Chronicles of America 

The Voyage of John Cabot to America

In the early spring of 1476 the Italian Giovanni Caboto, who, like Christopher Columbus, was a seafaring citizen of Genoa, transferred his allegiance to Venice.

The Roman Empire had fallen a thousand years before. Rome now held temporal sway only over the States of the Church, which were weak in armed force, even when compared with the small republics, dukedoms, and principalities which lay north and south. But Papal Rome, as the head and heart of a spiritual empire, was still a world-power; and the disunited Italian states were first in the commercial enterprise of the age as well as in the glories of the Renaissance. North of the Papal domain, which cut the peninsula in two parts, stood three renowned Italian cities: Florence, the capital of Tuscany, leading the world in arts; Genoa, the home of Caboto and Columbus, teaching the world the science of navigation; and Venice, mistress of the great trade route between Europe and Asia, controlling the world's commerce.

Thus, in becoming a citizen of Venice, Giovanni Caboto the Genoese was leaving the best home of scientific navigation for the best home of sea-borne trade. His very name was no bad credential. Surnames often come from nicknames; and for a Genoese to be called "Il Caboto" was as much as for an Arab of the Desert to be known to his people as The Horseman. "Cabottaggio" now means no more than coasting trade. But before there was any real ocean commerce it referred to the regular sea-borne trade of the time; and Giovanni Caboto must have either upheld an exceptional family tradition or struck out an exceptional line for himself to have been known as John the Skipper among the many other expert skippers hailing from the port of Genoa.

There was nothing strange in his being naturalized in Venice. Patriotism of the kind that keeps the citizen under the flag of his own country was hardly known outside of England, France, and Spain. Though the Italian states used to fight each other, an individual Italian, especially when he was a sailor, always felt at liberty to seek his fortune in any one of them, or wherever he found his chance most tempting. So the Genoese Giovanni became the Venetian Zuan without any patriotic wrench. Nor was even the vastly greater change to plain John Cabot so very startling. Italian experts entered the service of a foreign monarch as easily as did the 'pay-fighting Swiss' or Hessian mercenaries. Columbus entered the Spanish service under Ferdinand and Isabella just as Cabot entered the English service under Henry VII. Giovanni--Zuan--John: it was all in a good day's work.

Cabot settled in Bristol, where the still existing guild of Merchant-Venturers was even then two centuries old. Columbus, writing of his visit to Iceland, says, 'the English, "especially those of Bristol", go there with their merchandise.' Iceland was then what Newfoundland became, the best of distant fishing grounds. It marked one end of the line of English sea-borne commerce. The Levant marked the other. The Baltic formed an important branch. Thus English trade already stretched out over all the main lines. Long before Cabot's arrival a merchant prince of Bristol, named Canyng, who employed a hundred artificers and eight hundred seamen, was trading to Iceland, to the Baltic, and, most of all, to the Mediterranean. The trade with Italian ports stood in high favor among English merchants and was encouraged by the King; for in 1485, the first year of the Tudor dynasty, an English consul took office at Pisa and England made a treaty of reciprocity with Tuscany.

Henry VII, first of the energetic Tudors and grandfather of Queen Elizabeth, was a thrifty and practical man. Some years before the event about to be recorded in these pages Columbus had sent him a trusted brother with maps, globes, and quotations from Plato to prove the existence of lands to the west. Henry had troubles of his own in England. So he turned a deaf ear and lost a New World. But after Columbus had found America, and the Pope had divided all heathen countries between the crowns of Spain and Portugal, Henry decided to see what he could do.


