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Great Exploration Hoaxes (Modern Library Exploration)

Great Exploration Hoaxes (Modern Library Exploration) Cover




Chapter 1

Sebastian Cabot and the Northwest Passage

In 1508, Sebastian Cabot set sail from Bristol with three hundred men

in two ships. He crossed the Atlantic quickly, visited the great

fishing grounds of the Newfoundland Banks, familiar to Bristol men

for about a decade, and made a landfall. Cabot had more serious

exploratory ambitions, however, and soon pushed on toward the

northwest, coasting along the shores of Labrador. He found the

ice-clogged passage that would come to be called Hudson Strait,

drifted through it, and entered the open water of Hudson Bay, a full

century before Henry Hudson would "discover" it. Cabot wanted to push

on, but his men were on the verge of mutiny.

He turned back, sailed south past the Newfoundland Banks, and

continued along the coast of the present United States, still

searching for a westward passage through the American landmass. He

may have wintered along this coast. Having explored the Atlantic

shore all the way to the tip of Florida, he turned home, arriving in

Bristol in April 1509 to find that his monarch, Henry VII, had died

and a new Henry, who would turn out to be far less interested in

geographical discovery than his father, was on the throne. Though he

had not found a route to Cathay, Sebastian Cabot had completed the

most significant voyage yet undertaken by English ships.

Or had he?

The leading 20th-century Cabot expert, James A. Williamson, believes

that the 1508-9 expedition took place much as described above. But

there are strong grounds for concluding-and sound scholars who

argue-that Cabot's whole voyage was fictitious, that in fact he never

left England.

To a modern observer, it may seem incredible that the true facts

about a voyage of such importance remain so conjectural. Surely such

a pioneering venture would be bound to leave in its wake dozens of

authentic records, even eyewitness accounts. Surely no man, no matter

how clever, could fake a voyage that had supposedly involved three

hundred men under the patronage of the king of England.

The uncertainty about Cabot's Northwest expedition originates in two

sources. One is primarily historical. Although the Spanish, the

Portuguese, and the Italians took pains to chronicle their great

nautical voyages during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, on

the whole the English did not-until Richard Hakluyt began to collect

and publish firsthand accounts of his countrymen's discoveries in

1582. Before Hakluyt, English voyages were recorded mainly in the

memories of living seamen or in obscure Continental compendia of

knowledge. Many great deeds and adventures slipped irrevocably into

the dark hiding places of historical ignorance. Of the great mariner

John Cabot, Sebastian's father, on whose 1497 voyage England's whole

claim to North America rested, no portrait exists today, nor a single

scrap of his handwriting. By the middle of the 16th century the facts

of John Cabot's life had passed completely out of common memory.

The second cause of confusion surrounding Sebastian's Northwest

expedition lies in the very makeup of the man's character. Whether or

not the 1508 voyage was a hoax, Sebastian Cabot seems to have been a

thoroughgoing confidence artist. He managed to build successful

careers in both Spain and England as an adviser on northern

navigations mainly by fostering the illusion that he was the sole

possessor of vast funds of secret geographical lore. He seems to have

taken full credit for everything his father accomplished, letting

John Cabot's reputation dwindle to that of a mere merchant, while his

own burgeoned as the man who had discovered North America. At the

peril of his own life, he played the conflicting interests of Spain,

England, and Venice off against each other, entering into cabals and

intrigues in which he promised worlds but avoided delivering much of

real substance. He died on dry land with a comfortable pension, well

liked and reputable.

The 16th-century sources for Cabot's expedition-probably all the

evidence scholars will ever have upon which to base their

judgments-consist of some seventeen documents in Latin, Italian,

Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. They tend to be fragments

only, some mere offhand allusions a sentence or two long. They

contain among them so many mutual contradictions that there is no

possible way of reconciling their details in a coherent account of a

single voyage. By themselves, however, such discrepancies do not

amount to evidence against Cabot. Many of the documenters were sloppy

guardians of truth, and nearly all were writing down stories they had

heard third- or fourth-hand, sometimes at a remove of seventy years

from the events they describe. The closest thing we have to an

account by Cabot himself appears in 1556 in a volume of navigations

by a Venetian named Ramusio, who claims to have received a letter

from the navigator, which he was summarizing.

