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Douglas Hunter: LibraryThing Author Interview

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Douglas Hunter is the author of several books on topics ranging from the voyages of Henry Hudson to yacht design to doughnut shop chain Tim Hortons. His recent book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery was recently published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Christopher Columbus is, of course, a household name, but John Cabot may not be known to many readers. Who was this man, and what did he do?

John Cabot (as he was known in England) was a Venetian citizen who persuaded England's Henry VII in 1496 to grant him some fairly generous rights to prove a westward route across the Atlantic to Asia's riches. His first try in 1496 was a failure, but his second voyage in 1497 made the first known landfall since the Vikings somewhere in northeastern North America, probably in southern Labrador or the coast of Newfoundland. At the time, Columbus hadn't moved beyond Caribbean islands in his own discovery efforts.

Cabot was a bit of an odd duck. He wasn't a seasoned mariner. He was a hide trader who dabbled in property renovation and fled creditors in Venice in the 1480s for Spain. Reinventing himself as a marine construction engineer, Cabot pitched the king, Fernando, on an artificial harbor scheme for Valencia in 1491-92. Fernando and Cabot couldn't line up the money for that project, and Cabot next surfaced in the historical record in 1494 in Seville, the headquarters of the Columbus scheme, overseeing an important bridge project. But Cabot appears not to have done any work on it, and by December 1494 he was essentially being run out of town by displeased nobles. Reinvented himself yet again, Cabot surfaced at the court of Henry VII in England, in January 1946, with his Asia voyage scheme. And so this considerable rival to Columbus emerged from within Columbus's own milieu.

You suggest that Cabot may have accompanied Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, in 1493. Lay out the evidence for us, and explain what this finding might mean for our understanding of the history of exploration (or for Cabot and Columbus themselves).

What's really puzzling about Cabot's career is how he managed to persuade Henry VII to grant him such generous rights for an Asia voyage in 1496 when he had no apparent track record as an expert mariner, let alone as an exploration promoter.

It's becoming increasingly clear that English mariners out of Bristol already may have reached the New World, perhaps earlier than 1470. Cabot could have tapped into this lost knowledge in proposing his voyage to Henry VII. But if that awareness was circulating, why didn't Henry give the job and its many privileges to an Englishman? Henry was a shrewd and tight-fisted ruler. Something about Cabot's pitch persuaded him that this Venetian deserved the rights handed over to him.

There is more to this than I can explain here, but the most compelling case Cabot could have made for the rights he secured was that he had already been to Asia, and so he knew how to get there. Cabot was a bit of a confidence man. I think either he claimed something he hadn't done, or he had actually already had been to Asia, or the New World, rather, with Columbus. There are a couple bits of circumstantial evidence to support the distinct possibility that Cabot had been on the second Columbus voyage, which departed Spain in September 1493.

One of the bits of evidence I use is a really opaque letter written by the Spanish monarchs to their ambassador in London in early 1496. I engaged the help of an academic expert in early Spanish, and the letter seems to refer to Cabot as "the one from the Indies." Anyone interested in the tough slogging of historical translation should visit my website, follow the link for this book, and read the essay about "lo de las yndias."

What surprised you most as you worked on the research for this book? Did you stumble across anything that you really didn't expect?

You can probably gather from the answers above that a lot of things surprised me, much more than I can outline here. I didn't expect to build a case for Cabot having been on the 1493 Columbus voyage. Another important issue I raise is that Cabot's essential idea, of a more northern passage to Asia that was shorter than the one Columbus was using, was precisely the idea pitched to the Portuguese in 1493 by a German friend of Columbus, Martin Behaim. I show how Cabot could have crossed paths with Behaim's close associate, Jerome Munzer, who was in Seville at the very time Cabot was supposed to be building a bridge—a job he evidently abandoned in order to take up the Behaim scheme.

I didn't start to see the connections between Cabot and Behaim until probably halfway through the research, and then only after reading a recently published French translation of Jerome Munzer's 1493-94 travel diary, which was written in Latin. Behaim moreover was closely linked by marriage to the exploring Corte-Reals of Portugal. So the main characters in the history of late 15th century Atlantic exploration appear to have been far more intertwined than we've been led to believe.

The "Lost History of Discovery" in your subtitle can be read a couple of different ways, but one of those involves the destruction of the research materials of Dr. Alwyn Ruddock, who worked on Cabot's life and voyages for decades. Tell us about about her work, what happened to it, and what's being done to reconstruct it now.

Alwyn Ruddock is a tragic figure. She was a gifted economic historian in England who really knew her way around archives, both public and private, in England and the Mediterranean. In the mid 1960s she started promising a book on John Cabot and Columbus that would turn our understanding of the new world's discovery upside-down, but after a number of failed starts and stops, she died in 2005 without ever having produced it. A trustee of her estate heeded her last wishes and destroyed all of her research notes. Except for a terse book outline that survived at University of Exeter Press, historians knew nothing about what she had found.

