Part XVII: Going to Brasil (1478-1481)
Rumors of a land across the Atlantic had been commonplace across the British Isles for centuries. Sailors from across Ireland and Albion had reported voyages across the great sea to mystical islands concealed in fog since the time of Saint Brendan, all the way back in the late 6th Century. The legends had so inspired one Madog, a Welsh prince, that he had sailed over the horizon in 1183, never to return. For three centuries, Madog’s failed voyage had been considered the end of the matter, with few captains being willing to risk a voyage to parts unknown and even fewer financiers being willing to back it.
This changed in 1478. Bristol had been the second port of England for several decades, her sons ranging as far as Iceland and Genoa on trading expeditions. The chief routes of Bristolian merchantmen were to Ireland, Gascony and Asturias, with whom they conducted a brisk trade. However, as the second half of the 15th Century drew on, the latter two avenues of trade began to grow more strained, as worsening relations with the French had caused Bristolian merchants to be expelled from several ports in Gascony, including Bordeaux. All of this was in an effort to force the English into concessions, but Edward IV refused to give in, leaving merchants across England with quite the predicament. Throughout 1478 and 1479, merchant fleets languished on their warves, unable to sail at anything more than a loss. This caused no little amount of destitution, and by early 1480 many of the merchants and counting-houses were desperate for anything that would help them recover.
Enter one John Jay the Younger. Jay had been born in 1442, the son of a Bristolian merchant. At a young age he had taken an interest in nautical activities, and he forsook familial employ to become a sailor. He had the misfortune of taking ship with Robert Sturmy’s disastrous expedition to Trapezous and spent several years in a Genoese prison with his commander before being ransomed back to England. However, this did not discourage him from taking to the sea once again, and he sailed as a supercargo on several trading runs to Ireland and Gascony in the 1450s and 1460s. After decades spent at sea, he was able to procure the captaincy of a cog in the service of the Weston merchant family in 1472, with which he pioneered the Ashoray sugar route. This route proved to be a great success, and he commanded several more voyages to the distant islands throughout the 1470s. It was during this that he first heard rumors of ‘the Isle of Brasil’, a mythical landmass somewhere out in the North Atlantic that was rich in cod, timber and furs.
When the economic depression of the late 1470s set in, Jay began mulling over the viability of an expedition to the Isle of Brasil, which he believed held a great amount of gold. After a brief period of consideration and consulting the most advanced chart of the day, he concluded that a voyage to Brasil would be an excellent decision. He appealed to his father-in-law, Edward Weston, and persuaded him to finance a ship for the expedition, a cog named Trinity. However, Jay believed that a single cog would not be enough for the voyage, and so he looked to Robert Strumy, who was by now the chief financier of Bristol. He retained a great deal of affinity for his former commander, and evidently the feeling was mutual. At great cost to himself, Strumy financed the construction of a fifty-ton vessel called George. George was modeled on the contemporary designs of the Portuguese, who were considered the forerunners of ship construction at the time, and looked like a mutated copy of a lanteen caravel. In late 1480, the fleet was ready, and they set out from Bristol on 20 April 1481. Bristol lined the docks as the two ships sailed down the Avon, cheering and hoping to high heaven that they came back with an end to the drought.
For the next hundred and ninety-four days, a sizable crowd waited on the quay, awaiting the return of George and Trinity. The crowd gradually started to disperse as the townspeople began to lose in hope in Jay’s expedition. Then, on All Hallow’s Eve, a battered and sea-worn George struggled up the Avon to a hero’s welcome. Of the eighty-nine men who had set out, only forty-six had returned, but the survivors were received as conquerors, being paraded through the streets of the city. After several days spent recovering from the harrowing expedition, Jay appeared in the city center on 5 November and told the harrowing tale of his voyage.
After departing Bristol, he had struck out directly into the sea with only a short stop at Cork to replenish their supplies. They had spent nearly two months out of sight of land with little to do but watch their supplies lessen. After fifty-nine days at sea, a mutiny aboard the Trinity threatened to turn around and sail for home, and Jay was only able to quell this by promising to turn around if land was not spotted in two days. The next morning, a look-out spotted a flock of land birds flying westwards, and Jay changed course to follow them. The next day, land was finally sighted after two months spent at sea, with the lookout, William Weaver, receiving a prize of 50£ for his discovery. Jay splashed ashore on 20 June, the first European to cross the Atlantic since the days of the Vikings.
However, a cursory bit of exploration revealed that they had in fact landed on a forested barrier island and there was still several miles of water to cross to actually reach the mainland. While George and Trinity anchored, a small expedition rowed across the sound with Jay at its head. They found a densely forested land, with it nearly impossible to take five steps without hacking away at foliage. Thankfully, they were able to secure food and water, with a spring being found and several deer shot and cooked. Over the next two day, casks from the ships were portaged several miles into the interior to be filled and then portaged back out, a long and miserable process. After filling their casks, the expedition returned to their ships and set off once again. They sailed up the coast for three days at a slow pace, making frequent stops to allow the ship’s cartographer to create a map of the region. They found no bays, only a continuous string of barrier islands with the occasional shallow channel into the sound. Jay christened these the Weston Sound and the Strumy Islands, respectively.
