Evidence for a Northern Landfall
Cabot's own record of 1497 voyage has disappeared and his
crew left no accounts. The only information available came from
non-participants - three letters from two foreign agents in
England, Raimondo de Soncino and Lorenzo Pasqualigo, long known,
and the John Day letter, discovered in the mid-20th century
There is very little more in the whole record relating to this
voyage except dates for the beginning and end of it set down in
various chronicles, which may not be reliable, and maps made in
succeeding years which incorporate Cabot s own lost information.
What is most remarkable is the paucity of knowledge about the
voyage; it is not first-hand, and all those who retailed their
landfall theories before the Day letter was found had only a
dozen lines to use. As a result, it is impossible to say with
absolute certainty where John Cabot sailed. All that historians
can do is to take the available evidence, and try to construct a
reasonable hypothesis. As a result it is impossible to
confidently say where John Cabot sailed and first sighted land.
All that historians have been able to do is to take the available
evidence, and try to construct some reasonable assumptions.
Landing Sites - Northern Landfall
Using the documentary evidence, and leaving aside maps for the
moment, how well can we reconstruct Cabot's voyage, adding
our knowledge of 15th century navigation methods, and what we
believe to have been the effect of wind and weather on a westerly
voyage in summer?
The voyage can be broken down into four segments: the Atlantic
crossing; the landfall; coasting; and the return. This will help
us understand why there have been so many different
interpretations. It is difficult to separate these segments, and
some scholars do not begin their reconstructions from the
beginning. Generally, however, all those who have speculated
about the voyage try to find fixed points of best evidence,
around which other circumstances may be fitted to build a
The Atlantic Crossing
The first divergence of opinion is whether Cabot left Bristol
in early or late May - modern scholars, using the Day letter,
tend to favour the second alternative (Jackson, 1963). That
aside, it is generally agreed that Cabot would have sailed down
the Bristol Channel, across to Fastnet, and then north along the
Irish coast before turning west. But how far? This is a matter of
great importance, since once out of sight of land navigators
sailed by latitude. It is often assumed that Cabot's point
of departure was Dursey Head (51°31' N), since it was mentioned
by John Day, but this is not universally accepted. Harrisse
(1892), selected Valencia (51°50' N) on the basis of the number
of days taken to cross the Atlantic. Dawson (1897) thought Cabot
would have gone as far north as 53° N in order to get as close
to Asia as he could, according to the maps at his disposal. For
similar reasons, Jackson (1963) argued that Achill Head (54° 04
N) is the most likely place.
Shown are the various headlands from which Cabot
possibly began his Atlantic crossing.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.
A northerly departure is probable, but could Cabot have
drifted off course? S. E. Dawson (1897) and Clements Markham (1893) thought
that currents and magnetic variations affecting his compass could
have pulled him as much as 200 miles south Modern scholars, with
access to the Day letter and a greater knowledge of 15th century
navigational techniques, tend to think that Cabot would have kept
more or less on course. He was familiar with the phenomenon of
compass variation, kept the North Star on his right, had
instruments with which to check latitude, and had ways to
measure, if only approximately, how far west he had travelled.
And how far did he travel on the crossing? Pasqualigo reported
it was 700 leagues from England to the landfall. Day said it was
1,800 millas from the landfall to Ireland. These distances
translate into 1,826 nautical miles and 1,400 nautical miles
respectively, and appear to be underestimates. Soncino stated
that Cabot had 'passed far beyond the country of the
Tanais', meaning Tartary or Cathay, which Jackson interprets
to mean more than 1,800 nautical miles.
To distance must be added the time taken. Day said the passage
took 35 days. If the first five took Cabot to the Irish coast, 30
are left to cross the Atlantic. Assuming that the Matthew could
sail within six points of the wind at five knots, Jackson added
seasonally expected winds in nine consecutive zones, and reckoned
that Cabot could have crossed the Atlantic from Ireland in just
under 24 days, nearly 36 days in all. The currents would have
reduced his latitude from about 54° N to 53° N or 52° N. This
brings Cabot to the south coast of Labrador, in the area of Cape St.
Lewis (52°22 N). If Cabot had checked his observations, he would
have found that he was approximately in the latitude of Dursey
Head, 1,800 millas to the east.
The Jackson northern landfall argument.
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.
The landfall occurred on 24 June, and Cabot was back in
Bristol on 6 August, after a 15 day crossing from the easternmost
cape 'of the mainland' he had discovered. He therefore
explored the region for about a month. Pasqualigo said Cabot
coasted 700 leagues, and Day stated that he sailed as far south
as the parallel of the Bordeaux river, approximately 45°35' N.
The literary evidence describing the landfall again comes from
Pasqualigo, Soncino, and Day. Taken together it appears that
Cabot and his men went ashore, the first Europeans since the
Norse (Englishmen led by an Italian) to set foot in North
America. They put up a cross and planted beside it the banners of
England and Venice, thus claiming the country for the king of
England. They met no inhabitants, but saw signs of human life.
Cabot thought he had reached the northeastern extremity of Asia
and, like Columbus, thought the populous cities with roofs of
gold, and the sources of silk and spices, could not be too far
Jackson argues that from Labrador, Cabot sailed south and
west, since that was the direction in which he thought Cathay was
located. He entered the Straits of Belle Isle, and choosing the
eastern shore because it looked like mainland, reached Cape Ray.
Here the land swung abruptly to the east, and Cabot realised that
he had found an island which, because it was not large enough to
be Cipango, had to be the Island of the Seven Cities, mentioned
by most sources. At Cape Race he sailed north to regain a
latitude near to that he had taken from Ireland, turning east
near Fogo and reaching Brittany before returning to Bristol.
Jackson's reconstruction of the 1497 voyage is one of many,
and does not rely on cartographic evidence. Moreover, Jackson was
neither a Canadian nor a Newfoundlander a factor which should not
be discounted, since in controversial matters like the Cabot
landfall, patriotism has had a definite impact on interpretation.
©1997, Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Web Site Project