COLUMN: The Carbonear connection to John Cabot

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What role did Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, aka Giovanni Antonio Carbonaro, the deputy collector of papal revenues in England, play in John Cabot’s voyage of 1498?

The Race to the New World

If the late Alwyn Amy Ruddock is to be believed, de Carbonariis and his fellow Augustinian friars participated with their own ship. A Spanish ambassador reported in July of 1498 that a vessel transporting de Carbonariis was forced into an Irish port by a storm on her outbound passage. Ruddock maintained that de Carbonariis and his ship made it all the way to Newfoundland.

Before zeroing in on Ruddock’s assertion, it is instructive to briefly look at her life and career.

Born in 1916, the respected historian made what many believed to be significant finds about Cabot’s voyages of discovery to the New World in the late 1400s. She drafted, then destroyed, a book about the Italian navigator and explorer. The second version of her book remained incomplete at the time of her death in 2005 at 89 years of age.

Following Ruddock’s wishes, her trustees destroyed all 78 bags of her unpublished life’s work. It was a substantial loss.

Douglas Hunter, writing in his book, "The Race to the New World," states, "The revelation was a stunning coda to a perplexing and tragic career. What little Ruddock had published on Cabot was first-class stuff." She displayed "analytical and archival skills. In waiting for her book, scholars were persuaded for four decades that Ruddock was poised to turn the story of Cabot and the discovery of North America (in her own words) ‘upside down.’ "

Unfortunately, we will never know the extent of Ruddock’s findings.

As Hunter notes in an article archived online at his personal website, "Having dug up so much of the past, she did her best to rebury it."

Let’s return to Ruddock’s claim about the scope of the role that Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis played in John Cabot’s voyage of 1498.

She believed that de Carbonariis and his ship made it to Newfoundland. Actually, her conviction went even farther. As Hunter puts it in his book, "There they established a settlement with a church on Conception Bay, in a location that was preserved through folk memory as Carbonear."

It must be clearly borne in mind that Ruddock’s contention, as tantalizing as it is, has to be taken with a shaker full of salt, for it is simply unproven.

To be clear, the link between Carbonear and de Carbonariis originated, not with Ruddock, but with David O. True, a geographer in Miami who, in 1954, in Hunter’s words, "found Carbonear resonantly intriguing." Another scholar, James A. Williamson, noted: "Its similarity to the unique personal name of de Carbonariis is suggestive. It might be supposed that Antonio de Carbonariis was in some way linked with this place in the voyage of 1498, or equally that he was there in the course of some subsequent expedition."

Ruddock, inspired by True’s observation, advanced it by several steps by positing, again in Hunter’s words, "a scenario involving an actual settlement. The friars overwintered at present-day Carbonear...."

Meanwhile, Memorial University archaeologist, Peter Pope, suggests that verifiably locating de Carbonariis at Carbonear in 1498 is "a real longshot. But because the claim is so astounding, it ups the ante, and makes searching worth the gamble."

The de Carbonariis / Carbonear connection is but one of scores of stories Hunter tells in his book, which is subtitled "Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery."

"To understand the career of either Cabot or Columbus," Hunter says, "we now must understand the career of the other. The courses they shaped are more deeply intertwined than previously imagined. Together, they allow us to see one of the most monumental events in world history – the European discovery of two continents in the Western Hemisphere where no one had thought to look for even one – with a fresh and comprehensive vision."

Interestingly, Hunter dedicates his book in memory of three people, including Alwyn Amy Ruddock, "who began the voyage but were unable to reach the distant shore."

Stephen R. Bown, in an endorsement of Hunter’ book, says the author "delivers an intellectual and historical mystery sure to enthrall those interested in the early European exploration of the Americas." Ken McGoogan calls it a "vivid, original narrative."

"The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery" is published by Douglas & McIntyre.

— Burton K. Janes lives in Bay Roberts. His column appears in The Compass every week. He can be reached at burtonj@nfld.net

Organizations: The Compass

Geographic location: Carbonear, Newfoundland, North America Conception Bay Miami Americas Bay Roberts

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  • Burton Janes
    July 22, 2014 - 07:06

    Thanks for posting your comment. Yes, Cabot evidently came ashore in Newfoundland in 1497. However, the point of Douglas Hunter's book is that Cabot also made a 1498 trip to the island.

  • huh?
    July 22, 2014 - 05:42

    Didnt Cabot come to NL. In 1497???