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Ch. 5 - The Bristol Voyages

The discoveries of the Norsemen did not lead to the
opening of America to the nations of Europe. For this
the time was not yet ripe. As yet European nations were
backward, not only in navigation, but in the industries
and commerce which supply the real motive for occupying
new lands. In the days of Eric the Red Europe was only
beginning to emerge from a dark period. The might and
splendour of the Roman Empire had vanished, and the great
kingdoms which we know were still to rise.

All this changed in the five hundred years between the
foundation of the Greenland colony and the voyage of
Christopher Columbus. The discovery of America took place
as a direct result of the advancing civilization and
growing power of Europe. The event itself was, in a sense,
due to pure accident. Columbus was seeking Asia when he
found himself among the tropical islands of the West
Indies. In another sense, however, the discovery marks
in world history a necessary stage, for which the preceding
centuries had already made the preparation. The story of
the voyages of Columbus forms no part of our present
narrative. But we cannot understand the background that
lies behind the history of Canada without knowing why
such men as Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama and
the Cabots began the work of discovery.

First, we have to realize the peculiar relations between
Europe, ancient and mediaeval, and the great empires of
Eastern Asia. The two civilizations had never been in
direct contact. Yet in a sense they were always connected.
The Greeks and the Romans had at least vague reports of
peoples who lived on the far eastern confines of the
world, beyond even the conquests of Alexander the Great
in Hindustan. It is certain, too, that Europe and Asia
had always traded with one another in a strange and
unconscious fashion. The spices and silks of the unknown
East passed westward from trader to trader, from caravan
to caravan, until they reached the Persian Gulf, the Red
Sea, and, at last, the Mediterranean. The journey was so
slow, so tedious, the goods passed from hand to hand so
often, that when the Phoenician, Greek, or Roman merchants
bought them their origin had been forgotten. For century
after century this trade continued. When Rome fell, other
peoples of the Mediterranean continued the Eastern trade.
Genoa and Venice rose to greatness by this trade. As
wealth and culture revived after the Gothic conquest
which overthrew Rome, the beautiful silks and the rare
spices of the East were more and more prized in a world
of increasing luxury. The Crusades rediscovered Egypt,
Syria, and the East for Europe. Gold and jewels,
diamond-hilted swords of Damascus steel, carved ivory,
and priceless gems,--all the treasures which the warriors
of the Cross brought home, helped to impress on the mind
of Europe the surpassing riches of the East.

Gradually a new interest was added. As time went on doubts
increased regarding the true shape of the earth. Early
peoples had thought it a great flat expanse, with the
blue sky propped over it like a dome or cover. This
conception was giving way. The wise men who watched the
sky at night, who saw the sweeping circles of the fixed
stars and the wandering path of the strange luminous
bodies called planets, began to suspect a mighty
secret,--that the observing eye saw only half the heavens,
and that the course of the stars and the earth itself
rounded out was below the darkness of the horizon. From
this theory that the earth was a great sphere floating
in space followed the most enthralling conclusions. If
the earth was really a globe, it might be possible to go
round it and to reappear on the farther side of the
horizon. Then the East might be reached, not only across
the deserts of Persia and Tartary, but also by striking
out into the boundless ocean that lay beyond the Pillars
of Hercules. For such an attempt an almost superhuman
courage was required. No man might say what awful seas,
what engulfing gloom, might lie across the familiar waters
which washed the shores of Europe. The most fearless who,
at evening, upon the cliffs of Spain or Portugal, watched
black night settle upon the far-spreading waters of the
Atlantic, might well turn shuddering from any attempt to
sail into those unknown wastes.

It was the stern logic of events which compelled the
enterprise. Barbarous Turks swept westward. Arabia, Syria,
the Isles of Greece, and, at last, in 1453, Constantinople
itself, fell into their hands. The Eastern Empire, the
last survival of the Empire of the Romans, perished
beneath the sword of Mahomet. Then the pathway by land
to Asia, to the fabled empires of Cathay and Cipango,
was blocked by the Turkish conquest. Commerce, however,
remained alert and enterprising, and men's minds soon
turned to the hopes of a western passage which should
provide a new route to the Indies.

