Reconnaissance: Voyages to North America
Reconnaissance: Voyages to North America
Cabot. The life and navigational career of John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) in many ways parallel that of his contemporary and fellow Genoa native Christopher Columbus. Like Columbus, Cabot sought and eventually attained the financial backing of a foreign monarch for a voyage west into the Atlantic in hope of reaching Asia. Also like Columbus, Cabot appears to have believed until his death that the lands he found on his westerly voyage were extensions of the Asian landmass. Cabot left his native Genoa in 1495 and settled in England, where he managed to convince the customarily frugal King Henry VII to fund his plan for a westerly journey to Asia. Cabot’s 1497 voyage carried him all the way to the coast of New England from which he sailed northward perhaps as far as Newfoundland and Labrador, claiming the entire region for the English crown. Cabot’s expedition
constituted the first recorded European visit to the North American continental mainland since the time of the Vikings. Cabot himself, however, had no idea of the extent or nature of the continent that he had found, and his attempts at further exploration came to an abrupt end when during a 1498 return voyage his ship was lost at sea.
Northwest Passage. By the 1520s it was clear that the Portuguese dominated the southeastern passage to Asia via Africa’s southern tip, and all at the time agreed that Ferdinand Magellan’s southwestern passage was commercially impractical. The combination of these facts led Spanish, French, and English expeditions at various times in the sixteenth century to target the North American coastline with the object of locating a supposed northwestern passage through which their ships could sail on their way to Asia. We know today that no such natural waterway through the North American continent exists south of the Arctic circle. To sixteenth-century European mariners, however, the thousands of bays, harbors, and rivers from the Gulf of Mexico in the south to the coast of Labrador in the north offered various intriguing possibilities.
Verrazano and Cartier. By 1523 word arrived in France of the difficulties encountered by the Magellan expedition at the southern tip of South America. In response to the news French king Francis I, always looking for ways to gain the upper hand over his Spanish enemies, financed a voyage to search for a northwestern passage through North America. The expedition, headed by the Florentine navigator Giovanni da Verrazano, made landfall in North America near Cape Hattaras (North Carolina) in 1524. From there Verrazano moved north, charting the coast all the way to the New York harbor and the New England shore before turning back to France. Verrazano returned from this trip with extensive information regarding the geography and native populations of North America’s eastern coast but no answer to the question of a northwestern passage. France’s search resumed in 1534–1536 when Jacques Cartier led a series of similarly fruitless expeditions in the region of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and St. Lawrence River. Following Cartier, however, French interest in North America subsided.
English and Spanish Attempts. The English and Spanish had no more luck than the French in finding a waterway through North America. Sailing for England in 1508–1509, Sebastian Cabot, the son of John Cabot, made an early attempt to locate a northwestern passage in the icy waters to the north of Newfoundland and the Labrador coast. The details of his course of travel are unclear, but he may even have entered the straits leading into Hudson Bay. After Cabot’s voyage, however, the English withdrew for decades from New World exploration. Cabot himself soon left England and settled in Spain, where he managed to obtain a high post in the Spanish colonial administration in Seville. Meanwhile some sixteenth-century Spanish expeditions also sought a passage
through North America. By the 1520s the Spanish had concluded that there was no strait leading westward from the Caribbean or Gulf of Mexico. In 1525 Esteban Díaz led a Spanish expedition up the eastern coast of North America in search of a passage, exploring and charting the same regions that had been visited only a year earlier by Verrazano. Despite the fruitlessness of the search, the dream of locating a northwestern passage to Asia would continue to draw explorers to North American waters well into the seventeenth century.