Jan. 18: Backstory part III

Concluding Week 2 Lectures:

Review: Last class we found that prior to 1500, Aboriginal populations were highly mobile, and that it is hard to pin down identities with any accuracy.

So to answer to the question posed for this week’s readings: ‘What obstacles confront historians of First Nations peoples?’ We can observe:

  • there is a lack of any straight forward records — no written records means speculation is common.
  • there is the problem that many of the speculations are marred by a Eurocentric bias. Europeans had assumptions about ‘other’ people that need to be questioned — like: what were their names? what did they do?

So, to answer the 2d question on the reading list, we can observe that the role of past Europeans in establishing/constructing differences among Aboriginal peoples was pretty pronounced.

It is only recently — that last 20 years or so — that this Eurocentric bias has begun to be addressed. Aboriginal people are finally being asked about their histories, including systems of naming. Thus, the historical Naskapi/Montignais have become the Innu in discourses about the past. ‘Made in North America’ knowledge is making its way into the mainstream.

A similar problem, “a failure to consult anyone who was not Rich and Famous and born in Europe” confronts historians of early voyagers to North America.

For example, it is now accepted that the Norse arrived in AD 1000-1001 (that was not the case before 1960).

But, in most text books at least, there remains a 500 years gap before British and Canadian Historians recount the arrival of anyone else.

[Icelandic historians may not have the same gap]

V) Newcomers of the Second Round of Contact in the Region

Giustino Menescardi, mural detail “Giovanni Caboto,” 1762. Source: Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:JohnCabotPainting.jpg.

a) Zuan (Juan) or Giovanni Caboto a.k.a. John Cabot:

So far, there seems to be a lack of surviving records that might clarify who exactly he was (Juan or Giovanni or both = John Cabot?) and what he was doing prior to 1497 (was he participating in other voyages? with whom? [Icelanders?] in what capacity?

There are debates over where exactly he made landfall:

  • Bonavista, Newfoundland?
  • somewhere along the coast of Labrador?
  • Cape Breton Island?
  • the current border between Maine & Nova Scotia near Grand Manan Island?
  • the Strait of Belle Isle?

There are debates over the route and length of the voyage, debates over how much he knew about where he was going before he went: the Icelanders are said to have known how to get there for 500 years by the time he set off.

[Cabot Links:



Chris McKenna, photograph, “The replica of John Cabot‘s ship The Matthew. Photographed at its home berth, adjacent to the SS Great Britain in Bristol harbour,” dated 2 August 2004. Source: Chris McKenna and Wikimedia Commons, published under all Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike (cc-by-sa) licenses, specifically including all national variations.”

See also, image, “The Matthew, John Cabot’s ship, 1497,” Government of Canada, Canadian Military Heritage website, http://www.cmhg-phmc.gc.ca/cmh/en/image_20.asp?page_id=17. Note the contrast with portuguese ships of the time: caravels, relatively long and narrow with lanteen sails — [see image directly below].

Caravel: style of ship used in 16th century Portuguese ventures

The story as I know it:

In 1496, while living in England and engaged in the fish trade with Iceland, Cabot obtained a charter from Henry VII authorizing he and his sons (Lewis, Sebastian, and Sancius) to “sail to all parts, countries and seas of the East, the West and of the North, under our banner and ensign … and to set up our banner on any new-found -land.”

It may be that Cabot set sail from Bristol on 3 May, 1496 or 1497. It is certain that he left in a little ship of 50 tons, the Matthew. It seems he had a crew of 17 or 18.

It is thought that although the details of the voyage were freely talked about at the time, no precise record was kept ‘conspicuously’, in any official archive.

Apparently, after an outward voyage of 53 days Cabot and crew came, on 24 June (St. John’s Day), to the shores of a new land in the west. The tradition in Newfoundland is that his landfall was Cape Bonavista. Latter-day Cape Bretoners, on the other hand, commemorated the historic event by naming the northeastern area of their island ‘Cabot’s Landing’ and erecting a monument in the Cape Breton Highlands National Park.

Wherever they had been, Cabot and crew arrived home about 5 August 1497.

An entry in the ‘Privy Purse’ of England [amount set apart in the civil list (the revenues or appropriations of public money for the support of civil officers) for the private and personal use of the sovereign] records the discovery “August 10, 1497: To hym that found the new isle, 10£.” [Cabot’s son, Sebastian (famous in his own right), later was given £20/yr for his ‘discovery’ for the English king]

S. Rawle, line engraving, “Sebastian Cabot,” nd. Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 2904583.

Either the entire trip lasted 94-95 days, or one year and three months (the three months being the return voyage).

