John Cabot

John Cabot (active 1471-1498), born Giovanni Caboto, was an Italian explorer in English service. He was once thought to have been the first to bear the English flag across the Atlantic, but recent evidence shows that another voyage preceded his.

John Cabot was probably born in Genoa. Venetian historical records show that between 1471 and 1473 he was admitted as an adult to citizenship in the republic. Naturalization in Venice presumed a residence of 15 years, but Cabot may have come with his family as a minor. By 1484 he was the father of Sebastian Cabot, who would achieve fame as an explorer, and another, older son.

A London acquaintance reported in 1497 that Cabot had once been as far east as Mecca and had attempted to learn the Oriental origin of spices. In view of his Italian birth and Christianity, it seems probable that Cabot visited Jidda, the port of Mecca, rather than the forbidden holy city itself.

Cabot was in Spain in the early 1490s and reached England by 1495, determined to make a voyage to Marco Polo's Cathay. He knew by then of Columbus's discoveries and believed the new land could not be China. English merchants from Bristol had been voyaging into the Atlantic since about 1480, and one expedition, either before or after 1492, had discovered the island of "Brasile," certainly Newfoundland. Cabot believed that this was the northeast corner of Asia, south of which would be found Japan and the Great Khan's empire. For his own voyage he received letters patent from Henry VII and financial backing in Bristol.

In 1497 Cabot sailed from Bristol in the little Matthew with 18 men. From the midpoint of Ireland he went as directly west as possible and made a North American landfall June 24. This was evidently Newfoundland again, perhaps Cape Race. Cabot then followed the coast in regions not precisely identified, but it is thought that he traversed part of Nova Scotia and possibly Maine. He returned to Bristol August 6. The amazing speed of the entire voyage has caused some scholars to doubt the accuracy of the computation, but it must be remembered that Cabot intended this only as a reconnaissance.

When the discoverer reached London, the city hailed him. King Henry, then on rather good terms with Spain, felt that the newly found lands lay far enough northward to be outside any legitimate Spanish sphere. The King granted Cabot a yearly pension of £20 and gladly gave his consent to a new voyage which would penetrate south of the regions already discovered.

In May 1498 Cabot sailed from Bristol again in command of five ships, and here knowledge of him virtually ends. Several of the vessels returned but the one in which Cabot traveled did not; those returning seemed not to know where or when Cabot's ship had been lost. Spanish evidence suggests that one English ship did reach the Caribbean, bearing out the fact that the intention had been to follow the American continent southward.

Further Reading on John Cabot

The most authoritative work on Cabot is James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (1962). This partly supersedes Williamson's earlier study, The Voyages of the Cabots and the English Discovery of North America (1929). An important contribution, in Italian, is Roberto Almagià, Gli Italiani: Primi esploratori dell'America (1937), which contains a long chapter on both John and Sebastian Cabot. Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America (1971), discusses John Cabot.

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