Successful historiographical detective work provides Hunter (Half Moon: Henry Hudson and the Voyage that Redrew the Map of the New World, 2009, etc.) with the means to rework aspects of the careers of Christopher Columbus and John Cabot.
The author puts together an intriguing account from an international cooperative research effort among historians to reconstruct sources that were either destroyed or lost. He has also accessed documents in Spanish, Latin, French and Italian, especially from collections appearing since the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ voyage, in 1992. Hunter presents a reconstruction of the political, financial and social networks and activities of which the ocean explorers were a part, and shows their nautical adventures in a new light. Slave traders from Genoese and Florentine banking houses put up money for the voyages, even while organizing sugar plantations in the Canaries. The powers and privileges of personal possession each explorer sought to exercise were so similar, Hunter argues, because both were based on an earlier Portuguese proposal presented in the 1480s with support from the same Genoese and Florentine financial interests. Cabot, a real-estate speculator and projector, did not have the same nautical skill set as Columbus. He did project the same kind of bare-faced confidence and courage that enabled Columbus to withstand ridicule and stay the course. He may even have accompanied Columbus on his second voyage as the builder of the future port for Espaniola. Cabot always had to stay one step ahead of creditors to keep out of jail, and Columbus had to work overtime to maintain the stories he told, and the deceptions he circulated, to keep his enterprise going.
Hunter turns what seems like a well-known story into something well worth exploring again.