Today, the closest Monday to June 24, is Discovery Day in the province of Newfoundland Labrador. Legend has it that the Genoese explorer Giovanni Caboto, also known as John Cabot, made it across the Atlantic from Bristol, England on June 24, 1497. In so doing he discovered what we now call Newfoundland and, since the day of discovery was also the Feast of St. John the Baptist, the harbour he arrived at bears that name as does the city that has grown up around it—my home. Today is a provincial government holiday and various activities take place throughout the city of St. John’s to commemorate that grand discovery.
This legend is so very typical. It reeks of greatness. Think of that proud captain on the stout, sturdy little 50-tonne “Matthew,” crewed by 18-20 people. In through the narrows it sailed. That part itself was no mean feat, considering the steepness of the surrounding hills, the unpredictability of the winds, and most of all, the narrowness—the name exists for a reason—of the channel that separates the harbor from the ocean. Weeks at sea then, first, on what we now as the Grand Banks, cod fish so plentiful that they could be hauled up out of the ocean in baskets. Now this, a harbor that was completely sheltered from the elements, easily defended and just the perfect size to accommodate what would prove to be huge fleets of fishing vessels, all looking for shelter and re-supply. What a discovery! This beautiful, bountiful land, so ripe for development; a promise like no other for the future.
Yes, legends. Great but, neither entirely believable nor entirely discountable. Stuck fast somewhere in between; too wondrous to be ignored and always useful. A great story such as this one can be spun off to so many other purposes: promote tourism; establish sovereignty; give the masses something to celebrate. Lots of uses. After all, why let the facts get in the way of a good story?
Facts? Well isn’t it well-known that John Cabot discovered the New World and founded the city of St. John’s in 1497? No, not exactly. It depends on who you ask. Cape Bretoners and people who live on the coast of Maine know how to make a convincing case to show that their place was the first and most important port of call. You don’t even have to leave the island of Newfoundland to get controversy. There are many here (including the Federal Government) who judge Bonavista to be a safer bet for the place where Caboto made landfall. First, the cape is imposing and rather hard to miss but, more importantly, many mariners at that time navigated by maintaining constant latitude. Bonavista is closer in latitude to Bristol than is St. John’s. Of course, St. Anthony is almost dead west of Bristol. Now, you don’t hear too many from there claiming Caboto as their own…but then again they have undisputed claim to Sir. Wilfrid Grenfell and he’s probably a better choice for a hero anyway. Nonetheless, if I had to guess, it would be mine.
And the Basque whalers and other fishers? We have evidence that shows they were located in various parts of the province, particularly Red Bay (which, just this weekend was granted UNESCO World Heritage status for just that reason) prosecuting a very lucrative fishery. In particular the bowhead and right wales provided great wealth to the Basque. Given the richness of the fishery as well as the well-known Basque aversion to ‘headlines’ it’s reasonable to figure it likely that the fisheries were well underway long before the “voyage of discovery.” Perhaps instead of saying that Caboto discovered the new world it might be more accurate to say that he may, instead, have blown the lid off a well-kept trade secret!
There’s also the indisputable evidence of the Norse visits and settlements here, 500 years prior to any of this. According to the Greenland Saga, around 986 Bjarni Herjólfsson was blown off course on his way to Greenland and found a new land further to the west: a land of stones, (probably Baffin Island), a land of trees (probably Labrador) and a land of wild grapes (could be anywhere from the northern tip of Newfoundland to the coast of Maine). Later, long after his return, he sold the ship to Leifr Eiríksson (sometimes referred to as Leif the Lucky) who, along with 30-40 others established a short-lived settlement, probably at what is now L’Anse Aux Meadows. Maybe not just there; it’s possible there were many other places. Sadly, modern development all along the likely sites has permanently erased the easily-found archaeological remnants. For the Norse, it was probably mostly about the abundant, high-quality timber, so vital to a seafaring people and so hard to find at home. A cooling climate and even chillier relations with the local inhabitants probably ended the settlement effort.
How’s that again?
Didn’t Leif/the Basque Whalers/Caboto/whomever discover the new world? How could there be people there already? “How” indeed. If there is, in fact, a point to this admittedly meandering post, we are about to arrive at it.
When Columbus landed in the islands off North America he found them already inhabited by people he subsequently decimated. When the various colonizing vessels landed on the coasts further north they did not find vast, empty lands ready to be developed for the first time. They found, rather, beautiful, highly developed farmlands inhabited by equally well-developed cultures, who were subsequently decimated. While Newfoundland was nowhere near as highly-populated as were the lands further south there were far from empty too. Mi’kmaq, Innu, Inuit and, of course, Beothuk not only were well-established but were, in reality, just the current in a long line of peoples who had inhabited this place long before the Europeans arrived.
But you’d never say, judging by many popular recounts of history, especially movies. It usually goes something like this:
- Chapter 1: short romp through the people who lived here before Caboto.
- Chapters 2-50: a chronological listing of every European military conquest or significant economic activity in or around the city of St. John’s or Placentia.
Through it all you are generally left with the impression that (a) the aboriginals were quaint but they did very little that mattered before 1497 and, wow, aren’t they lucky the Europeans came along, else this silly stone age cuteness would still be happening and (b) my, weren’t they awfully rude, refusing to get off that land WE need and refusing to lose that silly way of life, Tsk Tsk and (c) what happened in most other places—outport fishing communities and aboriginal settlements—simply did not matter at all, certainly not enough that it’s worth writing down.
That is changing, thankfully. Year by year new discoveries are coming to light as the land offers up the secrets it wishes to. Bit by bit the point of view is changing as evidence piles up and attitudes change, in keeping with the needs of the day.
So, here it is, discovery day. The legend continues. John Cabot hats, pictures of the “Matthew” and, all over, celebrations of that fateful discovery.
Not exactly so for me, though. Discovery is something else. I am not a newcomer; certainly not a conqueror. I am, rather of this beautiful land and am as much a part of it as are the rocks beneath my feet. Discovery matters little to the land; it will be here long after I am gone; long after we all are gone. For now, though, I can exist here along with all the others. Together, hopefully, we can continue to discover the wonders our land feels like letting us see. That, alone, is cause for celebration.