In 1492, Christopher Columbus reached the Caribbean islands, and was hailed as the first European to see the Americas. Five years later, John Cabot landed in North America itself. But one proud Bristolian was quite sure that neither of the Italians was entitled to regard himself as the discoverer of America - and helpfully told Columbus all about it.
ON 24th June 1497, the Feast of St John the Baptist, Venetian captain John Cabot and his crew of Englishmen landed at Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, after leaving Bristol aboard the ‘Matthew’ towards the end of May. Cabot did not venture far inland or found any settlements, but took careful notes and charted the coastline.
He also claimed the land for King Henry VII of England, but ‘Matthew’ may not have been the first ship from these islands to reach the shores of America (even setting aside Elizabethan historian David Powel’s tale of Welsh prince Madoc landing there in 1170).
In Cabot’s time, merchants from Bristol were rumoured to have stumbled across a fruitful country in the uttermost west a generation earlier.
Concerted efforts had been made since the 1480s to find a way back there, and John Day, writing to Christopher Columbus shortly after Cabot’s return, was quite certain that Cabot had done just that, rediscovering a land reached by Bristolians several years before Columbus’s historic voyage.*
* In the 1960s, archaeological evidence emerged that proved that Viking Leif Ericson had settled Newfoundland at the turn of the 11th century, making him the discoverer of North America five hundred years before Cabot. See Vinland.