Roger M. McCoy
After watching Spain and Portugal reap the riches of the New World, King Henry VII of England could not help wanting part of the action. After hearing of Columbus’s great discovery, the merchants of Bristol, one of England’s prominent ports, saw a chance to start a lucrative trade with the Orient and perhaps find some new fishing areas. Also at just this right moment a Genoese navigator named Giovanni Cabotto was in Bristol to present a plan for finding a passage through the new continent. Today we usually regard him as an Englishman and call him John Cabot.
Little is known about Cabot, but it is quite likely that he and Columbus knew each other as young boys in Genoa between 1451 and 1461. Perhaps they spent time together at the pier watching ships and talking to sailors. It is certain they both learned the seafaring trade by signing on with ships out of Genoa.
It is known that in March 1496, Henry VII granted letters patent to John Cabot and his sons, Lewes, Sebastian, and Santius. Cabot was granted authority to sail under Henry’s banner to all parts of the east, west, and north with five ships to “seek and find lands of the infidels and heathens” which were not previously known to Christians. Cabot and his sons could govern these newly claimed lands in the King’s name and could profit from the produce of these lands, paying 20 percent to the crown.
International recognition of Cabot’s discoveries was doubtful from the beginning. Spain and Portugal expected England and all others to stay out of their global land grab. On that basis the Spanish king protested when he heard of Cabot’s plans to sail into the new lands. Henry VII was unimpressed and ignored the protest.
The First Voyage
After an abortive start in 1496, Cabot sailed west from England in May, 1497, five years after Columbus sailed from Spain. Although the letters patent authorized five ships, Cabot had financial support for only one; a small, fifty ton caravel, the Mathew. Aboard were Cabot, his young son Sebastian, and a crew of eighteen men. His course was due west along latitude 51˚ 33′ which he expected would take him to northern coast of China.
The Mathew reached Newfoundland late in the afternoon on June 24th. The exact location is unknown, however the most probable site is the northeast portion of the northern peninsula of Newfoundland Island. The voyage from Dursey Head, Ireland, the last point of land in the British Isles, to Newfoundland was only 32 days, a record speed that held for almost a century.
Cabot’s probable landfall was remarkably close to L’Anse aux Meadows, the site of Leif Ericson’s Viking settlement established nearly 500 years earlier in 1001. English sailors in the 15th century had no knowledge of that settlement, so Cabot would have assumed that he was the first European to visit that site. Cabot did not anchor there, and his probable landing is a bay a few miles to the south. Some historians and residents of Nova Scotia claim Cabot landed at Cape Breton, over 300 miles to the south. This assumption discounts the accuracy of Cabot’s latitude measurement by an amount that would be very unlikely for such a seasoned navigator.
At this spot Cabot would have gone ashore for a stable place to measure latitude and to perform a brief ceremony taking possession of the land for King Henry VII. The ceremony included implanting the flag of St. George, the emblem of England. Such possession usually implied inclusion of all adjacent land not previously claimed, and so could be, and often was, interpreted to mean the entire continent. This was the only time Cabot recorded going ashore. Four years after Cabot’s landing, the Portuguese explorer, Gaspar Corte Real, came to this site and noticed the native Beotuks had an Italian-made sword and earrings made in Venice, which must have come from one of Cabot’s two voyages.
Cabot sailed down the east coast of Newfoundland Island to the south end of the island. There he looked westward and saw no land on the horizon. Thinking he had found the sought-for passage to Asia, he turned back. He retraced his route northward along the east side of Newfoundland, completing his mapping of the coast. Cabot wrote of dropping weighted baskets in the Grand Banks area and pulling up loads of codfish. This report of codfish brought a quick response from English fishermen, who soon began harvesting cod from the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Cabot then turned eastward to England on July 20, 1497 along the same latitude as his outward voyage.
After greetings in Bristol Cabot left for London, arriving August 10th in Westminster to report to King Henry. The king paid Cabot £10 and granted him an annual pension of £20 (roughly equivalent to about $90,000 today) for his discovery. Ship’s captains then earned about £8.5 per year, so the £10 bonus plus £20 annually was a handsome amount. The king also made it clear that the pension was to be paid from the customs income at the Bristol port. It was easy for the king to be generous, as it cost him nothing. The king discussed plans for another voyage and promised armed ships and prisoners to go with Cabot, suggesting the intention to establish a colony.
It’s hard for us to imagine the enormous effect of hearing about a new land that was totally unknown before. Many people in England avidly devoured all information about the new discoveries. Cabot was called “Grand Admiral” as a sign of great esteem and honor, and people gathered wherever he went. The nearest similar experience in the 20th century was perhaps the first moon walk or Lindberg’s flight to Paris.
Political expedience induced Spain’s acceptance of England’s claim in the New World. Ferdinand V was disturbed by Henry’s discovery in “Spanish” territories but could not protest too strongly as he needed England’s support against the French in Italy. Henry VII, on the other hand, wanted to stay on Ferdinand’s good side because he hoped for his son, Arthur, to wed Ferdinand’s daughter, Catherine of Aragon.
The Second Voyage
In February 1498 Henry VII provided new letters patent granting Cabot permission to represent England for a second voyage, to “subdue, occupy and possess isles, countries, regions, or provinces of the heathen and infidels unknown to Christians, and to enjoy their fruits, profits, and commodities.” He was provided five ships and directed to sail until he reached the island of Cipango (Japan), which they considered to be the primary source of spices. There Cabot was to establish a colony as a trade center for goods to be shipped to England.
The five ships left Bristol in early May, 1498, outfitted with trade items and a year’s provisions. One ship suffered damage from a storm and had to return, but the other four proceeded and were never seen or heard from again. Cabot did not achieve his objectives, and he probably never knew the significance of his discoveries. In Bristol his pension was paid until 1499 when the lease of his house was terminated, leaving his wife, Mattea, and children in the care of the city authorities. By 1512 John Cabot was declared lost at sea.
In 1997 Cabot's voyage was celebrated again by the construction of a replica of the Mathew, which successfully crossed the Atlantic to Newfoundland, touring the east coast of Canada and the United States before returning to stay permanently in Bristol harbor.
Cabot established that a new and substantial land mass existed within a reasonable sailing distance from Europe, and he showed the potential for a fishery in the Grand Banks. The most significant result, however, was that Cabot established the basis for a long-term British presence in North America.
McCoy, Roger M., On the Edge: Mapping North America’s Coasts, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.
Morison, Samuel E. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages, New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.