Discovery and Early Exploration, ca. 1000 - 1550


Some Introductory Remarks

The broad outlines of the history of trans-Atlantic European voyages of exploration and discovery have been well known for decades. In terms of Newfoundland history, the principal figures for which sufficient evidence exists to give them historical validity include the medieval Norse, followed a few centuries later by John Cabot, the Corte-Real brothers, and Jacques Cartier. Unfortunately, the caution with which historians approach these earlier voyagers is thrown to the wind by many who would like to sensationalize the past by "proving" that Europeans frequently, if not regularly, crossed the Atlantic, not only long before Cabot but also long before the Norse. In The Brendan Voyage (London: Hutchinson, 1978), Tim Severin describes his attempt in a modern version of a curragh to show that Brendan, the medieval Irish monk and saint, could have sailed to North America centuries before the Norse. Alas, the book proves only that Severin does not lack for courage. Those who would like to believe in the voyages of St. Brendan, or the twelfth-century Prince Madoc, or any other fanciful forerunners of the demonstrable voyagers and discoverers, should first read either Stuart C. Brown, "Far Other Worlds and Other Seas: The Context of Claims for Pre-Columbian European Contact with North America," Newfoundland Studies IX: 2(Fall 1993): 235-259, Robert McGhee, "Northern Approaches; Before Columbus: Early European Visitors To the Shores of the `New World'," The Beaver LXXII: 3(June-July 1992): 6-23, or Alan F. Williams, "Sailor Saints, Northmen and Princes: European Lights on the Sea of Darkness," in Iona Bulgin (ed.), Cabot and His World Symposium June 1997: Papers and Presentations (St. John's: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999), 49-62. There are, of course, a considerable number of reliable studies of European voyages of discovery in the North Atlantic in general, and with chapters on Newfoundland in particular. One of the best general introductions remains The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971) by Samuel Eliot Morison. He combines the inquiring mind of the scholar with the nautical skills of the sailor to present convincing analyses of all of the major voyages of exploration which brought Europeans to Newfoundland.
Another recent contribution to the literature is Fish on Friday: Feasting, Fasting, and Discovery of the New World (New York: Basic Books, 2006) by Brian Fagan, an anthropologist who has worked his way through a vast number of secondary sources in order to identify the many factors that came together in the fifteenth century to make the so-called Age of Discovery possible – capital, knowledge, shipbuilding, consumer demands, and so forth.


The Norse

The first demonstrable example of European contact with North America -- at least, one for which conclusive evidence exists -- was that of the medieval Norse. Their trans-Atlantic experience was part of a larger expansion out of their Scandinavian homeland, a point that can be better understood by reading James H. Barrett, "Rounding Up the Usual Suspects: Causation and the Viking Age Diaspora," in Atholl Anderson, James Barrett, Katie Boyle (eds.), The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2010), pp. 289-302. For our purposes, this "Reader's Guide" will focus on the Norse experience in North America, yet right from the start, the student is challenged both by how massive the literature on that subject is, and how difficult it can be to separate the reliable from the fanciful. For example, Tryggvi Oleson's Early Voyages and Northern Approaches (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1963), was the first volume in the publisher's "Canadian Centenary Series" and should have been a strong entry to what became a very good series on Canadian history. Instead, and notwithstanding a wealth of detail and painstaking effort to validate its conclusions, Oleson pushed a very questionable thesis, that the Thule people were the product of an intermarriage between Norse and Dorset Eskimo Culture, a thesis that has never gained significant acceptance within the academic community. Oleson made the same argument in an otherwise excellent article on "The Northern Approaches to Canada," co-authored with W.L. Morton, DCB, I: 16-21 (incidentally, the DCB is now on-line). Yet even when students seek assistance from essays such as David Quinn's "Review Essay -- Norse America: Reports and Reassessments," Journal of American Studies XXII: 2 (1988): 269-273, the fact remains that new research is constantly being published, leaving essays like Quinn's quickly out-dated.

The year 2000 saw a number of events marking the millennium of the Norse arrival in North America, and with those events came a number of excellent publications. Two in particular stand out. To coincide with a Smithsonian Institution exhibition marking the Norse millennium, the museum published Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, edited by William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth I. Ward (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000). In Canada, the Viking Millennium International Symposium, which opened in St. John's and then shifted to L'Anse aux Meadows, resulted in Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium, edited by Shannon Lewis-Simpson (St. John's: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), a selection of nearly forty papers presented at the Symposium. Both volumes provide numerous readable and engaging, yet scholarly, essays; a number will be cited in the paragraphs that follow.

For those seeking a single overall source on the Norse experience in the medieval North Atlantic, The Norse Atlantic Saga: Being the Norse Voyages of Discovery and Settlement to Iceland, Greenland, and North America (rev. ed.; New York: Oxford University Press, 1986) by Gwyn Jones is recommended, but readers should consider reading Jones in conjunction with English translations of the Norse sagas. The standard work here is The Vinland Sagas: The Norse Discovery of America (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), translated and introduced by Magnus Magnusson and Hermann Pálsson, but readers might first wish to consult Eva Rode, "The Vinland sagas and their manuscripts," in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 22-29. More recently, there is a set of articles on Norse sagas and the Vinland adventure in William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth I. Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), a fine collection of authoritative essays by well-known specialists, fully half of which concern themselves with the Norse expansion across the North Atlantic. On the sagas, for instance, see: Haraldur Ólafsson, "Sagas of Western Expansion," pp. 143-145; Gísli Sígurðsson, "An Introduction to the Vinland Sagas," p. 218, including both the "Greenlanders’ Saga," pp. 219-221 and "Erik the Red’s Saga," pp. 222-223; Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, "An Archaeologist’s Interpretation of the Vinland Sagas," pp. 225-231; and Gísli Sigurðsson, "The Quest for Vinland in Saga Scholarship," pp. 232-237.

