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Take a bow

Whose ship really reached America first? John Leonard gives praise where it's due. The modern replica of 15th-century explorer John Cabot's ship, the Matthew, returns to Bristol next month as the centrepiece of the newly expanded exhibition centre at Redcliffe quay. After stealing the limelight during last May's Bristol International Festival of the Sea, the Matthew has spent the summer touring festivals and regattas in Britain, France and Ireland to promote next year's Atlantic crossing, which recreates Cabot's original voyage to the Americas of 1497.

During the two-year period of the replica ship's development and construction, much has been rediscovered about life at sea in the late 15th century and a fuller story of Cabot's achievements is being revealed. The Matthew project, with the ostensibly narrow objective of building a historical replica, has proved to be a multi-layered journery into society in Europe during the Renaissance and offers a window on the lives of the crew of 19 who sailed on the original vessel 500 years ago.

John Cabot was an Italian from Genoa - Giovanni Cabotto - who was a rival and contemporary of Christopher Columbus.

Cabot failed to find backing for his schemes of exploration from the courts of continental Europe and eventually settled in the stong Italian merchant community resident in Bristol. The city's merchant adventurers backed him and the Tudor King Henry VII was persuaded to give letters patent.

Setting out across the Atlantic from Bristol in May 1497, Cabot sailed directly west after rounding Dursey Head at the tip of southern Ireland and maintained the same latitude across the Atlantic, partly to avoid the aggressive fleets of the Spanish to the south. After 52 days he reached "New Found Landes" - the North American continent.

There is some debate about precisely where he landed but it was probably Bonavista, Newfoundland. The significance is that he is credited with the first "modern" European discovery of the North American mainland notwithstanding the earlier Norse and Celtic landings.

Throughout the 1400s there had been increasing traffic around the coasts bordering the north Atlantic in search of new fishing grounds and trade, exploration encouraged by the folklore of St Brendan's voyage from Ireland and the Norse Sagas which both referred to new lands located to the west. Brendan's 6th-century "voyage" was successfully replicated in a skin boat in the 1970s by adventurer Tim Severin. There is some evidence that Cabot set out to make a direct passage across the Atlantic in 1496, but was forced back by adverse weather and conflict with his crew.

Columbus usually gets the praise for getting there first: his landing in the West Indies in 1492 gives him the kudos as "discoverer" of America. Certainly, Columbus was a better self-publicist and fundraiser than his contemporaries, but his actual landings were confined to the islands and, later, the coast of Venezuela.

Both Columbus and Cabot were looking for the East Indies and thought they had found them when they reached land across the Atlantic. Cabot later made a second voyage to the Americas, but seems to have been lost at sea, possibly the victim of a Spanish attack.

The progress of the Matthew project has been marked by new connections and coincidences as the research has progressed, together with impetus added to some old controversies such as how America came to be named. The aggressive Spaniard, Amerigo Vespucci, sent out to relieve Columbus from his post, is usually cited as the new country's namesake, but a counter-argument suggests the root might be from John Cabot's patron, a Mr Amerik, who was Controller of Customs in Bristol. Cabot is said to have used a version of "Amerik" when naming his landfall on a chart he prepared, which was later lost to the Spanish.

"Cabot is not the sort of hero Columbus became. I think that gradually over the next few years and for future generations, Cabot's reputation will be retrieved," says David Alan Williams, master of the modern Matthew.

On his first voyage he landed only once and then cruised the coast for a few weeks but did not land again although he did see signs of human habitation. Cabot was a true explorer, interested in discovery for its own sake and likely to have travelled very lightly armed, hence the need to avoid conflict with people on the land.

"Columbus had gold very much in mind in the spirit of the Spanish explorations. These were very much driven by greed for riches and so he was heavily armed to assert conquest over the lands he found. Columbus has not come down through history as a particularly pleasant person: he was a very self-centred man and open to bending the truth to suit his requirements. But for Canadians, especially Newfoundlanders, Cabot is the main hero," says Mr Alan-Williams.

He aims to match his predecessor's crossing time of seven weeks closely, to arrive on cue for the "500" celebrations in Newfoundland next June. The modern Matthew will match Cabot's complement of 19 crew drawn from a range of backgrounds and of mixed sailing experience. The return of the Matthew to her winter berth at Redcliffe Quay allows the final fitting, modifications and equipment to be prepared before the voyage next May.

It also offers the opportunity for centre visitors to see the vessel and, subject to works in progress, to tour the ship. The range of shoreside exhibits at the visitor centre has been expanded ready for the new autumn term and schools groups can expect to participate in a range of activities which bring the 15th century to life. In addition to static displays and story boards there are educational activities backed by a learning pack geared to a range of key stages in the national curriculum. Craft displays and demonstrations are also being prepared.

The expansion of the Matthew visitor centre is just one aspect of a range of celebratory activities in Bristol associated with the Cabot 500 anniversary in 1997, with other exhibitions and events during the year. The long-term future for the replica Matthew, after the 1997 voyage is likely to be a permanent home on display in Bristol.

Matthew Project Visitor Centre, Redcliffe Way, Bristol. Exhibition plus educational resources for children. National curriculum-linked learning pack Pounds 2.99 with materials for photocopying. Open 10am to 5pm. Children Pounds 1, teachersadult free with every 10 children. Details, tel: 0117 927 7997 'John Cabot: The Discovery of Newfoundland' by Newfoundland historian Bernard D Fardy, is a Canadian import available from the Matthew Centre

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