- Historic Sites
Did Columbus Or Cabot See The Map?
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
That there was a two-way traffic of ideas is conceivable and even likely. This enables us to visualize a possible route by which geographical information available in Iceland, where the Atlantic representation in the Vinland Map doubtless originated, could have been conveyed at least to Portugal, if not to other countries of southern Europe. The Bristol trade with Iceland initiated about 1424 had by the second half of the fifteenth century become substantial and regular, and the Icelandic grounds were frequented by Bristol fishermen. Iceland was the repository of the knowledge about Greenland and lands further west preserved both in folk memory or orally and in the written literature of the sagas and annals; and among the documentary records we may now count a map or maps, no longer extant except in a derivative represented by the western part of the Vinland Map. That the Bristol merchants and fishermen had any access to Icelandic documents is of course exceedingly unlikely; but, in Dr. Williamson’s words, “the story of lands to the west and south, and their traditional names, must have been current in vague form among the illiterate people of the ports and coast with whom the English inevitably had dealings. We do not know if the Bristol men had any intellectual contact with the few who knew the history recorded in the sagas, but it seems very probable that they heard of Markland and Wineland and perhaps of western fisheries which the Icelanders themselves had no need to exploit.” Such a hypothesis not only goes far to explain (as Professor Quinn suggests) both the interest of the Bristol merchants in Brasil as “a territorial key to a fishery” and “the lack of publicity about the discovery of new and extremely rich grounds.” It also illustrates the means by which, despite this “policy of secrecy,” some of the Icelandic talk about western lands might have been transmitted from Bristol to Lisbon or Seville by a similar chain of gossip and hearsay on the quayside and in the counting-house.
A phrase in John Day’s letter describing the Cabot voyage of 1497, which must have been written at the end of 1497 or beginning of 1498, indicates that its recipient already had knowledge of the earlier Bristol discovery of “mainland” in the North Atlantic. The letter is addressed to the “Almirante Mayor,” whom (as Dr. Vigneras has shown) there are grounds for identifying with Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Acceptance of this identification admits the possibility that news of the English discovery may have been in Columbus’ possession before he sailed in 1492 and have contributed to his “conviction that there was land to be found within the range of distances which he anticipated.” It may be added that, if Columbus in fact visited Iceland in 1477, it was very probably in a Bristol vessel that he made the trip, and, if so, he could have shared the Icelandic information picked up by Bristol seamen. We do not go so far in skepticism as Admiral Morison, who writes: “The Vinland story was not likely to come [Columbus’] way, unless he had learned Icelandic and attended saga-telling parties ashore” (S. E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 1942, Vol. 1, p. 35).
That such a “leakage” from Iceland to Bristol and from Bristol to Lisbon or Seville embraced anything more than oral report, and that it extended to documents, let alone a map, may be considered out of the question. But if we make the reasonable assumption that the geographical information of the Vinland Map, or of its Icelandic original, corresponded in its main features to that orally transmitted by the channels suggested above, we have to consider how it fits into the ideological background of the enterprises of Columbus and Cabot. In other words, had either of these imaginative men become aware of the information contained in the Vinland Map, to what use would he have turned it in planning and promoting his enterprise?
Columbus made copious notes on all reports of land or islands in the west that came to his notice, and these were gathered together in the biography by his son Ferdinand. From the fact that they include no mention of Vinland, Admiral Morison has concluded that “Columbus never heard of it” and that “if we accept Ferdinand’s positive evidence of the Iceland voyage, we must also accept his negative evidence that Columbus found no useful evidence there.” Whether the first of these inferences is justified or not, the second is indisputable if we suppose the information available to Columbus from Iceland to have corresponded to that in the Vinland Map. All the evidence which he could collect indicated that both his objective and the best route thither lay in tropical latitudes.
He took Antillia to lie on or near the Tropic of Cancer; if (as we suppose) the world maps he consulted included one like that by Henricus Martellus now at Yale, he could see that a course along the same parallel would bring him to Cipangu and to Mangi, the “cape of Asia.” Any Portuguese expeditions which may have attempted a passage from Madeira or the Azores to land in the northwest were doubtless beaten back by the westerly winds of the North Atlantic; and his experience in the Portuguese navigation to Africa had taught Columbus how to use the wind systems of the central Atlantic. Thus he inevitably thought of a voyage with the northeast trade winds. The southern point of Vinland, as drawn in the Vinland Map, is in the latitude of the English Channel, 25° north of Columbus’ point of departure in the Canaries. Not only was the knowledge reflected in this map (if he had it) not “useful” to his enterprise; it was simply irrelevant.