Most scholars are sensibly cautious in trying to identify where exactly Vinland was; the discovery of the Norse habitation site at L’Anse aux Meadows in the 1960s provided powerful archaeological support for a location at the top of Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, but specialists today are unwilling to describe that location as more than a temporary or seasonal habitation site. A location in the Gulf of St. Lawrence seems more probable, and the most likely answer is that Vinland was more a region, one that included but also extended well beyond L’Anse aux Meadows. This conclusion is presented very compellingly in an article by Birgitta Linderoth Wallace, “The Norse in Newfoundland: L’Anse aux Meadows and Vinland,” Newfoundland Studies XIX: 1 (Spring 2003; Special Issue on “The New Early Modern Newfoundland: to 1730"): 5-43 and, more recently, in Westward Vikings: The Saga of L'Anse Aux Meadows (St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2006). Yet arguments continue to be made for a broad range of alternatives, some near, some far. Thus, Niels Vinding puts together a nice synthesis of the available information about the Norse voyages and concludes that Leif Eriksson landed in Trinity Bay, though he accepts a more conventional location at L'Anse aux Meadows for Thorfinn Karlsefni's voyage a few years later; see Niels Vinding; Birgitte Moyer-Vinding (trans.), Viking Discovery of America, 985-1008: The Greenland Norse and Their Voyages to Newfoundland (Lewiston, NY, Queenston, ON, Lampeter, UK: Edwin Mellen, 2005). In The Wineland Millennium: Saga and Evidence (Reykjavík: Mál og menning, 2000), Páll Bergþórsson argues for Quebec! In short, the archaeological and saga evidence remain ambiguous, and the mystery of identifying the precise location of Vinland therefore continues to attract debate. Students can easily engage in the debate, particularly since the two "Vinland" sagas have been reprinted in conveniently facing pages (along with a number of other sagas that do not concern Vinland) in The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection (New York: Viking, 2000), with a fine preface by Jane Smiley and a very thorough introduction by Robert Kellogg. This collection is one of several books published to capitalize on the millennium observations in the year 2000 of the Norse arrival in North America.

The results of archeological investigation are also now easily accessible to the student. The discovery and confirmation of the Norse habitation site at L’Anse aux Meadows is described in Helge Ingstad, Westward to Vinland; The Discovery of Pre-Columbian Norse House-Sites in North America (Toronto: Macmillan, 1969). A more scholarly approach to the same topic is provided in Anne Stine Ingstad, The Discovery of a Norse Settlement in America, Vol. I: Excavations at L'Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, 1961-1968 and Helge Ingstad, The Discovery of America, Vol. II: The Historical Background and the Evidence of the Norse Settlement Discovered in Newfoundland (Oslo: Norwegian University Press, 1985), but the recent publication of The Viking Discovery of America: The Excavation of a Norse Settlement in L'Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland by Helge Ingstad and Anne Stine Ingstad (St. John's: Breakwater Press, 2000) provides a more accessible treatment of the Ingstad’s discovery and work. A number of articles by Birgitta Wallace have provided excellent summaries of the nature of the Norse habitation at L’Anse aux Meadows and its relationship to the "Vinland" of the sagas; see in particular "L’Anse aux Meadows, the western outpost" in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 30-42; "The Norse in the North Atlantic" in Iona Bulgin (ed.), Cabot and His World Symposium June 1997: Papers and Presentations (St. John’s: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999), 29-47; and "The Viking Settlement at L’Anse aux Meadows," in Fitzhugh and Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 208-216. These papers should perhaps be read in conjunction with Plate 16 of the first volume of the Historical Atlas of Canada [hereafter HAC], "Norse Voyages and Settlement" by Alan Macpherson and Brigitta Wallace, which graphically displays an excellent overview of Norse expansion in the North Atlantic as well as the archaeology of L'Anse aux Meadows. Essays on Leif Ericsson, Bjarni Herjólfsson, and Thorfinn Karselfni all appear in the first volume of the DCB.

The inability of the Norse to cling to their toehold in North America seems, at first, a real puzzle. After all, the Norse had not only expanded across the Atlantic but had established a colony in Greenland that would last half a millennium, in what seemingly was a far more inhospitable environment than North America. Most scholars today agree that the friction and hostility that developed between the Norse in North America and the aboriginal inhabitants (known to us only by the Norse word skraelings) may have been the decisive factor. Precisely who these skraelings were may never be determined with certainty, as D. Odess, S. Loring, and W.W. Fitzhugh explain in "Skraeling: First Peoples of Helluland, Markland, and Vinland," in William Fitzhugh and Elizabeth I. Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2000), pp. 193-205. Some suggest they were Inuit. Others conclude that they were Indian; see Robert McGhee "Contact Between Native North Americans and the Medieval Norse: A Review of the Evidence," American Antiquity XLIX: 1 (January 1984): 4-26, McGhee’s more recent article, "The Skraelings of Vinland," in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 43-53, and Kevin McAleese, "Skraelingar Abroad – Skraelingar at Home?," in Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ed.), Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium (St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), 353-364. William Fitzhugh examines the factors behind, and the cultural impact of, Inuit contact with the Norse as well as with the Basque and sixteenth-century English explorers in “Early Contacts North of Newfoundland Before A.D. 1600: A Review,” in William W. Fitzhugh (ed.), Cultures in Contact: The Impact of European Contacts on Native American Cultural Institutions A.D. 1000-1800 (Washington & London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985), pp. 23-43. A more recent essay on the same theme appears in Chapter 5, “The Giving Tree,” of History in the Making: The Archaeology of the Eastern Subarctic (Lanham, NJ: AltaMira Press of Rowman & Littlefield, 2013) by Donald H. Holly Jr..