All the world knows the story of Christopher Columbus,
his long years of hardship and discouragement; the supreme
conviction which sustained him in his adversity; the
final triumph which crowned his efforts. It is no detraction
from the glory of Columbus to say that he was only one
of many eager spirits occupied with new problems of
discovery across the sea. Not the least of these were
John and Sebastian Cabot, father and son. John Cabot,
like Columbus, was a Genoese by birth; a long residence
in Venice, however, earned for him in 1476 the citizenship
of that republic. Like many in his time, he seems to have
been both a scientific geographer and a practical
sea-captain. At one time he made charts and maps for his
livelihood. Seized with the fever for discovery, he is
said to have begged in vain from the sovereigns of Spain
and Portugal for help in a voyage to the West. About the
time of the great discovery of Columbus in 1492, John
Cabot arrived in Bristol. It may be that he took part in
some of the voyages of the Bristol merchants, before the
achievements of Columbus began to startle the world.

At the close of the fifteenth century the town of Bristol
enjoyed a pre-eminence which it has since lost. It stood
second only to London as a British port. A group of
wealthy merchants carried on from Bristol a lively trade
with Iceland and the northern ports of Europe. The town
was the chief centre for an important trade in codfish.
Days of fasting were generally observed at that time; on
these the eating of meat was forbidden by the church,
and fish was consequently in great demand. The merchants
of Bristol were keen traders, and were always seeking
the further extension of their trade. Christopher Columbus
himself is said to have made a voyage for the Bristol
merchants to Iceland in 1477. There is even a tale that,
before Columbus was known to fame, an expedition was
equipped there in 1480 to seek the 'fabulous islands' of
the Western Sea. Certain it is that the Spanish ambassador
in England, whose business it was to keep his royal master
informed of all that was being done by his rivals, wrote
home in 1498: 'It is seven years since those of Bristol
used to send out, every year, a fleet of two, three, or
four caravels to go and search for the Isle of Brazil
and the Seven Cities, according to the fancy of the

We can therefore realize that when Master John Cabot came
among the merchants of this busy town with his plans he
found a ready hearing. Cabot was soon brought to the
notice of his august majesty Henry VII of England. The
king had been shortsighted enough to reject overtures
made to him by Bartholomew Columbus, brother of Christopher,
and no doubt he regretted his mistake. Now he was eager
enough to act as the patron of a new voyage. Accordingly,
on March 5, 1496, he granted a royal licence in the form
of what was called Letters Patent, authorizing John Cabot
and his sons Lewis, Sebastian and Sancius to make a voyage
of discovery in the name of the king of England. The
Cabots were to sail 'with five ships or vessels of whatever
burden or quality soever they be, and with as many marines
or men as they will have with them in the said ships upon
their own proper costs and charges.' It will be seen that
Henry VII, the most parsimonious of kings, had no mind
to pay the expense of the voyage. The expedition was 'to
seek out, discover and find whatsoever islands, countries,
regions and provinces of the heathens or infidels, in
whatever part of the world they be, which before this
time have been unknown to all Christians.' It was to sail
only 'to the seas of the east and west and north,' for
the king did not wish to lay any claim to the lands
discovered by the Spaniards and Portuguese. The discoverers,
however, were to raise the English flag over any new
lands that they found, to conquer and possess them, and
to acquire 'for us dominion, title, and jurisdiction over
those towns, castles, islands, and mainlands so discovered.'
One-fifth of the profits from the anticipated voyages to
the new land was to fall to the king, but the Cabots were
to have a monopoly of trade, and Bristol was to enjoy
the right of being the sole port of entry for the ships
engaged in this trade.

Not until the next year, 1497, did John Cabot set out.
Then he embarked from Bristol with a single ship, called
in an old history the Matthew, and a crew of eighteen
men. First, he sailed round the south of Ireland, and
from there struck out westward into the unknown sea. The
appliances of navigation were then very imperfect. Sailors
could reckon the latitude by looking up at the North
Star, and noting how high it was above the horizon. Since
the North Star stands in the sky due north, and the axis
on which the earth spins points always towards it, it
will appear to an observer in the northern hemisphere to
be as many degrees above the horizon as he himself is
distant from the pole or top of the earth. The old
navigators, therefore, could always tell how far north
or south they were. Moreover, as long as the weather was
clear they could, by this means, strike, at night at
least, a course due east or west. But when the weather
was not favourable for observations they had to rely on
the compass alone. Now the compass in actual fact does
not always and everywhere point due north. It is subject
to variation, and in different times and places points
either considerably east of north or west of it. In the
path where Cabot sailed, the compass pointed west of
north; and hence, though he thought he was sailing straight
west from Ireland, he was really pursuing a curved path
bent round a little towards the south. This fact will
become of importance when we consider where it was that
Cabot landed. For finding distance east and west the
navigators of the fifteenth century had no such appliances
as our modern chronometer and instruments of observation.
They could tell how far they had sailed only by 'dead
reckoning'; this means that if their ship was going at
such and such a speed, it was supposed to have made such
and such a distance in a given time. But when ships were
being driven to and fro, and buffeted by adverse winds,
this reckoning became extremely uncertain.

