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Great Exploration Hoaxes

Great Exploration Hoaxes

by David Roberts, Jan Morris (Introduction)

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Did Peary reach the North Pole? Was Admiral Byrd the first to fly over it? Did Frederick Cook actually make the first ascent of Mt. McKinley? Spanning 450 years of history, Great Exploration Hoaxes tells the spellbinding stories of ten men who pursued glory at any cost even the truth. Acclaimed author and explorer David Roberts delves deeply into the psychology behind


Did Peary reach the North Pole? Was Admiral Byrd the first to fly over it? Did Frederick Cook actually make the first ascent of Mt. McKinley? Spanning 450 years of history, Great Exploration Hoaxes tells the spellbinding stories of ten men who pursued glory at any cost even the truth. Acclaimed author and explorer David Roberts delves deeply into the psychology behind the stunt and asks why these individuals, all of whom were exceptionally able, would perpetrate fraud on such a grand and public scale and defend it to their deaths, even in the face of damning evidence, and why these dubious achievements are still so hotly debated, often hundreds of years afterward.

Demonstrating that the qualities that brought an individual so close to his goal were often the same ones that drove him to fake success, Great Exploration Hoaxes is history at its best: entertaining, provocative, and revealing of human nature.

David Roberts is the author of thirteen books, the most recent of which are A Newer World: Kit Carson, John C. Fremont, and the Claiming of the American West and True Summit: What Really Happened on the Legendary Ascent of Annapurna. He was also responsible for the rediscovery of the lost Arctic classic In the Land of White Death, by Valerian Albanov, published in English for the first time in 2000 by The Modern Library.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Roberts led or co-led thirteen Alaskan mountaineering expeditions, making such first ascents as the west face of Mount Huntington, Shot Tower, and the direct north face of Denali.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Roberts has written about adventure, archaeology, and literature for National Geographic Adventure, Outside, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, and other magazines.
A very amusing idea and excellently carried out."
Kirkus Reviews
Jon Krakauer selected this 1982 account of "breathtaking acts of deceit" by early explorers for his Modern Library Exploration series, partly because it goes far in explaining why its subjects (few of them cowards) would try so hard to convince others (or themselves) of their phony accomplishments. Well-known travel-writer Jan Morris, in her short introduction, notes the incredible pathos to Roberts's sympathetic tales of ten men who staged elaborate hoaxes in pursuit of fame and glory. The best known among them (Sebastian Cabot, Admiral Byrd, and Robert Peary) all faked exploratory achievement to satisfy both childhood frustrations and adult hunger. Kirkus (Sept. 1, 1982, p. 1051) found little new information here, but we thought that Roberts (author of more than a dozen works on exploration and mountaineering) rendered these tales "more accessible," livelier, and more "sensitive" than previous accounts. The bottom line: "good fun for exploration buffs, and entertaining enough to appeal to a wider, offbeat audience."

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Modern Library Exploration Series
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.51(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

Sebastian Cabot and the Northwest Passage

In 1508, Sebastian Cabot set sail from Bristol with three hundred men in two ships. He crossed the Atlantic quickly, visited the great fishing grounds of the Newfoundland Banks, familiar to Bristol men for about a decade, and made a landfall. Cabot had more serious exploratory ambitions, however, and soon pushed on toward the northwest, coasting along the shores of Labrador. He found the ice-clogged passage that would come to be called Hudson Strait,
drifted through it, and entered the open water of Hudson Bay, a full century before Henry Hudson would "discover" it. Cabot wanted to push on, but his men were on the verge of mutiny.

He turned back, sailed south past the Newfoundland Banks, and continued along the coast of the present United States, still searching for a westward passage through the American landmass. He may have wintered along this coast. Having explored the Atlantic shore all the way to the tip of Florida, he turned home, arriving in
Bristol in April 1509 to find that his monarch, Henry VII, had died and a new Henry, who would turn out to be far less interested in geographical discovery than his father, was on the throne. Though he had not found a route to Cathay, Sebastian Cabot had completed the most significant voyage yet undertaken by English ships.

