Did Columbus Or Cabot See The Map?

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In the Vinland Map we see the only known cartographic delineation of American lands before the discoveries of Columbus and Cabot. So far as the evidence goes, this unique record remained unnoticed by geographical writers, by projectors and explorers, and by cartographers. We may still ask whether, more positively than all the hints of western land accumulated in the fifteenth-century maps and texts, it served in some way to bridge “the gap between two epochs of Atlantic discovery.”

The western part of the Vinland Map presents a chart of the Atlantic which can be seen to indicate alternative westward ocean passages on which the navigator might hope to pick up land. Taking his departure from a port of the Iberian Peninsula and sailing down into the zone of the northeasterly trade winds, he could then lay a course west or southwest on which he would find Antillia [the mythical island which appears on so many early maps, including the Vinland Map] lying across his bows. These were in fact the courses set by Columbus in the late summer of 1492, and Antillia was the first land which he expected to sight on his westward passage from the Canaries. Martin Behaim lays down, in his globe of 1492, the Island of St. Brendan, with an outline very like that of Antillia in the fifteenth-century charts and in the Vinland Map.

Two northern sea routes, by parallel sailing, are suggested by the disposition of lands in the Vinland Map. One is that of the Norse navigation due west from Norway to Iceland and Greenland, or direct from Norway to the south point of Greenland. The other, using the northeasterly winds of early summer and of autumn in this zone, makes a course westward from southern England or Ireland, with perhaps a sight of [the mythical isles of] Brasil or Mayda on the way, to a landfall in Vinland. By this route, from 1480 or earlier, the Bristol merchants set forth regular voyages in search of “the Island of Brasylle on the west part of Ireland,” or “to search &: fynde a certain Isle called the Isle of Brasile.” At some date before 1494 their search was crowned by the discovery of a mainland which they called Brasil. [See D. B. Quinn, “The Argument for the English Discovery of America between 1480 and 1494,” Geographic Journal , Vol. 127 (1961), pp. 277-85.] In Dr. J. A. Williamson’s words (The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII , 1962), “it was these unknown men who first worked out the course from the British Isles to the north-east corner of America”; and Bristol was the base selected by John Cabot for his western voyages to find (as he supposed) Cathay. In May-June, 1497, Cabot’s course, which was doubtless that of the preceding expeditions of the Bristol men, took him along the south coast of Ireland, north for “some days,” and then west for thirty-five days on an ENE wind to his landfall. The land which he discovered was “assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found” some years earlier. On his return voyage in July, with favorable west winds, Cabot made a passage of fifteen days from (probably) Cape Race in Newfoundland to a landfall in Brittany. The details of the courses out and home are given in the letter of John Day, discovered by Dr. L. A. Vigneras in the Simancas archives in 1956.

The course of the pioneering voyages to the west which resulted in landfalls authenticated by documents is therefore consonant with the geography of the Atlantic portrayed in the Vinland Map. This is very far from proof that the map or its content was known to the promoters and leaders of these enterprises. Voyages made in the fifteenth century by a number of Portuguese venturers in search of land in the western Atlantic are also attested, more or less loosely, in documents of various kinds. Most of them set out from the Azores, Madeira, or the Cape Verde Islands; and there is no serious evidence, until near the end of the century, that they sought or found any objective more substantial than the imaginary islands—Antillia, the Seven Cities, St. Brendan—displayed in contemporary charts and granted by royal letters-patent to the expectant discoverers. The evidence for these expeditions is surveyed by S. E. Morison in Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (1940). Two of them have been claimed to have reached Newfoundland or the Grand Banks. As Admiral Morison shows, the course of Diogo de Teive and Pedro de Velasco in 1452, as described by Las Casas, could not have brought them to the Banks; and the late testimony to an American landfall by Joâo Vaz Corte Real in 1472 seems far too slight to carry any burden of proof.

Some of these stories were collected by Columbus in support of his project; and some no doubt were transmitted to Bristol, the principal English terminus of the trade with Portugal and Madeira, by seamen’s gossip. It can even be argued that such “an exchange of ideas between men with a common interest in the farther Atlantic” justifies us in seeing the Portuguese voyages out into the ocean as an impulse behind the Bristol interest in the search for distant islands, which is attested from 1480 onward.