“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it” – Winston Churchill
Should you decide to become an intrepid explorer, it behooves you to get a good publicist. This saves a lot of heartache and spares the rest of us a few inconclusive dissertations long after you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, and we’re trying to decide who discovered what god-forsaken rock first. Everyone knows that in 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue and stumbled across America, which he immediately claimed for Spain, along with syphilis. Unbeknownst to him, he also created a cottage industry of proving that he wasn’t the first European to bumble his way into a big, freaking continent just a hop, skip, and a jump across the Atlantic. As if managing to cross the ocean in what amounted to three oversized canoes, with mutinous crews, and patrons that were big fans of the Spanish Inquisition was not a daring enough exploit. And of course, Columbus was a man of his times, so genocide, oppression, and slavery were pretty much par for the course when it came to the colonization of the New World. 1492 also marked the Reconquista of Spain from the Moors, and the expulsion of 100,000 Jews from Spain. They kind of operated on a grander scale without a lot of concern for the average Joe. On second thought, nothing has changed much. Ever since, a popular sport has been to prove that anyone but Columbus actually first discovered America, from the ancient Chinese to the Vikings. This is what I’ve decided to call “Gotcha” History, and why it’s hard for some folks to consider anything from ancient aliens to Graham Hancock seriously. Now, don’t get me wrong, overturning our preconceived notions of how we wound up in our current geopolitical mess is a fascinating exercise, and kudos to those who can assemble an engaging narrative out of the myriad of overlooked facts. Sadly, my personal neurosis requires a little more modesty. Hancock and Van Daniken want to rewrite human history. I just want to be annoying. This is why I’ve taken up an interest in João Vaz Corte-Real (1420-1496), a Portuguese explorer who just might have found Newfoundland (unironically) in 1473.
It was hard to find a good literary agent in 1473 and the most effective public relations folks all worked for the Church, so most of what we know about João Vaz Corte-Real is fragmentary. In 1473, an expedition to explore the North Atlantic was put together, jointly funded by the kings of Portugal and Denmark (King Christian I) which included Corte-Real (as well as his sons Miguel and Gaspar), Didrik Pining (a German privateer, and future Governor of Iceland), Hans Pothorst (a wealthy pirate hunter from Hildesheim), and reputedly one semi-mythical steersman named John Scolvus, possibly a Polish navigator in the service of the King of Denmark. Information regarding John Scolvus, Didrik Pining and Hans Pothorst is strangely sparse, with few clear, non-conflicting contemporaneous references. Starting from Bergen, Norway, the expedition sailed to Greenland via Iceland, reporting they encountered an island beyond Greenland which they referred to as Terra Nova do Bacalhau (literally, “New Land of the Codfish”), which a number of historians have suggested was a fairly obvious reference to Newfoundland and the cod-infested Grand Banks.
This motley bunch of nautical freebooters may have found North America about two decades before Columbus made landfall in Hispaniola. I guess celebrating Pothorst and Pining Day sounds like it might be a little painful, so Europe went with Columbus. Plus “The New Land of the Codfish” isn’t as sexy and probably harder to sell to prospective colonists than “The New World”. The main idea behind the effort was to re-establish contact with Greenland following the unification of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden in the Kalmar Union (1397-1523). Norsemen had established themselves in Greenland from roughly 985-1450 A.D., but contact with the settlements had largely been lost (the colonies were doomed by climate changes, agricultural failures, and plague). A German ship was accidentally blown off course in 1406, landed, and by 1410 returned with the last news of Greenland, which apparently involved a witch-burning.
Nevertheless, forgotten Greenland lay upon the conscience of the Danish King, Christian I, or as some think, the Portuguese King quickened his interest. In the summer of 1472 or 1473 he sent his admiral, Diderick Pining, a man concerned with western Iceland then or later, and Hans Pothorst, a bluff sailor with a little nose and mouth set between fat cheeks, on a voyage westward. Johan Scolvus or Skolp was their Danish pilot or captain, although his voyage is by some set for the year 1476. A friend of the Portuguese King, João Vaz Corte-Real, went as a guest. They met hostile Eskimos on the east coast of Greenland and are supposed to have turned back; but some scholars contend that the terra do bacalhao, an unknown land (hence not Iceland and probably not Greenland), which they found was the stockfish region of the Grand Banks (Bolton, 1935, p107-108).
Consequently, the island of Terra do Bacalhau began appearing on Portuguese maps as early as 1508, and the fullest description of the voyage of João Vaz Corte-Real to Newfoundland was offered by Portuguese historian Gaspar Frutuoso’s Saudades da Terra in the 1570’s. Of course, by this time everybody in Europe was laying claim to pieces of North America, claiming to have gotten there first. Subsequent historians have suggested that this was just Portuguese propaganda, but there are some telling hints that João Vaz Corte-Real may just have bumbled his way into Newfoundland. In 1464, “João Vaz Corte-Real (the father of Gaspar), in conjunction with Alvaro Martins Homem, discovered the “Isle of Codfish,” and that, in the same year, a royal grant for it was issued to them on condition that they would divide it between them (Dawson, 1905, p60). Details on John Scolvus’ attempts to find a passage from Norway to China similarly suggest the same rogues gallery of daring seamen managed to visit Newfoundland in 1476.
