New-found doubts cloud Cabot's royal celebrations

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The Independent Online
It was a defining moment in this country's history, the point at which Britain's fledgling empire began. The Genoese-born merchant John Cabot stepped ashore in June 1497 to claim new-found territories across the Atlantic for the English crown.

History generally accepts that this terra incognita was Newfoundland, a "discovery" important enough for the Queen to travel to Canada this summer to mark the 500th anniversary of Cabot's voyage.

But this has rekindled academic debate over whether Her Majesty is travelling to the correct spot. Some experts doubt whether Cabot really arrived at land which is today Canada; and one doubts whether he even crossed the Atlantic at all.

As boat-builders put the finishing touches to a replica of his flagship, The Matthew, which in May will re-trace Cabot's journey, the Canadian historian and writer Michael Bradley said: "I think there is evidence he may have faked the whole thing.

"And if he did make the voyage he certainly didn't reach the latitudes [Newfoundland] claimed for him. He would have hit the continent hundreds of miles to the south."

Mr Bradley, whose book on the quest by Europeans to cross the ocean, Holy Grail Across the Atlantic, is in its fifth print run, said there are compelling reasons to doubt Cabot's journey. One is the lack of any documentation such as a log book, except for a couple of letters from Cabot.

The explorer's descriptions of the temperate climate did not fit with Newfoundland, and he failed to bring back any souvenirs to substantiate a supposed encounter with a local chieftan. Mr Bradley also said that due to "westward variation", a phenomenon blighting early explorers, Cabot would have "dropped his latitude" by more than 400 miles. This means that the land he found was Massachusetts.

Mr Bradley said the British only revived an interest in Cabot 200 years later when they needed his "discovery" to validate their claims against the French to New France.

Mr Bradley said: "If the Queen is joining in these celebrations then she is following in the footsteps of a political travesty of history."

The author ACH Smith, who has written about Cabot's son Sebastian, agrees that history romanticised Cabot. "He is regarded as this keen-eyed, intrepid explorer. Balls. He was a ... normal merchant who was in it for what he could get out of it."

Some people in Bristol, where Cabot was based, feel the celebrations are getting out of hand. On 2 May, the Queen will be on board The Matthew as it sails through Bristol docks to begin its journey west.

Ann Charles, of the Matthew Project, which is behind the voyage, said they were convinced that Cabot had reached Newfoundland. And a spokesman for the Canadian High Commission in London was also adamant. "We have an unshakeable belief that he went to Newfoundland and the celebrations will continue."

Professor Alan Williams, of Birmingham University and an acknowledged expert on the subject, said the evidence was inconclusive but pointed more to Newfoundland as the land Cabot reached. However, he added: "We will probably never know for sure where Cabot landed."