Cabot's English service ended abruptly in 1512 when, on a visit to

Spain, he was invited by King Ferdinand to enter the Spanish marine

as a capitán de mar. He did not serve an English king again until

1548, when Edward VI appointed him as a maritime adviser to the

Admiralty. The long hiatus is no doubt responsible for the absence of

any English sources for the 1508 expedition until the last years of

Cabot's life, when a man named Richard Eden, who claimed to know the

aged pilot, recorded a few skimpy details of that voyage. In 1555

Eden was writing at a distance of forty-seven years from the alleged

embarkation from Bristol; and if he did receive the story from

Cabot's lips, he may have been listening-so his detractors would

insist-to an old man who had never been a reliable source aggrandize

a myth of his own deeds that he had spent a lifetime concocting.

Faced with the fragmentary nature of the Renaissance sources and the

unlikelihood that new evidence will turn up, the modern student is

reduced to choosing among scholars' portraits of Sebastian Cabot.

Surprisingly, because of the extreme variation among those portraits,

this effort amounts to a fascinating pastime. Thanks to the labors of

James A. Williamson, any student can read the original texts of the

seventeen sources translated into English. Williamson in fact invites

the reader to decide for himself about Sebastian Cabot (see


The full range of judgment can be comprehended by looking at the

likenesses that three scholars, each the leading expert of his day,

have unveiled for our scrutiny. Richard Biddle, a Pittsburgh lawyer,

was the first man to try to assemble all the known documents bearing

on Cabot; his 1831 Memoir represents the pinnacle of Cabot idolatry.

In the last decade of the 19th century, the indefatigable Frenchman

Henry Harrisse issued a stream of memoirs and monographs on Cabot,

the general import of which was to debunk the explorer as a wholesale

fraud. In our own century, James A. Williamson has spent over thirty

years studying the controversy, and his works represent the effort,

to use his own metaphor, to steady the pendulum of Cabot's

reputation. Williamson acknowledges the navigator's shady and dubious

sides, but expresses faith in the reality of the bold Northwest


Biddle's Cabot. It would not be fair to hold Richard Biddle

responsible for exaggerations that only subsequent scholarship has

corrected. The "rediscovery" of John Cabot was a triumph of

late-19th-century research, and crucial documents have been unearthed

as recently as 1956. To the Pennsylvania lawyer in 1831, John Cabot

was merely a merchant sailor from Venice who had settled in Bristol,

and to whom, with his three sons, in 1496 Henry VII had issued a

patent for the discovery of lands "unknown to all Christians." Biddle

took it for granted that Sebastian Cabot was the man who had

discovered the mainland of North America in 1497. Whether or not the

father even went on the voyage was a question Biddle briefly

entertained, concluding that if John Cabot was on board, it was

"merely for the purpose of turning to account his mercantile skill

and sagacity."

Thus by 1508, in the American scholar's view, Sebastian Cabot was

already an accomplished and experienced mariner, whose "simple, but

bold proposition" of 1497 had actually represented his first attempt

to find a northwest route to Cathay. When Biddle turns his mind to

the 1508 expedition, then, he harbors not the slightest suspicion

that the journey may have been a hoax. The only question is just how

far Sebastian actually penetrated along the Northwest Passage. His

answer is, well into Hudson Bay. To buttress this conclusion, it is

an easy matter for him to discover that the 16th-century sources that

give Cabot the most northerly latitude at the point where he turned

around, notably Ramusio and the Englishman Richard Willes, also

happen to have been the work of the soberest chroniclers. The sources

that limit Cabot's penetration to more southerly latitudes were the

work of historical hacks, or of interested parties such as "Spaniards

. . . jealous of the reputation of Cabot."

The most specious piece of Biddle's reasoning springs from a vague

similarity between the earliest source for Cabot's voyage, a Latin

text by Peter Martyr from 1516, and a very recent traveler's account

of the terrain around Hudson Bay. Only six years before Biddle was

writing, Captain Edward Parry, as part of the Admiralty's vigorous

new attack on the Northwest Passage, had led an expedition that

attempted the route by pushing into the northwest corner of Hudson

Bay. Biddle turns to Parry and finds:

Very little snow was now lying upon the ground, and numerous streams

of water rushing down the hills and sparkling in the beams of the

morning sun, relieved in some measure the melancholy stillness which

otherwise reigned on this desolate shore.

Three hundred and seventeen years earlier, in the same latitude,

according to Peter Martyr (as Englished by Hakluyt), Cabot had "found

monstrous heaps of ice swimming on the sea, and in manner continual

daylight; yet saw he the land in that tract free from ice, which had

been molten by the heat of the sun." Such evidence convinces Biddle

that the two sailors must have visited the same place. (In other

exploration controversies, comparisons like this one are a favorite

resort of the credulous.)

