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The Voyage of the Matthew: John Cabot and the Discovery of North America

by Peter Firstbrook

Would North America be the same without the lives of two boys, both born in the same walled city in 1451? Cristoforo Colombo and Giovanni Caboto left Genoa separately as young men, went on to organize a few entrepreneurial sailing trips, and ended their lives as Christopher Columbus and John Cabot, the two men whose landfalls in the Americas formalized the European discovery of the New World.

The quincentenary of Columbus’s voyage has come and gone, and fast approaching now are the Cabot 500 Celebrations this summer. To commemorate and cash in on John Cabot’s June 24, 1497 landing in North America, the BBC is producing a six-part documentary television series, the centrepiece of which will be a record of the voyage – from Bristol, England, to Bonavista, Newfoundland – of a recently built replica of Cabot’s ship, the Matthew.

Peter Firstbrook, the producer of this BBC series, has written a glossy coffee table book to coincide with the Cabot anniversary. But as a documentary tie-in, The Voyage of the Matthew is much more than a coffee table book. Drawing on recent scholarship and newly discovered documents, Firstbrook details with infectious interest the social and political context within which the Matthew, arguably the most important ship in English history, was created.

He does a stunning job portraying these early astronauts, who sailed beyond the limits of the known world, on water that was then known simply as the Great Western Ocean. At sea for months, they couldn’t know for sure that they weren’t going to fall off the face of the earth. Firstbrook writes: “At night the ship sailed in almost total darkness, the only candle casting a pale glow across the helmsman’s steering compass.”

Columbus died a broken man in Spain in 1506, believing after five voyages that he had not discovered North America but had merely found a route to Cathay. Cabot, like Columbus, organized a return voyage to the New World as quickly as he could. But further glory was not to be his: Cabot and his fleet of ships, in one of the great mysteries of exploration, vanished the very next summer, in 1498. King Henry VII of England, Cabot’s sponsor, was undaunted, however, and after Cabot’s disappearance simply chose Cabot’s son, Sebastian, to develop English influence westward across the Atlantic. But that’s another story, and another anniversary.

For now, Peter Firstbrook’s book is a quick and enjoyable history of those years when the European countries shook off the darkness of the Middle Ages and, in an unprecedented blaze of maritime expansion and discovery, began dreaming of the wide world to come.