The Terceiran Explorers – Corte Real and Fernandes

Backtracking two years on the Portuguese timeline to 1498, as soon as King Manoel I learned that The Venetian had claimed western lands for the English, he enlisted his Flemish and Portuguese navigators on Terceira to investigate. Was the Isle of the Seven Cities that John Cabot found really 400 leagues west of England? Because if that were so, the land was Portuguese.

Manoel had been King of Portugal for only three years, but as Master of the Order of Christ, he had kept up to date on the latest developments regarding land discovery. He probably knew that João vas Corte-Real, Álvaro Martins Homem and their Danish [or Dutch] companions discovered land in the same western direction in 1472 or 1474(1), and that Diogo de Teive visited Terra Nova do Bacalhau in 1452. It is even possible, if the islands on Zuanne Pizzigano’s portolan were really Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, and Labrador, that the Portuguese had touched down on the American Northeast as early as 1424. At the least, the salted cod brought to his table was probably caught on the Newfoundland Banks.

How was it that Cabot claimed the land for England before Manoel’s explorers claimed it for Portugal? Maybe the Portuguese were too secretive. Maybe they were distracted by their efforts to reach Abyssinia. Maybe Manoel thought his back was covered by the Treaty of Tordesillas. It did not help that navigators in 1474 did not have the tools to measure longitude.

Granted, Manoel had been occupied. When his uncle King João died in 1495, he struggled for a while with his cousin Jorge of Lancaster for the throne. In 1497 Manoel was busy getting married to Isabel of Aragon, the oldest daughter of King Ferdinando and Queen Isabella of Spain.

Isabel of Aragon was already living in Portugal, and well loved as the widow of Afonso, Manoel’s cousin, who had been heir to the Portuguese throne until he fell off his horse near the Tagus River. At first Isabel did not want to marry Manoel. When he insisted, she made him promise he would first expel all Jews from Portugal.

That nasty business preoccupied the king for a while longer. Then there was the birth of his son, crown prince Miguel. But the baby died in October of 1497. Manoel had, that year, sent Vasco da Gama on his way to India via the route under Africa that Bartolomeu Dias had found. Then in August of 1498, just as John Cabot returned from Newfoundland, Manoel’s wife Isabel died while trying to give birth to another child.

Even so, Manoel went to work. He needed to know which side of the Tordesillas dividing line the lands Cabot had found lay.

João vas Corte-Real, the capitão of Angra in Terceira and of São Jorge Island, had died in 1496, leaving his wife, Maria de Abarca, and at least three sons and one daughter: VascoAñes, Miguel, Gaspar, and Izabel who had married Joz D’Utra the Younger, the heir to the captaincies of Faial and Pico. VascoAñes still lived in Lisbon and worked as a courtier to King Manoel. He had inherited the captaincies of Angra and São Jorge and all the fishing rights that went with them. His brother Gaspar Corte-Real, who lived in Angra, had taken over the day-to-day responsibilities of governing the province.

King Manoel wrote to Gaspar and instructed him “to discover the occidental [western] part beyond the Ocean Sea, where was found a huge continent surrounded by many large islands.” Both Gaspar and Michael Corte-Real knew the route to the Atlantic Islands [Greenland and Iceland] and were well qualified to carry out King Manoel’s mandate. Fellow mariners on Terceira frequently scoured the waters looking for St. Brendon’s Island and the Isle of the Seven cities. DeTeive had fruitlessly searched for Isla de Brasil in 1486, the same year Fernão D’Ulmo, Afonso de Estrieto, and the “German Knight” [Martin Behaim, Joz D’Utra’s brother-in-law] received the patent to sail from Terceira in search of Cathay.

Fifty-year-old Gaspar Corte-Real (c1450-c1501) was the same age as Columbus and a year younger than Cabot. Besides sailing with his father in 1472 or 1474, when he was twenty-three, he probably helped Martin Behaim put together the proposal with Fernão D’Ulmo and Afonso de Estrieto in 1486. He probably helped again when Martin Behaim and Jerome Muenzer were preparing their proposal for King João II in 1493(2).