Or had he?

The leading 20th-century Cabot expert, James A. Williamson, believes that the 1508-9 expedition took place much as described above. But there are strong grounds for concluding-and sound scholars who argue-that Cabot's whole voyage was fictitious, that in fact he never left England.

To a modern observer, it may seem incredible that the true facts about a voyage of such importance remain so conjectural. Surely such a pioneering venture would be bound to leave in its wake dozens of authentic records, even eyewitness accounts. Surely no man, no matter how clever, could fake a voyage that had supposedly involved three hundred men under the patronage of the king of England.

The uncertainty about Cabot's Northwest expedition originates in two sources. One is primarily historical. Although the Spanish, the
Portuguese, and the Italians took pains to chronicle their great nautical voyages during the late 15th and early 16th centuries, on the whole the English did not-until Richard Hakluyt began to collect and publish firsthand accounts of his countrymen's discoveries in
1582. Before Hakluyt, English voyages were recorded mainly in the memories of living seamen or in obscure Continental compendia of knowledge. Many great deeds and adventures slipped irrevocably into the dark hiding places of historical ignorance. Of the great mariner
John Cabot, Sebastian's father, on whose 1497 voyage England's whole claim to North America rested, no portrait exists today, nor a single scrap of his handwriting. By the middle of the 16th century the facts of John Cabot's life had passed completely out of common memory.

The second cause of confusion surrounding Sebastian's Northwest expedition lies in the very makeup of the man's character. Whether or not the 1508 voyage was a hoax, Sebastian Cabot seems to have been a thoroughgoing confidence artist. He managed to build successful careers in both Spain and England as an adviser on northern navigations mainly by fostering the illusion that he was the sole possessor of vast funds of secret geographical lore. He seems to have taken full credit for everything his father accomplished, letting
John Cabot's reputation dwindle to that of a mere merchant, while his own burgeoned as the man who had discovered North America. At the peril of his own life, he played the conflicting interests of Spain,
England, and Venice off against each other, entering into cabals and intrigues in which he promised worlds but avoided delivering much of real substance. He died on dry land with a comfortable pension, well liked and reputable.

The 16th-century sources for Cabot's expedition-probably all the evidence scholars will ever have upon which to base their judgments-consist of some seventeen documents in Latin, Italian,
Spanish, Portuguese, French, and English. They tend to be fragments only, some mere offhand allusions a sentence or two long. They contain among them so many mutual contradictions that there is no possible way of reconciling their details in a coherent account of a single voyage. By themselves, however, such discrepancies do not amount to evidence against Cabot. Many of the documenters were sloppy guardians of truth, and nearly all were writing down stories they had heard third- or fourth-hand, sometimes at a remove of seventy years from the events they describe. The closest thing we have to an account by Cabot himself appears in 1556 in a volume of navigations by a Venetian named Ramusio, who claims to have received a letter from the navigator, which he was summarizing.

Cabot's English service ended abruptly in 1512 when, on a visit to
Spain, he was invited by King Ferdinand to enter the Spanish marine as a capitán de mar. He did not serve an English king again until
1548, when Edward VI appointed him as a maritime adviser to the
Admiralty. The long hiatus is no doubt responsible for the absence of any English sources for the 1508 expedition until the last years of
Cabot's life, when a man named Richard Eden, who claimed to know the aged pilot, recorded a few skimpy details of that voyage. In 1555
Eden was writing at a distance of forty-seven years from the alleged embarkation from Bristol; and if he did receive the story from
Cabot's lips, he may have been listening-so his detractors would insist-to an old man who had never been a reliable source aggrandize a myth of his own deeds that he had spent a lifetime concocting.