Yet any understanding of Norse failure to establish a more permanent foothold in North America requires not only an awareness of cultural conflict, but also an appreciation of the complexities of the Norse colony in Greenland – its society, economy, culture, and its environment – for it was from there that the Norse tried – and failed – to establish a foothold in North America. Towards this end, readers might begin with Jette Arneborg, "Greenland, the starting-point for the voyages to North America," in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 13-21. Next, one must recognize that the Norse settled in Greenland and Vinland at a time when the North Atlantic climate was relatively mild; climatic degradation may have contributed to the problems that the Norse subsequently experienced. See, for instance, Knud Frydendahl "The summer climate in the North Atlantic about the year 1000;" in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 90-94, as well as Marek E. Jasinski and Frederik Srreide, "The Norse Settlements in Greenland from a Maritime Perspective," in Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ed.), Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium (St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003),123-132. Climatic deterioration, together with social and economic developments within the Greenland colony as well as ecological degradation, may all have combined to impair the ability of the Greenland Norse to maintain contact with their discoveries in North America and, indeed, to their ability to survive in Greenland itself.

Thomas H. McGovern has been a leading exponent of this explanation, having first developed it in his doctoral dissertation, The Paleoeconomy of Norse Greenland: Adaptation and Extinction in a Tightly Bounded Ecosystem (PhD thesis, Columbia University, 1979), and reaffirmed it in subsequent publications, including: "The Economics of extinction in Norse Greenland," in T.M.L. Wigley, M.J. Ingram, and G. Farmer, Climate & History (Cambridge: CUP, 1981), pp. 404-33; "Northern Islands, Human Error, and Environmental Degradation: A View of Social and Ecological Change in the Medieval North Atlantic," Human Ecology XVI: 3 (1988): 225-270, which McGovern co-authored with Gerald Bigelow, Thomas Amorosi, and David Russell; "The Demise of Norse Greenland," in Fitzhugh and Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 327-339; and in "The Vinland Adventure: A North Atlantic Perspective," North American Archaeologist II: 4 (1980/81): 285-308. This last essay not only provides a convincing case for Norse "strategic overstretch" but also provides useful points of comparison with later, more successful European experiences at overseas colonization. Environmental degradation also plays an important part in Niels Lynnerup's argument, that the Norse in Greenland never had a population sufficient to withstand the stresses of the later Middle Ages; see his The Greenland Norse: A Biological-anthropological Study (Meddelelser om Grønland "Man and Society" No. 24; Copenhagen: Danish Polar Center, 1998). Finally, in the closing chapters of his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Viking Press, 2005), Jared M. Diamond uses the Norse experience in Greenland to support his exploration of the factors that caused some cultures and civilizations in the past to fall into ruin while others thrived and prospered. Using primarily secondary sources, he maintains that the Norse failed because as the Greenland climate deteriorated, they clung to a maladapted cultural heritage to the end, while their Inuit neighbours adapted and survived. Yet the real story may be much more complex than environmental degradation and poor adaptive choices. In a recent essay, some of the earlier arguments about climatic deterioration and environmental degradation are revisited. The authors (who include Tom McGovern) suggest instead that changing economies and patterns of trade might instead have critically marginalized the Norse Greenland settlements and effectively sealed their fate. The demise of Norse Greenland might not be symptomatic of a failure to adapt to environmental change, but rather "a consequence of successful wider economic developments of Norse communities across North Atlantic." Using data not only from Greenland but also from the Faroe Islands and medieval Iceland. the interplay of Norse society with climate, environment, settlement, and other circumstances is analysed. Cumulative climate change certainly played its part, but so apparently did long-term increases in vulnerability caused by economic change. The result was "a cascading collapse of integrated interdependent settlement systems, bringing the end of Norse Greenland"; see Andrew J. Dugmore, Christian Keller, Thomas H. McGovern, "Norse Greenland Settlement: Reflections on Climate Change, Trade, and the Contrasting Fates of Human Settlements in the North Atlantic Islands," Arctic Anthropology XLIV: 1 (2007): 12-36.

A more provocative challenge to the theory of environmental and climatic degradation has been proposed by Kirsten A. Seaver in her book The Frozen Echo: Greenland and the Exploration of North America ca. A.D. 1000-1500 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996) and, more recently, in The Last Vikings: The Epic Story of the Great Norse Voyagers (London: I.B. Tauris, 2010). Seaver synthesises a diversity of scholarly research about Norse Greenland in order to develop the argument that the Norse colonies there did not fade out until after 1500, and may have developed a thriving trade with Bristol merchants in (among other things) stockfish. Seaver pushes her evidence hard in order to maintain that Bristol contact with Greenland set the stage for English discovery of Newfoundland late in the 1400s; indeed, she has recently tempered her views somewhat in a paper entitled "Norse Greenland on the Eve of Renaissance Exploration in the North Atlantic," in Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Voyages and Explorations in the North Atlantic from the Middle Ages to the XVIIth Century (Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2000), 29-44. Nevertheless, Seaver continues to challenge those who argue that environmental factors caused the Greenland colony to fade into extinction before the mid-1400s. Others have also argued that Greenland’s fate should be linked to developments in Europe; see Jette Arneborg, "Greenland and Europe," in Fitzhugh and Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 304-317, and Jón Th. Thór, "Why Was Greenland ‘Lost’? Changes in North Atlantic Fisheries and Maritime Trade in the Fourteenth and Fifteen Centuries," Scandinavian Economic History Review XLVIII: 1 (2000): 28-39. Thór, for instance, suggests that the persistence and well-being of the Greenland colony had depended on a thriving commercial connection with Iceland. When Iceland turned to new maritime commercial opportunities such as the cod fish trade with Europe during the late Middle Ages, the need to maintain a connection with Greenland faded, and so did the colony there. Else Roesdahl, on the other hand, proposes a link in the rise and decline of Greenland to the rise and decline of the trade with Europe in luxury commodities such as walrus ivory; see "Walrus ivory and other northern luxuries: their importance for Norse voyages and settlements in Greenland and America," in Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ed.), Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium (St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), 145-152 and “Walrus ivory – demand, supply, workshops, and Greenland,” in A. Mortensen and S. Arge (eds.), Viking and Norse in the North Atlantic: Select Papers from the Proceedings of the 14th Viking Congress (Tórshavn: Føroya Fróðskaparfelag, 2005), 182-191.

