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FERNANDES, JOÃO, significant early Portuguese explorer, said to have been the source of the name “Labrador”; fl. 1486–1505.

Bristol customs records for 1486 show “ffornandus and Gunsalus” as Portuguese traders in that port and for 1493 show “Johannes ffornandus.” In 1501 Henry VII granted a charter to the Anglo-Portuguese syndicate, which included João Fernandes, Francisco Fernandes, and João Gonsales. It is probable that João Fernandes had traded with Bristol from 1486 on and so became linked with the English voyages to America as well as with Portuguese voyages. The Hamy King map of 1503 shows Greenland as “Terra de Labrador” and the Labrador–Newfoundland region as “Terra de Corte Real,” implying that Greenland had been discovered by the labrador, João Fernandes before Gaspar Corte-Real coasted it in 1500.

In October 1499 King Manoel granted a charter to João Fernandes of the island of Terceira in the Azores, a landholder or labrador under the captaincy of the Corte-Real family. From a comparison of Fernandes’s charter with that of Corte-Real in 1500, it does not seem that he had taken part in any Portuguese voyages of discovery previous to 1499. Yet his charter promised him governorship of any islands “which he might discover and find anew” (Biggar, Precursors, 31). John Cabot discovered Cape Breton Island and south Newfoundland in 1497. His second voyage in 1498 reached East Greenland, crossed to Baffin Island and coasted as far as Chesapeake Bay (Harrisse, Dawson, Biggar, and others; but Winship, Williamson, Almagià, and Skelton do not accept this reconstruction). The Weimar map of 1530 has a legend near Greenland: “This land was discovered by the English of the town of Bristol but in it there is nothing of value. And as the one who first gave notice of it was a Labrador of the Azores, they gave it the name.” The Italian maps of Maiollo from 1504 on carry similar legends. Santa Cruz in his manuscript of 1541 described the Land of the Labrador: “it is said that two Portuguese brothers, named the Corte Reals, . . . asserted that the great main land of the West Indies [North America], of which they occupied the extreme end, was separated from that island of the Labrador [Greenland] by a very large and wide sea channel, of which the pilot Antonio Gaboto . . . also had information. It was called the land of the Labrador because a labrador of the islands of the Azores gave notice and information about it to the King of England when he [sic had] sent in search of it Antonio Gaboto, the English pilot and father of Sebastian Gaboto, who is now Your Majesty’s pilot-major. Adjoining the coast of . . . Bacallaos [Newfoundland] where the Corte Reales, the two Portuguese brothers, went to colonize, and which was first discovered by the pilot Antonio Gaboto, the Englishman, . . . there are many islands. . . .”

It is now known that John Cabot went down with his ship on the 1498 voyage. The most reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that Fernandes went with Cabot in 1498 as a pilot and charted the coasts from Greenland to Newfoundland and Chesapeake. On his return to England he showed his charts of these discoveries to the king. His special knowledge of these new lands gained him a charter from King Manoel the following autumn to “discover and find anew.” It placed him also as the chief Portuguese member of the Anglo-Portuguese syndicate which got a charter from Henry VII in March 1501. It is possible that the name Labrador was given to the continuous mainland from Greenland to east Newfoundland, found during the 1498 Cabot voyage. Thirty-one maps, from that of Pedro Reinel of 1504, show such a continuous mainland and the map of Juan de la Cosa of 1500 also shows a continuous mainland. Newfoundland was soon established as an island. Corte-Real by 1501 found that Greenland was quite separate from the mainland of North America and confined the Labrador to Greenland as shown on the Hamy King and 11 other maps. The English seem to have retained “Labrador” for the present region after the Norse name, “Greenland,” was re-adopted for that island, by 1560 or so.

On 9 Dec. 1502 a second charter to the Anglo-Portuguese syndicate specifically excluded João Fernandes from visiting the lands discovered by the English. It would appear that he was engaged on a rival scheme for King Manoel; perhaps he took part in the Corte-Real voyages. In 1506 Barcellos petitioned the Portuguese monarch: “I received a command from the King, our master, to go on a voyage of discovery, I and a Johã Fernandes, landholder, on which discovery we were absent (from Terceira) for three good years and when I returned to the said island, I found my people driven from the said lands . . .” (Biggar, Precursors, 98). His request was favourably received and the above statement confirmed by the monarch.

A. Davies

René Baudry, “D’où viennent les noms ‘Bras d’Or’ et ‘Labrador’?” RHAF, VI (1952–53), 20–30. Precursors (Biggar). Arthur Davies, “João Fernandes and the Cabot voyages,” Congresso internacional de historia dos descobrimentos, Actas, II (1961). Denys Hay, “The manuscript of Polydore Vergil’s ‘Anglica Historia,’” EHR, LIV (1939), 240–51. Hoffman, Cabot to Cartier. “The last voyage of John Cabot,” Nature, CLXXVI (1955), 996–99. Fridtjof Nansen, In northern mists: arctic exploration in early times (2v., London, 1911), II Williamson, Voyages of the Cabots (1929). Heinrich Winter, “The pseudo-Labrador and the oblique meridian,” Imago mundi, II (1937), 61–74.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

A. Davies, “FERNANDES, JOÃO,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 30, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fernandes_joao_1E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/fernandes_joao_1E.html
Author of Article:   A. Davies
Title of Article:   FERNANDES, JOÃO
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 1
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1966
Year of revision:   1979
Access Date:   September 30, 2023