Cabot’s Voyages Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

John Cabot claimed Newfoundland for England, laying the foundation for all future English land claims in North America.

Summary of Event

The late fifteenth century was an age of increasingly intense national rivalry in Europe. When it became known that Christopher Columbus had discovered a hitherto unknown coast on the other side of the Atlantic, the nations fronting that ocean quickly became interested in exploring the New World and laying claim to some of its territories, territories that Spain and Portugal planned to reserve for themselves. England, finally at peace after the Wars of the Roses, and with a strong government headed by the canny monarch Henry VII, had no intention of being left out. Like other monarchs of the era, Henry was willing to use the services of good seamen whenever they were available. He turned to an Italian, John Cabot, to begin his campaign for a piece of the New World. Exploration and colonization;England of North America Cabot, John Cabot, Sebastian Henry VII

John Cabot’s son, Sebastian, with his crew and ship at Labrador along the east Canadian coast.

(R. S. Peale and J. A. Hill)

Very little is known about John Cabot. Several scholars, however, have turned up a few facts. Cabot is believed to have been born Giovanni Caboto in Genoa, nursery of seamen. He may have been born in 1450, a year before Columbus. It is known that in 1484, he was married and living in Venice, where he had resided for the fifteen years required to gain Venetian citizenship. Between 1490 and 1493, a John Cabot, possibly the navigator, resided in Valencia, Spain. In 1495, Cabot was in England trying to interest Henry VII in transatlantic exploration.

It is significant that Cabot, with his wife and three sons, was then living in Bristol. Bristol, with its good harbor on the Avon River, was the second largest port in England. It faced the Atlantic Ocean, carried on a large trade in spices, and was the headquarters of a large fishing fleet. It is little wonder that many of its inhabitants were deeply interested in western exploration.

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Cabot’s attempt to engage the king’s interest was successful. On March 5, 1496, King Henry granted him letters patent to sail east, west, and north with five ships. This royal support was not just the product of enthusiasm for new discoveries. Henry no doubt hoped that Cabot could succeed in the same venture that had originally motivated his Genoese compatriot Columbus: gaining access to the valuable Asian silk and spice trade by sailing westward across the Atlantic. Trade;Europe with Asia In fact, contemporary documents show that Columbus had earlier tried, unsuccessfully, to obtain the English crown’s support for the voyage he eventually carried out under the banner of Spain’s Ferdinand II and Isabella I.

Henry’s 1496 letters patent merely gave Cabot the right to undertake oceanic explorations in the Crown’s name; actual financial support for the project had to come from elsewhere. Cabot’s funding came from wealthy Bristol merchants eager to profit from English entry into what was still an Italian-dominated Eastern spice and silk trade. As the king’s lieutenant, Cabot was to govern all lands he might find, but the king was to have one-fifth of all profits. Cabot was not to venture south, for Henry wanted no trouble with Spain or Portugal.

In late May, 1497, Cabot set sail from Bristol. Instead of five ships, he had only one, the Matthew, a vessel with a burden of fifty tons and a crew of eighteen. It was the equivalent of a fair-sized modern yacht. Going around the south end of Ireland, he last sighted land at Dursey Head. His plan, a favorite with westbound mariners in that age, was to follow a parallel of latitude straight west. Dursey Head is at latitude 51 33 .

At 5:00 a.m. on June 24, Cabot came in sight of land again. He had made the Atlantic crossing in just over a month. The exact spot where he first saw the coast of North America has been greatly disputed, and the dispute has been complicated by local patriotism, with various locales attempting to claim the honor. The famous historian Samuel Eliot Morison, whose account is one of the best, concluded that Cabot sighted Cape Dégrat, on the northeast tip of Newfoundland Newfoundland (latitude 51 37 , only 4 off the Dursey Head latitude). If that is true, he had performed an impressive feat of navigation, having come almost straight west from the Irish coast. Furthermore, Cape Dégrat was only five miles from where it is believed Leif Eriksson had landed, nearly five hundred years before.

Turning south, Cabot landed briefly, the only landing of his voyage. He formally took possession of the territory in the name of Henry VII. Following this formality, Cabot is said to have performed a symbolic act: He planted the flag of Saint Mark, the patron saint of Venice, his earlier adopted city-state and nationality. At the time of this first landing, Cabot’s party found evidence of human inhabitants, but no real contact—certainly nothing comparable to Columbus’s active interchange with the West Indian Tainos—took place. Tainos Although a few artifacts were found near abandoned campsites, Cabot decided, probably for security reasons, not to seek out their owners.

Continuing his southward course, Cabot skirted the whole east side of the island and rounded its southern tip, making note of various capes, islands, and bays as he went. Eventually he turned about, retraced his course to Cape Dégrat, and on July 20, left for home. After a fast passage of fifteen days, he made landfall at Ushant on the coast of Brittany, headed north, and on August 6 was in Bristol once more. Cabot had not found the way to Japan or China, and he had brought back neither gold nor spices, but he had found a coast teeming with codfish—a most important fact.

Cabot hurried to London to make his report to Henry. The king gave him ten pounds and on the thirteenth of the following December settled on the explorer a pension of twenty pounds per year. That, for Henry VII, was liberality.

