By Richard A. DiLiberto Jr.
Giovanni da Verrazzano, an Italian explorer, was the first European to explore the Atlantic Coast, in 1524. The Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture has erected a monument in his honor at the Boardwalk and Olive Avenue in Rehoboth Beach, as a permanent tribute to his life.
Verrazzano did not explore in search of gold, power, land or conquest.
“Verrazzano’s sole aspiration was discovery,” his Portuguese contemporary, Diego de Gouveya, wrote in a letter to Francis I, King of France, on July 8, 1524.
In winter 1524, Verrazzano set sail from France with a fleet of four ships, to explore the Americas. For reasons that are unclear
to history — maybe shipwrecks, maybe piracy — only one ship made it, his flagship, the Dauphine. It was a small ship, with about 50 men.
On the way, they encountered what he described in a letter to the King of France as “a storm as violent as sailing men ever encountered. We were delivered from it with divine help and goodness of the ship, enduring violent waves.” After about 50 days at sea, we believe he first came upon the area we now call Cape Fear, North Carolina, then traveled south to the area we now call Charleston, South Carolina.
He describes native people coming to the seashore, then fleeing as he arrived, but stopping to look at him in “great wonderment.” He and his crew reassured them by “various signs,” and the natives offered him food. We imagine Verrazzano must have been able to exude an aura of peace, of kindness, and of his mission of discovery, to receive this reception.
He described the people on the beaches, as “naked, except around their loins they wear skins of small animals, with narrow belts of grass, to which they tie various tails of animals which hang down to the knees.” They were well-tanned, and tied back their thick dark hair in a small tail. He vividly described fine sand, 15 feet deep, streams and inlets, fields and forests, with trees “so beautiful and delightful, of so many colors, that they defy description.”
He wrote of an “abundance of animals, deer, rabbits, and birds, pure air, gentle winds, a clear and cloudless sky, and a calm sea, with unruffled gentle waves.”
As he sailed north along the coast, he could see large bonfires on the shore. At one
point, he anchored, and sent one of his young
crew to swim ashore, with some gifts for the natives — trinkets, little bells and mirrors. The young swimmer was tossed about in the
rough waves, and washed ashore, “half dead.” The native people rushed up to him, carried him ashore, removed his wet clothes, and warmed him in the sun next to their fire. While they could not speak his language, they
made sounds and gestures to show him he should not be afraid. When the sailor regained his strength, he pointed and indicated he wanted to return to the boat. Verrazzano described the natives “holding him close and embracing him, accompanying him to the sea, and watching him until he was safely back on the ship.”
Further, north, he came to a beautiful bucolic place he called “Arcadia” – could it
have been Assateague Island, Maryland, Bethany Beach or Rehoboth Beach? He landed, and the native men all ran into the woods. An older woman, a young woman of 18 or 20, and three children, stood there and shouted at him. He gave them food.
He charted the coast we believe to be Cape Henlopen, and continued north along
current-day New Jersey, to New York Harbor. He went ashore to find people dressed in colorful birds’ feathers, “joyfully uttering loud cries of wonderment, and showing him the safest place to beach the boat.”
He found Long Island, and Narragansett Bay, where he saw boats full of people, laughing, and studying him and his ship, in wonderment. He threw them some trinkets, gained their trust, and some even came aboard. The people looked at small mirrors he gave them, and then refused them, laughing. The people “are very generous and give away all they have. We made great friends with them.”
Verrazzano liked it so much, he stayed 15
days. He even played games with the natives.
In an amazing prediction of the future, Verrazzano writes of New York: “There is no doubt that if they had the skilled workmen that we have, they would erect great buildings, for the whole maritime coast is full of various blue rocks, crystals, and alabaster, and for such a purpose it has an abundance of ports and shelter for ships.”
He found the people lived on game and fish, lived a long time, rarely fell sick, cured themselves without medicine, and that their end came with old age. They took care of their relatives, lamented in times of adversity; and in grief, recalled past happiness. At death, they lamented, but sang for a long time. Perhaps they knew the meaning of life.
He proceeded to Cape Cod, and encountered dangerous, shallow waters, some only 3 feet deep. He continued to the rocky coast of Maine. Those people were not as friendly, but crude, even brutish. Verrazzano had run out of trinkets to give,
so the native men, dressed in bear skins, exposed their backsides to him and laughed. He described it with good nature. He returned
home on July 8 telling of his discoveries of some seven months at sea. He made another voyage to the New World in June 1526, to
obtain Brazil wood, used for red dye in textiles.
His third and final voyage was in May 1528. Near the Bahamas, he anchored off shore, and took a small boat ashore, with 20
crewmen. Perhaps trusting in the natives due
to his mostly positive experiences upon our
coast, he was not prepared for battle. He and
the 20 crewmen were killed, and cannibalized by the natives. He was 43. Sadly, his brother, Girolamo, had to witness the tragedy from the Dauphine’s deck, which was out of gunshot range.
Verrazzano is remembered as a “renaissance man, of strong character, and uncommon capabilities. He had an open mind, and lacked prejudice.” He was one of the first environmentalists, interested in the natural beauty of the land and the sea. His writings evidence an unquenched thirst for discovery, harmony of mankind, and peace.
We will all do well to continue his legacy here in Delaware. We have transported stones
from his boyhood castle in Val De Greve, Tuscany, Italy, to Delaware, and placed them under the dedicated monument on the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach. In a way, Verrazzano has returned nearly 500 years later,
to inspire in us the spirit of discovery. IAH
Source material for this article included the treatise, “Ager Clantius, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Explorer and Merchant,” housed at the Center for Verrazzano Studies; and a 1970 edition edited by Lawrence C. Wroth titled, “The Voyages of Giovanni da Verrazzano.”
Richard A. DiLiberto, Jr., Esq., is chairman of the Delaware Commission on Italian Heritage and Culture, and a practicing lawyer in the personal injury department of Young Conaway Stargatt & Taylor, LLP. A cum laude graduate of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania and Delaware Law School Widener University, he was the Delaware Columbus Monument Committee’s Man of the Year in 2017.