Historians suspect Gaspar made an undocumented voyage looking for the northwest lands that year, in 1498. However, the first documented patent was granted to a fellow Terceiran named João Fernandes,(3) nicknamed El Lavrador [the Farmer]. Two more associates of the Corte-Reals, Pero de Barcelos(4) and João Martin, planned to accompany Fernandes on his voyage. The patent was probably granted by King Manoel, but it could have been granted by VascoAñes Corte-Real. It was dated October 28, 1499. Typical of the patents we have already read about, it gave Fernandes the captaincy [military governorship] of any islands he might find, at his own expense, “in our sphere of influence” [on Portugal’s side of the Tordesillas Line].

The three explorers left Terceira in 1498. The interesting thing is that they did not head to Newfoundland. They headed to the Labrador Sea farther north. Maybe they knew Newfoundland was on the Spanish side of the Tordesillas divide.

We know little about Fernandes’ voyage. It is generally believed he landed on and surveyed today’s Labrador, which was later named after him. Either no records survive from their exploration, or the ship logs are deeply hidden within ancient Portuguese archives. The explorers returned home safely in 1500 after three years. Apparently they found nothing new.

That same year, 1500, Gaspar Corte-Real set out. He headed northwest and came to a land he named Ponta d’Asia, thinking, obviously, he had reached Asia. It was Greenland, probably in the vicinity of Cape Farewell. Greenland was still claimed by the Norwegians and Danish [still under one king], though, as mentioned, the Viking colony had probably been wiped out by the plague in the 1300s. Gaspar could not go ashore because of ice floes and bad weather.

He sailed along the island’s west coast into the waterway later named the Davis Strait. There is speculation he sailed west across the strait and landed at Newfoundland. There is more speculation he sailed around Newfoundland and through the Belle Isle Strait into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The only evidence we have to support either of those theories is a map that was drawn in Portugal in 1502, known as the Cantino Planisphere. The map was named after a Venetian named Alberto Cantino who smuggled it out of Portugal for the Venetians.

Cantino Planisphere, Portugal, 1502.(5)

We will discuss the entire map in detail later, but for now, let us look closer at the Northern Atlantic.

If you compare this map to our contemporary map above, the green covered cliffs of Greenland are easy to recognize. The artist claimed the land for Portugal with a little Portuguese flag [a blue rectangle with five quinas or emblems surrounded by a red border]. The forested island to the left could be Labrador or Newfoundland. If it was Newfoundland, then the explorers found the Belle Isle Strait north of the island. The label next to the island reads Terra del Rey de Portuguall [Land of the Portuguese King]. The blue vertical rule down the middle of the forested island denotes the Tordesillas boundary.(6 )The cartographer gave the western side of the island to Castella [Castile] and the right side to Portugal.

Gaspar Corte-Real returned home safely, but not to Terceira. He sailed to Lisbon to report his findings to his sovereign King Manoel. Alberto Cantino was among those who “were present” in court that day. He had wiggled his way into King Manoel’s confidence and was serving as Manoel’s private secretary. But Cantino was also a spy. His real boss, Hercules d’Este, Duke of Ferrara, lived just southwest of Venice. In two letters, one written on October 17, 1501 and the second on October 18, Cantino relayed to his lord the Duke what he had heard Gaspar Corte-Real tell King Manoel about exploring the islands “in India” [Greenland and either Labrador or Newfoundland]. Then on November 19, 1502, Cantino sent the map with another letter to the Duke.(7) The letter ended with, “This map is of high quality and I hope Your Excellency will be very pleased with it.”(8)

According to historian Manuel Luciano da Silva, Cantino had “bribed one of King Manoel’s cartographers to draw this map showing all the secret discoveries the Portuguese had made in India. He paid the cartographer twelve gold ducados [ducats]. On the inferior side [back] was written [in Italian or Latin], “Owner Alberto Cantino, to Duke of Hercules.”

