Fra Soncino to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, regarding John Cabot’s First Voyage, 1497

Fra Soncino: Letter to Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan, Regarding John Cabot’s First Voyage, 1497

[Colby Introduction: Fra Soncino was the representative in England of Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, and the information with which he supplied his master concerning John Cabot’s voyage was sent off shortly after the latter’s return to Bristol. Cabot himself was an Italian. . . His landfall on the coast of North America disclosed a new sphere of English influence, and opened a new era in English history.]

Perhaps your Excellency, in the press of so much business, will not be disturbed to learn that his Majesty [i.e., Henry VII] has gained a great part of Asia without a stroke of the sword. In this Kingdom is a popular Venetian called Messer Joanne Caboto, a man of considerable ability, most skillful in navigation, who having seen the most serene Kings, first him of Portugal, then him of Spain, that they had occupied unknown islands, thought to make a similar acquisition for his Majesty [Henry VII]. And having obtained the royal privileges which gave him the use of the land found by him, provided the right of possession was reserved to the Crown, he departed in a little ship from the port of Bristol, in the western part of this kingdom, with eighteen persons, who placed their fortunes with him. Passing Ireland more to the west, and then ascending towards the north, he began to navigate the eastern part of the ocean.

Leaving, for some days, the north to the right hand, and having wandered enough, he came at last to main land, where he planted the royal banner, took possession for his Highness, made certain marks and returned. The said Messer Joanne, as he is a foreigner and poor, would not be believed, if his partners, who are all Englishmen and from Bristol, did not testify to the truth of what he tells. This Messer Joanne has the representation of the world on a map, and also on a globe, which he has made, and he shows by them where he arrived, and going towards the East, has passed much of the country of Tanais. And they say that the land is fertile and temperate, and think that the red wood grows there, and the silks, and they affirm that there the sea is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets, but with fishing-baskets, a stone being placed in the basket to sink it in the water, and this, as I have said, is told me by the said Messer Joanne.

And the said Englishmen, his partners, say that they can bring so many fish that this kingdom will have no more business with Iceland, and that from that country there will be a very great trade in the fish which they call stock-fish. But Messer Joanne has his thoughts directed to a greater undertaking, for he thinks of going, after this place is occupied, along the coast farther toward the east until he is opposite the island called Cipango, situate in the equinoctial region, where he believes all the spices of the world grow, and where there are also gems. And he says that he was once at Mecca, where from remote countries spices are carried by caravan, and that those carrying them, being asked where those spices grew, said they did not know, but that they came with other merchandise from remote countries to their home by other caravans, and that the same information was repeated by those who brought the spices in turn to them. And he argues that if the oriental people tell to those of the south that these things are brought from places remote from them, and thus from hand to hand, presupposing the rotundity of the earth, it follows that the last carry to the northern, toward the west. And he tells this in a way that makes it quite plain to me, and I believe it. And what is a greater thing, his Majesty, who is learned and not prodigal, places confidence in what he says, and since his return, provides well for him, as this Messer Joanne tells me.

And in the spring he says that his Majesty will arm some ships, and will give him all the criminals, so that he may go to this country and plant a colony there. And in this way he hopes to make London a greater place for spices than Alexandria. And the principals of the business are citizens of Bristol, great mariners that now know where to go. They say that the voyage will not take more than fifteen days, if fortune favors them after leaving Ireland. I have talked with a Burgundian, a companion of Messer Joanne, who affirms the same, and who is willing to go, since the Admiral, as Messer Joanne is already styled, has given him an island, and has also given another to his barber, a Genoese, and they regard the two as Counts, and my lord, the Admiral, the chief. And I believe that some poor Italian friars will go on the voyage, who have the promise of being bishops. And I, being a friend of the admiral, if I wished to go, could have an archbishopric.

[Source. Charles W. Colby, ed., Selections from the Sources of English History, B.C. 55 – A.D. 1832 (London: Longmans, Green, 1920), pp. 133-135. The text has been modernized by Prof. J. S. Arkenberg, Dept. of History, Cal. State Fullerton.]

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