by Reinhard Zollitsch
October 2009

Columbus, Cabot, Cartier and Champlain

I am well aware that John Cabot's first landing in the new world happened over 500 years ago, on the morning of June 24, 1497, to be exact, and lots has been written about this historic event. So why add yet another personal opinion? After all, there still is no document saying exactly where he landed. All we know is that Cabot could have stepped ashore anywhere between Cape Bauld at the northern tip of Newfoundland and anywhere along the coast of Nova Scotia, Maine or even Massachusetts, depending on which historic school you follow. Most historians, though, limit their educated guesses to two places in Canada: Cape Bauld on Quirpon Island, Newfoundland (pronounced “carpoon” as in “harpoon”, which is also its meaning), and Cape North on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

I feel, though, that a lot more can be said about the facts surrounding the actual landing spot. Why, for instance, do we not have a trip log or account of the voyage? Why did Cabot decide to head across the Atlantic in the direction of Cape Bauld? These are just two of my many questions.

Since I am a practical person and an ocean sailor and paddler to boot, I felt I had to check out both these places in order to see which could be the most likely place for a first landing and which would fit the sparse information we have on this “prima terra vista”. Cabot can't have made a “first landing” in two places.

But most importantly, these questing trips would give me a great excuse for two wonderful solo ocean canoe trips in my trusty 17'2” Kruger sea canoe and supply the motivation to carry on when the going got rough. Because my plan was to circumnavigate Cape Breton Island in 2007 as well as paddle up the entire western shore of Newfoundland to its tip at Cape Bauld/L'Anse aux Meadows in 2008 – two 10-day, 340-mile trips. (See MAIB, Jan. and Nov. 2008 for my reports on these trips, or my website.) Merely driving up to check out the actual landing sites, did not even occur to me. - But first, back to the history books.

Questing for John Cabot's "Prima Terra Vista"

Latitude Sailing

Two historic events preceded Cabot's 1497 trip. First, we all know that “in fourteen hundred ninety-two Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. Interesting for me, being fascinated by early navigation, was that Columbus dropped down to the Canary Islands off Africa first before heading straight west across the open ocean. No, he was not trying to catch the trade winds. Nobody had sailed there before him, so the trades across the “Western Ocean”, the Atlantic , were not known yet. He dropped down to the Canaries at 28' north because he wanted to reach the latitude of Marco Polo's “Cipango and Cathay”, Japan and the Orient. (This course was a good one and would have taken him just south of Japan and south of the mouth of the mighty Yangtze River at today's city of Shanghai, China, if only the American continent weren't in the way.) You see, he wanted to reach the Orient in the east by going west around the world. This was a completely new concept and should work, if Ptolemy's concept of a round world held true.

And Columbus did what every good navigator of his days would do: sail latitude. They would sail up or down a known coast to a jump-off point and then sail straight east-west, leaving the North Star, the guide star, at a specific angle to the horizon. In northern latitudes, say in Norway, this angle would be steeper than sailing in more southern latitudes, like Gibraltar and the Mediterranean Sea. A latitude was like a rubber band guaranteeing a safe return on the same angle to the North Star and a reverse compass course.

Since chronometers were not invented till the 18th century, longitudes could not be accurately determined, since they are time related, i.e. they are based on the earth's full rotation in 24 hours, or to the eye, the course of the sun around the world in 24 hours, or 15 degrees of longitude per hour. So distances were carefully measured with a ship's log, and yes, according to the authority on geography, Ptolemy, Columbus had sailed the “proper” distance on the “right” course to the Orient. Unfortunately Ptolemy had pictured a much smaller world without the American continent. The Pacific Ocean, as Magellan was to find out in 1519-1522, was also wider than a few days' sail from the strait he found at the tip of the South American continent (now named after him). Till his death, Columbus thus believed in Ptolemy's figures and stubbornly maintained that he had reached the Orient. - This does not speak too well for being flexible and open-minded, in my book. Columbus was also much too proud to admit he had made a mistake, and eventually he paid for his pride.

John Cabot navigated basically the same way. He, however, was not headed from Bristol, England to the northern tip of Newfoundland, because he had no idea what “new land” he would find on the other side of the “Western Ocean”, the Atlantic. He simply departed from a known point in his neck of the woods, the southwest corner of Ireland, from the last cape there, Dursey Head, at 51' 40” north, and for almost thirty-five days sailed more or less on that latitude.