Meanwhile, Gaspar Corte-Real had left on a second expedition in 1501 with the financial help of his brother Michael. This time he sailed with three caravels. Michael commanded one of the other caravels. They tried to find the land Gaspar had seen the previous year. Surviving letters state they reached Greenland and again found the sea frozen. The caravels then crossed the entrance to the later-named Davis Straight and “found a coast where many large rivers flowed into the sea.” Historian H.P. Biggar, in his book Voyages of the Cabots(9) published in 1903, made an educated guess that they entered Hamilton Inlet. Author Henry Harrisse(10) believed they were at the Gander or the Exploits Rivers.

The Corte-Reals sailed a league [more than three miles] up one of the rivers and debarked. As they explored, they found “very tall trees and wild berries.” They also captured fifty-seven natives. Gaspar carried fifty in his ship and one of the other caravels carried the remaining seven.

H.P Biggar suggested that the captives were Nasquapee Indians from the interior of Labrador. Some of the natives wore many skins to keep warm, while others wore nearly nothing. That means the Portuguese probably sailed farther south than Newfoundland, and that the captives represented two or more different tribes.

One of the three caravels arrived in Lisbon on October 19, 1501, as reported by a Venetian named Pietro Pasqualigo who observed the landing. Pietro was the brother of the Venetian galley-owner Lorenzo Pasqualigo whom we spoke of earlier who watched John Cabot celebrate his second return. Pietro was serving as secretary to the Venetian ambassador in Portugal.

In his letter to his brothers in Venice, Pasqualigo included an interesting detail. He wrote that even though there was no iron in the country the Terceirans had visited, they brought back with them “a piece of broken gilt sword, which certainly seems to have been made in Italy. One of the boys was wearing in his ears two silver rings that without doubt were made in Venice.” They surmised that the trinkets had either been left behind in Labrador by John Cabot or his men, or stolen from them.

A second caravel arrived by the end of October, probably the one carrying Michael Corte-Real. But Gaspar and his flagship “were seen no more.” It has been assumed he and his men perished in a storm.

In 1501, soon after João Fernandes arrived back from his visit to Labrador in 1500, he was granted a new patent to chart the Northern Sea. This patent was not from King Manoel, but rather from King Henry VII of England. Fernandes had teamed up with five partners – two fellow Terceirans and three Bristol men – to work for the English. Like William Weston, the Azorians had the experience to continue where Cabot left off. The Terceirans listed on the patent were Francisco Fernandes [not sure of his relationship to João Fernandes] and João Gonçalves. Historians know no more about that expedition, or even if it occurred.

In 1502, Michael Corte-Real set out to find his brother Gaspar. King Manoel allotted Michael three ships. The fleet probably included the two caravels that returned with Michael earlier. Michael was promised the captaincy of any new lands he claimed for Portugal.

The three ships headed to Greenland. Along the way, they split up. They were not worried. They had already made plans for where and when to rendezvous. But the last we know about that expedition is that when Michael and his ship did not make the meet-up, the two remaining caravels returned to Terceira [or Lisbon] without him.

VascoAñes in Lisbon pleaded with King Manoel to let him go in search of Gaspar and Michael. But Manoel did not want to lose any more Corte-Reals. He refused to grant VascoAñes the needed permission to leave court.

Michael Corte-Real in Narragansett Bay

There is a tiny possibility that Michael Corte-Real continued down the North American coast to the Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, then up the Taunton River into today’s Massachusetts, and that he lived there until at least 1511 and was treated like a god by the local Wampanoag people.

Evidence of this claim, in the form of mysterious petro-glyphs, is carved into a large boulder known as Dighton Rock. The boulder sits by the Taunton River near the town of Fall River, Massachusetts. The petro-glyphs have baffled historians and archaeologists for hundreds of years. Some of the markings appear to read [in Latin] “Michael Corte-Real, led the Indians as a god, 1511.” You can look at the glyphs yourself and read more about this theory in our article Mysterious Dighton Rock.

