Early Exploration

Before Cabot
The Voyage of St. Brendan

Pre-Cabot Bristol Explorers

Other Claimants

Norse







The Basque and Portuguese make claims of voyages to Newfoundland before 1497.
Other Claims for Pre-Cabot Discovery

Welsh and Scottish claimants

In addition to those who claim that English voyages to Newfoundland were taking place before Cabot made his famous voyage in 1497, there are some who make similar claims for the Basques, the Portuguese, even the Scots and the Welsh.

Some of these claims are easily dismissed as inventions designed to promote pride of family or nation. For instance, the claim that a Welsh prince named Madoc established a colony in North America around 1170 is a persistent one, yet there is no historical evidence that Madoc ever existed. The story of Madoc first surfaced in the 1580s, and may have been encouraged by the Tudor royal family as a means of glorifying their Welsh heritage, while casting doubt at the same time on Spanish claims to having been the first to discover the New World. Similarly, the claim that Henry Sinclair, a Scot from the Orkney Islands, explored northeastern North America a century before Cabot rests more on faith than historical evidence. Robert McGhee points out that "As St. Brendan serves the Irish and Prince Madoc the Welsh, so Prince Henry Sinclair serves as the Scottish candidate for discoverer of the New World." (McGhee, 78.) Until evidence is produced, these claims must be treated as articles of faith and myth, not history.

Basque and Portuguese claims

Other claims, while stronger, also stumble over the same need for evidence. The Basques have long insisted that they were here before Cabot. Yet no less an authority on the Basques in Newfoundland than Selma Huxley Barkham is emphatic in saying that there is no evidence in the extensive Basque archives of any voyages to Newfoundland until 1511, and no regular voyages were made until at least the 1520s.

The Portuguese also claim that they were fishing here before Cabot arrived. It is true that as early as 1452, the Portuguese mariner Diego de Teive voyaged into the Atlantic and discovered new islands belonging to the Azores archipelago, thereby adding to those already known. Some scholars claim he sighted land further to the west, which could have been Newfoundland.

Less is known of other voyages, such as the search in 1473-74 for new islands and continents in the north. That voyage was organized by the king of Denmark, but the initiative, and probably the pilot, came from Portugal. The likely pilot was Joäo Corte Real, who was rewarded with a governorship in the Azores for having discovered "Stockfish Land." Some have speculated that this may have been Newfoundland, but without more details and more evidence we cannot make this conclusion. Besides, if the Portuguese had discovered Newfoundland before Cabot, does it not seem logical to assume that they would have developed a substantial fishing industry there before anyone else? The available evidence suggests that Portuguese fishermen were active in Newfoundland early in the 1500s. But they were not the first to record fishing voyages to Newfoundland, nor do they appear to have had a very substantial fishery.

We must conclude that, while it is entirely possible that some Europeans may have stumbled across Newfoundland before Cabot, the credit for discovering Newfoundland in the sense of finding it and bringing it to the attention of Europe belongs to him.

©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project

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