The Shared Journey to America

By John Hemming,
who is a former director of the Royal Geographical Society and the author of "Tree of Rivers: The Story of the Amazon"
Tuesday, August 26, 2008


Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America

By David Boyle

Walker & Company. 421 pp. $27.99

Amerigo Vespucci, John Cabot and Christopher Columbus are the three greatest names in the European discovery of the Americas, and each has long had a kind of national cheering section. Italians traditionally press Vespucci's claim to have discovered the continent that bears his name. The British champion Cabot as the first European to have reached North America. Americans (as well as Spaniards) venerate Columbus while treating Vespucci and Cabot as frauds or bumblers.

In "Toward the Setting Sun," David Boyle seeks to tell the adventures of these remarkable men as a single narrative, "not as three rival mythologies peddled by different nationalities." The truth, he says, is that all three were Italians "born within a few years and a few hundred miles of each other," that they were motivated by the same things (profit even more than glory) and that they "collaborated, knew of each other's ambitions, and followed each other's progress." Together, they struggled against "indifference, fear, and bitter rivalry to be the first to cross the western ocean," he argues, and together they "ushered in the end of the medieval age."

Cabot and Columbus came from modest families in the same part of Genoa (Cabot is an Anglicized version of "caboto," which means coastal seaman in the Genoese dialect), while Vespucci was better educated and had marginally grander social beginnings in Florence. They were born in 1449, 1451 and 1453, respectively. At different times, each was almost certainly influenced by Paolo Toscanelli, the "sage of Florence," who urged explorers to sail toward the West to find Marco Polo's storied East and whose theories were based on Ptolemy's far-too-small calculation of the size of our globe. (Had they followed the Greek geographer Eratosthenes' more accurate guess, none would have dared to sail so far into the unknown.)

Cabot and Columbus may have agreed to cooperate in exploring the Atlantic. There is no documentary evidence of this, but Boyle (elaborating on suggestions by other scholars) surmises that they made such a compact in 1483. While in their 20s and 30s, both men crisscrossed Europe in moneymaking schemes or fleeing from creditors. They also gained maritime experience. Columbus sailed to Madeira to visit the prosperous family of his Portuguese wife (who died after six years of marriage), joined a Portuguese expedition to what is now Ghana and traded wool with England. Cabot moved to Venice and embarked on trading voyages in the eastern Mediterranean as well as to England. He even made a pilgrimage to Mecca, hoping to learn the spice trade.

Vespucci, meanwhile, went to work for a branch of Florence's ruling family, the Medicis. "Columbus and Cabot," Boyle writes, "were salesmen. They were also loners and outsiders . . . making what use they could of their wits and contacts. Vespucci, on the other hand, was an insider, instinctively efficient, trustworthy, and loyal."

Boyle, a British writer whose books often have a financial theme, keeps readers abreast of political and economic changes during the turbulent decades of the high Renaissance, which is necessary when events directly influenced the explorers. But the historical discursions become indigestible at times, and the author cannot resist throwing in colorful but superfluous facts; we learn, for example, that Henry VII's coronation took place "during an outbreak in London of a mysterious disease, now extinct, called the sweating sickness" and that the 12-year-old Edward V was "wearing blue velvet" when he was placed in the Tower of London by his uncle, Richard III. In addition, Boyle promises in his introduction that he will alert readers when he moves from fact to conjecture, but as the book goes on, the Cabot-Columbus partnership (of which, again, there is no proof) is treated as a given, and Vespucci's first voyage (which many authorities believe was invented or embellished) is assumed as true.

Still, this dense, fact-filled book is a compelling read. Boyle shows that Columbus and Cabot borrowed massively to finance their enterprises, expecting to turn a quick profit from the silks and spices of the Orient; they also needed a royal backer to keep rivals away from their routes and discoveries. So both spent years presenting maps and plans to monarchs of Portugal, Spain, England and France. In the end, Boyle argues, it was chance that led Spanish monarchs to back Columbus and the English crown to sponsor Cabot. And Vespucci, driven from Florence after the Medicis fell from power, became an assistant to Columbus's agent and financier in Seville.

Columbus's four voyages are well told and as exciting as ever. So is Cabot's remarkable discovery of Newfoundland in the tiny ship Matthew. Yet Boyle does not sugarcoat their actions. He notes, for example, how cruelly Columbus terrorized the indigenous Taino people of Hispaniola for gold, then enslaved (contrary to Queen Isabella's orders) those who had not died of disease or in battle; he was also a brutal ruler of his Spanish colonists. Later, back in Spain, Columbus became a religious mystic in monastic robes, increasingly paranoid and obsessed with the conviction that he had discovered the edges of China and Japan.

Vespucci, on the other hand, convinced himself that he had learned navigation. Although "he had barely ever ventured to sea before," he joined a Spanish flotilla in 1499 and sailed some distance down the coast of South America. But his real fame began two years later, when he was a passenger in an expedition commanded by the Portuguese sea captain Gonzalo Coelho. He described this voyage in a long, exuberant letter to a Florentine friend, dwelling particularly on the paradise of Brazil's vegetation and its noble-savage inhabitants. The letter was printed and became a bestseller all over Europe, and Boyle brilliantly recounts the serendipitous events that led the mapmaker Martin Waldseemüller to write the word "America" on an early version of the finest printed Renaissance map of the world.

Cabot sailed with a well-equipped flotilla in 1498 and was never seen again. Boyle carefully sets out the partial evidence that he might, just possibly, have sailed down the East Coast of the United States and made contact with Spaniards in the Caribbean. Indeed, Boyle has summarized the latest research on all of the main enigmas about these famous explorations. They will remain debatable unless more documents come to light. But "Toward the Setting Sun" succeeds in painting vivid portraits of the three main players, showing them as less heroic than the classic image, but also more human and accessible to modern readers.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company