Faced with the fragmentary nature of the Renaissance sources and the unlikelihood that new evidence will turn up, the modern student is reduced to choosing among scholars' portraits of Sebastian Cabot.
Surprisingly, because of the extreme variation among those portraits,
this effort amounts to a fascinating pastime. Thanks to the labors of
James A. Williamson, any student can read the original texts of the seventeen sources translated into English. Williamson in fact invites the reader to decide for himself about Sebastian Cabot (see

The full range of judgment can be comprehended by looking at the likenesses that three scholars, each the leading expert of his day,
have unveiled for our scrutiny. Richard Biddle, a Pittsburgh lawyer,
was the first man to try to assemble all the known documents bearing on Cabot; his 1831 Memoir represents the pinnacle of Cabot idolatry.
In the last decade of the 19th century, the indefatigable Frenchman
Henry Harrisse issued a stream of memoirs and monographs on Cabot,
the general import of which was to debunk the explorer as a wholesale fraud. In our own century, James A. Williamson has spent over thirty years studying the controversy, and his works represent the effort,
to use his own metaphor, to steady the pendulum of Cabot's reputation. Williamson acknowledges the navigator's shady and dubious sides, but expresses faith in the reality of the bold Northwest expedition.

Biddle's Cabot. It would not be fair to hold Richard Biddle responsible for exaggerations that only subsequent scholarship has corrected. The "rediscovery" of John Cabot was a triumph of late-19th-century research, and crucial documents have been unearthed as recently as 1956. To the Pennsylvania lawyer in 1831, John Cabot was merely a merchant sailor from Venice who had settled in Bristol,
and to whom, with his three sons, in 1496 Henry VII had issued a patent for the discovery of lands "unknown to all Christians." Biddle took it for granted that Sebastian Cabot was the man who had discovered the mainland of North America in 1497. Whether or not the father even went on the voyage was a question Biddle briefly entertained, concluding that if John Cabot was on board, it was
"merely for the purpose of turning to account his mercantile skill and sagacity."

Thus by 1508, in the American scholar's view, Sebastian Cabot was already an accomplished and experienced mariner, whose "simple, but bold proposition" of 1497 had actually represented his first attempt to find a northwest route to Cathay. When Biddle turns his mind to the 1508 expedition, then, he harbors not the slightest suspicion that the journey may have been a hoax. The only question is just how far Sebastian actually penetrated along the Northwest Passage. His answer is, well into Hudson Bay. To buttress this conclusion, it is an easy matter for him to discover that the 16th-century sources that give Cabot the most northerly latitude at the point where he turned around, notably Ramusio and the Englishman Richard Willes, also happen to have been the work of the soberest chroniclers. The sources that limit Cabot's penetration to more southerly latitudes were the work of historical hacks, or of interested parties such as "Spaniards
. . . jealous of the reputation of Cabot."

The most specious piece of Biddle's reasoning springs from a vague similarity between the earliest source for Cabot's voyage, a Latin text by Peter Martyr from 1516, and a very recent traveler's account of the terrain around Hudson Bay. Only six years before Biddle was writing, Captain Edward Parry, as part of the Admiralty's vigorous new attack on the Northwest Passage, had led an expedition that attempted the route by pushing into the northwest corner of Hudson
Bay. Biddle turns to Parry and finds:

Very little snow was now lying upon the ground, and numerous streams of water rushing down the hills and sparkling in the beams of the morning sun, relieved in some measure the melancholy stillness which otherwise reigned on this desolate shore.

Three hundred and seventeen years earlier, in the same latitude,
according to Peter Martyr (as Englished by Hakluyt), Cabot had "found monstrous heaps of ice swimming on the sea, and in manner continual daylight; yet saw he the land in that tract free from ice, which had been molten by the heat of the sun." Such evidence convinces Biddle that the two sailors must have visited the same place. (In other exploration controversies, comparisons like this one are a favorite resort of the credulous.)

Biddle's enthusiasm seduces him into building a model hero. The epithets with which he decorates Cabot again and again are
"enterprising and intrepid," "accomplished and enthusiastic." The
1508 decision to turn back south, then, was a simple matter of nerve versus cowardice, of "the dauntless intrepidity that found a new impulse in perils before which his terrified companions gave way."

