It took Europe a century to recover from the Black Death. By the
mid-15th century, Portugal was busy exploring the coast
of Africa, seeking a way to the riches of India and Cathay
(China). In 1492, Spain, having completed the Reconquista, was ready to
explore an alternative route by sponsoring Christopher
Columbusís Western voyage. But Northern Europe was not idle. In
England, Bristol sailors had, for some time, been interested in
pursuing westward exploration; Bristol fishermen had also sailed
as far west as Iceland in pursuit of cod. In 1497, John Cabot or Giovanni Caboto, like Columbus a Genoese by birth, an explorer sponsored
by England, was the first European to touch North American
shores since the Norse.
The main source that refers to the Cabot voyage is a letter written in 1498
by an English wine merchant calling himself "John Day" to a
Spanish "Almirante Mayor" (almost certainly Christopher
Columbus). The Day letter speculated that Cabot may have made a
voyage in 1495 or 1496, prior to his 1497 voyage, during which he
discovered North America. More information exists for Cabot's
1497 expedition in the small vessel Matthew, which left
Bristol in May of that year. Day's letter offers some details of
Cabot's 1497 journey, noting that landfall was made on June
24, "1800 miles west of Dursey Head which is in Ireland" and
that Cabot and his Bristolmen "landed at only one spot of the
mainland". The exact location of Cabot's landfall cannot be
determined, but it was almost certainly in Newfoundland.
Cabotís voyage does not seem to have been inspired by Columbus's
discoveries in the Southern Atlantic. Sailing from Bristol,
Cabot's goal seems to have been the "Isle of Hy-Brasil," a
fictional island believed to lie at a northern latitude, due
west of Ireland. This was the traditional northern European
route used by the Irish, the Norse, and other real and imaginary
voyagers to the mythical islands of the Ocean Sea.
However, when he returned from his first voyage, Cabot's
geographical imagination had extended to the exploration of a new land and the discovery of
a water route from Bristol to the Orient. In 1498, Cabot was
given a second letter of patent by King Henry VII to further explore
this new land and, with a fleet of five ships, departed Bristol
for the northwest. While he and his fleet disappeared and were
heard no more, Cabot's death did not destroy English interest in
pursuing the tantalizing glimpse of a route to Asia that his first
voyage had offered.
Moreover, Cabot's voyage represented the beginning of the
Newfoundland fishery. Indeed, after his voyage in 1497, John
Cabot's crew reported on the unusual concentration of fish,
particularly cod, along the coast of Newfoundland.
Following the century of the Black Plague, Europe was desperate
for food, particularly for sources of protein that could be
consumed during the 153 meatless days of the Catholic calendar.
The English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and Norwegian fishermen
had been competing for the best fishing grounds in the Atlantic
ocean, as far west as Iceland. The rich cod banks off the coast
of Labrador therefore provided an incentive for more voyages to
By 1580, over 400 Portuguese, Spanish, English and French ships
with a combined crew of over 10,000 came every summer to
Newfoundland in search of cod.
The French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen tended to fish on
the Grand Banks and other banks out to sea, where fish were
always available. They salted their fish on board ship and it
was not dried until brought to Europe.
The English fishermen, however, concentrated on fishing inshore. These fishermen used small boats
and returned to shore every day. They developed a system of
light salting, washing and drying onshore which became very
popular because the fish could remain edible for years. Little
by little, dry fisheries were established on land, two or three
months every summer, and later gave birth to permanent
There was also a thriving whale hunting operated by Basques in
While fishing did not require native labor, it was the occasion
for contacts with Native Americans and the beginning of trade.
The fishing activity thus led to the beginning of the fur trade
with the Natives, with furs being exchanged for iron or brass
pots and kettles and glass beads. By 1600, there were big summer
gatherings of Algonquin, Hurons and Montagnais in Tadoussac to
trade with Breton fishermen.
Source: John L. Allen, "From Cabot to Cartier: The
Early Exploration of Eastern North America, 1497-1543", Annals of the Association of American Geographers,
Vol. 82, No. 3, September 1992, pp. 500-521.
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the
Association of American Geographers.
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