Anglo-American history begins on the 5th of March, 1496, when the Cabots, father and three sons, received the following patent from the King:

"Henrie, by the grace of God, King of England and France, and Lord of Irelande, to all, to whom these presentes shall come, Greeting--Be it knowen, that We have given and granted, and by these presentes do give and grant for Us and Our Heyres, to our well beloved John Gabote, citizen of Venice, to Lewes, Sebastian, and Santius, sonnes of the sayde John, and to the heires of them and every of them, and their deputies, full and free authoritie, leave, and Power, to sayle to all Partes, Countreys, and Seas, of the East, of the West, and of the North, under our banners and ensignes, with five shippes, of what burden or quantitie soever they bee: and as many mariners or men as they will have with them in the saide shippes, upon their owne proper costes and charges, to seeke out, discover, and finde, whatsoever Iles, Countreyes, Regions, or Provinces, of the Heathennes and Infidelles, whatsoever they bee, and in what part of the worlde soever they bee, whiche before this time have been unknowen to all Christians. We have granted to them also, and to every of them, the heires of them, and every of them, and their deputies, and have given them licence to set up Our banners and ensignes in every village, towne, castel, yle, or maine lande, of them newly founde. And that the aforesaide John and his sonnes, or their heires and assignes, may subdue, occupie, and possesse, all such townes, cities, castels, and yles, of them founde, which they can subdue, occupie, and possesse, as our vassailes and lieutenantes, getting unto Us the rule, title, and jurisdiction of the same villages, townes, castels, and firme lande so founde."

The patent then goes on to provide for a royalty to His Majesty of one-fifth of the net profits, to exempt the patentees from custom duty, to exclude competition, and to exhort good subjects of the Crown to help the Cabots in every possible way. This first of all English documents connected with America ends with these words: "Witnesse our Selfe at Westminster, the Fifth day of March, in the XI yeere of our reigne. HENRY R."

"To sayle to all Partes of the East, of the West, and of the North". The pointed omission of the word South made it clear that Henry had no intention of infringing Spanish rights of discovery. Spanish claims, however, were based on the Pope's division of all the heathen world and were by no means bounded by any rights of discovery already acquired.

Cabot left Bristol in the spring of 1497, a year after the date of his patent, not with the 'five shippes' the King had authorized, but in the little "Matthew", with a crew of only eighteen men, nearly all Englishmen accustomed to the North Atlantic. The "Matthew" made Cape Breton, the easternmost point of Nova Scotia, on the 24th of June, the anniversary of St. John the Baptist, now the racial fete-day of the French Canadians. Not a single human inhabitant was to be seen in this wild new land, shaggy with forests primeval, fronted with bold, scarped shores, and beautiful with romantic deep bays leading inland, league upon league, past rugged forelands and rocky battlements keeping guard at the frontiers of the continent. Over these mysterious wilds Cabot raised St. George's Cross for England and the banner of St. Mark in souvenir of Venice. Had he now reached the fabled islands of the West or discovered other islands off the eastern coast of Tartary? He did not know. But he hurried back to Bristol with the news and was welcomed by the King and people. A Venetian in London wrote home to say that 'this fellow-citizen of ours, who went from Bristol in quest of new islands, is Zuan Caboto, whom the English now call a great admiral. He dresses in silk; they pay him great honour; and everyone runs after him like mad.' The Spanish ambassador was full of suspicion, in spite of the fact that Cabot had not gone south. Had not His Holiness divided all Heathendom between the crowns of Spain and Portugal, to Spain the West and to Portugal the East; and was not this landfall within what the modern world would call the Spanish sphere of influence? The ambassador protested to Henry VII and reported home to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Henry VII meanwhile sent a little present 'To Hym that founde the new Isle--10.' It was not very much. But it was about as much as nearly one hundred thousand dollars now; and it meant full recognition and approval. This was a good start for a man who couldn't pay the King any royalty of twenty per cent. because he hadn't made a penny on the way. Besides, it was followed up by a royal annuity of twice the amount and by renewed letters-patent for further voyages and discoveries in the west. So Cabot took good fortune at the flood and went again.