If the fate of the medieval Norse in the North Atlantic rested on their ability to maintain contact with Europe, then consideration must also be given to the nature and quality of Norse shipping as factors in the ability of the Greenland Norse to sustain that contact or, for that matter, develop contact with North America. The sheer diversity of destinations, underlying reasons for voyaging, seafaring conditions, etc. meant that the Norse developed some fairly sophisticated and specialized types of vessels; see for instance Andrew J. Dugmore, Andrew F. Casely, Christian Keller, Tomas H. McGovern, "Conceptual Modelling of Seafaring, Climate and Early European Exploration and Settlement of the North Atlantic Islands," in Atholl Anderson, James Barrett, Katie Boyle (eds.), The Global Origins and Development of Seafaring (Cambridge, UK: McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, 2010), pp. 213-225. Readers should also consult Richard Unger, "The Archaeology of Boats: Ships of the Vikings," Archaeology XXXV: 3 (May/June 1982): 20-27, Roald Morcken, "Longships, Knarrs and Cogs," The Mariner's Mirror LXXIV: 4 (November 1988): 391-400, or Max Vinner, "Unnasigling – the seaworthiness of the merchant vessel," in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 95-108, or Arne Emil Christensen, "Ships and Navigation," in Fitzhugh and Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 86-97. The better to understand the methods used to navigate such vessels about the North Atlantic, readers should examine "Navigation by the Vikings on the open sea" by Søren Thirslund in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 109-117, or Douglas McNaughton, "A World in Transition: Early Cartography of the North Atlantic," in Fitzhugh and Ward (eds.), Vikings: The North Atlantic Saga, pp. 257-269. And since any interpretation of where the Norse voyagers actually went depends so much on properly understanding the distances described in the saga records, students should also consult "Norse Nautical Units and Distance Measurements" by Roald Morcken in The Mariner’s Mirror LIV (1968): 393-401.

One of the most controversial sources in recent years for understanding the Norse achievement in crossing the North Atlantic during medieval times must surely be the so-called "Vinland Map" which appears to provide cartographic confirmation that the Norse reached North America. The "Vinland Map" was first discovered and published by the Yale University Press in 1965; see R.A. Skelton, Thomas E. Marston, and George D. Painter, The Vinland Map and the Tartar Relation (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1965). Immediately the map was denounced as a forgery, and the academic world quickly divided into advocates either of its authenticity or its fraudulent nature. Even Yale University withdrew its endorsement of the map for a while. However, new tests seemed to provide strength for those who support its authenticity, and in 1995 Yale University Press released a revised edition of the original work, with much new material. Students can explore this historical controversy themselves through such essays as Robert McGhee, "The Vinland Map: Hoax or History?", The Beaver LXVII: 2 (April/May 1987): 37-44, Max Vinner, "The mysterious Vinland map (»The Map that Spoiled Columbus Day«)," in Viking Voyages to North America, ed. Birth L. Clausen, trans. Gillian Fellows Jenson (Roskilde: The Viking Ship Museum, 1993), pp. 30-42, Kirsten A. Seaver, "The `Vinland Map': who made it, and why? New light on an old controversy," The Map Collector, 70 (Spring 1995): 32-40, as well as Seaver’s more recent essay, "The ‘Vinland Map’: Faith, Facts, and Fables," in Shannon Lewis-Simpson (ed.), Vinland Revisited: The Norse World at the Turn of the First Millennium (St. John’s: Historic Sites Association of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2003), 443-456. See also Stuart C. Brown’s review essay on the new edition of The Vinland map and the Tartar Relation in Newfoundland Studies XV: 1 (Spring 1999): 115-124.

Can a link be established between the Norse experience and that of fifteenth-century European explorers? David B. Quinn considers, then dismisses, the possibility that Christopher Columbus might have been influenced in his thinking by the Norse experience while visiting Iceland during the 1470s; see his "Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland," William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., XLIX: 2 (April 1992): 278-297; this article has since been reprinted, with a new appendix, in David B. Quinn, European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640 (Aldershot & Brookfield, VT: Variorum Press, 1998), 18-40. Peter Pope considers the question anew and arrives at essentially the same conclusion in "Discovery and Memory: Zuan Caboto and the Norse in Newfoundland," ed. Anna Agnarsdóttir, Voyages and Explorations in the North Atlantic from the Middle Ages to the XVIIth Century (Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2000), pp. 45-60. Like Quinn, any argument linking the Norse with explorers of the late fifteenth century is speculative and, in fact, unnecessary; Cabot could easily have acquired an understanding of the best route to take in crossing the North Atlantic without any knowledge of voyages by his Norse predecessors. On the other hand, Seaver's Frozen Echo offers provocative arguments that the Norse experience can indeed be directly linked to fifteenth-century British ventures into the North Atlantic, including voyages to North America, while James Robert Enterline, a mathematician and computer consultant known for his work in the history of cartography, argues not only that Renaissance explorers had explicit fore-knowledge of earlier Norse voyages but that the basis for medieval maps of areas in America which no European had yet reached (including the controversial Yale Vinland Map) was provided by the Inuit who, he maintains, had competent cartographic skills that enabled them to transmit information to the Norse that was eventually passed on to later Europeans; see his Erikson, Eskimos, and Columbus: Medieval European Knowledge of America (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). It is an argument that is certain to be controversial. At the very least, it demonstrates that the question of who knew what and when and how will remain the focus for debate for a long time to come.


