John Cabot was a Genoese navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of parts of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England is commonly held to have been the first European exploration of the mainland of North America since the Norse Vikings’ visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. It would also be one of the last times, until Queen Elizabeth, that England would set foot in the New World.
John Cabot Facts: Early Life
- He may have been born slightly earlier than 1450, which is the approximate date most commonly given for his birth.
- In 1471 Caboto was accepted into the religious confraternity of St John the Evangelist. Since this was one of the city’s prestigious confraternities, his acceptance suggests that he was already a respected member of the community.
- Following his gaining full Venetian citizenship in 1476, Caboto would have been eligible to engage in maritime trade, including the trade to the eastern Mediterranean that was the source of much of Venice’s wealth.
- A 1483 document refers to his selling a slave in Crete whom he had acquired while in the territories of the Sultan of Egypt, which then comprised most of what is now Palestine, Syria and Lebanon.
- Cabot is mentioned in many Venetian records of the 1480s. These indicate that by 1484 he was married to Mattea and already had at least two sons.
- Cabot’s sons are Ludovico, Sebastian, and Sancto. The Venetian sources contain references to Cabot’s being involved in house building in the city. He may have relied on this experience when seeking work later in Spain as a civil engineer.
- Cabot appears to have gotten into financial trouble in the late 1480s and left Venice as an insolvent debtor by 5 November 1488.
- He moved to Valencia, Spain, where his creditors attempted to have him arrested. While in Valencia, John Cabot proposed plans for improvements to the harbor. These proposals were rejected.
- Early in 1494 he moved on to Seville, where he proposed, was contracted to build and, for five months, worked on the construction of a stone bridge over the Guadalquivir river. This project was abandoned following a decision of the City Council on 24 December 1494.
- After this Cabot appears to have sought support from the Iberian crowns of Seville and Lisbon for an Atlantic expedition, before moving to London to seek funding and political support. He likely reached England in mid-1495.
John Cabot Facts: England and Expeditions
- Like other Italian explorers, including Christopher Columbus, Cabot led an expedition on commission to another European nation, in his case, England.
- Cabot planned to depart to the west from a northerly latitude where the longitudes are much closer together, and where, as a result, the voyage would be much shorter. He still had an expectation of finding an alternative route to China.
- On 5 March 1496 Henry VII gave Cabot and his three sons letters patent with the following charge for exploration:
…free authority, faculty and power to sail to all parts, regions and coasts of the eastern, western and northern sea, under our banners, flags and ensigns, with five ships or vessels of whatsoever burden and quality they may be, and with so many and with such mariners and men as they may wish to take with them in the said ships, at their own proper costs and charges, to find, discover and investigate whatsoever islands, countries, regions or provinces of heathens and infidels, in whatsoever part of the world placed, which before this time were unknown to all Christians.
- Those who received such patents had the right to assign them to third parties for execution. His sons are believed to have still been under the age of 18
- Cabot went to Bristol to arrange preparations for his voyage. Bristol was the second-largest seaport in England. From 1480 onward it had supplied several expeditions to look for Hy-Brazil. According to Celtic legend, this island lay somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. There was widespread belief among merchants in the port that Bristol men had discovered the island at earlier date but then lost track of it.
- Cabot’s first voyage was little recorded. A winter 1497/98 letter from John Day (a Bristol merchant) to an addressee believed to be Christopher Columbus refers briefly to it, but writes mostly about the second, 1497 voyage. He notes, “Since your Lordship wants information relating to the first voyage, here is what happened: he went with one ship, his crew confused him, he was short of supplies and ran into bad weather, and he decided to turn back.” Since Cabot received his royal patent in March 1496, it is believed that he made his first voyage that summer.
- What is known as the “John Day letter” provides considerable information about Cabot’s second voyage. It was written during the winter of 1497/8 by Bristol merchant John Day to a man who is likely Christopher Columbus. Day is believed to have been familiar with the key figures of the expedition and thus able to report on it.
- If the lands Cabot had discovered lay west of the meridian laid down in the Treaty of Tordesillas, or if he intended to sail further west, Columbus would likely have believed that these voyages challenged his monopoly rights for westward exploration.
- Leaving Bristol, the expedition sailed past Ireland and across the Atlantic, making landfall somewhere on the coast of North America on 24 June 1497. The exact location of the landfall has long been disputed, with different communities vying for the honor.
- Cabot is reported to have landed only once during the expedition and did not advance “beyond the shooting distance of a crossbow”. Pasqualigo and Day both state that the expedition made no contact with any native people; crew found the remains of a fire, a human trail, nets and a wooden tool. The crew appeared to have remained on land just long enough to take on fresh water; they also raised the Venetian and Papal banners, claiming the land for the King of England and recognizing the religious authority of the Roman Catholic Church. After this landing, Cabot spent some weeks “discovering the coast,” with most “discovered after turning back.”
- On return to Bristol, Cabot rode to London to report to the King.
- On 10 August 1497, he was given a reward of £10 – equivalent to about two years’ pay for an ordinary laborer or craftsman. The explorer was feted; Soncino wrote on 23 August that Cabot “is called the Great Admiral and vast honor is paid to him and he goes dressed in silk, and these English run after him like mad”.
- Such adulation was short-lived, for over the next few months the King’s attention was occupied by the Second Cornish Uprising of 1497, led by Perkin Warbeck.
- Once Henry’s throne was secure, he gave more thought to Cabot. On 26 September, just a few days after the collapse of the revolt, the King made an award of £2 to Cabot. In December 1497 the explorer was awarded a pension of £20 per year, and in February 1498 he was given a patent to help him prepare a second expedition.
- In March and April, the King also advanced a number of loans to Lancelot Thirkill of London, Thomas Bradley and John Cair, who were to accompany Cabot’s new expedition.
- Cabot departed with a fleet of five ships from Bristol at the beginning of May 1498, one of which had been prepared by the King. Some of the ships were said to be carrying merchandise, including cloth, caps, lace points and other “trifles”. This suggests that Cabot intended to engage in trade on this expedition. The Spanish envoy in London reported in July that one of the ships had been caught in a storm and been forced to land in Ireland, but that Cabot and the other four ships had continued on.
- For centuries no other records were found (or at least published) that relate to this expedition; it was long believed that Cabot and his fleet was lost at sea. But at least one of the men scheduled to accompany the expedition, Lancelot Thirkill of London, is recorded as living in London in 1501.
John Cabot Facts: Historical Thoughts
- The historian Alwyn Ruddock worked on Cabot and his era for 35 years. She had suggested that Cabot and his expedition successfully returned to England in the spring of 1500. She claimed their return followed an epic two-year exploration of the east coast of North America, south into the Chesapeake Bay area and perhaps as far as the Spanish territories in the Caribbean. Ruddock suggested Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis and the other friars who accompanied the 1498 expedition had stayed in Newfoundland and founded a mission. If Carbonariis founded a settlement in North America, it would have been the first Christian settlement on the continent, and may have included a church, the only medieval church to have been built there.
- The Cabot Project at the University of Bristol was organized in 2009 to search for the evidence on which Ruddock’s claims rest, as well as to undertake related studies of Cabot and his expeditions. The lead researchers on the project, Evan Jones and Margaret Condon, claim to have found further evidence to support aspects of Ruddock’s case, particularly in relation to the successful return of the 1498 expedition to Bristol. They have located documents that appear to place John Cabot in London by May 1500 but have yet to publish their documentation.