João Vaz - Family Matters

Co-owner of the Galeria Côrte-Real in Paderne, Pedro Buisel Côrte-Real has a distinguished surname. He shares it with João Vaz Côrte-Real, one of Portugal’s earliest adventurers who, some claim, reached North America 18 years before Columbus. Carolyn Kain looks at the known facts.

Recent research into Pedro’s family tree indicates he is a descendent of João Vaz, an explorer rewarded by the Portuguese monarch for his discoveries. In 1474 he was granted vast verdant tracts on the island of Terceira in the Azores and appointed Governor of the southern section where he settled with his family.

As Pedro explains: “Through my father’s first cousin I have been able to trace ancestors who lived on Terceira and the Casa do Capitão Donatario, the Governor’s residence built by João Vaz. Occupied by several generations of our family, some of the original structures are still standing. Over the centuries the Côrte-Real family returned to the mainland; some to the Algarve while others settled in Barcelona.

As interesting as Pedro’s background is the continued debate surrounding João Vaz. Did he reach America before Columbus and if so, where did he land? Pedro offers the known facts:

Within the sailing fraternity on the Açores, rumours existed that there was land across the Atlantic in the far north-west. Setting out to confirm this one way or the other, João Vaz came across a windswept shore. The cold sea before it was teeming with cod and he named the discovery, Terra Nova do Bacalhau – New Land of the Codfish. The fishing grounds were a valuable discovery but, more importantly for present-day historians, the discovery was made 18 years before Columbus sailed.” It has been asserted that João Vaz had come across Newfoundland; proponents of the theory back it up by pointing to Baccalieu Island just off Newfoundland’s northeast tip.

João Vaz - Family Matters - Ilha Terceira

Some texts state that we were the first to discover Newfoundland,” says Pedro, “but others believe it happened eight years later when the next generation of Côrte-Reals set sail.

By the time the brothers, Miguel and Gaspar, made their voyage, the family was well established in Angra, the capital of Terceira. On his father’s death, Miguel, the older brother, took over as Governor and was living in Casa do Capitão Donatario, close to the hill fort and the island’s first hospital, both founded by his father. Later the hospital became part of the Misericórdia and, with its magnificent façade, it is one of best-preserved buildings in the World Heritage city of Angra do Heroismo. Nearby, Largo Miguel Côrte-Real and promenade Gaspar Côrte-Real, are permanent reminders of the family’s illustrious past.

Despite being Angra’s most influential citizens, the brothers were adventurous and in due course – on separate voyages – both were lost at sea. “From what is known,” says Pedro, “after Columbus’s historic voyage, the Portuguese king wanted to find a Northwest Passage to Asia.”

Many prominent seafarers took up the challenge including several residents of Terceira. One of them, João Martins, who had accompanied João Vaz on his earlier journey, sailed northwest but failed to find land.

In 1500, Gaspar had better fortune taking a similar route and spotting a distant shoreline.

We know today that this was Greenland but Gaspar – convinced he had found the sought-after passage to the east – named it Ponta d’Asia. Due to ice flows, he was unable to land but he returned the following year, this time with his brother and three caravels.

On this second visit the sea was frozen over, forcing them to change course and sail onwards to Labrador and Newfoundland where – after several skirmishes – they captured 60 native Indians. At this point the brothers went their separate ways. Miguel journeyed on to Lisbon with two caravels and the curious cargo of human beings; Gaspar headed south, intent on charting the eastern seaboard of what we now know to be North America. A year later, when Gaspar had not returned, Miguel set off to find him; he wasn’t seen again.

The brothers’ name has not been forgotten.

Sailors in the vicinity of Terra Nova do Bacalhau often referred to it as Côrte-Real Land and at St John’s on Newfoundland a towering statue of Gaspar was erected in 1965. The frigate flagship of the Portuguese navy is named NRP Côrte-Real. But despite the grandeur of the name, the consensus remains that Columbus reached America before the Côrte-Reals. For Pedro, this conclusion makes no difference since undeniably his heritage spans the Atlantic Ocean from mainland Portugal, 1,500 km to Terceira and a further 2,500 km to Newfoundland.

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