The Fifteenth Century

Nevertheless, for now at least the best available evidence supports the view of Quinn, Pope, and other sceptics that it is unlikely that Columbus or Cabot were significantly influenced by the residual legacy of Norse voyages. While this may seem a disappointingly safe position, it is one that reinforces the conclusion that the historical significance of the Norse voyages must be sought in the lessons to be learned from their failure to effect a successful settlement of the New World, not in their success in getting there. Subsequent European discoveries leading to the permanent exploitation and occupation of Newfoundland are summarized in George MacBeath's succinct but thorough essay on "The Atlantic Region" in the DCB, I: 21-6. This volume of the DCB also includes entries on all the significant explorers, including John Cabot and his son Sebastian, the Portuguese explorers João Fernandes, Gaspar Corte-Real and his brother Miguel, and the French explorer Jacques Cartier. A more recent essay that assesses the significance of early voyages to subsequent discoveries is entitled "From Cabot to Cartier: The Early Exploration of Eastern North America, 1497-1543." Written by John L. Allen, it appeared in Annals of the American Association of Geographers, LXXXII: 3(September 1992): 500-521. David Quinn has considered why it was that many years often passed between the time that Europeans discovered Newfoundland and other parts of North America and the time that they moved aggressively to establish a permanent presence in the newly discovered lands; see his ""North America: A Last Resort?", first published in Storia Nord Americana 4 (Turin, 1987), pp. 31-40 and since reprinted in David B. Quinn, European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640 (Aldershot & Brookfield, VT: Variorum Press, 1998), pp.221-230. Quinn has also edited, with introductions, the written legacy of many of the early explorers in Newfoundland waters in the first volume of his invaluable collection of documents, New American World; A Documentary History of North America to 1612 (5 volumes; New York: Arno Press, 1979). As well, many libraries hold Richard Hakluyt, The Principal Navigations Voyages Traffiques & Discoveries of the English Nation (12 vols.; Glasgow: James MacLehose & Sons, 1903-05), of which the second volume is most useful for Newfoundland history. These documents should be used in conjunction with Plate 19, "Exploring the Atlantic Coast," of the HAC, vol. I.

The English port city of Bristol played a prominent role in the re-discovery of Newfoundland, and much attention has therefore been given to that port-city’s activities, not only at the time of Cabot’s historic voyage but during the decades before. Two very useful starting points in reading about this aspect of Newfoundland history would be Patrick McGrath, "Bristol and America 1480-1631," in Kenneth R. Andrews, Nicholas P. Canny, and P.E.H. Hair (eds.), The Westward Enterprise, English Activities in Ireland, the Atlantic and America, 1480-1650 (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1979), pp. 81-102, and A.N. Ryan, "Bristol, The Atlantic and North America, 1480-1509," in John Hattendorf (ed.), Maritime History, Vol. I: The Age of Discovery (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1996), pp. 241-255. Unfortunately this perfectly sensibly search for the context of Cabot’s voyages has led to some rather unfortunate tendencies to make unjustified claims about those activities.

The conventional view of this process assumes that Bristol commercial interests may have found Newfoundland several years before John Cabot’s famous voyage of "discovery" but kept the information a secret in order to capitalize on the rich fishing grounds. David Beers Quinn tries to make the case in "The Argument for the English Discovery of America Between 1480 and 1494," Geographical Journal CXXVII (1961), pp. 277-85; this essay was revised and reprinted in J.M. Bumsted (ed.), Canadian History Before Confederation (Georgetown: Irwin-Dorsey, 1972), pp. 18-30 (2nd ed., 1979, pp. 17-28).And it is a view that has been reiterated in as recent a publication as British Maritime Enterprise in the New World: From the Late Fifteenth to the Mid-Eighteenth Century (Lewiston, NY and Queenston, ON: Edwin Mellen Press, 1999); see especially "Part 2, North America: Chapter 1, "The First Explorers, 1480-1547." It is certainly true that there is evidence of voyages, perhaps even of discovery, of a place called Brasil, or Hy-Brasil or O’Brazil (a name of Gaelic origin, meaning "Isle of the Blest"). It was a mythical island that appeared on many sea charts from the fourteenth to nineteenth centuries. Late in the fifteenth century there were suggestions that Bristol venturers had found the island, only to lose the location, lending support to the idea that Bristol exploration of the North Atlantic in the 1480s and 1490s was therefore driven by a search to re-discover the place. Harvey L. Sharrer and more recently Evan T. Jones have examined some of the documentation on which these claims were based; see their discussion of the Spanish Basque Lope Garcia de Salazar’s "account of Bristol’s discovery of the Island of Brasil (pre 1476)" at: <http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/1476brasil.htm>.