John Cabot and his men mere tossed about considerably in
their little ship. Though they seem to have set out early
in May of 1497, it was not until June 24 that they sighted
land. What the land was like, and what they thought of
it, we know from letters written in England by various
persons after their return. Thus we learn that it was a
'very good and temperate country,' and that 'Brazil wood
and silks grow there.' 'The sea,' they reported, 'is
covered with fishes, which are caught not only with the
net, but with baskets, a stone being tied to them in
order that the baskets may sink in the water.' Henceforth,
it was said, England would have no more need to buy fish
from Iceland, for the waters of the new land abounded in
fish. Cabot and his men saw no savages, but they found
proof that the land was inhabited. Here and there in the
forest they saw trees which had been felled, and also
snares of a rude kind set to catch game. They were
enthusiastic over their success. They reported that the
new land must certainly be connected with Cipango, from
which all the spices and precious stones of the world
originated. Only a scanty stock of provisions, they
declared, prevented them from sailing along the coast as
far as Cathay and Cipango. As it was they planted on the
land a great cross with the flag of England and also the
banner of St Mark, the patron saint of Cabot's city of

The older histories used always to speak as if John Cabot
had landed somewhere on the coast of Labrador, and had
at best gone no farther south than Newfoundland. Even if
this were the whole truth about the voyage, to Cabot and
his men would belong the signal honour of having been
the first Europeans, since the Norsemen, to set foot on
the mainland of North America. Without doubt they were
the first to unfurl the flag of England, and to erect
the cross upon soil which afterwards became part of
British North America. But this is not all. It is likely
that Cabot reached a point far south of Labrador. His
supposed sailing westward carried him in reality south
of the latitude of Ireland. He makes no mention of the
icebergs which any voyager must meet on the Labrador
coast from June to August. His account of a temperate
climate suitable for growing dye-wood, of forest trees,
and of a country so fair that it seemed the gateway of
the enchanted lands of the East, is quite unsuited to
the bare and forbidding aspect of Labrador. Cape Breton
island was probably the place of Cabot's landing. Its
balmy summer climate, the abundant fish of its waters,
fit in with Cabot's experiences. The evidence from maps,
one of which was made by Cabot's son Sebastian, points
also to Cape Breton as the first landing-place of English
sailors in America.

There is no doubt of the stir made by Cabot's discovery
on his safe return to England. He was in London by August
of 1497, and he became at once the object of eager
curiosity and interest. 'He is styled the Great Admiral,'
wrote a Venetian resident in London, 'and vast honour is
paid to him. He dresses in silk, and the English run
after him like mad people.' The sunlight of royal favour
broke over him in a flood: even Henry VII proved generous.
The royal accounts show that, on August 10, 1497, the
king gave ten pounds 'to him that found the new isle.'
A few months later the king granted to his 'well-beloved
John Cabot, of the parts of Venice, an annuity of twenty
pounds sterling,' to be paid out of the customs of the
port of Bristol. The king, too, was lavish in his promises
of help for a new expedition. Henry's imagination had
evidently been fired with the idea of an Oriental empire.
A contemporary writer tells us that Cabot was to have
ten armed ships. At Cabot's request, the king conceded
to him all the prisoners needed to man this fleet, saving
only persons condemned for high treason. It is one of
the ironies of history that on the first pages of its
annals the beautiful new world is offered to the criminals
of Europe.

During the winter that followed, John Cabot was the hero
of the hour. Busy preparations went on for a new voyage.
Letters patent were issued giving Cabot power to take
any six ships that he liked from the ports of the kingdom,
paying to their owners the same price only as if taken
for the king's service. The 'Grand Admiral' became a
person of high importance. On one friend he conferred
the sovereignty of an island; to others he made lavish
promises; certain poor friars who offered to embark on
his coming voyage were to be bishops over the heathen of
the new land. Even the merchants of London ventured to
send out goods for trade, and brought to Cabot 'coarse
cloth, caps, laces, points, and other trifles.'

