Saturday, August 7, 2021

The Bishops' Sea: Admirals of the Ocean Seas


Our Vice-President for Retail Operations visited the store on Thursday. The white glove inspection went very well, and I'm pleased with my part in it, and that would be that except for all the disruption in my schedule, which is why I am offering a progress report on ongoing research/writing as opposed to May 1951 postblogging ahead of my August vacation. 

Today I am talking about some reading I've been collating on the early days of the Spanish Caribbean, and a sideways look at John Cabot. The Admiral of the Ocean Seas was a new St. Christopher, carrying the burden of Christianity to the New World. The latter, apologies to the Cabot Project aside, was a cut-rate imitation who needed the supervision of the Bishop of London, if not unctuous clergymen who invite themselves in to sit at the bedstead and read the Bible to a painfully dying  mother of seven who has to pretend to be polite to gain that ". . . advice, often material." 

You would think that I would have precious little to offer about one of the most famous individuals in world history. It's not my special subject and academic libraries continue to be closed due to COVID and also because academia was tired of even faking library research by last year. Wait. Did I say that out loud? (Cynicism not valid for Niece Katie, starting her MA at McGill in September.)

However! I have before me Felipe Fernandez-Armesto's Columbus and the Conquest of the Impossible in a 2000 imprint of the 1974 original in which a new introduction allows that in recent years Fernandez-Armesto has come to the conclusion that the "secret diary" of Christopher Columbus upon which much of the narrative of his life is based, was cooked up by Ferdinando Colon and Bartolome de Las Casas, and that consequently we can no longer take seriously the Admiral's geographical theories, which may have been no more than an instrument to getting him out the door; claim to understand his methods of navigation; or pinpoint his first Western Hemisphere landfall. Unfortunately, it would take far too much work to prepare a new edition of the original book, and these points are explored in less than three pages. Given the man's sheer industry, I am not going to complain too much, especially when he and his publisher have put so much online. I guess what I am whining about is that this new picture of Columbus, which is about as dramatically new as Biagioli's now thirty-year-old Galileo, Courtier, has had so little take up. And beyond that, leading into Cabot, there is so little attention to the possibility that sources with strong motivations to fib a bit, fibbed a bit. 

Supposedly, Juan de la Cosa, a companion of Columbus in his first and second voyages, who was killed in a skirmish during Ojeda's 1509 expedition to the pearling grounds of the Spanish Main, prepared a world map in 1500 that shows the coast of North America, thereby proving that it had already been navigated as of that year, which seems extraordinarily early and not otherwise corroborated. This has naturally led to wild speculation about who did the navigating, as opposed to the more reasonable (I think!) line of speculation about who forged the map in 1832 and pawned it off on Alexander v Humboldt. 

We fortunately do not have to look very far here. In 1992, Alwyn Ruddock (1916--2005) finally divulged details of  her proposed "big book" about Italian merchants and shipping in the late Renaissance, in the form of an extracted volume about Jean Cabot, proposed to the University of Exeter Press for publication in time for the Cabot half-millennium in 1997. The proposed monograph was never submitted to the press. Instead, Ruddock's will directed that her executors destroy the manuscript and all of her research notes on her death. This was duly done, and Bristol University's Evan T. Jones was left to reconstruct the work from her proposal letter. 
The upshot is an entire research project at Bristol devoted to tracking down Ruddock's archival discoveries and "'revolutionis[ing]' our understanding of Europe's engagement with North America in the three decades after 1492."

