In honour of American Independence Day we wrote stories and poems with the prompt ‘America’.
We planned to meet at The Roasted Cafe, 215 London Road
Charlton Kings, GL52 6HY, but Richard who owns it lost his keys and couldn’t let us in.
Here’s the piece I wrote:
My name is Giovanni Caboto and I am a Genoese trader. You call me John Cabot, and I answer to that too.
Hearing that my countryman, Cristoforo Colombo, had set sail to the West in the hope of reaching China, but found some islands, I desired to do better. I am a wiser man. Knowing, as do all educated souls, that the earth is a ball, I reasoned that if I crossed the sea further north, I should have fewer miles to travel. So I came to London.
There I found the money for my ships, from rich bankers and a friar, collector of taxes for the Pope, and secured permission from your King, Henry the Seventh to find, search and discover the lands of heathens and infidels: anything unknown to Christians. And then I came to Bristow.
In Bristow, the greatest port in England for the Western routes, I found my seamen. They had strange tales. For 20 years they been looking for Hy-Brasil, a fertile island spoken of by the Irish. In their songs and stories, the land, the home of a lost tribe, is hidden in mist, appearing but once every seven years. The sailors told me they had found it, had gone ashore, but then had lost it again. Sailors love to tell stories. No-one believed them. What had they brought back? I was a merchant.
I bought an old caravel, no more than 25 spans, and named it The Matthew. Two Bristol traders came aboard, along with a Dutchman, a barber-surgeon from my country, and some local mariners. We were no more than a score in all.
We set sail. We were driven back. We set sail again.
On June the 24th, 1497, we reached land, green and thickly wooded. Just once, we went ashore, to seek fresh water. Of Don Christofer’s Indios, we saw none. But they had been there, leaving an extinguished fire, a fishing net, a wooden knife for gutting or skinning. We did not tarry, pausing only to raise the banners of Venice and the Pope and to claim the wilderness for the King of England and the Holy Church of Rome.
After that, we voyaged up the coast, making observations but never touching land. And then we sailed back.
Returned to England, I was met with due acclaim, and travelled to London to see the King. He gave me ten pounds, two years’ wages for a labouring man. I expected more, but Henry was distracted: the Cornish had risen, seized Exeter and Taunton, and named a pretender as King Richard IV. It took him six months to restore order, and then he made his customs collectors give me a pension: they were tardy about it, but in the end I got my due.
I did not name the country I discovered. I did not feel it was my place. The Bristolians began to speak of it as simply the “new found land”. More lands would be found, but this was the first: a marvel of the age.
Soon I went again, with five ships and a cargo of goods to trade: cloth, caps, lace trifles. My friar came with me this time, determined to establish a mission.
What happened? I know, but you don’t. Some say the ships were lost and all we explorers perished. Some say I left the friar there to build his church and came back to London.
Before the new century, though, I was gone. I was with the Lord.
The land I found is now called America. Seven years after my probable date of death, a German map-maker applied the name to the Southern lands I never saw, in honour of a Venetian, Amerigo Vespucci, who had travelled there with the Spanish and the Portuguese.
He probably didn’t discover anything. But he wrote a letter to his patron, a Medici, about what he had seen, and in it he described what “can properly be called a New World”. The letter, know as Mundus Novus, swept across Europe.
A thing doesn’t exist until it’s named: or rather until the name is taken up. That’s how it works. “The New World” was Amerigo’s name for what he had found. America was what the German called it, because “The New World” had got old, and there were more new worlds to find.
The English settlers recognised the appeal of the new name and stole it. Now everyone calls their part, the part I found, America.
It could have been called Caboto. But I never thought of it.