Skip to main content

Did Columbus or Cabot See the Vinland Map?

June 2024
10min read

In the Vinland Map we see the only known cartographic delineation of American lands before the discoveries of Columbus and Cabot. So far as the evidence goes, this unique record remained unnoticed by geographical writers, by projectors and explorers, and by cartographers. We may still ask whether, more positively than all the hints of western land accumulated in the fifteenth-century maps and texts, it served in some way to bridge “the gap between two epochs of Atlantic discovery.”

The western part of the Vinland Map presents a chart of the Atlantic which can be seen to indicate alternative westward ocean passages on which the navigator might hope to pick up land. Taking his departure from a port of the Iberian Peninsula and sailing down into the zone of the northeasterly trade winds, he could then lay a course west or southwest on which he would find Antillia [the mythical island which appears on so many early maps, including the Vinland Map] lying across his bows. These were in fact the courses set by Columbus in the late summer of 1492, and Antillia was the first land which he expected to sight on his westward passage from the Canaries. Martin Behaim lays down, in his globe of 1492, the Island of St. Brendan, with an outline very like that of Antillia in the fifteenth-century charts and in the Vinland Map.

Two northern sea routes, by parallel sailing, are suggested by the disposition of lands in the Vinland Map. One is that of the Norse navigation due west from Norway to Iceland and Greenland, or direct from Norway to the south point of Greenland. The other, using the northeasterly winds of early summer and of autumn in this zone, makes a course westward from southern England or Ireland, with perhaps a sight of [the mythical isles of] Brasil or Mayda on the way, to a landfall in Vinland. By this route, from 1480 or earlier, the Bristol merchants set forth regular voyages in search of “the Island of Brasylle on the west part of Ireland,” or “to search &: fynde a certain Isle called the Isle of Brasile.” At some date before 1494 their search was crowned by the discovery of a mainland which they called Brasil. [See D. B. Quinn, “The Argument for the English Discovery of America between 1480 and 1494,” Geographic Journal , Vol. 127 (1961), pp. 277-85.] In Dr. J. A. Williamson’s words (The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII , 1962), “it was these unknown men who first worked out the course from the British Isles to the north-east corner of America”; and Bristol was the base selected by John Cabot for his western voyages to find (as he supposed) Cathay. In May-June, 1497, Cabot’s course, which was doubtless that of the preceding expeditions of the Bristol men, took him along the south coast of Ireland, north for “some days,” and then west for thirty-five days on an ENE wind to his landfall. The land which he discovered was “assumed and believed to be the mainland that the men from Bristol found” some years earlier. On his return voyage in July, with favorable west winds, Cabot made a passage of fifteen days from (probably) Cape Race in Newfoundland to a landfall in Brittany. The details of the courses out and home are given in the letter of John Day, discovered by Dr. L. A. Vigneras in the Simancas archives in 1956.

The course of the pioneering voyages to the west which resulted in landfalls authenticated by documents is therefore consonant with the geography of the Atlantic portrayed in the Vinland Map. This is very far from proof that the map or its content was known to the promoters and leaders of these enterprises. Voyages made in the fifteenth century by a number of Portuguese venturers in search of land in the western Atlantic are also attested, more or less loosely, in documents of various kinds. Most of them set out from the Azores, Madeira, or the Cape Verde Islands; and there is no serious evidence, until near the end of the century, that they sought or found any objective more substantial than the imaginary islands—Antillia, the Seven Cities, St. Brendan—displayed in contemporary charts and granted by royal letters-patent to the expectant discoverers. The evidence for these expeditions is surveyed by S. E. Morison in Portuguese Voyages to America in the Fifteenth Century (1940). Two of them have been claimed to have reached Newfoundland or the Grand Banks. As Admiral Morison shows, the course of Diogo de Teive and Pedro de Velasco in 1452, as described by Las Casas, could not have brought them to the Banks; and the late testimony to an American landfall by Joâo Vaz Corte Real in 1472 seems far too slight to carry any burden of proof.

Some of these stories were collected by Columbus in support of his project; and some no doubt were transmitted to Bristol, the principal English terminus of the trade with Portugal and Madeira, by seamen’s gossip. It can even be argued that such “an exchange of ideas between men with a common interest in the farther Atlantic” justifies us in seeing the Portuguese voyages out into the ocean as an impulse behind the Bristol interest in the search for distant islands, which is attested from 1480 onward.