Discouraged by the failure to find the much desired route to the Orient the Portuguese government turned to Christian I, King of Denmark and Norway, with a request that he send out an expedition to seek new lands beyond the western seas. This request may have been suggested by a statement in the writings of Claudius Clavus, a Danish cartographer of the fourteenth century, that navigators could make the journey by sea from China to Norway. Such an expedition was actually sent. The famous captain, Diderik Pining, who was also notorious for successful piracy, commanded the expedition while a Norwegian navigator, John Scolvus, directed the venture as pilot. Two Portuguese subjects, João Vaz Corte-Real and Alvaro Martins Homem, accompanied the expedition in the interest of the Portuguese king. Pining and Scolvus probably sailed from western Iceland, visited the shores of Greenland and then sailed south at least as far as Newfoundland which the Portuguese named the Codfish country (Terra do Bacalhao). On their return to Lisbon, Corte-real and his associate prepared an account of the great journey which was widely circulated in the earlier decades of the following century, but of which no copy has thus far come to light (Larson, 1922, p83).
The “Island of Cod” (sometimes translated, “the Island of Stockfishes”) was unlikely to have been one of the many navigational errors and miscalculations that were the bane of 15-17th Century mariners as, “This land of the stockfishes could have been neither Iceland nor Greenland, for these countries were well known to Norwegian navigators and were always mentioned by name. It was undoubtedly Newfoundland and the coast of Labrador, for among geographers of the sixteenth century the Terra do Bacalhao always denoted Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island, and the adjacent continent” (Gjerset, 1933, p45). When John Cabot (the Genoese navigator sailing for England) landed in Newfoundland in 1497, it was presumed that he bestowed original names on many of the prominent geographical features, but curiously, he noted the island at the mouth of Conception Bay, Newfoundland as Baccalieu (derived from the Portuguese bacalhau), suggesting he was well aware of the provenance of discovery, similarly reflected in the fact that the name and location are represented in many pre-Columbus maps. “John Cabot, in 1497, probably made land on the east coast of Newfoundland, and coasted some distance northward before setting out on his return journey. The significance of the name “Bacalieu,” borne by the island at the mouth of Conception Bay, does not seem to have been properly appreciated. It was the name which Cabot is said to have bestowed on the countries found by him, and first appears on the Oliveriano map of 1503” (Gosling, 1911, p70).
Whatever João Vaz Corte-Real accomplished, it pleased the King of Portugal, who upon his return granted him the island of São Jorge in the archipelago of the Azores in 1472, and later named him to the Captaincy (essentially the head Portuguese colonial administrator) of Angra on Terceira (another island in the Azores), whereas his previous shipmate Álvaro Martins Homem was named to the Captaincy of Praia (Terceira was divided into the Angra and Praia administrative districts). João Vaz Corte-Real then fades from history, although his sons were heavily involved in later explorations of the New World. This might also explain why King John II of Portugal was disinterested when Columbus approached him in 1484 looking for financing. And indeed, when word of Columbus’ discovery reached the ears of King John II, he immediately accused the Spanish of encroaching on Portuguese territory. Ferdinand and Isabella appealed to the Pope (conveniently a Spaniard), who in 1493 issued a Papal Bull assigning all territory west of the Cape Verde Islands to Spain, and east of Cape Verde to Portugal, basically handing the New World to Spain. By 1580, Spain and Portugal became one kingdom, united under King Phillip II, a joint monarchy that would persist until 1640. And shortly after Columbus began ferrying colonists over, the whole point of who was there first became moot, as most European countries were engaged in some kind of American land grab.
You’re probably thinking, “Big deal. It’s not really a stretch to imagine that a Portuguese navigator, who probably even ran in the same circles as Columbus might just have found Newfoundland as he was looking for where Norse Greenland colonists disappeared to”. After all, given the distances involved and the absence of cell phones in the 15th Century, twenty years in the rumor mill wouldn’t amount to much. This is obviously not a “Gotcha” historical moment that would change our perspective on European colonization, but rather a completely plausible (and somewhat boring) alternative to the lessons many generations absorbed in school. Here’s the bait and switch. If we can comfortably accept, given a smattering of evidence, the possibility that history as we have been taught is a slightly skewed and utterly mundane version of what might really have happened, perhaps there is room to consider the broader brush strokes of those who see the hand of Atlantis in transmission of culture, the existence of civilizations for which no indisputable trace remains, or otherworldly influences on the course of events. Such small capitulations are not rejections of history or an objective reality, rather the tacit recognition that people write history, and as timeless as we feel our intellects to be, like all social behaviors, the act is a function of the person by their environment. We are excruciatingly and unavoidably presentist, whereas as John F. Kennedy said, “History is a relentless master. It has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside”.
Bolton, Charles Knowles, 1867-1950. Terra Nova: the Northeast Coast of America Before 1602: Annals of Vinland, Markland, Estotiland, Drogeo, Baccalaos And Norumbega. Boston: F. W. Faxon Co., 1935.
Dawson, Samuel Edward, 1833-1916. The Saint Lawrence, Its Basin & Border-lands: the Story of Their Discovery, Exploration and Occupation. Toronto: McClelland, Goodchild and Stewart, 1905.
Gosling, William Gilbert, b. 1863. Labrador: Its Discovery, Exploration, And Development. New York: John Lane company, 1911.
Gjerset, Knut, 1865-1936. Norwegian Sailors In American Waters: a Study In the History of Maritime Activity On the Eastern Seaboard. Northfield, Minn.: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1933.
Larson, Laurence Marcellus, 1868-1938. Did John Scolvus Visit Labrador And Newfoundland In Or About 1476? [n.p], 1922.