Excerpt: 'Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America' Read an excerpt of David Boyle's new book, Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America.

Excerpt: 'Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America'


Setting Sail

On August 6, 1497, nearly five years to the day since Christopher Columbus had first set sail for the New World, his Venetian rival, John Cabot, navigated his tiny ship Matthew back up the Avon River to the English port of Bristol. Then he rode at speed to London to give the king the news of his extraordinary discovery on the other side of the Atlantic. Columbus had failed, he said. Despite what the intelligentsia of Europe believed, Columbus's expeditions had actually lodged in some remote islands very far from the Chinese coast he claimed to have found. But Cabot claimed that his own expedition, one ship with a crew of less than twenty, had found the route to China in a very different place and that Bristol was set to be the new Venice and Alexandria, all rolled into one.

We know today, of course, that Cabot was right about Columbus but wrong about himself. We know that his pioneering 1497 voyage was not really a voyage of "discovery." Other races and civilizations occupied the "New Founde Land" he had claimed. We also know, with the benefit of history, that the voyage led not to spice routes but to a staggering exploitation of the cod trade, repeated and pointless exploration for the mythical Northwest Passage for the next three centuries, and the English claim to North America.

What is less well known is that Cabot's arrival in London, and his every move afterward, was being reported to Spain by agents of Columbus, who was then working closely with the first person to correctly interpret the geography of these adventures, Amerigo Vespucci, the man whose name would eventually grace the new continent that hardly anyone had yet imagined. Cabot knew them both, certainly by reputation, but where history has been quiet — if not silent — until now is about how much his voyages were bound up with theirs.

All history involves leaps of imagination. The story of the race for America is no exception. In fact, the separate tales of Columbus, Cabot, and Vespucci have been almost unique in their susceptibility to bizarre theories, generation after generation, as critical maps or documents are alternately discredited and vindicated.

Was Columbus Jewish? Was Cabot from the Channel Islands? Was Vespucci a fraud? Were they all double agents? All these claims have been made by serious researchers within living memory, and the answer in each case is almost certainly no. But in recent decades, a broad consensus has begun to emerge about the basic facts and documents, thanks to painstaking research and vital new discoveries. Cabot's debts, Vespucci's pretences, and Columbus's religious obsessions have only recently become clear, and the three pioneers begin to emerge not so much as explorers, but first and foremost as merchants. Their primary motivation may have been glory, but most of all, the enterprise they shared was about the prospect of astonishing pro¿ts.

The last few years have yielded quite unprecedented progress in our understanding of all three men — documented evidence of Columbus's extraordinary cruelties to his followers, indications of the true achievements of Cabot's mysterious final voyage, and insights into how Vespucci had reinvented his own story. All this new evidence has added to the consensus and provided us with more fully rounded pictures of each man. Taken together, it means that it is at last possible to end the artificial divisions, which have resulted because historians and nations have told their three stories independently. Their lives have always been separated by those whose self-appointed task it has been to fight their corner and discredit the work of their opponents.

The arguments have raged across the centuries. Americans have traditionally sidelined Vespucci — "a thief...the pickle dealer at Seville," according to Emerson — saying that he "stole" Columbus's achievement by using his name Amerigo for their continent. Italians have pressed the claims of Vespucci, including his mythical "first voyage" — widely agreed to have been based on later forged documents — because of his apparent claim to have discovered the continent himself. The British have pressed the claims of Cabot on the grounds that the name Amerigo was part of a Roman Catholic plot to discredit a soon-to-be Protestant nation's achievement.

It is time to string the story together as one narrative, not as three rival mythologies peddled by different nationalities, but as the single tale it originally was — of three young men born within a few years and a few hundred miles of each other, who struggled against indifference, fear, and bitter rivalry to be the first to cross the western ocean. And who by doing so ushered in the end of the medieval age.

The truth is that the three men knew each other. Columbus and Vespucci worked closely together, and Cabot and Vespucci had common acquaintances interested in the possibilities of Western trade. They collaborated, knew of each other's ambitions, and followed each other's progress. Columbus and Cabot were also both born around the same time in Genoa and probably knew each other from their earliest lives. All three were admirers, and two were acquaintances, of the sage of Florence, Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli, who first urged explorers to sail west in order to find the East.

Writing the story of all three as one narrative has been in itself a kind of research. When you link them and put the stories in context, it becomes suddenly obvious why Cabot went to Mecca or why Vespucci abandoned his career to go to Spain. The business of profit becomes even more central to the tale than it was before, and the race for America was as much about business as it was diplomacy. Reconstructing the historical events as one story reveals aspects that were not always obvious before, and it gives an energy and thrust to that story that wasn't always apparent.

The key relationship at the heart of this tale, and the one that still remains least clear to historians, is the one between Cabot and Columbus. But the whole thrust of the story implies that the enterprise of the Indies — the plan to find a western route to China that lay behind Columbus's and Cabot's discoveries — was not originally a separate, almost identical, undertaking happening by coincidence, but rather a joint project between Cabot and the Columbus brothers, Christopher and Bartholomew, that unraveled.

The most likely interpretation seems to be an original collaboration, but it is hard for academic historians to break out of the safety of certainty — to shift from closely argued detail — and to fill in the remaining gaps in the story. It also seems that a partnership between Cabot and Columbus is the clear implication of telling the three stories together. But anyone who tries to tell it as one story, as I have, needs to be as honest as they can be about where they have to go beyond the undisputed evidence, and to explain — either in the text or in the notes — what evidence lies behind the assumptions they have made. This is the story, based on the best available evidence as it stands today. There remain gaps and uncertainties but writing a narrative sometimes depends on going a little further than a strictly academic approach would allow — and I have tried to make clear where I have done this.

The stories most of us now understand about Cabot, Columbus, and Vespucci and their race across the Atlantic are inaccurate simply because they have been told separately, as if in a vacuum, or amid such controversy and detailed argument that the main thrust of the narrative has been lost. But because those events of so long ago have had a profound impact on how we live now, it seemed right to tell the tale as it really happened.

And the tale begins not in Genoa or Florence, where the three central figures came into the world, but in the far eastern frontier of Europe in 1453, when the great city of Constantinople watched in silence as the Ottoman armies gathered outside its walls.