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
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 argument.

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.

All the 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.

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