What the Cabot Project has learned so far:

--Peter Pope of Memorial associated the Project with ongoing excavations at Carbonear on the Avalon Peninsula of Newfoundland. The finding is that the plantation there is pretty old. Ruddock claimed that the Italian brothers of the Carbonari established a deep sea mission in Newfoundland in the wake of Cabot in order to bring Christianity to the New World or maybe the fishers, so between the similarities in the name and the old buildings, that's pretty much proven; 

--Francesco Guidi Bruscoli has tracked down a number of archival notes that pierce together the Italian side of the funding of Cabots' two voyages and the associated patronage network. This is all good to know, and pretty obviously follows in the footsteps of the actual research that Dr. Ruddock is known to have done, but this doesn't exactly sound revolutionary;

--Dr. Ruddock found a reference to one of the crewmen of Cabot's fourth expedition living in London in 1501, which means that Cabot's 1498 expedition of four Bristol ships, westward in imitation of Columbus was not lost with all hands somewhere in the vast Atlantic. On the contrary, it reached Newfoundland, coasted down through North America all the way to the Caribbean, where it met up with the Castilians, although not Columbus, who was in Spain at the time, and then returned to Bristol in 1500.  All information about this was, of course, suppressed for really, really good reasons, except that no-one told de la Cosas, who put it in his map. Oopsie!

--William Weston, of Bristol, might have led an expedition to the New World in 1499,  and all the way up to "the Northwest Passage," which would totally transform our knowledge of the early Bristol voyages of discovery, since that's five years before Sebastian Cabot actually did all of and exactly  this, at least according to Peter Martyr's account. 

The careful reader may have discerned a tone of skepticism in the foregoing. The main lesson that I draw from Cabot's adventures is just how far we underrate Columbus. From the Vivaldi brothers to the possibly-only-proposed Dulmo-Estreito expedition from the Azores in 1487, to Cabot to the deat hof Magellan, the early history of Atlantic exploration is full of fiascos that make what Columbus accomplished no less than four times successfully(!) seem, well, hard.

On the other hand, there is a reason that the University of Bristol is so persistent in  pushing the limits of historiography with Cabot. "Writing before 1479," (on account of this being the date of his death), Portuguese historian Lope Garcia de Salazar explains that the Isle of Avalon, on which King Arthur was laid to rest, is the same as the fabled island of Brazil, which lies 25 leagues off the west coast of Ireland, which he knows because Bristol ships have visited it to take brazilwood. In a 1498 letter, the Spanish ambassador to the English court, Pedro de Ayala, provides written proof that Bristol ships have made multiple westward expeditions over the previous seven years, a point also made by Bristol merchant, John Day, in a letter to the "Grand Admiral of Spain," so either the Admiral of Castile or Columbus. 

This is all very exciting for what is now a sleepy provincial town, at least by the United Kingdom's standards. It is very clear that after being successively squeezed out of the Iceland fishery by the Hanse and the Gascon wine trade by the end of the Hundred Years War (as well as easy profits carrying military cargoes by the same), Bristol merchants were on the lookout for new possibilities, and that by some vague date in the 1500s, had found it in the form of the Newfoundland fishery. What could be more exciting than to push the earliest dates for these expeditions back before Columbus? The unfortunate fact that the joint monarchs were then in the process of doing exactly this as they sought to roll back the privileges that they had granted Columbus in 1492 (so that he would undertake a voyage for them two-thirds financed by Columbus himself!) gets glossed over. 

Ayala's evidence is not made up. Bristol ships were making westward voyages of discovery. This much is known, and the fact that they shipped cargoes of salt is a pretty strong indication that they were going out on fishing trips. But it is a bit of a leap that they were sailing for Newfoundland and the Grand Banks. There are other fish in the sea.  Specifically, in this same period that Bristol's trade was suffering from setbacks, a pilchard fishery was developing in neighbouring Cornwall. By the 80s of the next century, the right to take pilchard off Devon and in Cornish waters was a matter in considerable dispute, as brought to light by biographers of Sir Francis Drake, who was very active in matters of the fishery while serving as MP for Camelford and Mayor of Plymouth between his return from his round-the-world voyage and the Armada campaign. Plymouth men were fishing in Cornwall's waters, and the Cornish were having none of it. Historians of the new Cornish (founded in the 1200s) estuarine town of Fowey note that it drew a considerable revenue from 33 resident alien households in the 1439 Alien Subsidy, a considerable total of perhaps 800 residents through the long fifteenth century. Fowey's pirates were particularly notorious, and it is hard to understand their activities without reference to some kind of traditional regulation of maritime relations by tit-for-tat retaliation against foreign ports that transgressed what the Cornish, and Foweymen specifically, thought were their rights. 