Wherever John Cabot anchored in 1497, it is possible that his crew did not set foot on shore before Basque, Portuguese, French, Icelandic, and maybe even other English fisher/sailors (who may have gone ashore to dry catches on other voyages from other ports). But those who wrote of Cabot’s return to England related tales of a sea “swarming with fish which can be taken not only with the net but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks.” [Raimondo di Soncino, letter to the Duke of Milan, 18 December 1497.] Cabot’s [re-?] discovery certainly raised awareness of cod fishing and whaling grounds off the east coast of North America.

There are records showing that a few English fishing vessels accompanied Cabot on his 2nd authorized voyage of 1498 — he was allowed 6 vessels, but apparently there were only 5 all told, and it has been claimed, about 300 men. One of the ships turned back after being damaged in a storm. And that’s it. For whatever reason, there are no other clear references to what became of the other 4 ships or those aboard them. John Cabot was never heard from again. One of his contemporaries wrote that the only new world Cabot ever found was at the bottom of the ocean.

It has been speculated that he died after being shipwrecked on Newfoundland somewhere near Grates Cove (at the tip of the Avalon Peninsula), where he is reputed to have carved some sort of markings on a rock. However, the ‘Cabot Rock’ was apparently made off with by 2 unidentified men in a ‘media van.’

“Portuguese ships 16th century Livro das Armadas.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

b) João (Joad/Joam/John) Fernandes

The details of Fernades’ life and voyages are vague and uncertain. He is said to have been a small landowner (‘lavrador’) on the island of Teceira in the Azores — hence the name ‘Labrador’: It is possible that in 1500 Fernandes reached what we know as Greenland and called it Tierra del Lavrador. The name later migrated south.

Some historians argue that Fernandes had made a previous voyage to the ‘New World’ — in 1498, with Cabot. According to one version of events, Fernandes served with Cabot as a pilot and charted the coasts from Greenland to Newfoundland and Chesapeake — naming Labrador at that time. On his return to England he showed his charts to the king.

It is known that Fernandes secured a patent from King Manuel of Portugal in 1499 to explore in the Portuguese ‘sphere of influence.’ [which had been determined by the Pope in 1493 and which we will cover in Week 3] and, due to his claims to ‘special knowledge of new lands’, Fernandes succeeded in gaining a charter from King Manuel to “discover and find anew” these lands. Apparently. in 1500 Fernandes then headed up from the Azores, perhaps to Greenland, and thence to Bristol — not Portugal. In Bristol he became the chief Portuguese member of an Anglo-Portuguese business syndicate. This organization subsequently obtained a charter from Henry VII (in March 1501). [Note: about this era of sailors — Caboto and Fernandes were pretty mercenary, not nationalistic in their loyalties]

Fernandes and crew apparently sailed from Bristol in 1501, presumably for Cabot’s new-found-land, BUT, none of them were heard from again.




c) The Corte-Real [Reais] Family [the Portuguese endeavours]

Gaspar Corte-Real, a Portuguese navigator, was the youngest of three sons of João Vaz Corte Real (who may have visited Newfoundland in the 1400s).

Detail, a charter issued to Corte Real [perhaps for land in the Azores?]. Source: “História Genealógica dos Corte Reais Nobres Cavaleiros e Navegadores.”

Gaspar received a charter from King Manuel of Portugal on 12 May 1500 to discover, and claim jurisdiction over, lands in the ‘New World.’ He reached a cold, snow-covered land in the northwestern Atlantic, then, apparently, before heading home, reached another that was “very cool and green and with many trees.” [Historians differ on the details of this voyage]

On his second voyage with tree ships in 1501, Gaspar returned to the land full of large trees and fertile soil, which he named “Terra Verde.” Again, the route is not clear — he encountered ice, then sailed south. Scholars have posited this to have been somewhere “in the Newfoundland area,” though not necessarily on the island. [B.G. Hoffman (1961)]. Local historians [such as W.G. Gosling (1910), and Hatton and Harvey (1883), have hypothesized that Gaspar named Conception Bay and Portugal Cove, explored Trinity Bay, the northeast coast of the island and the Strait of Belle Isle, and started the first fishery in Conception Bay.

Only two of the ships returned to Portugal, bringing 57 to 60 [or 7, depending on the source consulted] captured Beothuk (possibly including women and children), who were sold as slaves to defray the cost of the voyage. Whatever their numbers, they all apparently died soon after.

The third ship, with Gaspar and crew, was never heard from again.

In 1502, Miguel Corte-Real attempted to find his brother, but his expedition was also never heard from again.

In 1503, Vasco Añes Corte-Real, a third brother, was refused permission by the king to continue the search. Portugal, which had been in the race to explore routes to Asia for more than a century, showed greater interest in exploring the coastal areas south of our ‘Atlantic Canada’ region.

