December’s State of the Thing, LibraryThing’s monthly newsletter of features, author interviews and various forms of bookish delight, should have made its way to your inbox by now. You can also read it online. It includes interviews with authors Simon Garfield and Douglas Hunter.
I talked to Simon Garfileld about his new book On the Map: A Mind-Expanding Exploration of the Way the World Looks , published by Gotham Books last month. Some excerpts:
Maps have helped define what makes us human. Maps were one of the earliest forms of communication, almost certainly existing before language and speech. I’m inclined to agree with Richard Dawkins when he suggests that our ability to draw maps—to show fellow hunters where the juicy elk were—was a key factor in expanding the size of our brains, enabling the leap from apes to homo-sapiens. Beyond all this, maps are frequently beautiful artifacts, telling the best stories in a direct way. The idea of the book was to retell the best of these stories. And occasionally, of course, maps just help us get from A to B.
What first got you interested in maps, and when?
I first got hooked as a boy travelling on the London Underground at the age of 10. The famous Harry Beck tube map—now copied all over the world—was in every carriage and platform. I didn’t realize its significance (geographically it’s incredibly inaccurate, but as a diagram it’s a great piece of information engineering), but I was entranced by the names on it and its possibilities. The prospect of travelling to the end of any of the lines—Amersham at the end of the Metropolitan line, say—seemed as exotic and far away as Antarctica. I’ve collected tube maps ever since, and now framed copies line my hallway at home.
What have you read and enjoyed recently?
Two books I’ve loved of late: Walking Home by Simon Armitage, a funny account of a soggy walk across the Pennine Way from Derbyshire to Scotland, reading poetry at some unlikely venues en route to pay his way. And an oldie but goodie: 84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff, the classic epistolary account of a tough American lady’s relationship with a London bookshop and its staff (and its books).
I also had the chance to talk with Douglas Hunter about his recent book The Race to the New World: Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, and a Lost History of Discovery (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’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.
Catch up on previous State of the Thing newsletters.