Douglas Hunter's "Race to the New World"-- An Excerpt

Book Cover Race to the New World

"It was assumed that John Cabot and Christopher Columbus were two of a kind, in both ambitions and origins. In truth, although their careers were deeply entwined in a race to prove a profitable new route to Asia’s riches that would defeat the Levantine monopoly of Venetian merchants, they were very different people, with one determined to remake himself as the other."

In the late fifteenth century, perhaps 100,000 people lived on the cluster of canal-laced islands within the laguna of the northern Adriatic that comprised the city of Venice. Known to its residents as the Signoria, the compact archipelago was the heart of the Venetian republic of the eastern Mediterranean. The Signoria’s artisans produced for export fineries of silk, damasks, satins, and crystal; other goods were sourced by merchants from around the Mediterranean, and from distant England came wool and hides. The republic was renowned foremost for its command of trade in precious commodities of the Orient, which arrived from its Levantine ports of Beirut and Alexandria from as far to the east as Borneo: ginger, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, saffron, camphor, rhubarb, ambergris, sugar and molasses, and above all pepper. A Venetian merchant, Marco Polo, had explored the Indies of Asia two centuries earlier, but the Orient’s wares reached the Levant through middlemen Muslim traders. Lands such as Cathay, which Europeans understood to be the realm of the Great Khan, remained remote—imperfectly described, riotously imagined, the most tangible and most elementary proof of their existence being found in the holds of Venetian ships and the Signoria’s aromatic warehouses.

The business details of import and export, of items common and extraordinary, were hashed out in the confines of the Rialto, a small plaza on the island of the same name—“the richest place in the whole world,” as diarist Marin Sanudo boasted in 1493. The Rialto, he explained, was “a piazzetta, not very large at all, where everyone goes both morning and afternoon. Here business deals are made with a single word ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ There are large numbers of brokers, who are trustworthy; if not, they are reprimanded. . . . Furthermore, throughout the said island of Rialto there are storehouses, both on ground level and above, filled with goods of every value; it would be a marvelous thing if it were possible to see everything at once, in spite of the fact that much is being sold all the time.”

The Rialto plaza was animated by gesticulating, darting shadows: Citizens and nobles who did not hold high office went about somberly clothed in long black robes, with hoods of black cloth or velvet, and black caps. Flitting among the merchants in the 1470s and 1480s was a man whose life proved to be an exercise in constant motion through geography, opportunity, and identity, with no certain beginning and an as yet uncertain ending. He wrote his name in a 1484 Venetian testament in a telling blend of dialects: His first name was true to Venice, rendered as Zuan rather than Giovanni, but he preserved the out-of-town family name Chabotto rather than using the Venetian Caboto, then proceeded to identify himself in the Venetian dialect as being of de Ser Zilio—the son of Zilio. Comfortable in the Venetian tongue, the merchant who would be known to the English-speaking world as John Cabot probably was raised there from a fairly young age, but he had not forgotten that his family had originated outside the laguna.

Citizenship standards fluctuated over the course of Venice’s history, answering the ebb and flood of war, conquest, and population-robbing plagues. In 1472, it was decreed that nonnoble citizenship (popular nostro) could be conferred by a senate vote on anyone who made his residence in the city for fifteen continuous years and paid his taxes to the Signoria during that period. By a vote of 147 to 0 the senate agreed on March 28, 1476, that Ioani Caboto had met this requirement, which meant he had been living there since at least 1461.

Cabot secured full citizenship (de intus et extra), making him recognized as a Venetian both within the republic and when abroad. Only about 10 percent of Venetians (above and beyond nobles) secured full citizenship; its main advantage was the avoidance of duties foreigners had to pay on goods brought to the city. Citizenship thus was necessary for Cabot in trading abroad, which we know he did. But we don’t know where he was originally from. There was an unfortunate omission by the careless scribe who produced a 1501 document summarizing the conferrals of citizenship since 1472. He omitted the place of origin of the last six names, and Cabot happened to be one of them.

Being born in any territory held by the greater republic would not make one a full-fledged Venetian. A 1313 law had extended full citizenship to everyone born from Grado, more than fifty miles east on the Adriatic coast, to Cavarzere, eleven miles southwest of Chioggia, and so Cabot could not have been from anywhere in the greater laguna region—including from Chioggia, as one tradition would have it. Don Pedro de Ayala, a Spanish ambassador in London in 1498, called Cabot “another Genoese like Colón [Columbus].” By “Genoese” he could have meant someone from the city, the greater territory surrounding it, or the coastal region of northwest Italy known as Liguria. But Cabot may have come from much farther south, from Gaeta in the Kingdom of Naples, as the family name could be found there until 1443, which suggests that they may have moved on to Venice after that.

Ayala may have been misled about Cabot’s origins, but in the Spanish ambassador’s mind, John Cabot and Christopher Columbus were two of a kind, in both ambitions and origins. In truth, although their careers were deeply entwined in a race to prove a profitable new route to Asia’s riches that would defeat the Levantine monopoly of Venetian merchants, they were very different people, with one determined to remake himself as the other.

Credit Line: From the book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery. © 2012, by Douglas Hunter. Published by Douglas & McIntyre an imprint of D&M Publishers Inc.. Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

May 14, 2012
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