The second expedition sailed from the port of Bristol in
May of 1498. John Cabot and his son Sebastian were in
command; of the younger brothers we hear no more. But
the high hopes of the voyagers were doomed to
disappointment. On arriving at the coast of America
Cabot's ships seem first to have turned towards the north.
The fatal idea, that the empires of Asia might be reached
through the northern seas already asserted its sway. The
search for a north-west passage, that will-o'-the-wisp
of three centuries, had already begun. Many years later
Sebastian Cabot related to a friend at Seville some
details regarding this unfortunate attempt of his father
to reach the spice islands of the East. The fleet, he
said, with its three hundred men, first directed its
course so far to the north that, even in the month of
July, monstrous heaps of ice were found floating on the
sea. 'There was,' so Sebastian told his friend, 'in a
manner, continual daylight.' The forbidding aspect of
the coast, the bitter cold of the northern seas, and the
boundless extent of the silent drifting ice, chilled the
hopes of the explorers. They turned towards the south.
Day after day, week after week, they skirted the coast
of North America. If we may believe Sebastian's friend,
they reached a point as far south as Gibraltar in Europe.
No more was there ice. The cold of Labrador changed to
soft breezes from the sanded coast of Carolina and from
the mild waters of the Gulf Stream. But of the fabled
empires of Cathay and Cipango, and the 'towns and castles'
over which the Great Admiral was to have dominion, they
saw no trace. Reluctantly the expedition turned again
towards Europe, and with its turning ends our knowledge
of what happened on the voyage.

That the ships came home either as a fleet, or at least
in part, we have certain proof. We know that John Cabot
returned to Bristol, for the ancient accounts of the port
show that he lived to draw at least one or two instalments
of his pension. But the sunlight of royal favour no longer
illumined his path. In the annals of English history the
name of John Cabot is never found again.

The son Sebastian survived to continue a life of maritime
adventure, to be counted one of the great sea-captains
of the day, and to enjoy an honourable old age. In the
year 1512 we hear of him in the service of Ferdinand of
Spain. He seems to have won great renown as a maker of
maps and charts. He still cherished the idea of reaching
Asia by way of the northern seas of America. A north-west
expedition with Sebastian in command had been decided
upon, it is said, by Ferdinand, when the death of that
illustrious sovereign prevented the realization of the
project. After Ferdinand's death, Cabot fell out with
the grandees of the Spanish court, left Madrid, and
returned for some time to England. Some have it that he
made a new voyage in the service of Henry VIII, and sailed
through Hudson Strait, but this is probably only a confused
reminiscence, handed down by hearsay, of the earlier
voyages. Cabot served Spain again under Charles V, and
made a voyage to Brazil and the La Plata river. He
reappears later in England, and was made Inspector of
the King's Ships by Edward VI. He was a leading spirit
of the Merchant Adventurers who, in Edward's reign, first
opened up trade by sea with Russia.

The voyages of the Bristol traders and the enterprise of
England by no means ended with the exploits of the Cabots.
Though our ordinary history books tell us nothing more
of English voyages until we come to the days of the great
Elizabethan navigators, Drake, Frobisher, Hawkins, and
to the planting of Virginia, as a matter of fact many
voyages were made under Henry VII and Henry VIII. Both
sovereigns seem to have been anxious to continue the
exploration of the western seas, but they had not the
good fortune again to secure such master-pilots as John
and Sebastian Cabot.

In the first place, it seems that the fishermen of England,
as well as those of the Breton coast, followed close in
the track of the Cabots. As soon as the Atlantic passage
to Newfoundland had been robbed of the terrors of the
unknown, it was not regarded as difficult. With strong
east winds a ship of the sixteenth century could make
the run from Bristol or St Malo to the Grand Banks in
less than twenty days. Once a ship was on the Banks, the
fish were found in an abundance utterly unknown in European
waters, and the ships usually returned home with great
cargoes. During the early years of the sixteenth century
English, French, and Portuguese fishermen went from Europe
to the Banks in great numbers. They landed at various
points in Newfoundland and Cape Breton, and became well
acquainted with the outline of the coast. It was no
surprise to Jacques Cartier, for instance, on his first
voyage, to find a French fishing vessel lying off the
north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence. But these fishing
crews thought nothing of exploration. The harvest of the
sea was their sole care, and beyond landing to cure fish
and to obtain wood and water they did nothing to claim
or conquer the land.

There were, however, efforts from time to time to follow
up the discoveries of the Cabots. The merchants of Bristol
do not seem to have been disappointed with the result of
the Cabot enterprises, for as early as in 1501 they sent
out a new expedition across the Atlantic. The sanction
of the king was again invoked, and Henry VII granted
letters patent to three men of Bristol--Richard Warde,
Thomas Ashehurst, and John Thomas--to explore the western
seas. These names have a homely English sound; but
associated with them were three Portuguese--John Gonzales,
and two men called Fernandez, all of the Azores, and
probably of the class of master-pilots to which the Cabots
and Columbus belonged. We know nothing of the results of
the expedition, but it returned in safety in the same
year, and the parsimonious king was moved to pay out five
pounds from his treasury 'to the men of Bristol that
found the isle.'

