The best books on the European re-discovery of America

David Boyle Author Of Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America
By David Boyle

Who am I?

Of all the books I have ever written, this one most allowed me to make it possible to see how the full story adds to the history we know – the vital importance of context. For example, that Cabot set sail just as Bristol was defending itself against the approaching rebel army led by Perkin Warbeck. Or that the Pope at the time, ruling over the church and the world, was the Borgia Pope Alexander VI. I loved researching it and I still feel part of it. My father lives in Spain, which helped enormously.


I wrote...

Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America

By David Boyle,

Book cover of Toward the Setting Sun: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and the Race for America

What is my book about?

When Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1453, the long-established trade routes to the East became treacherous and expensive, forcing merchants to find new ways of trading their goods. Yet, because their stories have been told separately until now, it’s easy to forget that Cabot, Columbus, and Vespucci not only knew of each other, they were well acquainted.

Columbus and Vespucci worked closely together; Cabot and Columbus were born in Genoa about the same time and had common friends who were interested in Western trade possibilities, and the huge rewards that could follow. They collaborated, knew of each other's ambitions, and followed each other's progress. This book tells their story.

The books I picked & why

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The Columbus Myth: Did men of Bristol reach America before Columbus?

By Ian Wilson,

Book cover of The Columbus Myth: Did men of Bristol reach America before Columbus?

Why this book?

Every European nation has its own conspiracy theory about discovering America. This is the best and most readable evocation of the British conspiracy theory – that, far from being called after Amerigo Vespucci, the new world was called after John Cabot’s backer Richard Ameryk – who, bizarrely, had the stars and stripes as his family crest.

The European Discovery of America: Volume 1: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600

By Samuel Eliot Morison,

Book cover of The European Discovery of America: Volume 1: The Northern Voyages A.D. 500-1600

Why this book?

The classic account of the voyages from Leif Erikson and the Vikings onwards, and including Columbus, Cabot (father and son), Vespucci, and Francis Drake. By an American admiral who spent his retirement retracing many of the voyages himself. He was a great admirer of Columbus, which has to be taken with a pinch of sea salt these days – but is still a stirring read.


Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America

By Felipe Fernández-Armesto,

Book cover of Amerigo: The Man Who Gave His Name to America

Why this book?

In 1507, the cartographer Martin Waldseemuller published a world map with a new continent on it which he called ‘America', after the explorer and navigator Amerigo Vespucci. The map was a huge success and when Mercator's 1538 world map extended the name to the northern hemisphere of the continent, the new name was secure, though Waldseemuller himself soon realised he had picked the wrong man. This is the story of how one side of the world came to be named not after its discoverer Christopher Columbus, but after his friend and rival. A fabulous historical detective story.


European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640

By David B. Quinn,

Book cover of European Approaches to North America, 1450-1640

Why this book?

Professor Quinn wrote this book about 25 years ago, yet I learned a vast amount from it. It is certainly dryer than some accounts, but he could see beyond the immediate stories. In fact, it was this book that first suggested that the so-called ‘Enterprise of the Indies’ began as a joint venture between Cabot and the Columbus brothers that went wrong. I certainly subscribe to that view myself.


Many Landfalls of John Cabot

By Peter E. Pope,

Book cover of Many Landfalls of John Cabot

Why this book?

On 24 June 1497, John Cabot landed somewhere on the eastern coast of what is now Canada, yet even today, 500 years later, nobody knows quite where. Once this was an issue that lay behind diplomatic negotiations over who controlled the continent – more recently, they have played a role in different stages of Canadian nationalism. This book is a fascinating description of the various theories and their implications – right up to today.


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