- The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery
This is a fast-paced narrative of transatlantic exploration in the 1490s, using the political and diplomatic context to connect Columbus and Cabot professionally in ways not previously noticed or, at least, not previously emphasized. Hunter puts Cabot and Columbus in the same boat, literally as well as figuratively. In doing so he adopts an established Canadian perspective – the British preferring to consider Cabot on his own, while Americans generally prefer to contemplate Columbus. Aimed at an educated general audience, Race to the New World parasitizes the existing scholarly literature but adds something too, by extrapolating from previously documented connections.
Hunter offers a pre-Annaliste narrative of European expansion at the dawn of the early modern period; he is not really interested in economies, let alone mentalités, so spends little time asking why Europe expanded or in quibbling about what explorers of the period meant by [End Page 671] ‘discovery.’ The book is structured as a dramatic narrative (a race. . .) and the context in which the actors are placed is, essentially, diplomatic. Besides Columbus and Cabot, Ferdinand and Isabel, Henry VII and João II are cast in leading roles. The result is an absorbing tale, suggesting connections and motivations obscured in narratives of single explorations. Neither monarchs nor explorers are heroes to Hunter; an experienced business journalist, he takes a cynic’s view of motivations and morals. His analysis is provocative, often based on coincidence in time and space, but as convincing as any, about a poorly documented period. For example, he suggests that Cabot disappears from the documentary record between April 1493 and June 1494 because he shipped out on Columbus’ second voyage to work as an engineer in the reconstruction of Española. The book opens new lines of interpretation rather than offering new evidence, although even specialists may be unaware of some recently published documents. These were uncovered in efforts to evaluate what remains of the late Alwyn Ruddock’s exploration history, after her heirs burned the evidence (at her request). This recent expansion of the slender documentation of Cabot’s career aside, the material used here will be familiar to scholars, as will many of the interpretations, some cited, some not. This is a fresh look at an old topic, often thought-provoking, but not a guide to the literature.
Race to the New World is an interesting read, only occasionally bogged down in diplomatic detail. It is well-organized and well-written in a popular style, with a penchant for cliff-hangers and coincidences: ‘By the summer of 1492, Christopher Columbus and John Cabot were both well established in Spain, as refugees of rather different sorts – Columbus of the Portuguese Braganza terror, Cabot of powerful and determined Venetian creditors’ (p. 44). Because the interpretation is not situated within existing scholarly discussion, the narrative moves ahead briskly, though at the expense of alternative interpretations, of course. The style resembles Samuel Eliot Morison at his most self-assured, as do the laconic bibliographic notes to each chapter. (It is poetic justice that Admiral Morison does not appear in Hunter’s bibliography, despite some parallel arguments.) The text is not without factual glitches and chapters are numbered but unnamed, so there is no useful table of contents.
This popular treatment raises a number of issues which specialists will have to reconsider. What was Columbus’s role in the subjugation of the Canary Islands? Was Cabot’s career as a maritime engineer in Spain interrupted by a voyage with Columbus to Española? What was the role of the Nürnberg globe-maker Martin Behaim in formulating [End Page 672] the idea of a northern route to the Indies? Was he the unnamed Burgundian who accompanied Cabot? Did his strong Flemish connections with the Azores contribute to the alacrity with which the Corte Reals and others arrived in Terra Nova? Did the Italian friars who sailed on Cabot’s...