I’ve been reading myself back to sleep with “A Voyage Long and Strange,” Tony Horwitz’s excellent account (and retracing) of the pre-Mayflower, pre-Jamestown European attempts to explore, settle and pillage the New World. I was thus engaged at about 2:30 this morning when I came across a jarring reference to “another Italian navigator, John Cabot.”
John Cabot is the guy who in 1497 paid a brief visit to Labrador (or possibly Newfoundland, or conceivably Cape Breton Island), gaining credit for the second earliest European contact with North America – second only to Leif Eriksson and his Viking band in the 11th century. Cabot sailed out of Bristol, England, and I had pegged him for a Brit. Evidently not. That was the jarring part.
Unfortunately, he exits Horwitz’s book soon after he enters. He “barely ventured ashore, discovering only some animal dung and a fishing snare,” Horwitz writes, justifying his decision to give the serious bookspace to explorers (British, Spanish and French) who penetrated further inland and saw more of the territory they claimed. (Most accounts, including Horwitz’s, have Cabot perishing on the return leg of a similarly unfruitful followup voyage. “He is believed to have found new lands nowhere but on the very bottom of the ocean,” an uncharitable contemporary commented.)
I can understand the brisk treatment. Still, I longed to understand how an Italian had come to be called John Cabot and to convince King Henry VII to license (and a group of London bankers to help fund) an expedition to “go and find the new land.”
I sought clarity online, and alighted on a Cabot “life and career highlights” slideshow provided by Google to answer just such questions. It taught me that Cabot was born Giovani Caboto or something like that, fled Italy for Spain with creditors on his trail, and got to England in 1495 with his wife and sons. “This was a good career move for John,” I read, and once in London “he developed his own website.”
Ah, Google! It turns out that the long arms of the Internet giant had scooped up chunks of information from a nutty site (the creation of two otherwise sober and upright Pennsylvania schoolteachers) known as allaboutexplorers.com. There we learn that like Christopher Columbus and the Beatles, John Cabot was born in Liverpool; that he had a half-brother known as Ringo; and that he took a large stash of DVDs with him on his final voyage. Ferdinand Magellan, for his part, fought in the Battle of Hastings, where he “lost an eye after being shot by an AK-47.”
When I woke up this morning, I reassured myself that it had not been a dream, and set out to interpret it. Here’s my quick conclusion: some companies are too damn big, which causes them to do more things than they can do well.