That there was a two-way traffic of ideas is conceivable and even likely. This enables us to visualize a possible route by which geographical information available in Iceland, where the Atlantic representation in the Vinland Map doubtless originated, could have been conveyed at least to Portugal, if not to other countries of southern Europe. The Bristol trade with Iceland initiated about 1424 had by the second half of the fifteenth century become substantial and regular, and the Icelandic grounds were frequented by Bristol fishermen. Iceland was the repository of the knowledge about Greenland and lands further west preserved both in folk memory or orally and in the written literature of the sagas and annals; and among the documentary records we may now count a map or maps, no longer extant except in a derivative represented by the western part of the Vinland Map. That the Bristol merchants and fishermen had any access to Icelandic documents is of course exceedingly unlikely; but, in Dr. Williamson’s words, “the story of lands to the west and south, and their traditional names, must have been current in vague form among the illiterate people of the ports and coast with whom the English inevitably had dealings. We do not know if the Bristol men had any intellectual contact with the few who knew the history recorded in the sagas, but it seems very probable that they heard of Markland and Wineland and perhaps of western fisheries which the Icelanders themselves had no need to exploit.” Such a hypothesis not only goes far to explain (as Professor Quinn suggests) both the interest of the Bristol merchants in Brasil as “a territorial key to a fishery” and “the lack of publicity about the discovery of new and extremely rich grounds.” It also illustrates the means by which, despite this “policy of secrecy,” some of the Icelandic talk about western lands might have been transmitted from Bristol to Lisbon or Seville by a similar chain of gossip and hearsay on the quayside and in the counting-house.

A phrase in John Day’s letter describing the Cabot voyage of 1497, which must have been written at the end of 1497 or beginning of 1498, indicates that its recipient already had knowledge of the earlier Bristol discovery of “mainland” in the North Atlantic. The letter is addressed to the “Almirante Mayor,” whom (as Dr. Vigneras has shown) there are grounds for identifying with Christopher Columbus, Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Acceptance of this identification admits the possibility that news of the English discovery may have been in Columbus’ possession before he sailed in 1492 and have contributed to his “conviction that there was land to be found within the range of distances which he anticipated.” It may be added that, if Columbus in fact visited Iceland in 1477, it was very probably in a Bristol vessel that he made the trip, and, if so, he could have shared the Icelandic information picked up by Bristol seamen. We do not go so far in skepticism as Admiral Morison, who writes: “The Vinland story was not likely to come [Columbus’] way, unless he had learned Icelandic and attended saga-telling parties ashore” (S. E. Morison, Admiral of the Ocean Sea, 1942, Vol. 1, p. 35).

That such a “leakage” from Iceland to Bristol and from Bristol to Lisbon or Seville embraced anything more than oral report, and that it extended to documents, let alone a map, may be considered out of the question. But if we make the reasonable assumption that the geographical information of the Vinland Map, or of its Icelandic original, corresponded in its main features to that orally transmitted by the channels suggested above, we have to consider how it fits into the ideological background of the enterprises of Columbus and Cabot. In other words, had either of these imaginative men become aware of the information contained in the Vinland Map, to what use would he have turned it in planning and promoting his enterprise?

Columbus made copious notes on all reports of land or islands in the west that came to his notice, and these were gathered together in the biography by his son Ferdinand. From the fact that they include no mention of Vinland, Admiral Morison has concluded that “Columbus never heard of it” and that “if we accept Ferdinand’s positive evidence of the Iceland voyage, we must also accept his negative evidence that Columbus found no useful evidence there.” Whether the first of these inferences is justified or not, the second is indisputable if we suppose the information available to Columbus from Iceland to have corresponded to that in the Vinland Map. All the evidence which he could collect indicated that both his objective and the best route thither lay in tropical latitudes.

He took Antillia to lie on or near the Tropic of Cancer; if (as we suppose) the world maps he consulted included one like that by Henricus Martellus now at Yale, he could see that a course along the same parallel would bring him to Cipangu and to Mangi, the “cape of Asia.” Any Portuguese expeditions which may have attempted a passage from Madeira or the Azores to land in the northwest were doubtless beaten back by the westerly winds of the North Atlantic; and his experience in the Portuguese navigation to Africa had taught Columbus how to use the wind systems of the central Atlantic. Thus he inevitably thought of a voyage with the northeast trade winds. The southern point of Vinland, as drawn in the Vinland Map, is in the latitude of the English Channel, 25° north of Columbus’ point of departure in the Canaries. Not only was the knowledge reflected in this map (if he had it) not “useful” to his enterprise; it was simply irrelevant.

