John Cabot (Italian: Giovanni Caboto; c. 1450 – c. 1500) was a Venetian navigator and explorer whose 1497 discovery of the coast of North America under the commission of Henry VII of England was the first European exploration of coastal North America since the Norse visits to Vinland in the eleventh century. To mark the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Cabot's expedition, both the Canadian and British governments elected Cape Bonavista, Newfoundland, as representing Cabot's first landing site. However, alternative locations have also been proposed.
Cabot is known today as Giovanni Caboto in Italian, as Zuan Chabotto in Venetian, as John Cabot in English, as Jean Cabot in French, and as Juan Caboto in Spanish. The non-Italian forms are derived from how his name was recorded in related 15th-century documents. In Venice he signed his names as "Zuan Chabotto", Zuan being a form of John typical to Venice. He continued to use this form in England, at least among Italians. He was referred to by his Italian banker in London as 'Giovanni Chabbote', in the only known contemporary document to use this version of his first name.
He was born in Italy, the son of Giulio Caboto and his wife; he had a brother Piero. Gaeta (in the Province of Latina) and Castiglione Chiavarese (in the Province of Genoa) have both been proposed as birthplaces. The main evidence for Gaeta are records of a Caboto family residing there until the mid-15th century, but ceasing to be traceable after 1443.
Pedro de Ayala, the Spanish envoy and Cabot's contemporary in London, described him in a letter to the Spanish Crown in 1498 as "another Genoese like Columbus". John Cabot's son, Sebastian, said his father originally came from Genoa. In 1476 Cabot was made a citizen of the Republic of Venice, which required a minimum of fifteen years' residency in the city; thus he must have lived in Venice since at least 1461.
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. He presumably entered this trade shortly thereafter. 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 Israel, Syria and Lebanon. This is not sufficient to prove Cabot's later assertion that he had visited Mecca, which he said in 1497 to the Milanese ambassador in London. In this Mediterranean trade, he may have acquired better knowledge of the origins of the oriental (West Asian) merchandise he would have been dealing in (such as spices and silks) than most Europeans at that time.
"Zuan Cabotto" (i.e. John Cabot) is mentioned in a variety of 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 got 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 by sending a lettera di raccomandazione a giustizia ("a letter of recommendation to justice") to the authorities. While in Valencia, "John Cabot Montecalunya" (as he is referred to in local documents) proposed plans for improvements to the harbour. These proposals were rejected, however. 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 in Seville and Lisbon for an Atlantic expedition, before moving to London to seek funding and political support. He likely reached England in mid-1495.
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.
Historians had thought that, on arrival in England, Cabot went to Bristol, a major maritime centre, to seek financial backers. This was the only English city to have had a history of undertaking exploratory expeditions into the Atlantic. Cabot's royal patent (issued by the Crown in 1496) stated that all expeditions should be undertaken from Bristol, so his primary financial supporters likely were based in that city. In any case, it also stipulated that the commerce resulting from any discoveries must be conducted with England alone.
In the late 20th century, British historian Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found documentation that Cabot went first to London, where he received some financial backing from its Italian community. She suggested one patron was Father Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis, an Augustinian friar who was also the deputy to Adriano Castellesi, the papal tax collector. Ruddock suggested that Carbonariis accompanied Cabot's 1498 expedition. She also suggested that the friar, on good terms with the King, introduced the explorer to King Henry VII. Beyond this, Ruddock claimed that Cabot received a loan from an Italian banking house in London. As Ruddock ordered the destruction of all her research notes on her death in 2005, scholars have had to duplicate her research and rediscover documents. The Cabot Project was formed at the University of Bristol in 2009 to research Cabot and the Bristol expeditions. Francesco Guidi Bruscoli (University of Florence) found some of Ruddock's documentation, confirming that Cabot received money in March 1496 from the Bardi family banking firm of Florence. The bankers located in London provided fifty nobles (£16 13s. 4d.) to support Cabot's expedition to "go and find the new land". This payment from the Florentine merchants would have represented a substantial contribution, although it was not enough to completely finance the expedition.
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.
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. Ruddock had contended in a private 1988 letter to a colleague, Quinn, that she had found evidence in Italian archives that Bristol men had discovered North America pre-1470. As the island was believed to be a source of brazilwood (from which a valuable red dye could be obtained), merchants had economic incentive to find 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.
Information about the 1497 voyage comes mostly from four short letters and an entry in a 1565 chronicle of the city of Bristol. The chronicle entry for 1496/7 says in full:
"This year, on St. John the Baptist's Day [24 June 1497], the land of America was found by the Merchants of Bristow in a shippe of Bristowe, called the Mathew; the which said the ship departed from the port of Bristowe, the second day of May, and came home again the 6th of August next following." – G.E. Weare, Cabot's Discovery of North America, (London, 1897), p. 116
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 (alias Hugh Say of London) 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.
