Did Cabot Sail With Columbus?

An intriguing, speculative new work of popular history

With the current paucity of heroic Italian sea captain stories, Douglas Hunter’s The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot and a Lost History of Discovery comes not a moment too soon. It intertwines the expeditions of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto), each of whom reached the New World, within five years of each other. Columbus and Cabot sailed bearing the standards of different countries, Spain and England, by very different routes, thousands of kilometres apart; but Hunter weaves intriguing—if sometimes strained—links between them.

More of the book is about Christopher Columbus, but it is the parts about Cabot that are more tantalizing, and pertinent to us. After all, Cabot is reputed to be the first European since the Vikings to reach the shores of modern-day Canada (Newfoundland). It was certainly pertinent to the documentary unit I was part of in 1997 when we were filming the CBC television series Canada:
A People’s History.
We almost drowned because of Cabot. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Cabot had a checkered history as an adventurer, huckster, deadbeat, a sometime trader, engineer and self-described mariner who somehow persuaded King Henry VII of England to sponsor an expedition to reach Asia. The idea was to prevent Spain from monopolizing the East’s riches in the wake of Columbus’s voyage. Cabot’s plan was to take a radically different route and outflank Columbus, who had taken the temperate mid-Atlantic route in 1492 and reached a series of islands we know today as the West Indies. Columbus still had not reached the Asian mainland (in fact, he had not even arrived at the North American mainland, it turned out, which neither Columbus nor Cabot knew even existed as an obstacle to Asia). The real prize had not been grasped. Cabot proposed to take the riskier, colder and stormier North Atlantic route, due west of the British Isles.

After bad weather foiled his first attempt, Cabot embarked on his historic Second Voyage in 1497, in a small ship named the Matthew and a crew of about 18 men. He reached land on June 24, but the precise location has remained a matter of dispute among historians, provincial tourism departments, and local bed-and-breakfasts ever since. Was it Cape Breton in Nova Scotia? Was it Maine? Labrador? Finally, the British and Canadian governments agreed it was Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland. Five hundred years later, in 1997, Queen Elizabeth stood there to greet the arrival of the faithfully constructed replica of the Matthew and the gallant crew of young mariners who braved the North Atlantic to mark the anniversary of Cabot’s historic voyage.

Equally mindful of this historic moment, our documentary unit had chartered a special boat in Corner Brook, and planned to film the Matthew a few days after she left Bonavista to sail up the Straits of Belle Isle to Red Bay, Labrador. There she was to pick up some dignitaries and Cabinet ministers, and then sail to St. Anthony, on the northern tip of Newfoundland, where 5,000 people were waiting for her.

Eventually she came into our view, towed by a Coast Guard patrol boat so she could move faster. To make everything authentic, the patrol boat dropped the towline and went out of sight, the crew dressed up in period garb, and we spent two hours filming the Matthew under full sail. When we finished, the Coast Guard reattached the towline to the Matthew and headed for Red Bay, several hours away.

That night, our hull got breached by a floating log, and we suddenly started sinking; we sent out a mayday, as the sea filled the inside of the cabin. We were rescued, eventually, by members of a local community that heard our distress call. But the patrol boat towing the Matthew, by now a couple of hours north of us, also heard our mayday. To respond to our distress call she had to drop the towline, leave the Matthew bobbing by itself in the Straits of Belle Isle in the middle of the night, and head to our position. When that proved no longer necessary, she sailed back to the Matthew and resumed towing her, but hours had been lost. That is why the Matthew never made it to Red Bay, never participated in the ceremonies there, never picked up the Cabinet ministers, and had to go directly to St. Anthony to keep her schedule and not disappoint thousands lined up at the harbour. We kept a low profile for the rest of our filming in Newfoundland.

Having said that, this replica of the Matthew spent more time in contact with the local population than the original Matthew. Cabot had been very reluctant to meet any of the island’s inhabitants, and never went further from shore than the shooting distance of a crossbow. First contact was no contact.

This famous Second Voyage made history back in Europe, as had Columbus’s voyages, and another, much larger Cabot expedition set out a year later, in 1498.

Every Canadian textbook will tell you that Cabot and his five ships perished on their third and final voyage to Newfoundland and North America; neither he nor any member of his expedition was ever seen again. But in the past few years, a historical mystery worthy of P.D. James has been unfolding in Britain. It involves a historian who was researching Cabot, but died before publishing her findings, and stipulated, tragically, that all her notes should be burned. Those notes are believed to have contained the “true story” of Cabot’s last voyage.

For Douglas Hunter, the mystery of John Cabot’s journeys starts long before that. Why did Henry VII even accept Cabot’s scheme to cross the Atlantic? Cabot had no apparent maritime experience, had welched on his debts in Venice years before and had recently abandoned a project to construct a bridge in Seville, stiffing the city’s burghers. Hunter’s proposed answer is that John Cabot had actually been to the New World, on Columbus’s second expedition in 1493. This explains Cabot’s apparent disappearance from the historical record for 14 months, according to Hunter. He argues that Columbus took 1,200 people with him on this second expedition, and an adventurer like Cabot, with engineering credentials, could have been among them. There is no documentary evidence for this speculation, but it would partly explain why Henry VII thought Cabot was an experienced mariner.