On February 3, 1498, Henry issued new letters patent giving Cabot the authority to impress six ships for a second voyage to the New World. Cabot was now to explore more thoroughly the coast he had touched, and when he had reached the source of the spice trade, to set up a trading factory with the intent of funneling that desired commodity to English ports. Cabot succeeded in obtaining five ships, with which he sailed from Bristol at the beginning of May, 1498. In contrast to the Matthew, these ships were well stocked, not only with provisions to allow the crews to survive longer on their own if necessary, but also with goods to offer in trade for the Asian products they hoped to find. Bad weather caused damage to one ship soon after Cabot set sail. The damaged ship returned to port on the Irish coast while the others sailed on. After this event, Cabot and the other four ships disappear from the pages of history.

The Cabot story does not end with John’s disappearance. Much more is known about his son Sebastian, who may have accompanied his father on the first voyage. He said that he did, but his statement alone is not particularly good evidence. He also claimed to have made, in 1508, a voyage to discover the fabled Northwest Passage Northwest Passage , but as he was a “genial and cheerful liar,” this may not be true. He certainly knew how to promote himself. He set himself up as an expert adviser to would-be explorers and was paid by the kings of both England and Spain for his advice. He died in England in 1557. Eventually, John’s name was practically forgotten, and historians took Sebastian to be the discoverer of North America.

Significance

The one voyage of John Cabot, for all the gaps in the story, may seem a small thing in the history of American exploration. However, it had great results, for Cabot’s voyage laid the foundation of the British claim to North America. In the short run, Cabot established that there was a bounteous and uncontested source of fish available for the English to exploit. In the long term, Cabot’s landfall on the Canadian coast ultimately resulted in England’s extensive holdings in North America—holdings that became one of the foundation stones of the British Empire.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Beazley, Charles R. John and Sebastian Cabot: The Discovery of North America. London: T. F. Unwin, 1898. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, 1967. A competent, documented study by an Oxford specialist in historical geography; easier reading than Williamson. Concludes, unlike other modern scholars, that John Cabot returned from his second voyage.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Biddle, Richard. A Memoir of Sebastian Cabot, with a Review of the History of Maritime Discovery. Philadelphia: Carey and Lea, 1831. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1970. Originally published anonymously, this book was the first attempt to apply serious scholarship to the Cabot story.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Firstbrook, Peter. The Voyage of the Matthew: John Cabot and the Discovery of North America. London: BBC Books, 1997. Book chronicling the re-creation of Cabot’s 1497 voyage by a modern crew sailing in an exact replica of the Matthew. Combines narrative of the first journey with a narrative of the journey commemorating it. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harrisse, Henry. John Cabot, the Discoverer of North-America, and Sebastian, His Son: A Chapter of the Maritime History of England Under the Tudors, 1496-1557. London: B. F. Stevens, 1896. Reprint. New York: Argosy-Antiquarian, 1968. Written by the then-foremost French expert in the history of American discovery. Attacks the fictions and inflated reputation of Sebastian Cabot.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lawrence, A. W., and Jean Young, eds. Narratives of the Discovery of America. New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1931. This valuable collection of original documents includes two letters by Italian observers of Cabot’s organization for the 1497 voyage to America. One is an official account by the Milanese minister to England, reporting to the duke of Milan.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Parsons, John. On the Way to Cipango: John Cabot’s Voyage of 1498. St. John’, Nfld.: Creative, 1998. A meticulously researched attempt to reconstruct Cabot’s final voyage and determine what really happened to the explorer and his crew. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pope, Peter Edward. The Many Landfalls of John Cabot. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997. In-depth study of the historical disputes over the exact location of Cabot’s landfall in North America. Looks at the various plausible candidates for Cabot’s landing point, as well as the competing national traditions that attempt to appropriate Cabot for their own purposes. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Quinn, David S. Sebastian Cabot and the Bristol Exploration. Bristol, Avon, England: Historical Association (Bristol Branch), 1968. Documents Sebastian Cabot’s career, first under his father’s guidance, then Sebastian’s attempts to pursue English aims cut short by John Cabot’s disappearance, and finally, his switching allegiance to the king of Spain.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Williamson, James A. The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery Under Henry VII, with the Cartography of the Voyages by R. A. Skelton. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1962. Generally recognized as one of the best books on the Cabots. Thorough research has produced some admittedly tentative conclusions that counter widely accepted views of Cabot’s voyages, including the possibility that, as early as 1494, two other Bristol captains had discovered a “New Found Land” in North America.

1455-1485: Wars of the Roses

Beginning 1485: The Tudors Rule England

Oct. 12, 1492: Columbus Lands in the Americas

Early 16th cent.: Rise of the Fur Trade

1519-1522: Magellan Expedition Circumnavigates the Globe

Apr. 20, 1534-July, 1543: Cartier and Roberval Search for a Northwest Passage

June 7, 1576-July, 1578: Frobisher’s Voyages

July 4, 1584-1590: Lost Colony of Roanoke

Sept. 14, 1585-July 27, 1586: Drake’s Expedition to the West Indies

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