In other words, Bristol’s involvement in voyages of explorations in the North Atlantic should not be dismissed. It does, however, appear as though a more subtle explanation is needed – one that places Bristol merchants more firmly within a European political and commercial contact. For instance, in The Widening Gate: Bristol and the Atlantic Economy, 1450-1700 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), a magisterial study of Bristol before the eighteenth century by David H. Sacks, the Newfoundland fishery and trade are given only passing mention. Sacks’ analysis suggest that the conventional view should be re-visited (a point that will be made at greater length later, when discussing English involvement in the Newfoundland fishery in the sixteenth century). He offers some insightful observations about the disruptive effect that England’s loss of Bordeaux to France in 1453, at the end of the Hundred Years’ War, had on the mainstay of the medieval Bristol economy, namely the trade in English woolens for the wines of Gascony. Sacks maintains that this plunged Bristol to its lowest economic ebb, and may provide a better clue as to why Bristol merchants were willing to speculate in Atlantic explorations in the late 1400s. Bristol was a city of merchants, not of fishermen. They hoped to discover and develop new opportunities for trade. This point is affirmed in a perceptive Master’s dissertation by Annabel Peacock. She focuses her attention on several Bristol merchants who may have invested in Cabot’s voyages and who definitely engaged in maritime trade as part of Bristol’s extensive Atlantic commercial network. See The Men of Bristol and the Atlantic Discovery Voyages of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (MA dissertation, Bristol, 2007; available on Internet at <http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/2007mapeacock.htm>).

So did Bristol voyages into the Atlantic before 1497 lead to a discovery of Newfoundland before Cabot? The late Alwyn Ruddock apparently did, though she passed away before she could publish the basis for this conclusion (for more on this, see below in discussion of the documentation for the Cabot voyages). David Quinn also maintained that Bristol merchants made it to Newfoundland before Cabot; see his previously mentioned "The Argument for the English Discovery of America Between 1480 and 1494." He later recapitulated his evidence for a pre-Cabot Bristol discovery of Newfoundland in the course of his evaluation of Columbus’ purported visit to Iceland in the 1470s; see his aforementioned "Columbus and the North: England, Iceland, and Ireland," William & Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., XLIX: 2 (April 1992): 278-97. The most recent advocate for a connection between the Norse experience in Greenland and North America and Bristol awareness of the fishing grounds at Newfoundland before Cabot is made by Kirsten Seaver in The Frozen Echo. Yet, in the end, both Quinn and Seaver make their cases only by avoiding the fact that Bristol did not play a commanding role in the European fishing industry before 1497, or in the British fishery in Newfoundland after 1497. Susan Rose is openly sceptical that English mariners generally, and Bristol in particular, had the skills or the incentive to engage in deep-sea navigation before 1500, and concludes that it is "very unlikely that covert voyages between Bristol and Newfoundland had been in progress since 1490 or even earlier." See Susan Rose, "English seamanship and the Atlantic crossing c.1480-1500: was the crossing of the Atlantic beyond the capabilities of English seamen in the second half of the fifteenth century?," Journal for Maritime Research (September 2002). And given Bristol’s commitment to commerce rather than to the production of fish before 1497, as well as the surprisingly modest profile of the English fishery at Newfoundland after 1497, it seems reasonable to assume that Bristol’s role in pre-Cabot development of trans-Atlantic fishing grounds can easily be over-stated or at least misunderstood. In short, the available evidence suggests that no definite conclusion about Bristol's "pre-Cabot" knowledge of the Newfoundland fishery is possible.


Cabot

Which brings us to the voyages of John Cabot. There is, curiously, surprisingly little scholarly work written about Cabot himself. An obvious start point is the biographical essay by R.A. Skelton on John Cabot in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. I: 1000-1700 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1966), pp. 146-52 (DCB). There is also some tantalizing documentation about Cabot’s life before he came to England. For instance, the Spanish historian Juan Gil discovered and published some documents relating to John Cabot’s time in Seville in 1493-1494 where he proposed, was contracted to build, and then spent five months working on, the construction of a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir River. The documents cast Cabot as something of a promoter whose chief quality was probably salesmanship. The documents have since been translated into English by Isobel Birden and published on-line, with commentary by Birden and Evan T. Jones, at <http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/1494cabotseville.htm>.

But about the Cabot voyages themselves there is also very little documentation, at least compared to that for other explorers. What little there is was first compiled in James A. Williamson (ed.), Voyages of the Cabots and the English Discovery of North America Under Henry VII and Henry VIII (Hakluyt Society, 2nd series, No. 120; Cambridge: At the University Press, 1962). More recently, the first volume of New American World; A Documentary History of North America to 1612 (5 volumes; New York: Arno Press, 1979) by David B. Quinn (ed.), sub-titled America from Concept to Discovery. Early Exploration of North America, includes most of the available documentation on voyages of the Norse, St. Brendan, Madoc, in the late 1400s (including the Bristol voyages in the 1480s), as well as by John and Sebastian Cabot. The late Alwyn Ruddock had worked for years researching what was certain to have become the definitive treatment of John Cabot, but died before her work could be published. Annabel Peacock examined Ruddock’s research and scholarly legacy in her MA dissertation, The Men of Bristol and the Atlantic Discovery Voyages of the Fifteenth and Early Sixteenth Centuries (MA dissertation, Bristol, 2007; available on the Internet at <http://www.bris.ac.uk/Depts/History/Maritime/Sources/2007mapeacock.htm>). More on Ruddock’s research and scholarly legacy has been published by Evan T. Jones in "Alwyn Ruddock: ‘John Cabot and the Discovery of America’," Historical Research LXXXI: 212 (May 2008), pp. 224-254 Bristol, 2007, as well as in “Bristol, Cabot and the New Found Land, 1496-1500,” in Peter E. Pope (ed.), with Shannon Lewis-Simpson, Exploring Atlantic Transitions: Archaeologies of Transience and Permanence in New Found Lands (Woodbridge, Suffolk and Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 2013), pp. 25-34.

