The John Day Letter
Reproduced from James A Williamson The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII. (Cambridge University Press) 1962, 212-214.
John Day was an English merchant in the Spanish trade. He wrote this letter in
Spain between December 1497 and January 1498 to the "Lord Grand Admiral", probably
Christopher Columbus. Discovered in 1956 in the Archivo General de Simancas, the
letter contains information which adds significantly to the stock of knowledge
concerning the Cabot voyages.
Your Lordship's servant brought me your letter. I have seen its contents and I would
be most desirous and most happy to serve you. I do not find the book Inventio
Fortunata, and I thought that I (or he) was bringing it with my things, and I am
very sorry not [to] find it because I wanted very much to serve you. I am sending the
other book of Marco Polo and a copy of the land which has been found [by John Cabot].
I do not send the map because I am not satisfied with it, for my many occupations
forced me to make it in a hurry at the time of my departure; but from the said copy
your Lordship will learn what you wish to know, for in it are named the capes of the
mainland and the islands, and thus you will see where land was first sighted, since
most of the land was discovered after turning back. Thus your Lordship will know that
the cape nearest to Ireland is 1800 miles west of Dursey Head which is in Ireland,
and the southernmost part of the Island of the Seven Cities is west of Bordeaux
River, and your Lordship will know that he landed at only one spot of the mainland,
near the place where land was first sighted, and they disembarked there with a
crucifix and raised banners with the arms of the Holy Father and those of the King
of England, my master; and they found tall trees of the kind masts are made, and
other smaller trees, and the country is very rich in grass. In that particular spot,
as I told your Lordship, they found a trail that went inland, they saw a site where
a fire had been made, they saw manure of animals which they thought to be farm
animals, and they saw a stick half a yard long pierced at both ends, carved and
painted with brazil, and by such signs they believe the land to be inhabited. Since
he was with just a few people, he did not dare advance inland beyond the shooting
distance of a crossbow, and after taking in fresh water he returned to his ship.
All along the coast they found many fish like those which in Iceland are dried in
the open and sold in England and other countries, and these fish are called in
English 'stockfish'; and thus following the shore they saw two forms running on
land one after the other, but they could not tell if they were human beings or
animals; and it seemed to them that there were fields where they thought might also
be villages, and they saw a forest whose foliage looked beautiful. They left England
toward the end of May, and must have been on the way 35 days before sighting land;
the wind was east-north-east and the sea calm going and coming back, except for one
day when he ran into a storm two or three days before finding land; and going so far
out, his compass needle failed to point north and marked two rhumbs below. They spent
about one month discovering the coast and from the above mentioned cape of the
mainland which is nearest to Ireland, they returned to the coast of Europe in
fifteen days. They had the wind behind them, and he reached Brittany because the
sailors confused him, saying that he was heading too far north. From there he came
to Bristol, and he went to see the King to report to him all the above mentioned;
and the King granted him an annual pension of twenty pounds sterling to sustain
himself until the time comes when more will be known of this business, since with
God's help it is hoped to push through plans for exploring the said land more
thoroughly next year with ten or twelve vessels-because in his voyage he had only
one ship of fifty
and twenty men and food for seven or eight months-and they want to carry out this
new project. It is considered certain that the cape of the said land was found and
discovered in the past by the men from Bristol who found 'Brasil' as your Lordship
well knows. It was called the Island of Brasil, and it is assumed and believed to
be the mainland that the men from Bristol found.
Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what
happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and
ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.
Magnificent Lord, as to other things pertaining to the case, I would like to serve
your Lordship if I were not prevented in doing so by occupations of great importance
relating to shipments and deeds for England which must be attended to at once and
which keep me from serving you: but rest assured, Magnificent Lord, of my desire and
natural intention to serve you, and when I find myself in other circumstances and
more at leisure, I will take pains to do so; and when I get news from England about
the matters referred to above-for I am sure that everything has to come to my
knowledge-I will inform your Lordship of all that would not be prejudicial to the
King my master. In payment for some services which I hope to render you, I beg your
Lordship to kindly write me about such matters, because the favour you will thus do
me will greatly stimulate my memory to serve you in all the things that may come to
my knowledge. May God keep prospering your Lordship's magnificent state according to
your merits. Whenever your Lordship should find it convenient, please remit the book
or order it to be given to Master George.
I kiss your Lordship's hands,
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.