Chapter 1 - Before John Cabot's Voyage of Discovery
Five hundred and eleven years before John Cabot landed in Newfoundland, Bjarni Herjalfsson, an Iceland Merchant, first sighted the coast of North America, most likely the northeast coast of Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador.
Bjarni had spent the winter of 985-986 in Norway and during that summer decided to sail to Iceland and visit his father. When he arrived, he discovered that Herjolf, his father, had gone to Greenland with Eirik the Red. Bjarni, therefore, decided to sail on to Greenland but was unfamiliar with the sailing directions, for a safe journey. After three days sailing, Iceland disappeared from view. The winds commenced blowing from the northeast fog blanketed the ocean and he became lost. The weather improved and he was able to take new bearings and sail in a northerly direction. He sailed for a day and sighted a land of forest and low hills. This was the first recorded sighting of North America by a European. He then sailed north for two more days and came to a flat forested land. With a southwest wind he sailed for three days and sighted land with glaciers and high mountains. He did not land at either of the sightings as his prime purpose was to reach Greenland. Sailing for four more days in a westerly gale he finally reached Greenland and Herjolfsnes (today named Ikigait) in the Eastern settlement and the home of his father.
Fifteen years later in 1001, Leif Eiriksson sailed to the Western Ocean seeking the land Bjarni had sighted in the year 986. He decided to sail a reverse course from that used by Bjarni on his voyage back to Greenland and found the land Bjarni had seen was northeastern Newfoundland, the coast of Labrador and Baffin Island.
Leif decided to spend the winter in Newfoundland (Vinland) probably present day L’Anse aux Meadows and return to Greenland the next year 1002. This was the first recorded landing and extended visit on North American soil by Europeans. Attempts at colonization ended in failure.
By the year 1200, one hundred and ninety-eight years after Leif Eiriksson first wintered in Newfoundland, the climate began to change, it began to grow colder. By the middle of the 15th century the cold was becoming extreme. The sea ice line, began to move south. The north coast of Iceland and the coast of Greenland became blocked with ice. The latter due to the actions of the East Greenland current in moving the ice south and then north.
According to the Kings Mirror, a well respected source of information on Greenland and area in the mid-thirteenth century, the sea ice was causing much concern. One hundred years later in 1350, Ivar Bardarson, a Norwegian bureaucrat who compiled the report Discription of Greenland, related how the old sailing directions had to be changed because of the southward advance of the polar ice line. The new sailing directions would take mariners south of the 60th parallel.
Merchant fishermen continued to trade in Greenland as late as c1476,when English skipper merchants from Bristol are reported to have arrived there on business. By c1500 the Greenland settlements were abandoned because it was not practical to trade there due to the extreme difficulties of navigating sailing ships through the ice. The lack of grazing land and wood for fuel and building material due to the cold weather, also contributed to the decline of the settlements.
English merchant fishermen had for centuries fished in the waters surrounding Iceland and traded cloth and other items for everyday use with the Icelanders during the voyage. The vessels departed from Southampton, Boston, London, Bristol and other ports in the spring returning in the fall. The Danish Kings of the time were unhappy with the English, reaping the harvest of the sea and trading without paying dues to the realm. They endeavoured to force the Englishmen to report to Bergen for collection of tariffs. Owing to pressure from the Danes, Henry VI of England, in 1430, enacted a law directing that all trade was to pass through Bergen. In 1450 a treaty was signed between England and Denmark to this effect. The treaty was opposed by the merchant fishermen of Bristol. The result of the treaty was to turn the seas north to Iceland into a battle zone until the last decade of the 15th century.
After the assession of Henry V11 to the throne of England, he was able, in 1490, to conclude a treaty with the King of Denmark and end the maritime war which dated from the middle of that century. Englishmen were now able to resume voyages to the traditional fishing grounds.
Meanwhile, the merchant fishermen of Bristol not willing to submit to the law of 1430 or the treaty of 1450, decided to fish further to the west of Iceland, in what was known as the Western Ocean. On their many voyages to Iceland and Greenland they must have heard tales of land to the west, which had been visited by the Vikings and mentioned in the Norse sagas where fishing was good and the land was inhabited by eaters of raw meat, while further south a different race of people lived on a large island.
It is recorded that on July 15, 1480, John Jay junior, a merchant and importer of wines, in a ship of 80 tons, left Bristol on a voyage to the west of Ireland in search of the mythical island of Brasil. Nine weeks later on September 18, the ship entered a port in Ireland due to heavy weather. The master was John Lloyd the most experienced master mariner in England.
It is recorded that on July 6, 1481, two ships, one-eighth owned by Thomas Croft, sailed from Bristol in search of the Isle of Brasil. We know the two ships returned to Bristol because Thomas Croft who was collector of customs there, was charged with loading each ship with 40 bushels of salt for the purpose of trading. He explained that the salt was to be used in payment for the repair of equipment and maintenance of the ships. Was the salt cargo to be used for salting fish caught in the western ocean and dried as stock fish and smuggled into Bristol? Was the myth of Brasil used as an excuse to perpetuate fishing voyages to the western ocean, west of Ireland? Since the cost of such voyages financed by the merchants of Bristol was considerable, it seems unlikely that they would fund such voyages without some monetary returns. In 1498, Pedro de Ayola, the associate Spanish envoy in London sent a report to the King and Queen of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, on events in England, including Bristol. Part of his report said, For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three and four caravels to go in search of the Island of Brasil and the Seven Cities according to the fancy of the Genoese (Cabot). This would mean that the merchants of Bristol were sending ships west into the Atlantic between 1491 and 1497, extending the known length of time for these voyages form 1480 to 1497, a period of seventeen years. But John Cabot does not appear in records in England before 1495 so Pedro de Ayala must have included Cabot for the last two or three years of the voyages. Would these hard nosed merchant fishermen send ships to the western ocean yearly without returns on money spent in outfitting the ships for long ocean voyages? It’s very hard to believe that they would.
A letter written by an English merchant named John Day, who imported wine through the port of Bristol and who was residing in the Andalusia region of southern Spain during the winter of 1497-98 and addressed to a Spanish notable, who may have been Christopher Columbus, on describing John Cabot’s voyage said, 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 knows. It was called the Island of Brasil and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men of Bristol found. Is this proof that the men of Bristol discovered North America before John Cabot’s voyage of 1497? To this question we can only give an affirmative answer.
As we have seen, ships from Bristol were going yearly in search of Brasil. In reality, they were going to North American waters fishing for cod fish, which they found in abundance. News was slow in travelling in the 1480s and 1490s if people outside Bristol heard of large catches of fish by the Bristolians, they assumed it was Iceland fish.
When John Cabot received his letters patent from King Henry VII of England to explore to the westward, he knew where he was going. He had talked to the merchant fishermen of Bristol who had been there before and he included them in his anew.
If the men of Bristol were smuggling fish into England through Ireland, they needed a neutral person to find the new Isle and make their fishing expeditions legitimate. John Cabot had come to Bristol at the right time and was to become the great discoverer.