Bristol Discovers America November 11, 2012Posted by Beachcombing in : Medieval , trackback
The most credible claims for pre-Columbian voyages across the Atlantic are those that took place in the generation immediately preceeding Columbus’ trip into the unknown. Take the text of a famous letter that was written in Spanish to an Admiral, almost certainly Columbus in late December 1497. The author is an English sailor, John Day.
Se presume cierto averse fallado e descubiertoen en otros tiempos el cabo de la dicha tierra por los de Bristol que fallaron el Brasil como dello tiene noticia Vra Sa la qual se dezia la Ysle de Brasil e presumese e creese ser tierra firme la que fallaron los de Bristol
It is considered certain that the cape of the said land [discovered by Cabot in the 1497 voyage] was found and discovered in other times by the men of Bristol who found Brasil as your Lordship knows. It was called the Ysle of Brasil and it is assumed and believed to be the mainland that the Bristol men found.
Bristol is of course the city on the Severn. Brasil is a Celtic name describing a mythical island out in the Atlantic: it later became attached to a large part of South America by one of those perversions of history that make life so interesting.
We are lucky that there is enough documentation to uncover some of the information about Bristol’s search for ‘Brasil’. We know, for example, that in 1480 a Bristol ship headed off into the Atlantic ‘usque ad insulam de Brasylle in occidentali parte Hibernie’ (to the Island of Brasylle to the west of Ireland). Did it find what it was looking for?
In 1481 a second voyage with two boats, the George and the Trinity, headed out ‘to serch & fynde a certain Isle called the Isle of Brasile’, which suggests the 1480 voyage had failed. They left on 6 July and were back in port by the next year, and perhaps long before. Their leader, Croft, had a license for exploration.
In 1498 a Spanish agent in Britain wrote to the Catholic Monarchs.
Los de Bristol ha siete anos que cada ano an armado dos, tres, quatro caravelas para ir a buscar la isla del Brasil, i la Siete Ciudades con la fantasia deste Ginoves
For the last seven years the people of Bristol have equipped two, three, four caravels to go in search of the island of Brazil and the Seven Cities according to the fancy of this Genoese.
This suggests that English expeditions were leaving Bristol in 1490 and crucially that these have left no trace in our documentation. Who knows what else was going on? The Seven Cities is another mythical Atlantic realm. The Genoese is the Venetian John Cabot (Zuan Chabotto) or perhaps even Columbus, which would open a dustbin full of worms.
Then just to throw a little more oil on the fire, in 1527 one Robert Thorne of Bristol claimed that his father Robert Thorne and one Hugh Eliot had been the discovers of the New World.
There’s a lot more that can be argued about here but the proof from contemporary documents are impressive enough without sending up fireworks. What is perhaps most impressive is not that the English got to North America before the Spanish: who cares really… But that the English were actively looking for something: why? Here we perhaps return to a previous theme on this blog: the surviving knowledge of North America in the medieval Greenland settlements. For more on this and an exciting academic project. For other theories: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com