How did John Cabot go from failed bridge builder to explorer?

In 1492, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic, determined to secure for Spain a more direct route to the riches of the Indies. Not long after Columbus returned, John Cabot, a failed Venetian bridge contractor on the lam from creditors, turned up in Seville, reinvented himself as an explorer and mounted a rival quest for England.

“I think Cabot was a bit of an operator,” says Douglas Hunter, a PhD Candidate in history at York, who’s just published The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery.

In his book, Hunter uses new research and new translations of critical documents to reveal “the surprisingly intertwined nature of Columbus’s and Cabot’s lives” and present “a fresh perspective on the critical first years of the European discovery of the New World,” states his American publisher Palgrave Macmillan.

Released in September in the United States and Britain, the book will be published in Canada by Douglas & McIntyre in the spring.

“This is a book of historical provocation,” says Hunter. In recent years, historians have uncovered much new information about Cabot. Studying Italian and German shipping and commercial documents translated for the Cabot Project, Hunter himself has found a web of coincidences and overlaps that shed new light on how Cabot, especially, emerged as an unlikely explorer of the New World. “In a book like this, you can push it all out at once and hope the historical record will hold up,” says Hunter.

A freelance journalist and author of books on business, history and sports, Hunter has written 13 books since 1993. This is his third on New World explorers. His first, God’s Mercies: Rivalry, Betrayal & the Dream of Discovery (2007), about the voyages of Henry Hudson and Samuel de Champlain, was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize and the Governor-General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. His second was Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World (2009).

In The Race to the New World, Hunter veers from the traditional geographical approach to explorer tales – they sailed here, they stopped there. “I wanted to get away from explorer geography, and put it in context of economic and political history,” he says.

Douglas Hunter

Douglas Hunter

What was the state of Europe between 1492 and 1497? Why did these voyages happen at this time? What was the economic impetus, the political situation? If you don’t know that Henry VII was struggling to keep his throne or that pirates blocked the delivery of luxury goods to England from Venice for two years, then you won’t fully understand how Cabot could come out of nowhere and successfully pitch for funding to find a route to Asia, suggests Hunter.

The big question is: “How did a failed bridge contractor resurrect himself as a Columbus doppelganger proposing exactly the same ideas Columbus did on his second voyage?” Based on his research of documents in the Cabot Project, translations of Venice, Milan and Spanish 19th-century records and papers, and a recent French translation of a 1494-95 Latin travelogue, Hunter reveals that Cabot may have encountered two Germans, envoy Jerome Munzer and wealthy Martin Behaim, in Seville and Lisbon. They knew of Columbus’s 1492 abortive voyage and Behaim had  proposed to Portugal a more northern route west to Cathay. Cabot ran to England to pitch the same idea to the king.

“Never mind that Cabot had no seafaring experience to speak of,” writes the Washington Post reviewer. “Why England sponsored him at all is a fascinating story of political desperation and artful salesmanship amid a European struggle for wealth and power.”

“It’s hard to imagine that there is still uncharted territory in the history of the New World’s discovery,” writes Booklist in another review. “But Hunter indeed sails unsullied waters, offering an intriguing and surprising new twist on the old subject.”

At 52, why has Hunter decided to do his PhD at York? Out of school for 30 years, this father of three grown children has a BA in art and art history from McMaster University. But when history professor Carolyn Podruchny, who’d read God’s Mercies, encouraged him to do doctoral studies, he decided to do it. His body of work could count as his prerequisite.

Hunter’s dissertation is “Cryptohistory, Race and Nationalism: Exploring the Fringe of Discovery Narratives”. When researching his books on North American explorers, he came across theories that North America had been visited and colonized by a variety of Bronze Age and early medieval Europeans before Columbus. For evidence, theorists pointed to native petroglyphs.

The prevailing assumption was indigenous peoples “were too stupid to have carved these things,” says Hunter. “The most extreme form of this,” he points out, “is the 'Chariots of the Gods' theory: historic peoples were so backward that the achievements they left behind in the archeological record must have been produced by visitors from outer space.”

Hunter aims to show that such “arrival ideas advanced, however inadvertently, notions of Aryan supremacy while casting a white shadow over indigenous heritage.” He says such theories, however discredited, continue to be reiterated on TV, in books, over the Internet. “The result has been a fluorescence of cryptohistory, a shadowy, sometimes conspiracy-laden alternate version of mainstream history. It has flourished particularly in the historiography of North American exploration, with theories of pre-Columbian European arrivals that have been proliferating since the colonial period as foundation myths supported by immigrant populations.

"While such theorizing is usually dismissed by mainstream historians as “crank” amateurism, it should not go ignored,” he insists. Perpetuating such approaches to history “ultimately serves agendas of race, culture and nationalism” and “fuels ideas that indigenous peoples do not deserve their treaty rights.”

By Martha Tancock, YFile contributing writer