21 June 2009

Expedition Denotes Birds of Coastal North America ca. A.D. 1500

In May 1497, as Joan Caboto Veneciano of Italy, set sail under the moniker of John Cabot for an unknown world beyond the western horizon, there wasn't any map to guide what might be found, nor anything to indicate some particular destination.

[John Cabot painting from Wikipedia]

Painting of John Cabot.

Despite having an unknown route, the expedition set forth from a lively European port. English King Henry VII supplied the monies for eatable grub and wages for a hearty crew of sailors that could continually work the ship's sails needed for ongoing forward movement, for costs to outfit transport to traverse an uncharted ocean for unknown and ongoing months, and other miscellany essential for an oceanic voyage of A.D. 1500.

News had spread across Europe of vivid accounts from the journey by the celebrated Christopher Columbus - traveling overseas in 1492 - and secondary explorations by familial relations at new worlds of the middle Atlantic. Accounts conveyed a profound, dominating interest in a vast unknown territory across the Atlantic Ocean. What riches might be found - or plundered - for an unknown economic advantage? Perhaps a northwest route across the oceanic waters might be a passage to the riches of Asia. Might some route provide new commerce and great profits - in the various denominations or currencies of the era - for sea-based trade?

When the crew of the accomplished ship Matthew set anchor in shallow coastal waters, weeks after setting sail westward across the great ocean, Cabot was a first known European to reach the mainland northern America.

It was a latter-June day when explorer Cabot claimed territory under the auspices of King Henry VII, whilst at some beach-front along the northeast Atlantic coast. This place had not been visited previously by someone from Europe so apparently it was a place new visitors would claim without regard for residents that already lived there. The local people didn't know that a new identity was being imposed upon places that were a essential for their their continued existence, with local affairs of state or warfare or other domineering activities used as a means of control, instead of any basis from someone that walked on a beach and made a dramatic proclamation for the benefit of themselves and others eastward in some foreign country. Matters were based on local action and influences, not on grandiose words of spoken importance.

[Replica of the Matthew; from Wikipedia]

Replica of the Matthew. Both images courtesy of Wikipedia.

The site of land-fall was apparently in the vicinity of Vinland, and supposedly at the Island of St. John, according to historic accounts.

The local people dressed in skins of unidentified animals. There were many great white bears.

"There are also in this country dark-coloured falcons like crows, eagles, partridges, sandpipers, and many other birds of different kinds," according to published accounts of the hearty voyage across the great and perilous northern seas.

The ship continued its travels northward trying to find unhindered - that would be ice-free waters - upon which to continue sailing, but the boat was thwarted by ice-laden waters that stopped their progress. As they could not continue, the route was revised and sails were hoisted to sally forth for their home port in Europe.

Cabot returned to England, and was recognized as a here, and named an Admiral in the Royal Navy. A second voyage with five ships - based on the first instance of success - was quickly undertaken to supposedly find Japan. There are no chronicles which have been found to denote this important effort in the history of the times.

With reports of Cabot's success, explorer Gaspar Corte Real, the third son of the governor of the island of Terceira in the Azores, left Lisbon after being sent by King Manuel I to explore the northwest Atlantic in 1500. The voyage successfully returned after discovery of the Norse land.

On a subsequent voyage in the spring of 1501, Gaspar's brother Miguel was an essential person of the voyage. The three ships reached north Atlantic waters choked by "enormous masses of congealed snow floating" on the water and were soon stopped at the frozen sea.

After a few more seasonal months sailing along the north coast of Vinland, in late summer or early autumn, they reached a "very great country, which they approached with the greatest joy." This was the east coast of the land green with tall forests. There were "delicious fruits" and great trees to provide masts for ships. The men lived by hunting animals and fishing, according to historic accounts. Stags with long hair provided food, skins for clothing, houses and boats, according to the written narratives. There were wolves and sables.

"They affirm that the peregrine falcons are so numerous that it appears to me to be a miracle, like those in our country." This was the sole mention of birds present at the western lands across the great ocean.

Fifty locals were captured and then taken as prisoners back to Portugal, when two of the ships of the expedition returned to Lisbon in mid-October.

The single ship with Gaspar Corte Real sailed south to explore further, and was lost as it was not heard from again.

A letter written to Hercules d'Este, Duke of Ferrara gave the Portuguese prince details of the visit to the new found land. Miguel Corte Real made a voyage in 1502 to find his lost brother, but did not return either.

Scarce Bird Notes are an Enduring Legacy

This voyage of great interest because of it being among the first to navigate amongst the Atlantic coast of northern America, does however provide but a few bird notes.

Eagles which were black-colored could have been the Bald Eagle, though there is no way to suitably interpret the text to this degree. Dark-coloured falcons could have been either the Gyrfalcon or Peregrine Falcon. Hawks, black like ravens could have been several potential species. The partridges? These were probably some species of ptarmigan. There would have been several types of sandpipers along the coast where the brave sailors endeavoured to visit. And unidentified birds has a huge possibility for the actual species.

Narrative reports for these expeditions are important for their mentions of birds so early in the record of historic ornithology for the continent, not for the details of species. Though there are few records, the lore of the era is conveyed by the efforts of the men braving the elements on their small ships to explore and find new land at the western extent of the Atlantic Ocean. Men died for the explorations.

The only particular species identified was the Peregrine Falcon, from the latter voyage.

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