This time there was the full authorized flotilla of five sail, of which one turned back and four sailed on. Somewhere on the way John Cabot disappeared from history and his second son, Sebastian, reigned in his stead. Sebastian, like John, apparently wrote nothing whatever. But he talked a great deal; and in after years he seems to have remembered a good many things that never happened at all. Nevertheless he was a very able man in several capacities and could teach a courtier or a demagogue, as well as a geographer or exploiter of new claims, the art of climbing over other people's backs, his father's and his brothers' backs included. He had his troubles; for King Henry had pressed upon him recruits from the gaols, which just then were full of rebels. But he had enough seamen to manage the ships and plenty of cargo for trade with the undiscovered natives.

Sebastian perhaps left some of his three hundred men to explore Newfoundland. He knew they couldn't starve because, as he often used to tell his gaping listeners, the waters thereabouts were so thick with codfish that he had hard work to force his vessels through. This first of American fish stories, wildly improbable as it may seem, may yet have been founded on fact. When acres upon acres of the countless little capelin swim inshore to feed, and they themselves are preyed on by leaping acres of voracious cod, whose own rear ranks are being preyed on by hungry seals, sharks, herring-hogs, or dogfish, then indeed the troubled surface of a narrowing bay is literally thick with the silvery flash of capelin, the dark tumultuous backs of cod, and the swirling rushes of the greater beasts of prey behind. Nor were certain other fish stories, told by Sebastian and his successors about the land of cod, without some strange truths to build on. Cod have been caught as long as a man and weighing over a hundred pounds. A whole hare, a big guillemot with his beak and claws, a brace of duck so fresh that they must have been swallowed alive, a rubber wading boot, and a very learned treatise complete in three volumes--these are a few of the curiosities actually found in sundry stomachs of the all-devouring cod.

The new-found cod banks were a mine of wealth for western Europe at a time when everyone ate fish on fast days. They have remained so ever since because the enormous increase of population has kept up a constantly increasing demand for natural supplies of food. Basques and English, Spaniards, French, and Portuguese, were presently fishing for cod all round the waters of northeastern North America and were even then beginning to raise questions of national rights that have only been settled in this twentieth century after four hundred years.

Following the coast of Greenland past Cape Farewell, Sebastian Cabot turned north to look for the nearest course to India and Cathay, the lands of silks and spices, diamonds, rubies, pearls, and gold. John Cabot had once been as far as Mecca or its neighborhood, where he had seen the caravans that came across the Desert of Arabia from the fabled East. Believing the proof that the world was round, he, like Columbus and so many more, thought America was either the eastern limits of the Old World or an archipelago between the extremest east and west already known. Thus, in the early days before it was valued for itself, America was commonly regarded as a mere obstruction to navigation--the more solid the more exasperating. Now, in 1498, on his second voyage to America, John Cabot must have been particularly anxious to get through and show the King some better return for his money. But he simply disappears; and all we know is what various writers gleaned from his son Sebastian later on.

Sebastian said he coasted Greenland, through vast quantities of midsummer ice, until he reached 67 deg. 30' north, where there was hardly any night. Then he turned back and probably steered a southerly course for Newfoundland, as he appears to have completely missed what would have seemed to him the tempting way to Asia offered by Hudson Strait and Bay. Passing Newfoundland, he stood on south as far as the Virginia capes, perhaps down as far as Florida. A few natives were caught. But no real trade was done. And when the explorers had reported progress to the King the general opinion was that North America was nothing to boast of, after all.

A generation later the French sent out several expeditions to sail through North America and make discoveries by the way. Jacques Cartier's second, made in 1535, was the greatest and most successful. He went up the St. Lawrence as high as the site of Montreal, the head of ocean navigation, where, a hundred and forty years later, the local wits called La Salle's seigneury 'La Chine' in derision of his unquenchable belief in a transcontinental connection with Cathay.