Francis Fernandez and John Gonzales remained in the
English service and became subjects of King Henry. Again,
in the summer of 1502, they were sent out on another
voyage from Bristol. In September they brought their
ships safely back, and, in proof of the strangeness of
the new lands they carried home 'three men brought out
of an Iland forre beyond Irelond, the which were clothed
in Beestes Skynnes and ate raw fflesh and were rude in
their demeanure as Beestes.' From this description (written
in an old atlas of the time), it looks as if the Fernandez
expedition had turned north from the Great Banks and
visited the coast where the Eskimos were found, either
in Labrador or Greenland. This time Henry VII gave
Fernandez and Gonzales a pension of ten pounds each, and
made them 'captains' of the New Found Land. A sum of
twenty pounds was given to the merchants of Bristol who
had accompanied them. We must remember that at this time
the New Found Land was the general name used for all the
northern coast of America.

There is evidence that a further expedition went out from
Bristol in 1503, and still another in 1504. Fernandez
and Gonzales, with two English associates, were again
the leaders. They were to have a monopoly of trade for
forty years, but were cautioned not to interfere with
the territory of the king of Portugal. Of the fate of
these enterprises nothing is known.

By the time of Henry VIII, who began to reign in 1509,
the annual fishing fleet of the English which sailed to
the American coast had become important. As early as in
1522, a royal ship of war was sent to the mouth of the
English Channel to protect the 'coming home of the New
Found Island's fleet.' Henry VIII and his minister,
Cardinal Wolsey, were evidently anxious to go on with
the work of the previous reign, and especially to enlist
the wealthy merchants and trade companies of London in
the cause of western exploration. In 1521 the cardinal
proposed to the Livery Companies of London--the name
given to the trade organizations of the merchants--that
they should send out five ships on a voyage into the New
Found Land. When the merchants seemed disinclined to make
such a venture, the king 'spake sharply to the Mayor to
see it put in execution to the best of his power.' But,
even with this stimulus, several years passed before a
London expedition was sent out. At last, in 1527, two
little ships called the Samson and the Mary of Guildford
set out from London with instructions to find their way
to Cathay and the Indies by means of the passage to the
north. The two ships left London on May 10, put into
Plymouth, and finally sailed therefrom on June 10, 1527.
They followed Cabot's track, striking westward from the
coast of Ireland. For three weeks they kept together,
making good progress across the Atlantic. Then in a great
storm that arose the Samson was lost with all on board.

The Mary of Guildford pursued her way alone, and her crew
had adventures strange even for those days. Her course,
set well to the north, brought her into the drift ice
and the giant icebergs which are carried down the coast
of America at this season (for the month was July) from
the polar seas. In fear of the moving ice, she turned to
the south, the sailors watching eagerly for the land,
and sounding as they went. Four days brought them to the
coast of Labrador. They followed it southward for some
days. Presently they entered an inlet where they found
a good harbour, many small islands, and the mouth of a
great river of fresh water. The region was a wilderness,
its mountains and woods apparently untenanted by man.
Near the shore they saw the footmarks of divers great
beasts, but, though they explored the country for about
thirty miles, they saw neither men nor animals. At the
end of July, they set sail again, and passed down the
coast of Newfoundland to the harbour of St John's, already
a well-known rendezvous. Here they found fourteen ships
of the fishing fleet, mostly vessels from Normandy. From
Newfoundland the Mary of Guildford pursued her way
southward, and passed along the Atlantic coast of America.
If she had had any one on board capable of accurate
observation, even after the fashion of the time, or of
making maps, the record of her voyage would have added
much to the general knowledge of the continent.
Unfortunately, the Italian pilot who directed the voyage
was killed in a skirmish with Indians during a temporary
landing. Some have thought that this pilot who perished
on the Mary of Guildford may have been the great navigator
Verrazano, of whom we shall presently speak.

The little vessel sailed down the coast to the islands
of the West Indies. She reached Porto Rico in the middle
of November, and from that island she made sail for the
new Spanish settlements of San Domingo. Here, as she lay
at her anchorage, the Mary of Guildford was fired upon
by the Spanish fort which commanded the river mouth. At
once she put out into the open sea, and, heading eastward
across the Atlantic, she arrived safely at her port of

Stephen Leacock

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