Sebastian Cabot

Sebastian Cabot (ca. 1482-1557), an Italian-born explorer in the service of England and Spain, made significant discoveries in an age of geographical discovery.

Sebastian Cabot, the son of John and Mattea Cabot, was probably born in Venice, where he is documented as a small child in 1484. He accompanied his parents to Spain and England, but he would have been too young to sail with his father on the Atlantic voyages of 1497 and 1498. Although Sebastian had not yet commanded an expedition of his own by 1505, Henry VII of England awarded him an annual pension of £10, perhaps because of his growing proficiency in cartography and navigation.

Cabot almost certainly made a voyage for England in 1508-1509, in which he sailed far northward and discovered the entrance to Hudson Bay. He considered this to be the water passage leading around North America to the Orient. On his return to England, Henry VII had died, and Henry VIII showed no interest in pursuing the exploration further. In 1512, when in Spain with an English mission, Cabot transferred his allegiance to the Castilian service.

Cabot spent most of the next 36 years in Spain, though he several times considered returning to England and once offered to go to Venice. His restlessness was occasioned by his awareness that though Spain consulted him about voyages, it offered no encouragement for his favorite project of northern discovery.

In 1518, after the death of the Spanish navigator Juan Díaz de Solís, Cabot became pilot major for Spain. He sailed in command of his own expedition in 1526 with the intention of following the lead of Magellan and García Jofré de Loaisa to the Moluccas. While sailing off the coast of Brazil he encountered Spanish castaways, who reported the existence of a rich civilization. Cabot postponed his original project in favor of attempting to penetrate the interior of South America via the Río de la Plata and the Paraná, two rivers fed by the 1500-mile-long Paraguay River. Those reports, which caused him to abandon his search for a southern passage, concerned Inca Peru, as yet unpenetrated by Spaniards.

Cabot returned to Spain empty-handed in 1530. He was prosecuted and imprisoned for a short time. In departing from the original plan he had made bitter enemies. He managed to retain the confidence of the Spanish crown, however, and continued to hold the pilot's office.

Little is known of Cabot's career from 1533 to 1547. It is possible that he commanded unrecorded expeditions, but he was getting past the age for leading voyages of exploration and probably devoted his time to cartography. Soon after the death of Henry VIII in 1547, he accepted an offer to return to England. He did so without the consent of Charles V of Spain. Nothing bound him to Spain; his wife, Catalina Medrano, had died, and the Spaniards lacked interest in the northern discovery he still desired.

In 1553 about 200 English merchants under the patronage of John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, formed what came to be called the Muscovy Company, with Cabot as governor for life. Their grant in the name of the boy king, Edward VI, empowered them to discover and possess lands to the northeast, north, and northwest.

Cabot, from his youth, had been mainly interested in a Northwest Passage, but his company decided to try the Northeast first. The first expedition which he planned was commanded by Sir Hugh Willoughby and Richard Chancellor. Willoughby discovered the Novaya Zemlya islands but died of winter hardship in Lapland. Chancellor reached the White Sea and from the port of Archangel traveled overland to Moscow, where he concluded a favorable trade agreement with the czar, Ivan the Terrible.

The Muscovy Company made another effort at finding a Northeast Passage. A single small ship, the Serchthrift, commanded by Stephen Borough, left England in 1556 for this purpose. Cabot performed his last-known act connected with navigation by going to wish the mariners a successful voyage. He died the next year.

Further Reading on Sebastian Cabot

All that is known of the place and time of Cabot's birth is furnished by James A. Williamson, The Cabot Voyages and Bristol Discovery under Henry VII (1962). His early career in English service is discussed by Williamson in The Voyages of the Cabots and the English Discovery of North America (1929). José Toribio Medina, El Veneciano Sebastián Caboto al servicio de España (1908), prints abundant documents concerning Cabot's Spanish career. Samuel Eliot Morison, The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages (1971), discusses Cabot's English service.