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,