Cape Breton Landfall Argument
Before 1949, when Newfoundland joined Canada, Canadian
scholars tended to rely on cartography to argue for a landfall on
Cape Breton Island. Although several maps indicate Cabot's
landfall, all are very late except for the La Cosa map of about
1500. Found in 1832, it is the earliest map to represent any part
of the North American continent. It is a large planisphere of the
entire known world, in colour on oxhide, with the western,
trans-Atlantic part depicted on a larger scale than the Old
World. It was made by Juan de la Cosa, a skilled Basque navigator
who sailed with Columbus, and shows the discoveries of both
Columbus and Cabot. It is probable that Cabot's own chart of his
voyage (later lost) was passed by the Spanish ambassador in
London to the king in Spain, and it is also possible that La Cosa
received information about Cabot's third voyage by the same
channel (Nunn, 1943).
Both Biggar (1911) and Ganong (1929; in Ganong 1964) were
convinced of the importance of La Cosa; they were supported by
Williamson and Skelton (Williamson, 1962), who considered it
'the only map which unambiguously illustrates John Cabot's
voyage of 1497 and - with less certainty - his voyage of 1498'.
The most remarkable aspect of the north-eastern coast' on La Cosa
is that it is marked by place names and a line of five English
flags. These are the map-maker's flags, but some suggest that
they are places where Cabot, like Gilbert at St. John's in 1583,
and Cartier at Gaspe in 1534, claimed the land for the Crown. At
one place, La Cosa locates 'Cauo de ynglaterra'(Cape of
England) and over the sea he writes 'mar de descubierta por
inglese'(sea discovered by the English).
|Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca. 1500.
La Cosa, a Spanish Basque pilot and cosmographer, drew this map shortly after
1500. As owner of the Santa Maria, the vessel that Chrisopher Columbus took to
America in 1492, la Cosa accompanied Columbus on his first two voyages. He then
continued to survey the American coast until 1504.
From W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of
North America (Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, ©1971) 36. Courtesy of
Museo Naval de Madrid, Madrid.
Where is this coast, was it straight, and did it appear to
Cabot to lie east-west? There is a range of answers in the
literature. It has been identified as the north shore of the St.
Lawrence, the south coast of Newfoundland from Cape Race
westwards (including Cape Breton Island), and as the coast from
Cape Breton to the Bay of Fundy. Still others thought that what
was mapped east-west should really have been north-south, so that
the line of flags stretched from Cape Chidley (near Hudson
Strait), either to Cape Race or to Cape Breton. All these
interpretations differ markedly from that of Jackson.
William Ganong (1864-1941), the great New Brunswick
cartographic scholar, performed an analysis of the La Cosa map.
Assuming the flagged area was constructed from Cabot information,
the problem was to identify the true coastlines. Ganong realised
that the La Cosa map might be a simplification of Cabot's own
map, the result of successive re-drawings, and also believed that
it was made with compasses corrected for the very different
declination in Europe, the effect of which was to throw our
coasts out of line in the way shown by Cosa. He concluded that
the named coast was more consistent with Cape Race to Cape Breton
than with any other interpretation.
Ganong thought that Cabot missed Newfoundland on the outward
voyage, made a landfall on Cape Breton, and then returned along
Newfoundland's south coast. Between the third and fourth flags is
written 'Cauo Descubierto' ([the] cape [that was]
discovered); to Ganong, this had to be the landfall. The cape to
the east is (in translation) 'the Cape of St. George',
while to the west is the 'mar descubierta por
iglese'(sea discovered by the English). The islands shown
beneath this phrase could be the way the mosaic of islands,
peninsulas and broken country at the eastern end of Cape Breton
Island looked from the sea. The fourth flag, Ganong thought,
might mark the landing and the erection of marks of English
possession at Louisbourg, a place called (in either English or
French)'English Harbour' until the early 18th century.
Was it here, then, that Cabot erected his large cross with a
banner of England and one of St. Mark'?
Ganong suggested that the 'bight' between flags
three and four represented the great entrance to the Gulf of St.
