Cape Breton Landfall Argument
If modern scholars generally favour a northern landfall for
Cabot's 1497 voyage, there has been strong support for a landfall
on Cape Breton Island. Before 1949, when Newfoundland joined Canada,
Canadian scholars used cartographic evidence to argue this
conclusion, and the theory has never disappeared
The central exhibit was, and remains, 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 ox hide, with the western, transatlantic
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 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).
The La Cosa Map
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 Gaspé 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 (1963).
William Ganong (1864-1941), the great New Brunswick cartographic
scholar, analyzed the La Cosa map. He assumed that the flagged
area was constructed from Cabot information, and might be a
simplification of Cabot's own map, the result of successive
re-drawings. He also thought 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. He
concluded that the named coast was more consistent with Cape
Race to Cape Breton than with any other interpretation.
Landed at Cape Breton
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 a good
explanation why he described the discovery as 'two new very large
and fertile islands'.
Coasts Along Southern Newfoundland
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).
Sebastian Cabot Map
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 map's reliability in other respects has been questioned
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, 1957).
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project
Updated by James Hiller and Jenny Higgins, June 2013