For example, when in 1452, "men of Fowey and Polruan, including John Huyssh, master of  la Julyan of Fowey and Walter Hill, a priest" took a Spanish ship "transporting the goods of Philip Mede of Bristol," their fellow Englishman could not secure redress from the pirate town. The question which does not arise in the surviving texts is the nature of the goods seized. Although this sort of behaviour might help explain the four damaging pirate raids on Fowey itself between 1338 and 1457.

I cannot bring before the reader concrete proof that ships "westbound" from Bristol on "voyages of exploration" with cargoes of salt were off to freeboot other peoples' fisheries on the European side of the Atlantic, but it seems a lot more likely than that they were exploiting a virgin fishery on the far side of it a generation before Columbus. 

This brings me to the conjuncture of 1497 specifically. Anything up in that year, down in the far southwest of England, you might ask, as opposed to echoes of the Columbian discoveries far abroad? It turns there was! The Cornish turned out in revolt against the King in early 1497, raised an army that reached the outskirts of London before being defeated at Deptford Bridge in June. The King's peace was then reimposed on Cornwall for all of  three months before the famed pretender, Perkin Warbeck, landed in Whitesand Bay and raised a second Cornish rising. While it went even worse than the first, the King took the hint and relaxed the taxes on stanneries (tin exports) which had provoked so much resentment. It is a pretty extraordinary series of events, and a voyage departing Bristol westbound in the spring of 1497 could hardly not have been affected by all of this. Our own Pedro de Ayala accompanied Warbeck in an abortive raid into Northumberland in the fall of 1496. This Scottish war led Henry VII to impose the taxes that triggered the first Cornish rising, and Ayala was also present in the early summer, when Henry had to abruptly withdraw from the theatre of operations to rescue London from the Cornish. Ayala brokered a settlement by which James IV of Scotland kicked Warbeck out of the country in July, bound for Ireland. Warbeck, however, did not settle into Irish exile, but set out for Cornwall. By the time that Cabot returned from his "New Found Land," a very exciting summer was over, and Warbeck was in the Tower, having bought his life in return for a public confession that he was an imposter. 

Taken together all of this is mainly a pouring of cold water over early and romantic fantasies of early Atlantic exploration. What Columbus did really was extraordinary; accept no substitutes. On the other hand, it is also a story of an incremental crossing of the Atlantic. Without dwelling on it too much, the mere fact that Columbus could use the Canaries as a base of operations is a credit to the developing Spanish fishery in Canaries waters; and even if Bristolmen got nowhere close to Newfoundland on voyages of disinterested scientific inquiry, they were there quickly enough once it was understood that there was a profit to be made in northwest Atlantic cod. The Admirals of 1500 command  coasts, not battlefleets. Columbus wanted to be Admiral of the Ocean Seas so that they could take a share of revenues generated by the imposts of port towns, which, in fact, he eventually did, and which became the foundation of his family's subsequent and very healthy fortune. Cabot never became Admiral of Newfoundland, but he very definitely did inaugurate the "rule of the admirals," who became as strongly established on the Newfoundland shore as the Brothers Carbonari did not. Having linked to a review of Jerry Bannister's book on the legal history of the regime of the fishing admirals, formalised by King William in 1699, I should add that the more traditional history begins with Sir Richard Whitbourne's 1615 voyage to Newfoundland to conduct Courts of Vice-Admiralty receiving "presentments" from the masters of 170 English fishing ships there present. Whitbourne, who had been sailing to Newfoundland since 1579, was clearly not the first fishing admiral (Wikipedia says "the beginning of the seventeenth century"), but in his 1612 and 1614 voyages he encountered a different stripe of admiral, the pirates Peter Easton and Henry Mainwaring, both of whom descended on the fishery in search of provisions and sailors for more ambitious cruises in European waters.

By the way, I hope somebody noticed that I used the "Wild Speculation" tag in reference to someone else this time round --a whole university research centre, at that!


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