Since then, the Cabot Project, based at the University of Bristol, has been chasing down the clues Ruddock left behind. They've made a number of archival finds that support some of Ruddock's claims.

What was interesting for me when I embarked on this project is that while some of Ruddock's findings and assertions did figure in my narrative, I ended up going in directions Ruddock herself never pursued. Cabot's possible connection to the 1493 Columbus voyage and the apparent cat's cradle of relationships involving Columbus, Cabot, Behaim and the Corte-Reals are two directions that spring to mind.

Do you recall what first interested you in the history of exploration?

I'm a sailor—I coauthored a book on yacht design—so I have a natural interest in anything involving historical passage-making. I've also been writing history in general for a number of years, including books about two other famous explorers, Samuel de Champlain and Henry Hudson. I am also in the process of completing a doctorate in history at Canada's York University. What I write about is less the "arr-matey' shipboard stuff than the voyage concepts, personalities, and schemes that draw in politics and economics. There's a lot of political intrigue in The Race to the New World. You can't understand how and why Cabot's voyages happened for England, for example, unless you also know that a pretender to the English throne, Perkin Warbeck, was causing all sorts of chaos among the royal houses of Europe. When Cabot returned from his first successful voyage in 1497, Henry VII was facing down a mob army marching on London in support of Warbeck. The geopolitics are fascinating, and among the key characters in my story is a corrupt Spanish ambassador in London who was keeping his monarchs in the dark about what Henry VII and Cabot were up to.

When and where do you do most of your writing? Any particular writing habits or tips you'd like to share?

I don't have any fancy systems. I work at home, and I treat writing as a pleasurable job. I wake up, deal with household duties, and sit down in front of the computer and get going. My main advice is just to write. Get something down if only to maintain momentum and keep your mind engaged. Don't be precious: be willing and prepared to throw things out, thousands of words at a time if need be, and to make major narrative restructuring.

And be prepared to change your mind. I start writing any book with an outline, but if I don't learn surprising things or shift my perception before the work is complete, then I don't think I've done my job. Research and writing are a process of discovery. I also think it's important to table new ideas. I've called The Race to the New World a work of historical provocation. It brings fresh perspectives and arguments to what may have seemed like an old story. We'll see how they stand up, but I think as an historian you sometimes need to give a subject area a good shove into terra incognito.

What's your own library like? What sorts of books would we find on your shelves?

As I'm in the middle of doctoral studies, not surprisingly my shelves are groaning with works of history. My main doctoral fields, Canadian history and Aboriginal history, account for a lot of what's at hand. There are also a couple shelves full of works dedicated to exploration. A lot of those are reference books, from the Hakluyt Society and Repertorium Columbianum for example, with annotated transcriptions of key sources. I do read for pleasure, both fiction and nonfiction, though.

What have you read and enjoyed recently?

A couple nonfiction works I'd recommend are Eric Sanderson's gorgeous and engaging Mannahatta: A Natural History of New York City, Ross King's The Judgment of Paris, and Alexander Stille's The Future of the Past. In fiction, go with Michael Crummey's River Thieves or Matthew Kneale's English Passengers.

You've got a new book just out in Canada, I understand? Tell us about it, and do you have other projects in the pipeline?

My latest book is a real departure from The Race to the New World. It's called Double Double, and it's about the Canadian coffee-and-doughnut chain phenomenon Tim Hortons. I've written widely in my career on business, history, sport, and the environment, and back in 1994 I published a biography of the late hockey star Tim Horton, who founded the chain. I've wanted to return to the restaurant story ever since, to explain how it began and why this chain has become such a cultural touchstone in Canada. It's the first business-oriented book I've written since 2002, when I published The Bubble and the Bear on the Nortel stock debacle, which won Canada's National Business Book Award.

I always have a couple irons in the fire. One work in process involves the wreck of a passenger steamer on the Great Lakes in 1879 and how this single tragedy ties together British colonial history right around the globe. But right now I'm focused on completing my doctoral studies, which includes a dissertation on "cryptohistory," the more outlandish ideas of early European arrivals in North America. I'm looking in part at how Indigenous cultural resources such as rock art are misappropriated by these fringe theorists. I'm also exploring how notions of racial supremacy that bubbled up in the 19th century helped promote even conventional ideas like a Viking arrival, which wasn't conclusively proved until the mid-1960s. This year I was named one of Canada's Vanier Scholars and the country's William E. Taylor Fellow, which means I'm dedicated pretty much full time to my doctoral research for the next couple years.

—interview by Jeremy Dibbell

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