THE BLOG
11/07/2013 15:11 BST | Updated 10/09/2013 06:12 BST

The Real Story Of The Discovery Of America

On 6 August 1497, almost precisely five years since Christopher Columbus had first set sail for the New World, his Venetian rival John Cabot navigated his tiny ship Matthew back up the River Avon to the English port of Bristol.

By David Boyle, author of Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America

On 6 August 1497, almost precisely five years since Christopher Columbus had first set sail for the New World, his Venetian rival John Cabot navigated his tiny ship Matthew back up the River Avon to the English port of Bristol.

Columbus had failed, he told Henry VII, who was then engaged in fighting an uprising inspired by a case of mistaken identity, known to history as Perkin Warbeck.

The intelligentsia of Europe believed, as Columbus did, that he had reached China, but Cabot believed he had proved - correctly - that Columbus' expeditions had actually lodged in some remote islands very far from the Chinese coast he had claimed to have found.

But Cabot claimed much more: that his own expedition, one ship with a crew of less than twenty, had now found the route to China in a very different place, and that Bristol was now set to be the new Venice and Alexandria, all rolled into one.

We know now, of course, that Cabot was right about Columbus but wrong about himself. He had landed somewhere in Newfoundland, and modern scholarship is beginning to reveal a great deal more about Cabot and his background.

One of the things that is beginning to emerge is that the three central figures of the story - Columbus, Cabot and Amerigo Vespucci - were not isolated individuals who happened to set out on parallel voyages at the same time. They all knew each other.

We know that Columbus and Vespucci worked closely together; we know that Cabot and Vespucci had common acquaintances interested in western possibilities. They collaborated, knew of each other's ambitions and followed each other's progress.

The relationship between Columbus and Cabot is hazier but both were 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.

The race for America then emerges very differently, as much business history as it is diplomatic history. The race for America was one story, it makes sense when you tell it that way and, when you embark on historical reconstruction, you find an energy and thrust to the story that you never realized was there before.

The whole thrust of the story implies that the enterprise of the Indies was not originally a separate undertaking, but a joint project by Cabot and the Columbus brothers, Christopher and Bartholomew which unraveled. They were united not so much by the dream of exploration - but by a new kind of intellectual property which could potentially make them the richest men in history.

David Boyle is the author of Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America, published by Endeavour Press Ltd.