Lawrence (called Cabot Strait only since 1888). Both he and
G.R.F. Prowse, a Newfoundlander, considered that the La
Cosa's reference to 'Co. de s:Jorge' survived as
'Cape St. George', projecting into the Gulf on the Port
au Port Peninsula of western Newfoundland, and could be the
oldest authenticated place name of European origin not only in
Newfoundland, but also in the entire North American continent. By
this interpretation, then, after examining the Cape Breton coast,
Cabot crossed to Newfoundland, mistaking the Gulf of St. Lawrence
for a great bight of the coast with shore hidden by mist or
distance (precisely as did Cartier 37 years later).
Alternatively, Cabot might have thought the Gulf to be open sea,
in which case, we have good explanation why he described the
discovery as 'two new very large and fertile islands'.
Ganong then took Cabot along the southern coast of
Newfoundland, the flags and place names marking Cape Ray, the
Burgeo area ('Pisques'), where Cabot found the fishery
so abundant, Bear Head ('Co de Lisarte'), Cape La Hune
('Forte'), Hermitage Bay or Bay d'Espoir
('Ro.Longo'), St. Pierre and Miquelon ('lsla de la
Trendar'), and the tip of the Burin Peninsula ('C.
Fastanatre') where, also, the fifth flag records Cauo de
ynglaterra ('Cape of England').
The routes proposed by Ganong and Quinn.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.
This cape is the closest to England on the La Cosa map. What,
then, is the prominent island off the east coast? This, wrote
Ganong, was the way the southern tip of the Avalon might appear
through the mists as Cabot tracked across Placentia Bay. In going
over the same evidence, this is also how Leslie Harris
interpreted it (Harris, 1967). Indeed, Pasqualigo's statement
that on the way back he saw two islands' would fit well as,
perhaps, the fog closed in on the Matthew about Trepassey Bay.
Short of provisions, Cabot would continue eastward, for home.
By Ganong's reconstruction, then, Cabot was unlikely to have
seen any part of Newfoundland north of Cape St. George in the
west and Cape Race in the east. A similar path was followed by
D.B. Quinn, but he suggested a course from Cape Breton stretched
out to reach Cape Bauld (Quinn, 1977), a place where many
scholars bring Cabot in from the Atlantic on his outward voyage
(Harrisse, 1896; Morison, 1971).
The Cape Breton landfall may also be supported by the
so-called Sebastian Cabot' or Paris' map of 1544, found in
Germany in 1856. The map is printed with Spanish legends, which
apparently contain Sebastian Cabot's personal information
(Skelton, in Williamson, 1962). They indicate that the landfall
was made on 24 June and that an adjacent island was named St.
John. They add that the discovery was made by John Cabot and his
son Sebastian, and ascribe the authorship of the map to
Sebastian. The position of the words Prima Tierra Vista indicates
that Cape North, Cape Breton, was the approximate locality of the
land first seen. The date of the landfall is corroborated by
Toby's Chronicle of Bristol, but the maps reliability in other
respects has been questioned (Williamson, 1962).
Sebastian Cabot's World map, ca. 1544.
From Henry Harrisse, Découverte et évolution cartographique de Terre Neuve et des pays circonvoisins 1497-1501-1769: essais de géographie historique et
documentaire (London: Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, 1900). Colorized by Duleepa Wijayawardhana.
However, nearly all the proponents of a Cape Breton landfall -
Markham, Tarducci, Thwaites, Bourinot, Dawson, Harvey, Biggar,
Ganong, Burpee - regarded both the La Cosa and Sebastian
Cabot/Paris maps as documentary evidence which supported their
case. Even if the map is discounted, a case can still be made for
a southern landfall, and the Day letter seems to have made little
difference. Williamson, who wrote both before and after it was
found, opted for Cape Breton in 1929 and for Maine (cautiously)
in 1962, which is also favoured by Quinn (1993); and Vigneras,
who found the Day letter, also argued for Cape Breton (Vigneras,
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project