“CantinoPlanisphere,” from the Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy, dated 1502, with note, “The most important manuscript map surviving from the early Age of Discovery, the Cantino World Map is named for Alberto Cantino, an Italian diplomatic agent in Lisbon who obtained it in 1502 for the Duke of Ferrara. It incorporates extensive new geographical information based on four series of voyages: Columbus to the Caribbean, Pedro Álvarez Cabral to Brazil, Vasco de Gama followed by Cabral to eastern Africa and India, and the brothers Corte-Real to Greenland and Newfoundland. Except for Columbus, all had sailed under the Portuguese flag.” Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Corte-Reals did not leave descriptions of their voyages, but survivors of their expeditions produced a map, the ‘Cantino Chart’ [above], and the coast of Labrador bears the name “Terra Cortereale” on many old maps.

Detail of Cantinio Chart showing vicinity of Newfoundland.





d) Anonymous sailors of Basque, Norman and Breton fishers [the French competition]

Apparently …

Historic Basque Territory. Derived from source: Wikimedia Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0. \

… Basque (the Basque territory straddles France and Spain) …

Normandy c. 1140. Derived from source: Wikimedia Commons.

…. Norman (from Normandy, France) …

Historic Brittany. Derived from source: Wikimedia Commons.

… and Breton (from Brittany/Bretagne, province of France), fishers frequented the north shore at the western entrance to the Strait of Belle Island (maybe Labrador, Newfoundland, or within what are now the Quebec boundary lines), at a harbour known as Brest — perhaps even prior to 1500. The Jesuits believed that ‘New France’ was discovered by French Bretons in 1504 at Baie de Vieux Fort (Old Fort Bay).

graphic derived from Theodore de Bry, detail of engraving of 16th century French ships arriving in America, published 1591.






e) Bristol Voyages

Bristol = town on west side of England (up Bristol Channel). It stood second in importance only to London as a British port. A group of wealthy merchants there carried on trade with Iceland and the northern ports of Europe. The town was the chief centre for an important trade in codfish. The merchants of Bristol were always seeking the further extension of their trade. [Christopher Columbus is said to have made a voyage for the Bristol merchants to Iceland in 1477 — there were also connections with Cabot and Fernandes]

In 1501 Richard Warde, Thomas Ashehurst, and John Thomas received patents [from Henry VII] to explore the western seas. Associated with them were three Portuguese pilots: John Gonzales, and two men called Fernadez, all of whom were of the Azores. Results of the expedition are unknown, but apparently the king paid out £5 ‘to the men of Bristol that found the isle.’


In 1502, Frances Fernadez and John Gonzales set out of Bristol and returned to England with three Beothuk to present to the king.

In 1503 the Bristol Company — which included Thomas Ashehurst, Hugh Eliot, William Clerk, and William Thorne — tried to form a colony on Newfoundland. It is not known if they were successful. Some records suggest some from among the company may have wintered in Newfoundland that year.


A to ‘Question of the Week: Who was likely to meet Whom?’

Sailors from Europe were likely to encounter North American native users of the ocean’s resources — people who also had boats.

As to the significance of the year 1500? It’s an arbitrary date in that there seem to have been a number of fishers sailing in waters off North America before 1500. [The British histories from which Canadian histories were first derived favoured Cabot — as representative of the ‘we got here first’ kind of argument.] But it is safe to say that by 1500 natives and newcomers had met in the Atlantic region of North-Eastern North America.

If we ‘decentre’ or reverse the perspective, 1500 was a turning point of sorts: It was the last year in which North Americans from the Atlantic region we are studying had not — according to existing records — made landfall (as seafaring prisoners) in Europe. Or, it seems, died there ‘shortly after their arrival.’

And, similarly, several boat-loads of people native to Europe had equally bad luck after making the Atlantic crossing — including Cabot perhaps.

It was after 1500, that the ‘not-always-smooth-sailing’ history of cultural, social, and economic interaction between Europeans and North Americans began in earnest — insofar as records became more abundant.

Next Lecture: Cod, Salt, and Territory

Reading: Conrad & Hiller, pp 41-47.

Pope, Peter E. “The 16th-Century Fishing Voyage.” In How Deep is the Ocean? Historical Essays on Canada’s Atlantic Fishery. Ed. James E. Candow, and Carol Corbin. 15-30. Sydney, NS.: University College of Cape Breton Press, 1997.

Turgeon, Laurier. “French Fishers, Fur Traders, and Amerindians,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 3d Series, Vol. 55, No. 4 (October, 1998): 585-610.


One Response to Jan. 18: Backstory part III

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