It just so happens that this latitude is also the latitude of Cape Bauld on Quirpon Island, Newfoundland. And that is the only reason John Cabot, Jacques Cartier (in1534) and so many other early sailors and fishermen headed for this place. It must have been a very disappointing landfall, though, since the northern tip of Newfoundland is flat as a pancake for almost 60 miles and therefore hard to see from sea, especially in the ubiquitous fog, haze and rain up there. The steep Labrador coast across the 10-mile wide Strait of Belle Isle would have been a much better target.

Flat, treeless tundra at the northern tip of Newfoundland

But wait a minute: Like Columbus, Cabot was also aiming for the Orient, “Cipango and Cathay”. But unlike Columbus, he would have missed his target by a long shot. Following latitude 51'40” north to the west would have taken Cabot to the southern tip of the now Russian peninsula of Kamchatka – a Siberia-like icebox of a place, only appreciated by salmon and bear. Fortunately for Cabot and the 20 sailors on the Matthew, they were stopped by the North American continent.

The Treaty of Tordesillas

The second historic event, as I see it, explains why we do not have a trip log or any other official report about John Cabot's first landing in the new world, like those from Jacques Cartier (1534) or Samuel de Champlain (1603). After Columbus's first sail across the Atlantic in hopes of reaching the Far East, a mad rush of Spanish/Portuguese land grabbing took place. These two most powerful sea-going nations at that time even threatened each other with war. So Pope Alexander VI decided to step in and ameliorate/settle the strife. In 1493/94 he summoned representatives of these two Catholic countries to Tordesillas, Spain and made peace, that is he drew a line through the middle of the North Atlantic, “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands” off Africa (at approximately 46' 30' west on today's maps; or picture the southern tip of Greenland and go from there on a meridian straight to the South Pole and up the other side).

Here was the deal: Spain was given the western half of the globe for exploration, acquisition and hopefully also converting the “native heathens” to Christianity. Portugal was given the eastern half. If you follow that line, you will notice that the eastern part of Brazil, all the important harbors, that is, are east of that line, i.e. became Portuguese, which explains why Brazilians speak Portuguese to this day, and not Spanish, as all other Latin American countries do. The contested “spice islands” near the Philippines were right on the line and remained a bone of contention, since east-west distances could not be measured accurately without a chronometer (see explanation above).

Spain and Portugal accepted the Pope's ruling, while England and France were understandably miffed, being totally left out of this major geographic deal. So in order not to provoke these two nations as well as the Pope, England sent John Cabot (born Giovanni Caboto in his native town of Genoa, Italy) on a “secret mission” to see what he could find on a more northerly heading, away from the preferred southern Spanish/Portuguese routes. This was only 3 years after the Treaty of Tordesillas. How about going straight west off SW Ireland, the most western corner of Europe, at about 50 degrees north? No big send-off, no fanfare, no written reports; mum was the word.

And Cabot did as he was told. He sailed his boat, the Matthew, past Dursey Head at about 51' 40” north and used it as his jump-off point, keeping more or less the same course all the way across the Atlantic, and yes, that would have taken him right to Cape Bauld on Newfoundland. It would have, but he did not land there. (Suspense!)

After Cabot returned, he immediately reported to King Henry VII in London, but no official report was filed, and no official ship's log was ever found. The news, however, got out fast and traveled to Spain via a “spy-report”, a letter by John Day, directly to the “Lord Grand Admiral ”, Columbus himself. (This letter, by the way, was not found till 1955 in the Spanish National Archives. See copy of this letter in Peter Firstbrook's book, p. 172/173.)

And what were the sparse facts in this report? We hear that it took Cabot 35 days to cross the Atlantic, and when he was about to make a landfall, he was hit by yet another storm, a nor'easter, which blew his boat off course to the south across the fishing banks, almost to the latitude of Bordeaux at 45' north, which is clearly south of Newfoundland. Running before the storm and being driven by the south-setting Labrador current to boot, maybe with just a small storm jib set, he thus missed the island of Newfoundland completely. At that point, I figure, he must have been desperate to reach land, any land, since his distance was run. And then, there it was on the western horizon: a 30-mile long mountain range with a height of about 1500 feet, looking like the tip of a continent: Cape North on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.

