Monday, March 22, 2010

Hunter on early voyages.

A blogger unable to link... a bird unable to sing.

I wanted to note the Globe & Mail's "On the Stand" feature from last Saturday, recommending Douglas Hunter's "Rewriting History" in the current issue of Canada's History (aka The Beaver, as I guess we will be saying forevermore). But On the Stand is not included in the online Globe, so there's no link. I thought I'd link instead to Hunter's article itself. But the Beaver website (it's still called the Beaver website) has not yet updated. It's not on Doug Hunter's own website either. So, print still rules; only magazine subscribers can see it so far.

Hunter writes about Alwyn Ruddock, an elderly British historian who died in 2005 after a lifetime of writer's block. A dedicated and respected scholar, she had accumulated a vast collection of evidence on the history of early Atlantic voyaging, with particularly reference to John Cabot. But she never published. At her death she left instructions that all her manuscripts, research notes, and correspondence be destroyed. It's all gone. Hunter endorses the views of British scholars who believe that Ruddock had sensational new evidence about more voyages and earlier voyages, When Ruddock's lost evidence is recovered by someone willing to duplicate her lifetime in the archives, he argues, "the early exploration of the New World is going to require a rewrite."

Well, maybe. Or maybe Ruddock had only clues and possibilities, and could never work it into a conclusive argument. I've been following early Atlantic exploration ever since I first went to Atlantic Canada as a little baby historian, and these amazing new discoveries about pre-Columbian voyages have always been just over the horizon and just about to pan out, but never quite getting there. I'd say we are still waiting.

About 1500, the minor, local archives of the coastal authorities of western Europe began to collect a growing pile of boring and routine documents. There's no glory in them, no narratives of new discoveries across the seas. It's just merchants notarizing debts, shipowners filing insurance contracts, captains registering crew hiring papers, and sailors recording their wills. But these routine transactions start to concern fishing or whaling or trading voyages to "tierra neuva," "terra nova," "terre neuve," "the new land," "the new isle."

If there were lost voyages a generation before Columbus and Cabot, one would think the merchants and sailors involved would have needed to borrow money, insure vessels, sell their cargoes, provide for their families. And that all these little transactions would leave traces in the registers of notaries and port authorities. Instead, according to every scholar who has looked into it, these routine and peripheral references to that new world out here blossom suddenly and sharply just after the famous voyages of discovery.

Maybe Alwyn Ruddock found evidence to the contrary. But 'til someone finds it again and publishes it, I'm not ready to rewrite history.

Great article however. Good issue.

Update, March 22: Yes, I'm mostly a sceptic on pre-Columbian voyages. But not on the Norse. Heather Pringle today has a fascinating post on ongoing Norse travel to Baffin Island to trade for ivory, and on all the evidence they left behind.
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