The Soncino Letters

(Raimondo de Soncino was ambassador of the Duke of Milan in London. Both letters are addressed to the Duke.)

Reproduced from H.P. Biggar, ed., The precursors of Jacques Cartier 1497-1534: A Collection of Documents relating to the Early History of the Dominion of Canada (Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau 1911) 15 - 21. Original documents housed in the Milan Archives, Milan.

First letter, dated Aug 24, 1497 (extract).

...Also some months ago his majesty the king [Henry VII] sent out a Venetian who is a very good mariner and has considerable skill in discovering new islands, and he has returned safe, and has found two new very large and fertile islands, and also discovered the Seven Cities, 400 leagues from the island of England, on the western passage. This next spring his majesty the king means to send him out with fifteen or twenty ships...

Second letter, dated 18 December, 1497.

My most Illustrious and most Excellent Lord.

Perhaps amidst so many occupations of your Excellency it will not be unwelcome to learn how his majesty here [Henry VII] has acquired a portion of Asia without a stroke of his sword. In this kingdom there is a lower class Venetian named Master Zoanne Caboto, of a fine mind, very expert in navigation, who, seeing that the most serene kings, first of Portugal, then of Spain have occupied unknown islands, meditated the achievement of a similar acquisition for his majesty aforesaid, and having obtained royal grants securing to himself the profitable control of what ever he should discover, since the sovereignty was reserved to the crown, with a small ship and eighteen persons he committed himself to fortune and set out from Bristol, a western port of this kingdom, and having passed Ireland, which is still further to the west and then shaped a northerly course, he began to navigate to the eastern parts, leaving (during several days) the North star to the right; and having wandered about considerably, at length he fell in with terra firma, where he set up the royal standard, and having taken possession for this king and collected several tokens, he came back again. The said Master Zoanne, being a foreigner and a poor man, would not be believed if the crew, who are nearly all English and from Bristol, did not testify that what he says is true. This Master Zoanne has a drawing of the world on a map and also on a solid globe, which he has made, and shows the point he reached, and going towards the east, he has passed considerably the country of the Tanais. And they say that the land is excellent and [the air] temperate, and they think that Brazil wood and silks grow there; and they affirm that the sea is covered with fish which are caught not merely with nets but with baskets, a stone being attached to make the basket sink in the water, and this I heard the said Master Zoanne relate. And said Englishmen, his companions, say that they will fetch so many fish that this kingdom will have no more need of Iceland, from which country there comes a very great store of fish which are called stock-fish. But Master Zoanne has set his mind on something greater; for he expects to go from that place already occupied, constantly hugging the shore, further towards the east until he is opposite an island called by him Cipango, situated in the equinoctial region, where he thinks grow all the spices of the world and also the precious stones; and he says that once upon a time he was at Mecca, whither the spices are brought by caravan from distant countries, and those who brought them, on being asked where the said spices grow, answered that they did not know, but that other caravans come with this merchandise to their homes from distant countries, who again say that they are brought to them from other remote regions. And he argues thus, that if the orientals affirm to the southerners, that these things come from a distance, and so from hand to hand, presupposing the rotundity of the earth, it must bo that the last people gets them in the north towards the west. And he speaks of it in such a way that, not costing me more than it does, I too believe him. And what is more, his majesty here, who is wise and not lavish, likewise puts some faith in him; for since his return he makes him a very fair allowance, as this Master Zoanne himself tells me. And it is said that in the spring his majesty aforesaid will fit out some ships, and besides will give him all the malefactors, and they will proceed to that country to form a colony, by means of which they hope to establish a greater depot for spices in London than there is at Alexandria. And the chief men in the enterprise belong to Bristol, great sailors, who now that they know where to go, say that it is not more than a fifteen days voyage thither, nor do they ever have storms after they leave Ireland. I have also talked with a Burgundian, a companion of Master Zoanne's, who confirms everything and wishes to return there because the Admiral (for thus Master Zoanne now styles himself) has given him an island; and he has given another to a barber of his from Genoese Castiglione, and both of them consider themselves counts, nor does my Lord the Admiral esteem himself less than a prince. I think that on this voyage will also go some poor Italian monks who all have promises of bishoprics. And having become a friend of the Admiral's, if I wish to go I should have an archbishopric, but I have thought the benefices which your Excellency has reserved for me a safer thing, and I beg indeed that should any become vacant in my absence, Your Excellency will see that possession is given to me, making the necessary arrangements in the meanwhile that they be not taken from me by others, who being on the spot, are able to be much more diligent than I, who am reduced in this country to eating at every meal ten or twelve courses and to remaining three hours at table each time, twice a day, for love of Your Excellency, to whom I humbly recommend myself.

Your :Excellency's most humble servant,


London, 18 December, 1497.