Cape North Light (near landing spot), CBI

The report then goes that they went ashore, only once and very briefly, to raise “the banners...of the Holy Father and the King of England”, thus claiming this “new found land” for the British crown. They looked around and found “tall trees of the kind masts are made from”, and then shoved off again, always vigilant of being attacked by the native Beothuk people (pronounced “Beóhtic”), who had fended off the Vikings in the year 1,000 at St. Paul's Inlet along the western shore of Newfoundland. On their return trip they then saw, we hear, more land, for about one month, before they started their eventual Atlantic crossing.

Cabot Trail, CBI


So how does this all play out? If they had landed on Cape Bauld, the whole thing would not make any sense whatsoever. The top 60 miles of Newfoundland are practically treeless, boggy tundra; thus there are no mast timbers for sure. Cape Bauld also sits on a tiny island and has only two small landing possibilities on the eastern, the Atlantic, shore. This place is definitely not fit for a claim of an entire continent. And leaving Newfoundland, one would be out on the open ocean immediately, and not see any more land, as they did for about an entire month.

Cape Bauld on Quirpon Island in the distance (at 51'40")

If John Cabot, however, had landed on Cape Breton Island, he would then have to sail back up to latitude, to 51' 40” north, namely back up to Cape Bauld. The Matthew would have crossed the Cabot Strait in a northeasterly direction and hit the south shore of Newfoundland, possibly noticing the two islands mentioned in the report, St-Pierre and Miquelon. Cabot would then leave shore on port all the way around the island of Newfoundland till he reached his jump-off point at the Dursey Head latitude of about 51' 40” north. This could have taken a leisurely month, as mentioned. He definitely would not have sailed up the western shore of Newfoundland and out the Strait of Belle Isle, because this strait was not known then, and he needed to reach the open Atlantic, and not get stuck in a big bay, i.e. he would have to keep all shore on port, his left.

Cape Bauld, as I see it, was definitely on the latitude Cabot was headed for across the Atlantic, since it was on the same latitude as his point of departure. But as we hear, he was blown by there in a storm and thus missed landing there. From a sailor's point of view, a landing near Cape North on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia makes a lot more sense and agrees with all the sparse information we have about John Cabot's first landing in the new world. However, no matter where he actually landed, he then had to sail back up to latitude. Thus in my estimation Cape Bauld is NOT the actual point of arrival, NOT the “prima terra vista”, but the point of departure. Cape North on Cape Breton Island makes a lot more sense as a first landing spot – but we will never know for sure.

Cabot Strait, CBI

My personal questing

Having paddled my 17'2” covered sea canoe solo around Cape Breton Island in 2007 and up the western shore of Newfoundland from Port au Port to Cape Bauld/L'Anse aux Meadows in 2008, I gained a lot of respect for those brave sailors, and now have a much better understanding of what could have happened in 1497. Having sailed a two-masted schooner across the Atlantic from Maine to Cartier's home port of St. Malo, France and having worked on freighters on the Baltic and North Seas as well as the Atlantic in my student days, I also gained some larger perspective of sea voyaging and navigation, but especially the importance of a safe landfall. And the reason for the fact that we do not have a trip log from Cabot himself or any official acknowledgment of his 1497 trip is very simple: Cabot and England were not allowed to talk about this trip following the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. England and France were simply not allowed to claim any land. It had all been given away by the Pope.

Unfortunately Cabot's next expedition with 5 boats the following year ended in disaster: 4 boats were lost with all men aboard; only one boat was forced to return to home port after a few days out with gear problems. It is possible the 4 boats were wiped out along America's shores by a hurricane --- or by their rivals, the Spaniards or Portuguese, who felt totally “legal” in thwarting foreign trespassers' attempts to claim new land on their “god given” turf, i.e. area given to them by the Pope himself at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

We will never know exactly what happened to those brave sailors, but a few old Spanish maps (esp. Juan de la Cosa's map of 1500) show names like “Cape of England” and “Sea discovered by the English” etc. almost all the way down to Florida – and the only Englishman ever to sail across the Atlantic in those days was John Cabot. That makes you think, doesn't it?



Selective reading:

Brian Cuthbertson: John Cabot & the Voyage of the Matthew. Formac Publishing Company Limited. Halifax, 1997.   
Peter Firstbrook: The Voyage of the Matthew. BBC Books, LTD. London, 1997.     (See complete John Day letter on pages 172-173.)

Lawrence Bergreen: Over the Edge of the World. Harper Collins Publishing, NY, 2003. (on Magellan)

© Reinhard Zollitsch