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The earliest signs of change in the direction of Bristol’s commerce are to be found in Robert Sturmy’s ventures into the Mediterranean in the mid-fifteenth century, even though they proved unsuccessful. Trade with this region had long held a special fascination for the merchants of Bristol. Its products—sweets and spices, rich and delicate textiles, and other finery of the luxury trade—were highly valued and highly profitable. But in the fifteenth century this traffic was a monopoly of the Italians, who frequented London and Southampton but rarely ventured to Bristol. Still, Bristolians traded regularly in Eastern luxuries, shipping cloth and other wares by road to Southampton to be exchanged with the Venetians and Genoese for silks and spices.[37] But it was not until the trouble in Gascony that the Bristolians were willing to risk the ire of the Italians by passing through the Straits of Gibraltar on their own.

Two separate voyages were attempted. The first took place in 1446–47 when Sturmy sent the Coq Anne to Pisa and thence to Jaffa, carrying one hundred and sixty pilgrims probably laden with cloth, tin, and wool. Although the occasion for this voyage was the ouster of the Venetians from Egypt, which opened the Levant to English enterprise, the altered conditions in Gascony also provided a stimulus in this search for quick profits and a new market. Unfortunately, on its return the Coq Anne, sailing off the island of Modon, was struck by a fierce storm that destroyed the ship with its crew of thirty-seven Bristolians. The second of Sturmy’s adventures into the Levant dates from ten years later, when Gascony was already lost and the Bristolians undoubtedly were left with great quantities of cloth on their hands. In late winter 1457, Sturmy was licensed to ship in three vessels large quantities of tin, lead, wool, cloth, and grain “beyond the mountains by the Straits of Marrock.” But once again hopes of high profits were foiled. After a successful journey purchasing pepper and other spices in the Levant, Sturmy’s small fleet was met off Malta by several Genoese ships that spoiled two vessels. In all, some £6,000 damage was done to Sturmy and his associates, and it appears that Sturmy himself died in the engagement.[38]

Remarking upon these events, Fernand Braudel insists that they do not “necessarily signify the beginning of an enterprise that was spread over a period of centuries.”[39] But these voyages nevertheless represent a new mode of commercial thinking in Bristol. What Sturmy and his fellow merchants were after was both an outlet for their surplus cloth and an opportunity to tap the riches of the East for their own gain. If cloth could no longer be sold in its former quantities in Gascony, it was necessary either to find another market for it, or to increase the return from each transaction, or to find new products in which to deal. Trade to the Levant, if established on a regular basis, satisfied all these criteria. It not only provided a good outlet for cloth, but the import of pepper, spices, rich fabrics, and other luxuries made an especially attractive substitute for wine. The large returns on the sale of these goods in England meant that dealings in cloth might proceed at reduced levels without adversely affecting the income of the merchants. If the market for exports had decayed, greater stress must be laid upon imports; if risks increased, so must the prospects of gain.

Similar considerations stimulated the Bristolians’ search for markets and trade routes in other parts of the world. The history of Bristol’s dealings in the southern Atlantic, for example, also began in the period following the loss of Gascony. From the mid-fifteenth century Madeira sugar regularly found its way into the city via Lisbon.[40] By May 1480 there was a direct trade, with Bristolians shipping cloth and no doubt seeking the valuable sugars of the island at their source. The earliest recorded inward voyage dates from September 1486, when Portuguese merchants carried sugar and bowstaves to Bristol. There appears to have been some dealing with the Azores as well.[41] And North Africa was visited by Bristolians in the latter half of the fifteenth century.[42]

