Historia y Mapas

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Shedding light on the discovery of North America

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Fragment of Ayala's 1498 letter that reports Cabot's voyages.

Fragment of Ayala’s 1498 letter that reports Cabot’s voyages.

Versión en español

In 1497, Italian explorer Giovanni Caboto (John Cabot in English) sailed back to England with the news that he had discovered the coast of what is called North America nowadays. Cabot obtained from King Henry VII the command of a new expedition to those lands and set out in 1498 with five ships, one of which was wrecked by a storm and had to take refuge in Ireland.

We know these data mainly thanks to an encrypted letter that diplomat Pedro de Ayala sent from London to the monarchs of Castile and Aragon. The letter was discovered in the Archive of Simancas, Spain, in 1860 by independent researcher Gustav Bergenroth, who had to fight off the mistrust of the head of the Archive towards a foreigner who wanted access to the secrets of the history of Spain. Since then, Ayala’s letter has been deciphered, transcribed and translated into several languages. Unfortunately, Bergenroth’s premature death and the text’s complexity (in old Spanish, mostly ciphered and without punctuation) led to numerous transcription mistakes and inaccurate interpretations that confounded Cabot’s biography for decades.

Thanks to the progressive digitalization of Spain’s state archives, a couple of years ago I got access to high-resolution images of Ayala’s letter and was able to decipher it by myself. The resulting study, with a revised transcription and translation of the text, was published in the Spanish-language journal Revista de Indias. I have now completed an English version as well, and made it freely available from Academia.edu.

I hope this publication will at last hammer the nail on several aspects of Cabot’s adventures that had been somewhat controversial so far, in particular: 1) Cabot did not arrive in England in 1491 but several years later; 2) Spanish clergyman Bernardo Buil did not take part in Cabot’s voyage; 3) Ayala did not send any map along with his letter, and therefore Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa must have used another source for the English discoveries shown in his world map; and 4) nothing in Ayala’s letter suggests that Cabot might have reached Cuba in his 1497 voyage, as has been speculated by certain historians.

Link to full article:
Revised transcription of Pedro de Ayala’s 1498 report about English voyages of exploration

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