The Corte-Real Legacy

There were many islands and peninsulas named Corte-Real on sixteenth century maps. European cartographers clearly recognized Portugal’s claim to land in the vicinity of Labrador, Newfoundland, and Nova Scotia. The earliest was the Cantino Planisphere drawn in 1502, a year after Michael Corte-Real’s disappearance, which we have already shown you.

Below are several more examples of maps showing lands named after the Corte-Real brothers. You can find links to the full-sized versions in the Notes below. Notice that all of these examples include Cape de Labrador, Tierra Corte Real, Tierra del Bacalhao, and Tierra de Nurumberg / Nurembega – names that are associated with the exploration carried out by explorers from Terceira Island. We suspect Nuremberg was named after Martin Behaim of Nuremberg.

North America by Ruscelli and Gastaldi drawn in 1598.(11)

Nova Totius Terrarum orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula. A world map drawn by Dutch cartographer Willem Blaeu in 1635. This map was drawn five years after the Puritans sailed with Governor John Winthrop in 1630.

Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac hydrographica tabula. A world map attributed to Moses Pitt, London, 1680, housed in the Boston Public Library.

We will repeat our contemporary map from above for comparison.

This last map, a woodblock print of later-named New England by Giovanni Battista Ramusio, does not have an island named Corte-Real. However, Ramusio has attributed Labrador to the Portuguese as you can see by the little crest in the upper right corner. It also illustrates how, for years, that part of North America was thought to be a clump of islands. Nuremberg has morphed to Nurumbega. Eventually it becomes Nurembega. [Note also the Latin names for the winds to show direction – Tramonta, Levante, Ostro, and Ponente.]

Giovanni Battista Ramusio, La Nuovo Francia, Woodblock print. 1556.(11)


  1. Álvaro Martins Homem was probably related to the famous Portuguese family of cartographers as Diogo Homem (1521–1576), whom we will in the article World Maps after Columbus.
  2. Gaspar Corte-Real’s sister, Izabel was married to Joss van Heurter the Younger, who was the brother of Joanna van Heurter, who married Martin Behaim.
  3. Also known as Johan Fernandez and John Fernandez the Farmer.
  4. Probably a Portuguese royal from the House of Barcelos.
  5. Cantino Planisphere, Portugal, 1502 {{PD-Old}} Public domain in USA, Portugal and Italy. Image source: Housed in the Estense Library in the City of Modena, located north of Bologna, Italy.
  6. “The Biggest Lie of The Cantino Map!” article by Manuel Luciano da Silva, Medical Doctor, August 25, 2003. url:
  7. According to Manuel Luciano da Silva, the Cantino Planisphere remained in the Duke’s Library for ninety years until Pope Clement VIII transfered it to another palace in the city of Modena. During a rebellion in 1859, the map disappeared from the Library. It was found again nine years latter at the entrance of a sausage factory in Modena, being used as a folding screen. In 1868, someone brought it to the attention of the Director of Modena Library who took it to his library where it has been ever since. [, 2003]
  8. Actual quote, “…a carta é di tal sorte, et spero che in tal manera piacerà a V. Exa.”
  9. Vigneras, L.A., “Gaspar Corte-Real, Portuguese Explorer,” University of Toronto. [], References: Biggar, H.P. The Voyages of the Cabots and of the Corte-Reals to North America and Greenland, 1497–1503, Paris, 1903. p.96–97, 100. Referenced by the Dictionary of Canadian Biography, url:
  10. Harrisse, Henry. The discovery of North America: a critical, documentary, and historic investigation, with an essay on the cartography of the new world . . . , London, 1892. p.59–76
  11. Ruscelli, Girolamo and Gastaldi, Giacomo. Tierra Nueva, appears in Ruscelli's edition of Ptolemy’s Geografia di Claudio Tolomeo Alessandrino, 1598. Accession no: OS-1598-6. Barcode no: 342.0001. Permanent URI: [] “Descrittione dell'America Libro Quatro 128.” {{PD-Old}} This image is in the public domain, over 100 years old. To obtain hi-resolution image:
  12. Ramusio, Giovanni Battista. La Nuova Francia, 1556/1565. {{PD-1890/it}} Public domain in both USA and Italy. [

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