More dramatic than these ventures in the southern Atlantic and North Africa was Bristol’s search in the 1480s for the mythical Isle of Brasil in the western Atlantic, which was reputed to lie somewhere in the temperate zone to the north of Madeira or west of the Azores.[43] Two Bristol voyages in search of Brasil are definitely known, one in 1480 and another in the following year. Both appear to have been the result of licenses granted to Thomas Croft, King’s Customer in Bristol, and William Spencer, Robert Straunge, and William de la Fount, merchants of the city, to trade to any parts for three years with any goods save staple goods, in two or three ships of sixty tons or less. The first voyage sailed in a single vessel on the fifteenth of July 1480, from Kingroad toward “the Island of Brasylle on the west part of Ireland,” but was turned back by storms and forced to put into harbor along the Irish coast, probably sometime in September of the same year. The following July, two other ships, an eighth part of each being owned by Thomas Croft, set forth “not by cause of merchaundise but thentent to serce and fynd a certain Ile callid the Isle of Brasile.” The vessels were each supplied with forty bushels of salt “for the repacion and sustenacions of the said shippys.”[44]

What did these venturesome Bristolians hope to find? One possibility is that they were searching for new fishing grounds. During most of the fifteenth century they had regularly fished for cod on the banks near Iceland, but contact with this northern island was already in decline by 1480. The lading of large quantities of salt on each of the vessels suggests a cod-fishing venture employing the stockfish technique. In itself this offers a significant clue to the economic goals of the Bristolians. Salt fish were in high demand in the Iberian peninsula, especially in Portugal and Andalusia. Discovery of a new source of supply would have provided a good means to secure the highly valued imports Bristolians sought in these markets.[45] But the Isle of Brasil may have held out other prospects as well. If it was situated in the vicinity of Madeira and the Azores, the newfound island might be expected to yield riches similar to those of its near neighbors. More than simply finding new fishing grounds, then, the Bristolians might have been hoping to discover their own Madeira, on which sugar and other valuable subtropical crops could be planted.

The exact purpose of Bristol’s earliest Atlantic explorations remains uncertain, but the same cannot be said of the projects of John Cabot. Arriving in Bristol sometime in 1495 or 1496, he persuaded a group of Bristolians, several of whom had previously been interested in the quest for the Isle of Brasil, to help finance yet another voyage across the Atlantic. Like Columbus, Cabot believed in a western route to the riches of Asia, and he was determined to find it in northern waters. In March 1496 he acquired a royal patent on behalf of himself and his three sons that permitted him to sail westward with up to five ships “to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world places, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.” The role of Bristol in this was to be paramount, for all ships in the venture were “bound and holden only to arrive” there.[46] If this project had been fully successful, Bristol would have become the major entrepôt of the spice trade, bypassing the Levant and thereby supplanting Southampton, London, and even Antwerp and rivaling and probably surpassing Lisbon as well. All that Robert Sturmy had hoped for and more would have been gained.[47]

John Cabot, of course, never found the Northwest Passage. His first voyage, in 1496, was abortive. But the second, in 1497, met with success; after thirty-three days at sea his little ship, the Matthew, made landfall at Belle Isle off Newfoundland.[48] Cabot was convinced that he had struck northeastern Asia and that by following the coast he would inevitably reach “an island which he calls Cipango, situated on the equinoctal region, where he believes that all the spices of the world have their origin, as well as the jewels.”[49] According to a contemporary observer, those who had participated in the voyage also reported the new lands to be “excellent and temperate” and believed “that Brizil wood and silk are native there.” In addition, “they asserted that the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water.” “These same English,” he went on, “say that they could bring so many fish that [England] would have no further need of Iceland, from which place there comes a very great quantity of the fish called stockfish.”[50] On the basis of this exciting news a third expedition was mounted by Cabot in 1498, this time consisting of five vessels laden with coarse cloth, caps, laces, and other small wares, one fitted out by the king himself and four by merchants of Bristol and London. Although fishing may also have been intended, trade was clearly the principal aim.[51] This venture ended in disaster, but it reveals the interest of Cabot and his investors in a new world of trade beyond the established continental centers. As far as the Bristolians were concerned, it suggests that the quest for imports, which would characterize their trade for the next two centuries or more, had begun.


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