On 23 June, the Trinity and George rounded a sandy hook of land to find a large bay spreading out on all sides. More importantly, they spotted a number of villages scattered along the coast. The Englishmen were surprised and debated what ought to be done; some suspected that their residents were demons in human skin, while others believed that this was the land where saints were sent to live until the second judgement. William Weston, the captain of the Trinity, quickly tired of this debate and sailed up to the nearest village, calling out to the residents. By the time the Englishmen landed, however, the residents had fled. Jay shortly followed Weston, angry that he had not been consulted, and for a time the two captains stood on the beach, shouting at each other. Evidently, one of the natives concluded that these two were the leaders, and after a few minutes the two were interrupted by the arrival of an old man on the beach. Through a crude pantomime, Jay and the elder, Thomagwa managed to communicate. Thomagwa identified himself as an elder of the Sanheecan tribe, who were members of the Lenylenapy people. Jay managed to communicate that he was an elder of the Bristol tribe of the English people. After some further pleasantries, the Sanheecan emerged from the forests and the two people began to barter. The English exchange several small metal items and trinkets for a great amount of maize, dried beans, wampum and firs. Most importantly, a woodaxe is exchanged for a small ball of gold, which, as Thomagwa, explains was taken from far inland. This would have immense long-term impacts, but for now Jay just slips the gold into his pocket. The English are also introduced to ‘jachaing’, a strange herb that the Sanheecan smoke recreationally. After completing the trading, the English return to their ships.
Over the following weeks, Trinity remains at the Sanheecan village while George continues to explore. Jay finds that a section of forested land he believed had been part of the mainland was in fact an island, separated from the mainland by a narrow strip of water. In fact, the whole area is rife with islands; The mouth of two rivers flowing into the sea were not actually rivers, with the easternmost one in fact being a strait separating another large island from the mainland. There’s also a large island formed by the strait and two other rivers. This island in particular is identified as an excellent spot for settlement, and Jay attempts to purchase it from Thomagwa. The elder refuses, explaining that it is not his decision to make, and directs Jay to one Teedyooscung, who Jay misidentifies as ‘Duke of the Poocoowancoo’. In fact, Teedyooscung is the chief of one of the tribes of the Lenylenapy, which the Sanheecan are subject to. Jay travels up a nearby river to the town of Aquacanoc, where Teedyooscung resides. Teedyooscung agrees to allow the English to settle on the island and three small adjacent islands, but there is a fatal miscommunication; The Lenylenapy believe they are allowing the English to settle on their lands, while the English believe the Lenylenapy are selling the land to them.
The Englishmen construct a small palisade called Fort Saint George on the southern tip of the island, with four cannons taken off the ship to defend it against any threats. They clear out several fields and begin planting maize, grain and tobacco in preparation for the winter. In mid-September, Jay decides that he wants to return to England in 1481, and he begins making preparations to depart. He leaves behind eighteen men to garrison the fort, and on 16 September Trinity and George weigh anchor.
The English ships go east from Fort Saint George, passing through the bay between the newly-christened Jay Island and the mainland. They follow the coast for several days before turning out from the coast at Cape St. Elmo, a strangely-shaped projection into the Atlantic. The wind is at their backs on the voyage home, and after a month at sea the ships are doing fine However, two hundred miles off the coast of Ireland, a storm whips up and wrecks Trinity on a shoal. George loses several men who are swept overboard, but manages to make it through intact. Finally, they make landfall on the coast of Brittany, which Jay initially mistakes for Ireland, and right their bearings for the return to Bristol.
After recounting his voyage, Weston and Strumy council each other and decide that Jay should be sent on to London. However, they find that the navigator had already left town and was riding for London and the court of Edward IV. The two merchants shrug their shoulders and, after smoking most of Jay’s tobacco, decide that establishing plantations for the crop would be an excellent financial decision. They begin making preparations for another voyage to Brasil the following year. Unbeknownst to them, the king was doing the same. The exploration and colonization of the New World had begun….
 That is, Great Britain. I’m using ‘Albion’ here, because Great Britain has period-centric historic context.
 This is caused by butterflies from an alternate Hundred Years’ War, which has been butterflied to an extent due to knock-on effects on the Genoese.
 The exact destination of the voyage has never been determined, but it was almost certainly the spice ports of the Levant or Black Sea.
 The term ‘supercargo’ is slightly anachronistic, as it did not become a common term until the mid-16th century. However, the job itself dates back much earlier, and I can’t find a better term.
 ATL English name for the Azores/Açores
 There is some evidence to suggest that Portuguese ship-building techniques were being aped by Northern Europeans, and even if they weren’t the lanteen caravel is a rather simple design. Comparatively.
 This is taken from Columbus’ first voyage. Unlike Columbus, Jay keeps his word to the lookout.
 This is a horribly mangled English version of the name ‘Tamaqua’
 I’m trying to show that both the English and the Lenape were talking past each other, projecting their own societies onto the other.
 This is a horribly mangled English version of ‘chehchaink’, the Lenape word for tobacco.
 This is Manhattan, if you haven’t guessed yet.
 These shoals, called the Porcupine Bank, are visible at low tide and considered to be the actually ‘Isles of Brasil’.