Did Columbus Or Cabot See The Map?


Unlike Columbus, John Cabot has left no explicit statement either of his objectives and of the means by which he proposed to attain them, or of the experience and reasoning by which his project was formulated. On all these matters no writing from his hand or of his composition survives. We can only visualize them from the statements which he is reported by contemporaries to have made and by deduction from his recorded actions. The evidence, as surveyed most recently by Dr. Williamson and Professor Quinn, points to certain conclusions which are logically related to one another and to the Atlantic ventures of the Bristol men and of Columbus; and they are here summarized.

Cabot, like Columbus, sought a westward passage to Cathay by the shortest sea route. He was probably present in Valencia to witness Columbus’ triumphant return in 1493; but he could not credit Columbus’ identification of his discoveries with the Asian mainland. Study of the globe would show him that, because of the convergence of the meridians, a passage in higher latitudes would be shorter than that made, almost within the tropic, by Columbus. If and when news of the Bristol discovery of land in the northwest reached him, he must have realized, first, that here were men who had mastered the winds and navigation for a westward passage in these latitudes; and, second, that the “Brasil” found by the Bristol venturers might turn out to be at worst an island which would serve as “a half-way house to a more northerly part of the Asiatic coast,” at best “the north-east corner of Asia, projecting more towards Europe than the tropical region,” which could be coasted south-west “to Cipango and the rich tropical part of the Great Khan’s empire. These would be in Columbus’s latitudes, but they would be far beyond Columbus in longitude.” That Cabot probably adopted the more sanguine of these two interpretations is suggested by his confident report, after his return in 1497, tnat he had “discovered mainland 700 leagues away, which is the country of the Great Khan.” The geographical picture which he had in mind before he sailed would then correspond to that illustrated in the later world maps of Contarini-Rosselli (1506), Ruysch (1507-08), and Vesconte Maggiolo (ca. 1510 and 1511). These cartographers show the recently discovered coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, in the longitude of the eastern Antilles, as the Atlantic seaboard of a great promontory jutting eastward from northeast Asia, with its southern coast trending first west and then south to the point of Mangi, in Cathay. In this representation the Spanish discoveries in the Caribbean are separated by a broad sea passage both from the English and Portuguese landfalls in the northwest and from the mainland of Asia.

This was the pattern of land and water which probably ruled Cabot’s thought before he sailed from Bristol in 1497, and certainly did so after his return and in the planning of his next voyage. How would he have reconciled it with the delineation in the Vinland Map if this map or the information in it had, through a Bristol intermediary, come to his knowledge? To simplify the argument, let us make the improbable assumption that Cabot had seen some version of the map itself. Comparison of its representation of the North Atlantic with the courses and distances logged by the Bristol pilots would undoubtedly have led him to identify the lately discovered “Brasil” with the southern part of Vinland as shown on the map. This would have provided him with mutual confirmation of the reliability of his two sources. He would have seen that Vinland extended, on the map, little south of the latitude of Bristol and that, if it were an island (as it is depicted) and not mainland, it would not bar an onward voyage to Cathay on a course changed slightly south of west. On the other hand, he might well have noted that the western coast of Vinland appeared to be drawn from conjecture and not from discovery, and concluded that the question whether the Vinland of the map represented an island or the eastern face of a continental coast remained open for investigation. That in June-July, 1497, he coasted 300 leagues of land in a month, from west to east, must have convinced him that the “continental” interpretation was correct and that “Brasil” and “Vinland” were sections of the mainland of Asia.