Cabot, Catholics, and Carbonear

Hans Rollmann
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Almost all cultures endow their beginnings with great significance and pay special attention to their origins. Newfoundlands European colonial beginnings, coming after millennia of aboriginal habitation, are no exception.

The various claims and emotions associated with Cabots voyages and a variety of possible landfalls have even become the subject of inquiry among academic historians. Far from being solved, the mysteries surrounding John Cabots journeys of discovery have once again deepened and become even more tantalizing because of a recent publication by Evan T. Jones of the University of Bristol.

Joness article, Alwyn Ruddock: John Cabot and the Discovery of America, published in a journal, Historical Research, seeks to reconstruct a book for which we have merely an outline and some associated comments to the prospective publisher. Ruddocks scholarly notes and sources for the project, 78 bags in all, were dutifully destroyed by a trustee who in turn was handsomely rewarded for assuring the burning and shredding of all research materials.

Unlike Max Brod who refused to destroy the literary remains of his friend Franz Kafka because of their cultural significance the trustee carried out this tragic conflagration, to the regret of many students of Newfoundland history.

Ruddock, an author overtaken by age and ill health who requested the posthumous destruction of her scholarly work and its sources, was a respected economic historian of late medieval and early modern mercantile links between Italy and England.

Later she devoted herself to studying John Cabot and Bristols voyages of discovery. Because she was eminently qualified to research the Italian and English mercantile records, the book outline submitted to the publisher promised valuable new documents and revolutionary new insights based on original archival research. In his recent article, Dr. Jones seeks to reconstruct, on the basis of the prospectus of her work and its allied correspondence, what was already known among scholars and what was new in Ruddocks claims.

He also offers helpful suggestions to future historians and researchers who might verify or follow some of the leads provided by Ruddock.

Ruddocks research, if verified and confirmed, suggests an important religious dimension and missionary intent associated with Cabots voyages and the discovery of Newfoundland.

Moving beyond previous research, Ruddock proposes a Roman Catholic friar played a crucial role in facilitating Cabots voyages. In addition he is said to have been helpful in securing Cabot a pension, and subsequently sailed to Newfoundland.

With many of these claims we need to be cautious, however. We have neither Ruddocks book nor her sources, but merely a skimpy outline and Joness effort to divine what the historian might have concluded if she had ever published her book and edited her sources.

For years, Newfoundland historians were led astray by a supposed Puritan origin of Newfoundland, based on claims made by 19th-century historians, which turned out to be without any basis.

Ruddock emphasizes the contributions to Cabots voyage of discovery by Brother Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, a prominent Italian member of the Hermit Friars of Saint Augustine (the same order that a few years later admitted a young Martin Luther into its ranks in Saxony). Fra Giovanni was a diplomat and papal tax collector with excellent connections to the court of Henry VII and the Italian colony in London.

According to Ruddock, not only did Fra Giovanni help Cabot receive royal support and Italian financial backing, but the good brother also had religious intentions and again based on sources previously unknown, destroyed by the dutiful trustee, and never seen since was joined by other monks when accompanying Cabot in a separate ship on a second voyage to Newfoundland in 1498, where a church was built.

The Conception Bay community of Carbonear still retains an echo of this church, named after San Giovanni a Carbonara (St. Johns at the Charcoal Burners field) in Naples. While there is some independent support for Fra Giovannis having gone on a voyage of exploration to discover new islands, the specifics that he ever arrived in Newfoundland on a ship called the Dominus Nobiscum (The Lord be with us) remains until proven a supposition awaiting documentary confirmation, as does a Friar Luis, who supposedly came along on the second voyage and remained as a hermit in Newfoundland.

Perhaps a monastic establishment away from the corruptions of Europe may have been an attraction to the reformed friars accompanying Cabot on his second voyage, just as the Church of England parson Richard Eburne suggested one century later a spiritual purification of English colonists in virgin Newfoundland in his Plaine Patway to Plantations (1624).

Even after Friar Luiss death, efforts were made, according to Ruddock, to supply another priest to Newfoundland fishers during the reign of Henry VII.

Yet even a hypothetical history, never written, about Cabots historic 15th-century voyage is still capable of generating enough interest to make it onto the front page of The Telegram and has us once more talking about our mythic beginnings and the role religion may have played in them.

The entire article can be

downloaded via the following URL:

Hans Rollmann is professor of Religious Studies at Memorial University and can be reached by email: His column returns May 13.

Organizations: University of Bristol, Church of England, The Telegram

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Cabots, Carbonear America Italy England Saint Augustine Saxony London Conception Bay Naples Europe

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