But that was under the wholly new conditions of the seventeenth century, when both French and English expected to make something out of what are now the United States and Canada. The point of the witling joke against La Salle was a new version of the old adage: Go farther and fare worse. The point of European opinion about America throughout the wonderful sixteenth century was that those who did go farther north than Mexico were certain to fare worse. And--whatever the cause--they generally did. So there was yet a third reason why the fame of Columbus eclipsed the fame of the Cabots even among those English-speaking peoples whose New-World home the Cabots were the first to find. To begin with, Columbus was the first of moderns to discover any spot in all America. Secondly, while the Cabots gave no writings to the world, Columbus did. He wrote for a mighty monarch and his fame was spread abroad by what we should now call a monster publicity campaign. Thirdly, our present point: the southern lands associated with Columbus and with Spain yielded immense and most romantic profits during the most romantic period of the sixteenth century. The northern lands connected with the Cabots did nothing of the kind.

Priority, publicity, and romantic wealth all favored Columbus and the south then as the memory of them does to-day. The four hundredth anniversary of his discovery of an island in the Bahamas excited the interest of the whole world and was celebrated with great enthusiasm in the United States. The four hundredth anniversary of the Cabots' discovery of North America excited no interest at all outside of Bristol and Cape Breton and a few learned societies. Even contemporary Spain did more for the Cabots than that. The Spanish ambassador in London carefully collected every scrap of information and sent it home to his king, who turned it over as material for Juan de la Cosa's famous map, the first dated map of America known. This map, made in 1500 on a bullock's hide, still occupies a place of honor in the Naval Museum at Madrid; and there it stands as a contemporary geographic record to show that St. George's Cross was the first flag ever raised over eastern North America, at all events north of Cape Hatteras.

The Cabots did great things though they were not great men. John, as we have seen already, sailed out of the ken of man in 1498 during his second voyage. Sly Sebastian lived on and almost saw Elizabeth ascend the throne in 1558. He had made many voyages and served many masters in the meantime. In 1512 he entered the service of King Ferdinand of Spain as a 'Captain of the Sea' with a handsome salary attached. Six years later the Emperor Charles V made him 'Chief Pilot and Examiner of Pilots.' Another six years and he is sitting as a nautical assessor to find out the longitude of the Moluccas in order that the Pope may know whether they fall within the Portuguese or Spanish hemisphere of exploitation. Presently he goes on a four years' journey to South America, is hindered by a mutiny, explores the River Plate (La Plata), and returns in 1530, about the time of the voyage to Brazil of 'Master William Haukins,' of which we shall hear later on.

In 1544 Sebastian made an excellent and celebrated map of the world which gives a wonderfully good idea of the coasts of North America from Labrador to Florida. This map, long given up for lost, and only discovered three centuries after it had been finished, is now in the National Library in Paris. [An excellent facsimile reproduction of it, together with a copy of the marginal text, is in the collections of the American Geographical Society of New York.]

Sebastian had passed his threescore years and ten before this famous map appeared. But he was as active as ever twelve years later again. He had left Spain for England in 1548, to the rage of Charles V, who claimed him as a deserter, which he probably was. But the English boy-king, Edward VI, gave him a pension, which was renewed by Queen Mary; and his last ten years were spent in England, where he died in the odor of sanctity as Governor of the Muscovy Company and citizen of London. Whatever his faults, he was a hearty-good-fellow with his boon companions; and the following 'personal mention' about his octogenarian revels at Gravesend is well worth quoting exactly as the admiring diarist wrote it down on the 27th of April, 1556, when the pinnace "Serchthrift" was on the point of sailing to Muscovy and the Directors were giving it a great send-off.

After Master Cabota and divers gentlemen and gentlewomen had viewed our pinnace, and tasted of such cheer as we could make them aboard, they went on shore, giving to our mariners right liberal rewards; and the good old Gentleman, Master Cabota, gave to the poor most liberal alms, wishing them to pray for the good fortune and prosperous success of the "Serchthrift", our pinnace. And then, at the sign of the Christopher, he and his friends banqueted, and made me and them that were in the company great cheer; and for very joy that he had to see the towardness of our intended discovery he entered into the dance himself, amongst the rest of the young and lusty company--which being ended, he and his friends departed, most gently commending us to the governance of Almighty God.

Back to: English Exploration of America