For Hunter, another tenuous clue that Cabot was with Columbus may lie in Cabot’s reluctance to go inland once he reached Newfoundland, making no real effort to contact the native population. He speculates that this timidity may reach back to being with Columbus’s voyage. Columbus came across two aboriginal cultures when he sailed into the West Indies, the Caribs and the Arawaks. The Arawaks told horrific stories about the Caribs, how they were cannibals and how they castrated captured children and raised them as foodstock. At the end of his first voyage, Columbus decided to leave a party of 39 men behind on the island of Espanola, which had an Arawak population. He constructed a compound with palisades and named it La Navidad. When he returned on his next voyage, La Navidad had been eradicated, all inhabitants gone. Within a couple of weeks they found about a dozen bodies, disfigured by decay, clearly dead for weeks if not months, all of them missing their eyes. “We thought the islanders had eaten them,” a friend of Columbus recounted, “for as soon as they have killed anyone, they immediately gouge out his eyes and eat them.” Hunter reaches back to these tales to speculate why Cabot might have been skittish about exploring Newfoundland: “Was he filled with fear by second-hand tales from the second Columbus voyage of the massacre at La Navidad and fierce cannibals … ? Or was it first-hand experience on that voyage—dead Spaniards with their eyes gouged out … ?” Had these horrors “instilled such profound apprehension in Cabot when his ship came upon a foreign shore and its emerald-green woods stood before him in shadowed mystery?” Maybe … if Cabot had really been with Columbus. You can see how speculative Hunter gets. Even then, one wonders why you had set out to explore new lands if you do not want to meet anyone.

The most tantalizing proposition—that Cabot did not perish on his subsequent voyage to North America—would, if true, rewrite the early history of New World exploration.

All this rests on the slender shoulders of the respected British scholar Alwyn Ruddock, who claimed to have found evidence that Cabot’s expedition returned after two years of exploring a vast part of the coast of North America, as far south as the Caribbean. Furthermore, Ruddock believed that they had established a religious colony in Newfoundland, presided over by the friar Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis. This would have been the first Christian settlement, and probably the first church in North America, near the modern-day Newfoundland community of Carbonear. This is revolutionary stuff and when the theory became known years ago, it understandably excited citizens of Carbonear and mobilized archaeologists in Newfoundland, not to mention historians throughout the field of New World studies. In fact, some historians held off their own writings about Cabot because Ruddock’s imminent revelations would have rendered their work pointless.

The anticipation was considerable, but the story has an abrupt end. Alwyn Ruddock died in 2005, at the age of 89, without publishing her evidence. Furthermore, she stipulated in her will that her executor was “to burn shred or otherwise destroy all my letters and photographs both personal and professional microfilms unfinished writings and other research and notes in my possession.” All her work was shredded into 78 bags and discarded.

Why did she do it? What had she discovered? Hunter, asking these questions, gets hot on the trail. He writes that a colleague of hers at the University of London said she had produced “a draft of a book about Cabot, but destroyed it because it did not meet her exacting standards. She began work on the book again, but her progress was slowed by failing eyesight and declining health.” As for what she had discovered we only have fragments and allusions. She is quoted as saying: “The documents I’ve got on Cabot do alter our picture of everything rather radically”—but that was in 1967, a long time ago. Her sketchy book outline for Exeter Press survives. Its working title was Columbus, Cabot and the English Discovery of America, but it cites no sources. However, Hunter reports that her assertions include the scope of the role of Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis and the religious settlement, and that Cabot sailed far to the south before returning to England. Hunter quotes her outline for Chapter XIII: “The arrival in the Caribbean. Columbus in Hispaniola and Hojeda and Vespucci exploring the South American coast. Evidence from Spanish archives and narratives. The encounter with Cabot’s ship at Coquibaçoa and the homeward voyage. Repercussions in Spain.”

Evan Jones, the historian who heads the Cabot project, has made it his work to reconstruct Ruddock’s research trail. The documents she ordered destroyed were her copies and microfilms, the originals would still be in archives somewhere. Still, many could be in obscure private collections or banking and shipping records. Jones told Hunter: “I think we’re now well past the stage of wondering whether Ruddock simply made her claims up … We’ve corroborated too many of her finds now to doubt her on that score. On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that everything she said was correct.” So we wait—for the discovery of Alwyn Ruddock’s trail of documents and, possibly, the answer to who really “discovered” America.

Hunter’s book is not always an easy read. It is structured like a narrative where the author stops every few pages to fill in a New York Times cryptic crossword or assemble a complex jigsaw. Often, the fragments are difficult to understand and even more difficult to place. Sometimes he seems to bend and pound a loose piece until it precariously fits. This forensic approach leads frequently to dense thickets of facts, and it is easy to lose one’s way among the parentheses and subordinate clauses. For example: “In order to mend fences with Portugal, Spain’s Fernando and Isabel had arranged the 1490 wedding of their eldest child, Isabel, to Eleanor and João II’s only child, Crown Prince Alfonso. In 1491, Alfonso (then sixteen, five years younger than his bride) was killed in a horse-riding accident, plunging the Portuguese succession into disarray. João II had an illegitimate son, Jorge de Lencastre, whom he was determined to advance as his heir, but Eleanor for one would not stand for it. While visiting Eleanor, Columbus met with her younger brother, Manoel, not yet twenty-four, who had replaced their murdered older brother Diego as Duke of Viseu. It was Manoel who would come to rule Portugal on the death of João II in October 1495.” It makes sense after the third reading.

Cabot left no first-hand narrative accounts of his expeditions, or at least none have ever been found. The material on Columbus, however, would fill libraries. Some of that material belongs on the same shelf as the Kennedy assassination and 9/11 theories. His true identity has been questioned, his writings pored over for secret codes and his discoveries questioned. It does not help that he was, apparently, extravagantly mendacious. But Hunter’s scrutiny of Columbus’s record, while sometimes hard to follow, at least inspires some confidence that an analytical eye is at work. While the flaw in his book lies in the avalanche of detail, the value of his contribution is also in the detail. He is a journalist and historian who has written excellent books and articles on subjects as diverse as the Edmonton Oilers, Nortel and Henry Hudson. He is currently working on his doctorate at York University. If that does not spoil his writing, Hunter is on track to become a major player in popular Canadian history.