In addition to these letters, Dr Alwyn Ruddock claimed to have found another, written on 10 August 1497 by the London-based bankers of Fr. Giovanni Antonio de Carbonariis. This letter has yet to be found. From various written comments made by Ruddock, the letter did not appear to contain a detailed account of the voyage. Ruddock said the letter contained "new evidence supporting the claim that seamen of Bristol had already discovered land across the ocean before John Cabot's arrival in England." She contended that Bristol seamen had reached North America two decades before Cabot's expedition.
The known sources do not concur on all aspects of the events, and none can be assumed to be entirely reliable. Cabot was described as having one "little ship", of 50 tons burden, called the Matthew of Bristol (according to the 1565 chronicle). It was said to be laden with sufficient supplies for "seven or eight months". The ship departed in May with a crew of 18 to 20 men. They included an unnamed Burgundian (modern- day Netherlands) and a Genoese barber, who presumably accompanied the expedition as the ship's surgeon.
It is likely that two ranking Bristol merchants were part of the expedition. One was probably William Weston, who had not been identified as part of Cabot's expedition before the find of a new document in the late 20th century. His participation was confirmed by a document found in the early 21st century noting his reward from the King in January 1498 after the ship returned. More importantly, in 2009 historian Evan Jones confirmed that Weston had undertaken an independent voyage to the New Found Land in 1499, probably under Cabot's patent, as the first Englishman to lead an expedition to North America.
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. Historians have proposed Cape Bonavista and St. John's (present-day Newfoundland); Cape Breton Island (Nova Scotia); as well as Labrador (Canada) and Maine (United States) as possibilities. Since the discovery of the "John Day letter" in the 1950s, it seems most likely that the initial landfall was either on Newfoundland or Cape Breton Island. This is because Day's letter implies that the coastline explored in 1497 lay between the latitudes of Bordeaux, France and Dursey Head in southern Ireland. The initial landfall seems to have taken place close to the southern latitude, with the expedition returning home after reaching the northern one.
For the 500th-anniversary celebrations, the governments of Canada and the United Kingdom designated Cape Bonavista in Newfoundland as the "official" landing place. Here in 1997 Queen Elizabeth II, along with members of the Italian and Canadian governments, greeted the replica Matthew of Bristol, following its celebratory crossing of the Atlantic.
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 recognising 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 labourer or craftsman. The explorer was feted; Soncino wrote on 23 August that Cabot "is called the Great Admiral [note: as Christopher Columbus had been] and vast honour 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. On February 3, 1498 he was given new letters patent covering the voyage and 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.
The Great Chronicle of London (1189–1512) reports that 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 were 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.
It is not known if Cabot died during the voyage, or returned safely and died shortly after.
The historian Alwyn Ruddock worked on Cabot and his era for 35 years. She 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. Her evidence included the well-known world map of the Spanish cartographer Juan de la Cosa. His chart included the North American coast and seas 'discovered by the English' between 1497 and 1500.
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, including some of the information she intended to use to argue for a successful return of the 1498 expedition to Bristol. These appear to place John Cabot in London by May 1500, albeit Jones and Condon have yet to publish their documentation.
The Project is collaborating on an archaeological excavation at the community of Carbonear, Newfoundland, located at Conception Bay and believed the likely location for Carbonariis' mission settlement. The Archaeology of Historic Carbonear Project, carried out by Memorial University of Newfoundland, has conducted summer fieldwork each season since 2011. So far, it has found evidence of planter habitation since the late 17th century and of trade with Spain through Bilbao, including a Spanish coin minted in Peru.
Ruddock claimed that William Weston of Bristol, a supporter of Cabot, undertook an independent expedition to North America in 1499, sailing north from Newfoundland up to the Hudson Strait. If correct, this was probably the first North West Passage expedition. In 2009, Jones confirmed that William Weston (who was not previously known to have been involved) led an expedition from Bristol [with royal support] to the "new found land" in 1499 or 1500, making him the first Englishman to lead exploration of North America. This find has changed the understanding of English roles in exploration of that continent.
King Henry VII continued to support exploration from Bristol. The king granted Hugh Eliot, Robert Thorne and his son a bounty of ₤20 in January 1502 for purchasing the Gabriel, a ship for an expedition voyage that summer. Later in 1502 or early 1503 he paid Eliot a reward of ₤100 for a voyage, or voyages, in "2 ships to the Isle of new finding," as Newfoundland was called. This amount was larger than any previously accounted for in royal support of the explorations.
Cabot married Mattea around 1470, and had issue including three sons:
Sebastian Cabot, one of John's sons, also became an explorer, later making at least one voyage to North America. In 1508 he was searching for the Northwest Passage. Nearly two decades later, he sailed to South America for Spain to repeat Ferdinand Magellan's voyage around the world. He became diverted by searching for silver along the Río de la Plata (1525–8) in Argentina.
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