon, the Congo, and the Yangtze, it drained almost 340,000 square miles of land. The outflow was so enormous that in meeting the ocean tide, it set up a dangerous rip of standing waves in the two straits between the mainland and Trinidad that Columbus fearfully and respectfully called the Mouth of the Dragon.

Columbus left Trinidad and the gulf before he could properly determine what he had found. He could be forgiven his obdurate response to the overwhelming evidence of this coast’s true nature because of his debilitated health. The illness he had first contracted while coasting the south shore of Cuba in 1494 had reerupted, exhausting and nearly blinding him as it filled his eyes with blood. But by pressing farther west, where he had already sent a ship to investigate, Columbus was able to avert his horrendous error of interpretation.

He reached Isla da Margarita, and behind it was a sweeping indentation he called the Gulf of the Pearls. He had refused to believe the mariners of the advance party when they tried to tell him what was there. Looking upon the coast of this gulf, there could be no denying what he was seeing even through blood-soaked eyes.

“I believe that this is a very great continental land, which until today has not been known,” he wrote. He now accepted that a great river must be feeding the Gulf of Paria and that it was draining a continent. He further revealed what he never had before: that Indigenous peoples on Guadeloupe had once told him there was continental land to the south and that this had been affirmed by others on St. Croix and Puerto Rico, who also told them that much gold would be found there.

He reminded Fernando and Isabel how it had been said only a very short time ago that

there was no other land known than that which Ptolemy wrote of, and there was not in my time any one who would believe that one could navigate from Spain to the Indies: about which matter I was seven years in your Court, and there were few who understood it: and finally the very great courage of your Highnesses caused it to be tried, against the opinion of those who contradicted it. And now the truth appears, and it will appear before long, much greater: and if this is the continental land, it is a thing of wonder, and it will be so among all the learned, since so great a river flows out that it makes a fresh-water sea of 48 leagues.

Columbus believed he had found more than a tierra firma Ptolemy could not account for. This was the Earthly Paradise, the home of the Garden of Eden, which was to be found at the end of the East. Through his perseverance and the blessing of the Holy Trinity, Columbus had come to the end of the East by sailing west.

He assured Fernando and Isabel: Y vuestras Altezas ganaron estas tierras, tantas, que son otro mundo: “And your Highnesses will gain these lands, so great, which are another world.” Columbus came very close to deploying the words that would define his achievements for all posterity, nuevo mundo—“new world.” He had not quite embraced them, as Pietro Martire so poetically yet presciently had in 1494, when he called Columbus’s discoveries (in Latin) orbe novo. Columbus also would never relinquish the claim that he had reached the Indies. But his otro mundo spoke of a dawning recognition that there was more on the far side of the Ocean Sea than could be accounted for by a mind steeped in the writings of ancient geographers and philosophers.

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