English Voyages before Cabot
Although the European
re-discovery of Newfoundland is generally credited to John Cabot
in 1497, we know that as early as the 1480s, English ships were
venturing into the unknown Atlantic Ocean.
The first known voyage,
by John Day, occurred in 1480. In 1481, two Bristol ships, the
George and the Trinity, sailed in search of "a certain Isle
called the Isle of Brasile," a fabled place whose name was
derived from a Gaelic word meaning "blessed" or
"fortunate". The ships in 1481
carried salt, suggesting that the purpose of the voyage had been
to fish. In 1498, a Spaniard in London claimed that the people of
Bristol had sponsored a number of voyages over the previous
several years in search of the fabled island of Brazil. Finally,
there is the letter written by John Day, an English merchant
active in the Spanish trade, reporting on John Cabot's expedition
of 1497; Day claimed that what Cabot discovered "is assumed
and believed to be the mainland that the Bristol men found."
John Day's letter.
This letter was written by the English merchant John Day to an
unidentified Spanish 'Lord Grand Admiral' who is believed to have
been Christopher Columbus.
From Ian Wilson, John Cabot and the Matthew (Tiverton,
England: Redcliffe Press, © 1996) 6. Courtesy of the Spanish
National Archives. Valladolid, Spain.
All this has led some scholars to suggest that these pre-Cabot
Bristol expeditions had actually discovered the Newfoundland
fishing grounds, and that their sponsors had kept this discovery
a secret for as long as possible in order not to share the
fishing grounds with anyone else. Alwyn Ruddock offers the more
cautious conclusion that these several voyages were unsuccessful
efforts to re- discover a fishery which had been found by
accident but then was lost.
Is it possible? Is it reasonable to
maintain that men from Bristol had already discovered the
Newfoundland fishing grounds before Cabot? What precisely was
Bristol's interest in Atlantic exploration?
Bristol and Atlantic
Exploration in the 1400s.
At first glance, Bristol was a
logical place to sponsor English voyages of exploration and
discovery across the Atlantic at the end of the 15th
century. Bristol was one of the most prosperous commercial
seaports in England, second in importance only to London. Its
prosperity was based on its role as middleman in an elaborate
trade network linking Iceland, northwestern Europe, Iberia, and
the Mediterranean. The wealth and energies of at least 250
Bristol merchants were invested in trade in the North Atlantic.
This, together with the city's location in southwestern England,
gave its merchants a powerful advantage in acquiring the
necessary geographical knowledge and maritime technology to
create a positive attitude towards oceanic exploration.
A key commodity in Bristol's
trade network had been Icelandic fish, which was in considerable
demand in southern Europe. Then, beginning in the late 1400s,
Bristol merchants experienced harassment in Iceland which made it
difficult for them to acquire that fish. Those who support the
view that Bristol merchants already knew about Newfoundland
before Cabot, claim that this harassment had caused them to seek
new sources of fish. There are, however, some problems with this
First of all, Bristol was a centre of trade, not of
fishing. Bristol merchants bought and sold fish caught by others.
The Englishmen who fished in Iceland were based in Hull and other
ports on the North Sea coast of England, not in Bristol. The
Bristolians who sponsored voyages into the Atlantic in the 1480s
and 1490s were therefore far more likely to be searching for new
markets and trading partners, not new fishing grounds.
Furthermore, if (for the sake of argument) Bristol already knew
about Newfoundland before 1497, then should Cabot not have
encountered English fishing vessels during his voyage? In fact,
he saw (or at least reported) nothing to suggest that any
Europeans were already in Newfoundland. Perhaps most importantly
of all, the merchants of Bristol showed very little interest in
Newfoundland after 1497, and did not rush to invest in further
exploration into the Atlantic, as we might expect them to do if
they were already in Newfoundland ahead of everyone else. Indeed,
the English share of the European migratory fishery in
Newfoundland did not become substantial until after 1570.
evidence suggests that Bristol's support for voyages
into the Atlantic during the 1400s was part of a search for new
trading prospects, rather than fishing opportunities, and that no
one knew anything about Newfoundland or its fabulous fishing
grounds until Cabot returned to England from his voyage in 1497.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project