The full flavor of Biddle's idolatry may be tasted in his handling of
Cabot's 1526-30 Spanish expedition to the La Plata River in South
America, the only voyage we can be sure Sebastian actually led. The accounts by which we know about this expedition are those of Cabot's underlings and financers, who filed lawsuits against their former commander and tried to have him arrested when he got back to Spain;
thus our view of it may be one-sided. But it is hard not to picture the La Plata venture as a four-year disaster. Stimulated by the successful circumnavigation performed by one of Magellan's ships,
Charles V put Cabot in command of an expedition "for the discovery of
Tharsis, Ophir, and Eastern Cathay." The plan was to explore the coasts of South America in search of a more northerly passage to the
Pacific than the one Magellan had found.

Soon after reaching Brazil, Cabot let himself be distracted by
Portuguese rumors of great treasures of gold and silver in the interior. He apparently gave up any intention of searching for the passage to Cathay and concentrated much of his next three years on fortune-hunting up the La Plata. As a result of the switch in plans,
several of Cabot's officers threatened revolt. Even before he had reached the mouth of the river, he had put the troublemakers under arrest; then he set them on shore, although some were sick with fever, and sailed away, leaving them to die. (The officers managed to befriend the natives and eventually made their way to the Portuguese settlements to the north.) In the harbor near Santa Catalina, Cabot's flagship ran upon a submerged rock. Later allegations reported that the commander was the first man to abandon ship, which so demoralized the crew that the vessel ended up a complete wreck.

Cabot pushed up the La Plata and its tributaries, building forts as he went. Chasing a rumor of gold, he led his men westward up the
Paraguay River, despite failing provisions and hostile natives. When a few Indians approached the straggling band of Spaniards and offered to show them where they could find food, Cabot dispatched thirty men to follow the guides, who led them into an ambush in which they were all killed or wounded.

In 1528 Cabot sent one of his ships home to request a relief expedition. Upon its arrival in Seville, the merchant backers of the expedition decided at once they wanted nothing more to do with Cabot.
The king, steadfastly loyal, ordered a relief expedition at his own expense; but his instructions apparently were never carried out.
Meanwhile Cabot had housed his men in a new fort on the Paraná River.
While he was away, Indians attacked and burned the fort, killing most of its defenders. The native victory encouraged further attacks, and even though he had retreated with the remainder of his force to the coast, in the following months Cabot lost another thirty men while they were out fishing or foraging for roots. Late in 1529 the survivors decided to flee for Spain, which they did not reach until the following July.

Cabot returned to face seven years of judicial inquiry. It took the scribes of the Council for the Indies three months simply to draw up the accusations and interrogations brought against the commander by his former subordinates. After two years Cabot was found guilty of maladministration and disobedience. He was sentenced to four years'
banishment to Morocco as well as heavily fined. For some reason
(perhaps the loyalty of Charles V) the banishment was never put into effect, and, amazingly, Cabot was allowed to continue in his office as pilot-major of Spain.

George Parker Winship, a scholar otherwise sympathetic to the explorer, sums up the La Plata expedition by remarking that Cabot
"discovered only one thing-that he was not qualified for the leadership of a maritime adventure." Yet Biddle sees it differently.
The La Plata voyage was a four-year conspiracy against a brave man, a
"dark treachery" enacted by opportunistic and cowardly subordinates.
He finds that some of the incriminating testimony "has that air of vagueness so characteristic of falsehood," yet discovers in the same documents proof of Cabot's "remarkable gentleness of deportment" and the "affectionate attachment" binding his men to him.

Meet the Author

Walter Bonatti was born in Bergamo, Italy, in 1930. A well-known photographer and author, he received the Legion d’Honneur in 1961 for his heroic rescue of two fellow climbers on an expedition on which four other perished. He lives in Italy.

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