Unlike Columbus, John Cabot has left no explicit statement either of his objectives and of the means by which he proposed to attain them, or of the experience and reasoning by which his project was formulated. On all these matters no writing from his hand or of his composition survives. We can only visualize them from the statements which he is reported by contemporaries to have made and by deduction from his recorded actions. The evidence, as surveyed most recently by Dr. Williamson and Professor Quinn, points to certain conclusions which are logically related to one another and to the Atlantic ventures of the Bristol men and of Columbus; and they are here summarized.

Cabot, like Columbus, sought a westward passage to Cathay by the shortest sea route. He was probably present in Valencia to witness Columbus’ triumphant return in 1493; but he could not credit Columbus’ identification of his discoveries with the Asian mainland. Study of the globe would show him that, because of the convergence of the meridians, a passage in higher latitudes would be shorter than that made, almost within the tropic, by Columbus. If and when news of the Bristol discovery of land in the northwest reached him, he must have realized, first, that here were men who had mastered the winds and navigation for a westward passage in these latitudes; and, second, that the “Brasil” found by the Bristol venturers might turn out to be at worst an island which would serve as “a half-way house to a more northerly part of the Asiatic coast,” at best “the north-east corner of Asia, projecting more towards Europe than the tropical region,” which could be coasted south-west “to Cipango and the rich tropical part of the Great Khan’s empire. These would be in Columbus’s latitudes, but they would be far beyond Columbus in longitude.” That Cabot probably adopted the more sanguine of these two interpretations is suggested by his confident report, after his return in 1497, tnat he had “discovered mainland 700 leagues away, which is the country of the Great Khan.” The geographical picture which he had in mind before he sailed would then correspond to that illustrated in the later world maps of Contarini-Rosselli (1506), Ruysch (1507-08), and Vesconte Maggiolo (ca. 1510 and 1511). These cartographers show the recently discovered coasts of Labrador and Newfoundland, in the longitude of the eastern Antilles, as the Atlantic seaboard of a great promontory jutting eastward from northeast Asia, with its southern coast trending first west and then south to the point of Mangi, in Cathay. In this representation the Spanish discoveries in the Caribbean are separated by a broad sea passage both from the English and Portuguese landfalls in the northwest and from the mainland of Asia.

This was the pattern of land and water which probably ruled Cabot’s thought before he sailed from Bristol in 1497, and certainly did so after his return and in the planning of his next voyage. How would he have reconciled it with the delineation in the Vinland Map if this map or the information in it had, through a Bristol intermediary, come to his knowledge? To simplify the argument, let us make the improbable assumption that Cabot had seen some version of the map itself. Comparison of its representation of the North Atlantic with the courses and distances logged by the Bristol pilots would undoubtedly have led him to identify the lately discovered “Brasil” with the southern part of Vinland as shown on the map. This would have provided him with mutual confirmation of the reliability of his two sources. He would have seen that Vinland extended, on the map, little south of the latitude of Bristol and that, if it were an island (as it is depicted) and not mainland, it would not bar an onward voyage to Cathay on a course changed slightly south of west. On the other hand, he might well have noted that the western coast of Vinland appeared to be drawn from conjecture and not from discovery, and concluded that the question whether the Vinland of the map represented an island or the eastern face of a continental coast remained open for investigation. That in June-July, 1497, he coasted 300 leagues of land in a month, from west to east, must have convinced him that the “continental” interpretation was correct and that “Brasil” and “Vinland” were sections of the mainland of Asia.

It is to be understood that the reconstruction of Cabot’s line of thought in the preceding paragraph is wholly speculative and depends upon assumptions which, even if true, will probably never be verified. It does nevertheless demonstrate that the Icelandic information exemplified in the Vinland Map, had it come to John Cabot’s notice, would have seemed to him compatible with his own preconceptions, with the discoveries in the North Atlantic known to him, and with his plan for further exploration.

The Vinland Map is the only surviving graphic record of the western voyages of the Norsemen to contain any element of experience. As such, it must have exercised a potent influence on the mind of any seaman under whose eyes it came. We cannot yet point to any direct link between it and the rediscoverers of North America at the end of the fifteenth century. Yet it is conceivable that they had heard of the Viking voyages, even if in a form much less precise than the cartographic record of them in the Vinland Map, and that the example of the Norse seamen served as an incentive for their own ventures. As Nansen wrote of the Norse voyages: “For the first time explorers had set out with conscious purpose from the known world, over the surrounding seas, and had found land on the other side. By their voyages they taught the sailors of Europe the possibility of traversing the ocean.” Of this initiative the Vinland Map is a memorial.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.