All this helps us to understand why Cabot has not attracted more scholarly attention: in part it is because Columbus preceded him by several years; in part it is also because so little documentary evidence about Cabot or his voyage has survived. One of the better treatments is that by Samuel Eliot Morison in his European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages; another is "The Voyages of John Cabot," a chapter in Roger Morris, Atlantic Seafaring: Ten Centuries of Exploration and Trade in the North Atlantic (Camden, ME: International Marine Publishing, 1992). Predictably, the 1997 quincentennial of Cabot's voyage on the Matthew triggered a revival of interest in Cabot, though much of it is of questionable quality. One of the weakest is Bernard D. Fardy, John Cabot: The Discovery of Newfoundland (St. John's: Creative, 1994); it should definitely be avoided. Ian Wilson's John Cabot and the Matthew (Tiverton: Redcliffe Press and St. John's: Breakwater Press, 1996) and Alan Williams' John Cabot and Newfoundland (St. John's: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1996) are slim booklets intended for a general audience. They offer somewhat divergent interpretations of Cabot's route, yet manage to summarize the essential details well and are suitably cautious in their overall assessments. Two others, written with sensible restraint and academic caution, offer quite different conclusions: In "On John Cabot – An Hypothesis," Argonauta: The Newsletter of the Canadian Nautical Research Society XVI: 1 (January 1999): 17-32, Trevor Kenchinton proposes that Cabot made landfall somewhere on the coast between Bonavista and Twillingate; in John Cabot and the Voyage of the Matthew (Halifax: Formac Publishing, 1997), Brian Cuthbertson presents a case for a Cape Breton Island landfall. In complete contrast, Away Beyond the Virgin Rocks: A Tribute to John Cabot (St. John's, NF: Creative Publishers, 1997) by John Parsons, is an exercise in antiquarianism. Parsons has read an extensive array of secondary sources, testing them against the very limited and highly ambiguous primary evidence in order to argue that Cabot made landfall on the coast of Maine. His mastery of the Cabot literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is impressive, but he goes to extremes in building his case, ridiculing the ideas of others and at times dismissing their arguments without evidence while presenting questionable, even contradictory claims of his own. Too often, his grasp of the social, economic or cultural context of the Cabot voyages is weak. This has not dissuaded him from writing another book on Cabot, On the Way to Cipango: John Cabot's Voyage of 1498 (St. John's, NF: Creative Publishers, 1998). This focuses on the 1498 voyage in which Cabot disappeared; with almost no evidence to support his argument, Parsons argues that Cabot made it to the Caribbean before falling afoul of a Spanish pirate, a theory others have supported with equal conviction and lack of evidence.

One of the most appealing book to come out of the 500th anniversary celebrations of Cabot's voyage, at least in terms of illustrations, is Peter Firstbrook, The Voyage of the Matthew: John Cabot and the Discovery of North America (London: BBC Books, 1997). Though aimed at a general audience, it endeavours to set the context for Cabot's voyages. The focus is very much on maritime trade and shipping generally, and on the Matthew (both the original and the replica built for 1997). The book offers sensibly cautious conclusions about Cabot's landfall, but regards the Bonavista landfall as the least likely of the several candidates. Students will also find Lloyd Edward Kermode, "The Spirit of Adventure: John Cabot, the merchants of Bristol and the re-discovery of America," The Beaver LXXVI: 5(October/ November 1996): 4-11 a convenient if conventional account; it conforms to Morison's interpretation. A more compelling study of the relationship between Cabot and the Bristol merchants who invested in his voyage appears in Evan T. Jones, “The Matthew of Bristol and the financiers of John Cabot’s 1497 voyage to North America,” English Historical Review, CXXI: 492 (June 2006): 778-795. Taking as his point of departure the obvious fact that Cabot’s ship was small for its trans-Atlantic exploratory role, Jones suggests that this in fact made perfect sense, that Cabot’s Bristol backers would have selected the least-costly vessel capable of doing the job without incurring too much financial risk. Jones concludes that if we are to understand Cabot and his voyage, we must focus more than historians have to this point on the Bristol merchant community. It is a point that Jones reaffirms in "Henry VII and the Bristol expeditions to North America: the Condon documents," Historical Research ("Early view" on-line, August 2009 <http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/cgi-bin/fulltext/122579649/PDFSTART>. Of course, if your interest is more in Cabot’s ship than in Cabot himself or the voyage, then you should seek out "The Naval Architecture of the Matthew" by Colin Mudie, the distinguished naval architect involved in the design and construction of the Matthew replica which figured so prominently in 1997 in the re-enactment of Cabot's voyage; the essay leads off Cabot and His World Symposium June 1997: Papers and Presentations (St. John's: Newfoundland Historical Society, 1999), ed. Iona Bulgin, pp. 1-6.

Finally, a brief but useful summary of all the main points about the Cabot voyage is provided in a review essay by David Quinn on "John Cabot and the 1497 Voyage to Newfoundland," Newfoundland Studies XV: 1 (Spring 1999): 104-110. Quinn’s little essay reviews, in part, what is unquestionably one of the best books to come out of the 1997 celebrations – but alas! too late to exercise much restraint in the popular debates of that year. This is Peter Pope’s The Many Landfalls of John Cabot (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).  Inspired by Eric Hobsbawm and others, who have written on the way in which we reconstruct the past to serve our own needs, Pope explains very clearly what we know about Cabot and his voyages, what little we can conclude, and how very much we choose to assume despite the lack of evidence. Pope looks not only at the hype generated in 1997 but also that of 1897, and shows both how and why so much of the debate surrounding Cabot's voyage – the route he followed, where he made landfall, what he discovered – has been subordinated to chauvinistic agenda rather than to scholarly enlightenment. Pope subsequently presented a paper in which he reaffirms the view that Cabot followed a route that led to a northerly landfall, adding that this northerly route places Cabot less in the category of Renaissance ocean pioneer and more in the category of traditional medieval North Atlantic venturer. Peter E. Pope, "Discovery and Memory: Zuan Caboto and the Norse in Newfoundland," in Anna Agnarsdóttir (ed.), Voyages and Explorations in the North Atlantic from the Middle Ages to the XVIIth Century (Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2000), pp. 45-60.