Biddle's enthusiasm seduces him into building a model hero. The

epithets with which he decorates Cabot again and again are

"enterprising and intrepid," "accomplished and enthusiastic." The

1508 decision to turn back south, then, was a simple matter of nerve

versus cowardice, of "the dauntless intrepidity that found a new

impulse in perils before which his terrified companions gave way."

The full flavor of Biddle's idolatry may be tasted in his handling of

Cabot's 1526-30 Spanish expedition to the La Plata River in South

America, the only voyage we can be sure Sebastian actually led. The

accounts by which we know about this expedition are those of Cabot's

underlings and financers, who filed lawsuits against their former

commander and tried to have him arrested when he got back to Spain;

thus our view of it may be one-sided. But it is hard not to picture

the La Plata venture as a four-year disaster. Stimulated by the

successful circumnavigation performed by one of Magellan's ships,

Charles V put Cabot in command of an expedition "for the discovery of

Tharsis, Ophir, and Eastern Cathay." The plan was to explore the

coasts of South America in search of a more northerly passage to the

Pacific than the one Magellan had found.

Soon after reaching Brazil, Cabot let himself be distracted by

Portuguese rumors of great treasures of gold and silver in the

interior. He apparently gave up any intention of searching for the

passage to Cathay and concentrated much of his next three years on

fortune-hunting up the La Plata. As a result of the switch in plans,

several of Cabot's officers threatened revolt. Even before he had

reached the mouth of the river, he had put the troublemakers under

arrest; then he set them on shore, although some were sick with

fever, and sailed away, leaving them to die. (The officers managed to

befriend the natives and eventually made their way to the Portuguese

settlements to the north.) In the harbor near Santa Catalina, Cabot's

flagship ran upon a submerged rock. Later allegations reported that

the commander was the first man to abandon ship, which so demoralized

the crew that the vessel ended up a complete wreck.

Cabot pushed up the La Plata and its tributaries, building forts as

he went. Chasing a rumor of gold, he led his men westward up the

Paraguay River, despite failing provisions and hostile natives. When

a few Indians approached the straggling band of Spaniards and offered

to show them where they could find food, Cabot dispatched thirty men

to follow the guides, who led them into an ambush in which they were

all killed or wounded.

In 1528 Cabot sent one of his ships home to request a relief

expedition. Upon its arrival in Seville, the merchant backers of the

expedition decided at once they wanted nothing more to do with Cabot.

The king, steadfastly loyal, ordered a relief expedition at his own

expense; but his instructions apparently were never carried out.

Meanwhile Cabot had housed his men in a new fort on the Paraná River.

While he was away, Indians attacked and burned the fort, killing most

of its defenders. The native victory encouraged further attacks, and

even though he had retreated with the remainder of his force to the

coast, in the following months Cabot lost another thirty men while

they were out fishing or foraging for roots. Late in 1529 the

survivors decided to flee for Spain, which they did not reach until

the following July.

Cabot returned to face seven years of judicial inquiry. It took the

scribes of the Council for the Indies three months simply to draw up

the accusations and interrogations brought against the commander by

his former subordinates. After two years Cabot was found guilty of

maladministration and disobedience. He was sentenced to four years'

banishment to Morocco as well as heavily fined. For some reason

(perhaps the loyalty of Charles V) the banishment was never put into

effect, and, amazingly, Cabot was allowed to continue in his office

as pilot-major of Spain.

George Parker Winship, a scholar otherwise sympathetic to the

explorer, sums up the La Plata expedition by remarking that Cabot

"discovered only one thing-that he was not qualified for the

leadership of a maritime adventure." Yet Biddle sees it differently.

The La Plata voyage was a four-year conspiracy against a brave man, a

"dark treachery" enacted by opportunistic and cowardly subordinates.

He finds that some of the incriminating testimony "has that air of

vagueness so characteristic of falsehood," yet discovers in the same

documents proof of Cabot's "remarkable gentleness of deportment" and

the "affectionate attachment" binding his men to him.

Product Details

Morris, Jan
Morris, Jan
Morris, Jan
Krakauer, Jon
Morris, Jan
Krakauer, Jon
Roberts, David
Modern Library
New York
Discovery and exploration
Adventurers & Explorers
Impostors and imposture
Discoveries in geography
Imposters and imposture.
Expeditions & Discoveries
General History
Biography - General
Edition Description:
Trade paper
Modern Library Exploration
Series Volume:
Publication Date:
Grade Level:
8 MAPS and 12-PG BandW INSERT
8.5 x 5.5 x .5 in .7 lb

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