The Lost Voyage of John Cabot

by Henry Garfield

Simon & Schuster/Atheneum, $16.95

The Age of Exploration seems much in the news this year. In mid-June a symposium in Rockport marked the 500th anniversary of George Waymouth’s landings at Monhegan and the Georges Islands, as well as his exploration of (take your pick, depending on which theory you subscribe to) the St. George, the Kennebec or the Penobscot River. Celebrations included a re-enactment aboard a replica boat built for the purpose, the publication of scholarly papers, a visit by Maine’s Episcopal Bishop to commemorate the first Anglican Communion in the New World, a movie and a new publication of Rosier’s True Relation.

In my view, the re-emergence of the True Relation trumps the other celebrations: James Rosier’s account of what he observed in 1605 has always been travel writing at its best, and its original publication in England in 1606 stands out among the often-inaccurate accounts of the day. Admittedly, Rosier and Waymouth were promoters who had reason to stress the positive about what they spent a month exploring, but Rosier’s attention to detail and his apparent ability to draw out informants and learn from them is remarkable.

David Morey, an amateur historian, has put Rosier’s account into perspective. A True Relation “is one of the earliest written accounts of the natural resources of northern New England,” he writes. It gives “the first description of the Native people who resided here…it was written from the journals of an educated man, sent along on the voyage for the purpose, and, in terms of its prose, is considered the best of the early narratives of English voyages to America.”

As for the controversy over which river Waymouth explored, Morey doesn’t resolve it any more than Rosier does in A True Relation, but he does lay out the possibilities and suggest why the controversy has persisted for so long. “Four hundred years have passed and the political and religious issues of the time have faded,” he writes. “We are left today with only the seemingly petty controversy about which river James Rosier described…In the summers of 1604 and 1605 two explorers entered a great river on the Maine Coast, described by both in narratives which still exist. One was English and one was French. One was George Waymouth and the other was Samuel de Champlain….based wholly on information from the exploration of George Waymouth, at least three English voyages were immediately sent to the Maine Coast in 1606 and 1607, all having colonists aboard, bound for the location of Waymouth’s discovery.”

Was it the Penobscot? Morey thinks it was. Others will argue otherwise. Maps from the Waymouth expedition don’t survive, if they were made at all. The whole business is shrouded in mysteries stemming from the politics of the day. But if you want to see Maine through the eyes of an eyewitness in 1606, A True Relation is a good place to begin.


The Lost Voyage of John Cabot, Henry Garfield’s account of John Cabot’s second voyage from England to North America is fiction, of course, since Cabot disappeared and left no account. The voyage took place in 1498, more than a century before Waymouth’s expedition, and Garfield surmises that part of it took Cabot and his sons to the Maine coast as well. The fictionalized diary entries, penned by one of the sons, a 14-year-old, speak of “a great abundance of fish, indicating, Father says, that we are near land.” Father is correct: three days later they anchor in sight of “a rocky shore, replete with small islands and half-submerged ledges…we lie in a small bay with trees all around and low hills behind.” A party goes ashore to plant flags, erect a cross and claim the land “in the name of King Henry VIII of England.”

Change the date to 1605 and the name of the king to James I, and you have Rosier and Waymouth.

All in all, for the historically inclined, the season’s reading choices are rich and rewarding. A few hours with The Lost Voyage of John Cabot, as with A True Relation, are time well spent.