Many of Pope’s arguments were echoed by a number of the papers presented at the "Cabot and His World" symposium in June 1997, sponsored by the Newfoundland Historical Society and subsequently collected, edited, and published by Iona Bulgin for the Society in a collection by the same title. I see no point in devoting very much discussion to that volume here, beyond noting that it includes the views of three scholars on Cabot's landfall which were originally presented at the Symposium as part of a "Cabot Landfall" debate; Fabian O'Dea, Brian Cuthbertson and Alan Williams argued for Cape Bonavista (85-91), Cape Breton Island (93-97), and the tip of the Great Northern Peninsula (99-107) respectively, succeeding only in demonstrating how elastic the evidence can be when trying to prove anything about Cabot. Two other papers by Jim Hiller and Lara Maynard examine (with varying degrees of scepticism and certainty) even more legendary local traditions – that Cabot died at Grates Cove on his 1498 expedition (155-161) and that in 1497 Cabot landed at Flatrock, just north of St. John's (163-8). The Cabot and His World collection also contains some interesting papers that explore how Cabot evolved in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as an icon of Canadian and Newfoundland patriotism; see Shane O'Dea, "Judge Prowse and Bishop Howley: Cabot Tower and the Construction of Nationalism" (171-82), Peter Pope, "Traditions of Invention, 1897: Columbus, Cartier and Cabot" (183-97), and Roberto Perin, "Caboto as a Contested Ethnic Icon" (199-208).


From Cabot to Cartier

If we turn our attention away from the way in which exploration and discovery were coopted by later centuries and return to the explorers themselves, we shall see that Portuguese explorers have also received relatively little scholarly treatment in English. One noteworthy exception is Richard Goertz, "João Alvares Fagundes, Capitão de Terra Nova {1521}," Canadian Ethnic Studies XXXIII: 2(1991): 117-128. Gaspar and Miguel Corte-Real, who voyaged to Newfoundland waters at the turn of the sixteenth century, are featured in two essays by L.-A. Vigneras in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Vol. I, 235-236. As with Cabot, so too with the Portuguese, caution must be exercised when one encounters the claims, frequently made by Portuguese writers, that the Corte-Reals were preceded in Newfoundland waters by their countrymen by several decades. There is no evidence that Europeans of any kind were present here before Cabot. Finally, before leaving this subject entirely, let us not forget the explorations by the French generally, and by Jacques Cartier in particular. An excellent survey of the context for French activities in the North Atlantic is the essay by A.N. Ryan, "France and the Atlantic in the sixteenth century," in John Hattendorf (ed.), Maritime History, Vol. I: The Age of Discovery (Malabar, FL: Krieger, 1996), pp. 279-297. See also the previously mentioned work of Samuel E. Morison as well as Marcel Trudel's The Beginnings of New France, 1524-1663 (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1973). Trudel also contributed the thorough essay on Cartier that appears in the DCB I, pp. 165-172. A special issue of The Archivist XI: 1(January/February 1984) was also devoted to Cartier.

The importance of ship technology in these early voyages of exploration should not be underemphasized. A good discussion of this point is provided in Ian Friel, "The Three-Masted Ship and Atlantic Voyages," in Joyce Youings (ed.), Raleigh in Exeter: Privateering and Colonisation in the Reign of Elizabeth I (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1985), pp. 21-37.
Two other useful discussions, not only of the importance of medieval shipping developments but also of the importance to eventual trans-Atlantic commerce of medieval maritime trading patterns, are contributions to a festschrift honouring American historian Robert G. Albion; see Archibald R. Lewis, "The Medieval Background of American Atlantic Maritime Development," pp. 18-39 and William A. Baker, "Fishing Under Sail in the North Atlantic," pp. 40-75, both in Benjamin W. Labaree (ed.), The Atlantic World of Robert G. Albion (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1975).

Navigational techniques and technologies, including early charts and maps, were also important. David Quinn provides a fine, succinct essay on "Maps of the Age of European Exploration" in D. Buisseret (ed.), Sea Charts to Satellite Images: Interpreting North American History Through Maps (Chicago and London, 1990), pp.41-65, an essay that has since been reprinted in David B. Quinn, European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640 (Aldershot & Brookfield, VT: Variorum Press, 1998), pp.93-117. See also Quinn's essay, "The Americas in the Rotz Atlas of 1542," in Emerson Baker et al (eds.), American Beginnings: Exploration, Culture and Cartography in the Land of Norumbega (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), pp. 37-59 and 320-323; Quinn presents a clear account of the way in which cartographers reflected an increasingly sophisticated and informed European perception of the nature of North America generally, and of Newfoundland and its fishing grounds in particular. Like several other Quinn articles, this essay has since been reprinted in David B. Quinn, European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640 (Aldershot & Brookfield, VT: Variorum Press, 1998), pp. 69-92. And while it is easy to exaggerate or over-estimate the degree to which trans-Atlantic voyagers relied on maps (oceanic fishing voyages were more likely to depend on experience and route descriptions gleaned from the experience of others), nevertheless, even in the sixteenth century the value of maps for navigation was both recognized and applied; see Susan Rose, “Mathematics and the Art of Navigation: The Advance of Scientific Seamanship in Elizabethan England,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 6th series, vol. XIV (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 175-184.

Return to "Reader's Guide" Home Page

Proceed to "Fishery and Trade 1500-1800"